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Virtually every knowledge management survey shows that customer knowledge is the top category of knowledge that business managers would like to manage better. So it's natural that the first inclination is to outside your organization and bring this knowledge inside. But wait, have you had a good look at what customer knowledge there already is inside your company?
The starting point for managing customer knowledge - indeed any knowledge - is to do a systematic knowledge audit. This is often recommended as the starting point of any serious KM programme, yet sadly is often overlooked in the quest for quick wins. The audit need not be comprehensive, but a short focussed study can give your organization a fairly accurate broad brush overview of the knowledge needs, gaps and opportunities, and make your quick wins valuable wins. A good audit will cover the following points:
A quick audit can be done by interviewing the organization's most senior managers and a representative cross-section of people in other important roles. And don't forget junior clerks and new hires as a source of valuable insights. The interviews should elicit what they do, how they make decisions, what knowledge they need to do their jobs well, and what sources (often other people) they have found reliable. Find out also what information or knowledge they generate and where it goes. This should be accompanied by a quick study of core documents, especially business plans, and a quick analysis of the company's intranet and shared filing systems.
A typical output from a knowledge audit is a matrix of knowledge needs vs. knowledge sources, recording their owners, quality and other attributes. The audit typically highlights serious gaps and unnecessary duplication. One audit in a financial company found 15 different flavours of customer database, with many overlaps and inconsistencies. A good expertise directory, enhancement of a few core databases, and better management processes are often the priorities indicated by such an audit.
But a knowledge audit should be more than an initial guide as to which knowledge to focus your KM efforts around. First, its output, in the form of an inventory, can be a worthwhile knowledge asset in itself. Second, it is a good starting point to identify your knowledge gems and exploitable knowledge assets. The intellectual capital of organisations is worth much more than its physical capital. Yet, while most organisations have an army of financial accountants and auditors, how many give the same attention to these much more valuable assets? There are now many examples of companies exploiting such assets. Porsche sells not only products (cars) but also the design expertise of its engineers. Closer to home, more KM teams are selling their KM knowledge, either as expertise or products, such as Ford's licensing of its best practice methodology.
So, while the first strand of knowledge management is often about improving customer knowledge i.e. bringing knowledge from the outside-in, most organizations are already sitting on an unrealized goldmine of knowledge. A knowledge audit is therefore a good starting point for helping organisations exploit their knowledge inside-out.
Note - This article was written specifically at the request of a publisher but due to a changes of ownership and personnel was never published.
The ideas in this article are expanded in Chapter 1 of the book Capitalizing on Knowledge: From e-business to k-business (Butterworth-Heinemann 2001). See also the related (but different) article of the same title in I3 UPDATE No. 42.
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