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Knowledge management: Building the competencies of the future

28/10/2022 2022/10

A little story about knowledge management from my own experience: A few years ago, I took on a position as an assistant. My predecessor B. and I had about two weeks of joint training time to hand over before she in turn started her new job in another company. B. was a prudent and systematic person, and I had the impression that I had absorbed her knowledge of the most important tasks quite comprehensively. However, it soon became apparent that I still lacked knowledge.

Knowledge management often in practice

A few weeks after she left, someone in the office community needed some writing utensils - pencil and eraser, perhaps? - and I was told to get an order going. After all, this had always been one of B.'s duties. However, it turned out that this rarely occurring, rather incidental topic had not come up during the handover, so I did not have the login data for the customer account at the office supply store. Consequently, knowledge management was deficient. Clicking on "Forgotten password" would have done nothing, because B.'s (no longer existing) mail address was also stored there. So a new account had to be set up laboriously, including the correct cost center (who knows what that is? We'll have to ask around!). No big deal, but it took more than two weeks until the desired pencils could be obtained - and that, although the implicit knowledge in B.'s head could have been made explicit, i.e. accessible, quite easily by writing it down. 

What is knowledge management?

The goal of knowledge management in a company is therefore to preserve existing knowledge and to ensure that information is passed on. This is best achieved with a systematic approach - possibly, in our case, the responsible manager would have had to ask B. in more detail about her tasks until she finally remembered the stationery order that occurs every few months. With more lead time (and, honestly, greater relevance), B. could also have kept logs of all the activities that occurred to ensure that all responsibilities were recorded. The dilemma becomes clear in a saying attributed to Heinrich von Pierer: "If Siemens knew what Siemens knows!", used in a similar form at Bosch. In other words, knowledge is available among so many qualified employees, but the company or its management cannot actively access this knowledge. In other words, there is a lack of knowledge management.

Quality management standards ISO 9001, ISO 30401

The importance of knowledge for the success of a company can be seen from the fact that the international standard for quality management ISO 9001:2015 mentions the "knowledge of the organization" as a relevant resource under point 7.1.6. The aim here is to systematically identify knowledge and competencies that are necessary for the company to perform. In knowledge management, these terms are generally distinguished:

  • Data: Facts about an object; so in our example, the password for the customer account would have fallen into this category. However, a piece of paper with only the inscription "Bl3i$tift3!" would have been of no use to me, because I would not have been able to assign this data.
  • Information: data with meaning, so a slip of paper with the note "Password for office supplies customer account: Bl3i$tift3!" - in this form, it probably would not have been enough information, because I would have lacked the user name, for example.
  • Knowledge: available collection of information with context related to personal experience. In this case, a detailed note, for example in a knowledge management handover file, would have been helpful: "Every few months we collect requests for office supplies and order them collectively from the online store XY. The access data are "BsMailadresse@firmenname.de" as user name and "Bl3i$tift3!" as password. It's best to log in there within the first week to put your own mail address instead. The cost of the order will be automatically sent by invoice to the correct cost center. If you get over €150 (from printer cartridges or office furniture), however, the manager must approve the invoice."
  • Competency: the ability to apply knowledge and skill to achieve intended results; so I would have combined my online shopping skill (acquired through years of practice) with knowledge of the office supply account and applied that knowledge to a first order. Since the complexity is manageable, this would likely have given me the "order office supplies in company X" competency on the first execution.

Furthermore, in 2018, ISO 30401 Knowledge Management Systems - Requirements was published for the first time as an ISO standard to systematically transform knowledge - aligned with the needs and goals of the organization - into added value. Here, for ISO certification, many important fields of action of an organization, such as leadership, operations, planning, support, evaluation and continuous improvement, must be addressed and systematically related to each other. Through this holistic management approach, the potential of knowledge can be used in a planned manner. Any isolated solutions for knowledge management, whose effectiveness and sustainability did not always meet expectations in the past, should thus be avoided.

Why is knowledge management important?

In the initial example, it was only about office supplies; well, it is not efficient if several working hours have to be spent on reconstructing an order account including cost center, but the temporary lack of pencils did not significantly hinder the team in their work. Surely if it had been the codes to the vault or the access data to the payroll program, B. would have handed them over to me! However, there are forms of knowledge that are less easy to make explicit because they are experiential knowledge. In sales, this problem of knowledge management has been known for a long time: when one of the "old hands" leaves and someone new is supposed to take over, there is a lot to tell about almost every existing customer. In B2B as well as in B2C, successful customer relationships are related to a lot of background knowledge - what is the best time to introduce new products or services, which arguments work best, how long do decision-making processes take at the customer, how many adjustments are desired... A person in sales remembers such things over time and knows which customer should be called two weeks after the offer to follow up, and which customers then feel pressured.

An attempt to make this knowledge transparent and to store it in such a way that the entire company and possible successors have access to it are CRM programs (Customer Relations Management), in which ideally every conversation and all available background information should be entered. Knowledge management requires the maintenance of these programs and the appropriate attitude of wanting to share one's knowledge - those who prefer to keep their knowledge to themselves according to the motto "knowledge is power" will tend to keep the entries in the CRM to a minimum. What CRM software cannot replace in any case is the personal relationship of trust between the key account manager and the contact person at the customer - this applies all the more to sales to private individuals. The best solution here is for the "old hand" and the successor to work in parallel for a few months and for the newcomer to be introduced to the customer and warmly recommended. If, on the other hand, you are thrown in at the deep end and cannot access the knowledge gained from experience, you run the risk of missing out on potential deals, selling unsuitable solutions or even upsetting customers, and even ending the business relationship. 

