From Records Management to Knowledge Management

The amount of information we generate is growing exponentially.  For most organisations a lot of this is ephemeral, but amongst the junk will be nuggets of irreplaceable knowledge – the organisation’s unique intellectual property.  Managing it is generally recognised as a critical process, so why are we so good at managing other key assets like finance, property, vehicle fleets and human resources, but so bad at managing knowledge – the asset that makes our business unique?  It should be the goal of every organisation to create an environment in which the value of knowledge is well understood by everyone, and information is reliable, shared appropriately, readily accessible, and being used to benefit the business.

In the public sector, and in regulated industries, keeping records and destroying them when they are no longer required is enforced by legislation.  Hence the need for Records Management (RM):  to keep records as evidence of financial probity; to document what decisions have been made, what happened, and why; and to provide proof of compliance with obligations.

To manage records throughout their life cycle, many organisations have introduced Electronic Document and Records Management (EDRM) to help them to fulfil their obligations under the various Public Records Acts.  EDRM systems preserve records with integrity for as long as they are needed, and then trigger their disposal after a predetermined retention period.

Sopra Steria’s work with the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) is a great example of this.  The project was the largest document and records management installation in northern Europe.  The system now manages over 36 million documents, offering greater efficiency in handling and sharing information.  Ten years from launch we still manage the service in line with NICS governance policies, ensuring that information is always available when needed, and conforming to the latest assurance standards.

In the wider context most organisations also use their EDRM systems to manage all their digital knowledge including those assets that are not covered by legislation – their intellectual property, standards, methodologies, business processes and working practices.  This is where we move up to the world of Knowledge Management (KM).  Significant value can be achieved here by:

  • making the most of scarce expertise, ideas and experience widely available beyond individual networks;
  • ensuring consistency of approach; and
  • avoiding valuable staff time being wasted on repeated mistakes and “reinventing the wheel”.

By using such knowledge stores properly, dramatic improvements can be made in the organisation’s productivity and effectiveness, and significant efficiency savings can be realised.

There are lots of tools for managing explicit knowledge – information that is set out in tangible form.  Even if content is initially received in hard-copy form it is easily scanned and if necessary converted to convenient text form by Optical Character Recognition (OCR).  EDRM systems have been in common use for more than fifteen years.  Collaboration tools such as MS SharePoint have been growing in popularity for project teams and communities of interest.

Unfortunately explicit knowledge is also very easy to mismanage.  E-mail, instant messaging and social media make it very easy to conduct business online and to communicate ideas and news quickly, but their very convenience makes for poor record-keeping.  Once upon a time the organisation’s registry clerks kept copies of every communication with customers and suppliers and managed the filing system, but they’re long gone and we all have to do our own filing now.  Few organisations provide that kind of training for digital documents, and most of us aren’t very good at it.  Social media is particularly uncontrolled from an information governance point of view.

Still at least explicit knowledge is (by definition) available in digital form.  Rather more of a challenge is implicit knowledge; that is, information that is not yet set out in tangible form but could be made so.  Doing so is mostly about discipline.  Do your staff keep their calendars up to date, and are the calendars open to their colleagues?  Do your sales team record their leads, customer visits, every phone call?  This where contact management and customer relationship management systems come in.  Making every salesman’s customer knowledge explicitly available would make the whole sales team more effective.  Unfortunately for many organisations the incentives operate the other way: my bonus, indeed my worth to the company, may depend on me keeping my customer knowledge to myself.  The knowledge capture tools are there but the culture works against sharing.

Hardest of all to manage is tacit knowledge: information locked in people’s heads that may be extremely difficulty operationally to make explicit: skills and experience that people develop over time and may not even appreciate are knowledge; the little tricks and workarounds you learn that aren’t in any manual; the best sequence in which to carry out certain tasks; how to jiggle a component to fit it into an assembly.

Tacit knowledge walks out of the door when experienced staff move on.  Are too many of your most valuable and knowledgeable staff getting close to retirement?  Are you having to make redundancies?  Knowledge Harvesting is the process of gathering tacit knowledge from leavers before it’s too late.  It requires experienced interviewers to explore the leaver’s skills and experience with him, and it takes time.  The leaver must be given the headroom and resources to make his tacit knowledge explicit or pass it on to his successors in other ways.

To summarise, there are essentially two approaches to improving how your organisation captures and shares its hard-won knowledge:

  • Codification – capturing and storing content in a well-structured way so that everyone in the organisation can locate and access the knowledge it represents easily – obviously this works best for explicit knowledge and is virtually impossible for tacit; and
  • Personalisation – connecting people and thereby building knowledge networks. We all tend to do this naturally to some extent, but tools are available to make the process much more effective.  This is clearly the best solution for tacit knowledge.

These two approaches deliver business value in different ways.  Codification makes explicit knowledge widely available across the organisation.  With well-structured file plans, good metadata schemas, and powerful enterprise search tools users can often find everything they need to know at their workstations in seconds, hugely boosting productivity and work turnround times.

Personalisation is there for tacit knowledge and implicit knowledge that has yet to be codified.  Everyone has an informal knowledge network but in large organisations no one can know everyone.  Therefore it makes sense to provide tools to help you in Belfast find someone who may know the answer to your problem, whether they are in London or in Edinburgh, Hong Kong or Sydney.

In addition an individual user can approach their search for knowledge in two ways:

  • they can exploit the organisation’s information architecture (digital content or human network) by a directed search, or by use of metadata, tags or text strings; or
  • they can explore using his intuition and the names of file plan folders or communities as his guide.

Combining these gives the matrix below, with examples of tools and processes in each case.  (This model, and the summary terms Harvest, Harness, Hunting and Hypothesise, were proposed by Tom Short of IBM Global Services).

matrix describing

Conclusions

  • It is gradually becoming accepted that knowledge is a key business asset. Organisations need to bring in the working practices and disciplines required for the powerful new tools to support knowledge sharing.  Otherwise  many opportunities to boost productivity will be missed.
  • Effective knowledge management delivers significant business value by making the most of scarce expertise, ideas and experience; ensuring consistency of approach; and avoiding valuable staff time being wasted on avoidable errors and “reinventing the wheel”.

Share with me any experiences you have of successful Records and Knowledge Management and any tips on how you’ve made it work in your organisation.

Discover more about our experience working with NICS.