Secrets to Knowledge Management Engagement Strategy in Plain Sight

Lauren Trees's picture

I talked to Tamara Viles, manager of knowledge architecture, and Jill Bertrand, knowledge management Management specialist, at TechnipFMC about KM engagement strategies that actually work. Their responses and insights are below.

Tamara and Jill will be breakout session speakers at APQC’s 2017 Knowledge Management Conference April 27-28. You can learn more about APQC’s 2017 KM Conference here. Don't forget Early Bird Pricing Ends Tuesday March 21, so get it will you still can.

APQC: What are the main reasons why so many KM engagement strategies fail?

 “Failure” isn’t always attributable to the engagement strategy. Rather, failure can occur long before and the demise of the engagement strategy is just symptomatic. Imagine a worst-case scenario: a KM professional proactively creates an untested solution to a problem defined by a manager in an application that contradicts the knowledge-sharing habits of the target audience. Any engagement strategy in that situation is positioned for failure before it is even launched. Formulating an engagement strategy is just one step in an overarching KM process, and careful attention must be given to each phase in the process to ensure the success of the next.

But sometimes, KM professionals do everything right and the engagement strategy still garners a lukewarm reception. Reasons include using the right tactic with the wrong audience, relying too heavily on un-relatable top-down mandates, underestimating employees’ aversion to change, assuming engagement is a one-time or short-term affair, and using just one tactic instead of an integrated solution of complementary approaches. My favorite is failing to define the personal benefit the employee will derive from using the solution; what my KM group likes to call the “why” (adopted from Simon Sinek) or what my Marketing 101 class called “selling the sizzle, not the steak.”

APQC: In your session, you will talk about why it’s so important to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” How do you communicate the value proposition of KM to employees?

The “what’s in it for me” idiom speaks to the benefit that the employee will derive from using the KM solution. The more personalized the message, the better articulated the benefit and the greater the likelihood that an employee will take an interest. Customized messages that target audiences with similar attributes (e.g., R&D employees versus sales staff) acknowledge that each group has a unique set of problems that the solution can address, different processes it follows, and even different languages and learning styles.

Storytelling is such a powerful tool to exemplify a benefit, but only if the listeners internalize the lesson and find applicability. Creating a story that builds upon the familiar and exemplifies how a new solution can be integrated into an existing process makes change more digestible.

Additionally, a sense of value can be derived from mapping how employees’ participation contributes directly to achieving both personal goals and organizational objectives. Engagement is far more palatable when employees can trace the company’s success back to their individual contributions.

In all cases, the varying levels of personalization accommodate employee differences, giving a clearer indication of “what’s in it for me” and increasing the probability of adoption.

APQC: What do engagement strategies that work have in common?

Generally, employees feel motivated to engage when they feel a connection to the strategy. For example, they try something new not because the company told them to, but because there is a compelling picture or story that spoke to them. Maybe curiosity gets the best of them or opportunity strikes and there simply isn’t an excuse not to give something a chance. Occasionally, it is the bandwagon just calling their names. Regardless of strategy, in most cases the common denominators are applicability, evidence, and authenticity.

Whether it is a success story, a wiki-a-thon, a targeted message, a question audit, a quick answer or a manager “eating his own dog food”, evidence of the value employees can derive from the solution is perceived. The suggestion creates a level of believability that motivates them to give something new a try. And if all goes well and a quality solution was created that supports the claims stated in the engagement strategy, employees will be hooked and will likely return to repeat the experience.

APQC: How do you know if there are too many barriers to adoption associated with a particular KM tool or approach?

It is not the quantity, but the impact, of the barriers that impede adoption. As a rule, if the barrier is greater than the perceived benefit, then adoption will be sparse. Engagement strategies can mitigate the barriers and extol the benefit, which can lead to increased adoption. But not all barriers can easily be overcome.

There are many factors that create resistance, several of which have been named in the KM survey we deploy to all employees every two to three years. The pragmatic barriers include accessibility, performance and bandwidth, and global relevance and language barriers. These are generally easier to anticipate.

The tacit barriers that preclude adoption can be more difficult to recognize and quantify. For example, the executive-level sponsorship for KM, acceptance of KM among the “frozen middle” layer of management, adherence to old habits and resistance to change, and understanding the value of both sharing and using knowledge (e.g., saving, not expending, time; elevating, not endangering, job security; ensuring the spread of accurate, not erroneous, information).

Indeed, the tool or approach itself requires assessment prior to rollout. Is it too difficult to use? Does it take too long to load? Can value be demonstrated? What problem is being solved? Is the tool in a format that employees use?

However, in my experience, the barrier with the greatest impact and perhaps the greatest indicator of failure is lack of sponsorship. Just because you build it, doesn’t mean people will flock to use it. Even if the tool or approach corrects an issue, without sponsorship, it can be dead in the water.

APQC: How do you gauge if a successful engagement strategy isn’t working anymore?

The easiest way to know if an engagement strategy is not working is if the tool, approach, or solution is no longer being used or was never adopted. Or, perhaps only a segment of the target audience isn’t using the tool. But, these assumptions require context that can only be provided by metrics and analytics.

An engagement strategy must be coupled with a measurement strategy, whereby metrics are defined well in advance of launch and maintained throughout the lifecycle of the KM solution. Targets for adoption, penetration and impact are key performance indicators. Once benchmarks are set, the KM tool shouldn’t be “out of sight, out of mind,” but instead should be regularly measured and evaluated so that any decline can be identified and mitigated.

Additionally, it is always beneficial to simply ask users what is working. Obtaining feedback from employees in a KM or usability survey or focus group can yield a wealth of information about the relevance of the tool itself, ways to improve the tool, and how to recruit new users while retaining the veterans.

Engagement strategies never end; they just morph over time. A “cash cow” requires a different engagement strategy from a “rising star” because different tactics are required at different phases of the KM product lifecycle. In addition, an engagement strategy should be evaluated regularly, especially during times of great change, like during a merger or acquisition, reorganization, technology upgrade, new feature or update, etc.

APQC: Do you have a personal favorite of all the adaption strategies you’ve created?

I am not sure I have a favorite because the strategy will vary with the tool, audience, objective, process, etc. In general, naming contests are gratifying because they create buzz and engagement prior to a launch and the energy associated with the anticipation is palatable. My manager is keen on any strategy that demonstrates to executive sponsors the good work being delivered as a result of KM and why it is worthy of their attention, endorsement, and investment.

But I guess my personal favorite is the one that causes that “Ah-ha” moment, when I can see as a KM specialist the precise minute in an employee’s eyes that they “get it”. Any of the strategies presented in our session can have that effect. That’s the big reward and why I do what I do.

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