Popular formats in knowledge management include: Databases, MindMap / Knowledge Map, BarCamps, Knowledge Jam, Working Out Loud, Video.

Operational knowledge management consequently works to make existing knowledge visible and usable. As described above, CRM systems and databases are generally an approach to recording knowledge - for example, by requiring various form fields to be filled in, the aim is to ensure that everything important is remembered when it is entered. Someone documenting a customer call will certainly remember to enter the reason for the call, but without the "desired callback time" form field, the information in question could fall by the wayside. In this case, it is reasonable to assume that the information on callback times exists; it is a common component of customer records. 
But what if there is no way to know what information and knowledge belongs to a particular subject? For these purposes, most of us like to use MindMaps or knowledge maps; the visual presentation leads us to think more quickly, "oh yes, that belongs too!". Possibly this would have helped in my assistant position mentioned at the beginning: the generic term would have been, for example, "watch the team's back", and from this would have arrows with "fetch, open and stamp mail", "keep minutes", and, precisely, "order office supplies". In this way, connections are captured and the most complete overview possible is gained.

With the MindMap or knowledge map, interrelationships and knowledge areas are mapped. In the present example, at least the knowledge carrier is clear (my predecessor B.). Sometimes, however, it is not known in the company who has knowledge on a certain topic. In this case, an event format such as a BarCamp or Knowledge Jam is a good idea, where a (corporate) public that is as heterogeneous as possible comes together and compiles existing "nuggets of knowledge" on the basis of questions or keywords. It is precisely through the exchange that one becomes aware of parallels, for example, to what is already known, or of problems that would not have been noticed by one person alone or by a fixed team.
By making topics and issues public, silent knowledge carriers also learn that their knowledge is now in demand. One method of creating this form of publicity is Working Out Loud. Everyone reports what they are currently working on or what is on their mind. Others become aware of this and can contribute their knowledge or at least give hints as to where more can be found on the relevant issues. In this way, one avoids reinventing the wheel in several places, although a prototype or even a stock already exists in the warehouse.

In the next few years, many professions will be characterized by generational change: the baby boomers will gradually retire. The only question is whether companies will succeed in retaining their knowledge, and in what way? Ideally, the knowledge transfer project should start early enough (for B. and me, the two weeks were apparently not quite enough) and be equipped with sufficient (time, personnel, financial) resources. Especially in the craft or technical area it will not be sufficient to fill a database, the transfer of knowledge happens here by demonstrating, observing, imitating, correcting. At least part of the knowledge can be recorded in a video in which experts show the necessary steps step by step and either explain them themselves or answer questions about them. Younger generations Z and Alpha are already used to learning independently from video tutorials - the resulting video material simply needs to be appropriately categorized, tagged and filed.

How are knowledge management and competencies related?

We have already seen above that competencies consist of applying knowledge and skills to achieve intended results - so knowledge alone is (usually) not enough to accomplish a task, you also have to be able to apply it. Depending on complexity, prior knowledge, and personal disposition, it can take years to master certain competencies. Systematic knowledge management provides a good basis for acquiring competencies - at least if it is competency-oriented from the outset, i.e., if it encompasses values, rules, norms and experiences in addition to knowledge in the narrower sense. Knowledge management must not just be about storing knowledge; the knowledge must be usable in a practical way, at the very moment when I need and ideally directly apply this knowledge. In manageable projects, the benefits of sharing knowledge and processing it together can be best experienced - bottom-up, close to everyday work and embedded in the context of the respective competence. The question "What do I need to learn this for anyway?", which surely troubled many of us in school, should no longer arise with successful knowledge management and competence acquisition, because it is obvious to everyone.

Achieving the competencies of the future with the help of knowledge management

Companies that want to be prepared for future challenges should ask the broader question: "What will our employees need to be able to do in the future? What are the competencies of the future in our industry?" Again, an initial brainstorming session via MindMap is a good idea, both for the company as a whole and broken down to individual departments and job families. It can be worthwhile to take as starting points both the current jobs and ask how they will change in the future, and to put the foreseeable challenges at the beginning of these reflections.

In the case of our assistant position from the example, the analysis of the current activities would show that some things would be eliminated (ordering office supplies) and others would be mapped digitally (instead of opening mail, this would mean sifting through and distributing incoming mail to the team mailbox on a topic-related basis). As a result, digital competence will be necessary, as well as increased competence in terms of analysis and classification criteria - this may have been easier with analog mail because the addressees were often named. Based on the future challenges, for example the increasing complexity in a VUCA world, the ability to think in a networked way may be an additional necessity in the analysis, so that incoming mails are not only forwarded to the processing department, but also to a project for the improvement of the respective topic, if the received mail contains not only questions, but also suggestions for improvement. Of course, this presupposes that the existence of such a project is known enough in the corporate public and not just hoarding one's own knowledge in a quiet closet...

Whoever now thinks that all this sounds like a lot of work is certainly right at first. Especially in connection with an ISO certification, the impulse to set up a knowledge management system as quickly and leanly as possible is understandable. We suggest you rather tackle such a project in a sustainable way right away - contact us, we will be happy to support you and ask you the right questions so that you will soon know what your organization knows.

About the Author
Valeska Szalla
HR Consultant
Since 2017 I have been writing my success story at ARTS, where I can always add a new chapter through the various projects I have been involved in.

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