Best Practices: The Knowledge Audit

"The underlying cause of most, if not all, of the mistakes in KM is the serious oversight of not including a knowledge audit in their overall KM plans and initiatives."
(Dr. Ann Hylton)

In their keenness to embark on a knowledge management (KM) initiative many organizations skimp on conducting a knowledge audit. Yet an audit can uncover important insights about the state of knowledge in an organization and how it flows. This in turn can help shape a viable KM strategy band prioritize a KM action plan. An audit does not have to be an in-depth and expensive affair. Yet it does have to be systematic.


What is a Knowledge Audit?


The terms information audit and knowledge audit are often used interchangeably. Whereas an information audit looks at information resources, such as those held in documents and databases, a knowledge audit goes a step further and considers all forms of knowledge, including tacit knowledge held in people's heads.

Some audit practitioners use as their focus the state of KM practices within the firm, and the wider KM context. Although covered to some extent in what we call an audit, these are an adjunct to the main focus on knowledge areas (domains of knowledge) which contribute to business success. KM practice are covered in our Know-All KM Assessment.

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Why do a Knowledge Audit?

A knowledge audit will help an organization "know what it knows" and "know what it needs to know". Typical benefits of a knowledge audit are:

  • developing insights into the contribution of knowledge to organizational and personal success
  • identifying knowledge needs, especially vital knowledge that determines the success of core business processes and critical management decisions
  • unearthing gaps in knowledge provision that detract from achievement of goals
  • assessing the quality of information and knowledge sources, including how easy it is to find, its 'fitness for purpose' and re-usability
  • diagnoising bottlenecks in the flow of knowledge from those who have to those who need it
  • identifying opportunities to reduce the costs of knowledge activities e.g. by avoiding duplication of effort in accessing, creating and maintaining up-to-date information and knowledge.

When?

A knowledge audit is especially useful before a knowledge strategy is developed or when new investments in KM are planned. It helps to identify areas of high knowledge leverage and the prioritization of plans. It can also provide a baseline for ongoing assessment of knowledge quality and KM effectiveness, typically on an annual or bi-annual basis.


How to Conduct a Knowledge Audit

knowledge audit

The diagram above shows the steps followed in a typical audit:

1. Scoping and planning how wide and deep the audit should be; what areas to cover; how much effort to invest.

2. Fact-finding the core activity that involves collecting data on knowledge needs, accessibility and quality of knowledge, knowledge flows and blockages.

3. Analysis and interpretation identifying critical knowledge areas needing more attention, for example based on their overall importance versus their current usefulness; uncovering knowledge gaps and duplication.

4. Developing deliverables as well as a report, these may include lists and characteristics of knowledge resources and sources; the output of an audit feeds into a KM strategy and action plan.

5. Stimulating action simply reporting on the state of knowledge resources will not change them for the better; this stage is about integrating audit results into the the ongoing KM action plan.

6. Review and revisit an audit should not simply be a once-off exercise, but a process that is repeated, say annually, to review progress.

Methods and Tools

The methods used are a combination of qualitative and qualitative and may include:

  • Questionnaires - one type looks at the kinds of knowledge are needed and their current state; another one considers the state of various sources
  • Semi-structured interviews - to find how staff go about their jobs, what knowledge they use when making decisions etc.; interviews usually unearth key cultural and other organizational factors that may influence implementation
  • Workshops - an effective way of getting out a lot of data in a short space of time - see, for example, our workshop Succeeding With KM
  • Focus groups - to gain deeper insights on a particular class of knowledge assets or a KM practice
  • Document analysis - the organization's ambitions, plans, processes etc.; the existence or otherwise of certain key documents itself says something about a firm's knowledge culture
  • Review of core IT systems - analyzing the intranet and its usefulness is often a good starting place; but don't overlook email - it's amazing how sloppy practices inhibit an organization's effectiveness.

Some useful tools include:

  • Brainstorming and wall-charting: getting participants in a workshop to rank importance of each knowledge area and its current quality (and plot results on a matrix)
  • The <../kmtools/kinout.htm">input-output template - to provide a quick overview of inputs and outputs of a business process or individual activity.
  • The <../kmtools/bentree.htm">benefits tree - to help develop a better understanding of the impact of KM activities on outcomes.
  • Analysis and mapping tools - content analysis, survey analysis, flow diagram software, sources/uses matrix and more.

The Deliverables

The output of an audit may be presented in various ways. Some of the commonly used ones are:

  • A knowledge inventory - either in spreadsheets or a database identifying information sources, ownership and usage
  • Knowledge maps - visual representations of domains of knowledge, such as depicted in a hierarchical knowledge tree
  • 'Rich pictures' - visual schematics that represent knowledge within the context of business processes or decision-making
  • Formal reports - perhaps on a division by division basis, highlighting key findings
  • Frameworks - that depict the relationships between different stores and different types of knowledge.

The output of a good quantitative audit can also provide useful insights into:

  • which knowledge has the most leverage in terms of its active management
  • identifying key knowledge holders whose loss would be detrimental to the organization
  • the hidden costs of wasted time by staff seeking out the knowledge they need or 're-inventing the wheel'
  • identifying opportunities where knowledge can be easily captured as a by product of normal activity
  • identifying pockets of knowledge creation that could be useful eslewhere but which is not disseminated
  • the provision of benchmark indices against which KM progress can be evaluated.

When developing outputs the key think to bear in mind is

"What kind of output will stimulate a positive response from the key stakeholders in the business."

Top Tips

Guidelines for Success

There is no 'magic wand' or detailed prescription for conducting a successful audit since every organizational situation is different. However, there are some recurring themes found in organizations whose audits prove beneficial:

  • Be realistic - you need to scale the audit to the resources that you have available; it's better to focus on covering well a few knowledge areas or organizational departments rather than trying to cover the whole organization.
  • Choose appropriate methods - while questionnaires have a certain appeal, use the judiciously; it's likely that different methods will be needed to address different aspects and to suit the preferences of different people.
  • Don't underestimate the time for analysis - invariably auditors find the 'easy bit' is collecting the data; the tricky bit is making sense of it; don't skimp this aspect; it has a key influence on the outcome.
  • Engage effectively throughout the exercise - brief well at the start; keep contributors and stakeholders informed throughout; follow up assiduously.
  • Have on tap the right support and expertise - managers will often say 'yes' to an audit without adequately resourcing it or bring in external expertise that might be required; support is also needed from managers to allow staff time to participate.
  • Be flexible - don't dogmatically follow a set methodology; circumstances change, people move on or are unavailable; always have a 'Plan B'
  • Remember: an audit is both a project and an organization intervention - therefore use good project management techniques, such as resource planning, scheduling and After Action Reviews; as an intervention, it may raise expectations, so 'expectation management' is important.

Pitfalls

The biggest challenge facing those planning an audit is its scope and scale. Some people argue that an audit is not an audit unless every nook and cranny of an organization is surveyed and its knowledge inventory listed. Others that a 'quick and dirty' assessment is sufficient to identify priority areas. It takes judgment to strike the right balance between effort and returns. Be careful about: ? Poor participation - like any intervention the benefits of completing questionnaires or attending workshops have to be 'sold' - ahead of time ? Not seeing the wood from the trees - aggregate specific knowledge resources into categories ? Producing reams of spreadsheets and charts - hand-written visual maps are often more useful ? Starting by asking questions about knowledge - it is important to start with people and business processes (and what makes them effective); only then lead into questions about knowledge needs
  1. Be clear on what you are trying to achieve and limit the scope accordingly
  2. Ensure that you have a senior business manager sponsor
  3. Build up a network of committed knowledge champions across the organization
  4. Focus on what's important - see the wood from the trees; don't be over ambitious
  5. Communicate well - engage with people at all levels; prepare for the next steps.

Pitfalls

Further Reading

On this website and our archive

Other general sources of email best practice (links open in new tab/window):

  • Monica Seeley, Mesmo - Monica has been publishing best practice tips since 2003. Her KnowledgeExchange and Blog are some of the most useful sources on the web (Monica helped one of my clients through her email training workshops).
  • Tips for mastering email overload - Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge for Business Leaders (2004 Archive).
  • 15 Tips for Writing Effective Email - before the tips this article introdcues you to email psychology and the four reasons to write an email.
  • Email Etiquette - altogether 32 tips starting with "Be precise and to the point".

Last updated: 30th April 2012

SEE ALSO:




Should you use STORIES?
presentation

This presentation Communicating Knowledge (PDF) describes the role of communications professionals in a KM programme, expressed in the acronym STORIES.

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