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What are the Best Four Components of Knowledge Management?

Great KM Programs Start With 2 Kinds of People

The best four components of knowledge management are people, process, content/IT, and strategy. Regardless of the industry, size, or knowledge needs of your organization, you always need people to lead, sponsor, and support knowledge sharing. You need defined processes to manage and measure knowledge flows. You need knowledge content and IT tools that connect the right people to the right content at the right time. And finally, you need a clear and documented strategy for using KM to meet the most important and urgent needs of the business. 

Through over two decades of research on KM, APQC has found that these are the key ingredients to build and grow a sustainable KM program. Let’s dig a little deeper into each component.

People
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “people, process, and technology.” Since at least the early 1990s, organizational leaders have used this paradigm—often referred to as also the “golden triangle”—to guide initiatives and lead organizational change. The idea is, if you over-focus on one factor, your initiative is bound to fail. And the order is important: you need to get the right people involved before you get into processes and technology. When you’re starting a KM program, you need two kinds of people: 

  1. senior leaders to provide sponsorship and insight into broader organizational strategy, and
  2. cross-functional stakeholders to guide implementation.

Senior sponsors should be visible, engaged business leaders who have something big to gain from the implementation of KM. Often, they’re people who lead business areas with major, urgent knowledge needs (e.g., experts are retiring, new hires can’t get up to speed quickly). In selecting cross-functional stakeholders, look first to your colleagues in HR, IT, and process improvement—APQC research shows collaborating with these functions improves effectiveness. 

As the KM effort matures, most organizations staff up a KM core team, identify KM champions and facilitators across the business, and establish an executive steering committee to provide ongoing stewardship. If you think this sounds like a lot of people, you’re right! You need engaged people at different levels and in different areas of the business to really build knowledge sharing into the culture. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend a ton of money or take away too much time from folks—especially if your processes are smart, your content and IT infrastructure isn’t cumbersome, and your strategy is compelling.  

For more, watch the webinar, “The People Side of KM Maturity.”

Process
In organizations with strong KM processes, knowledge flows like a city water supply: when someone needs it, they just turn the tap. The KM team, like a city planner, knows how everything flows beneath the surface. They can identify bottlenecks, reroute flows, and measure inputs and outputs. But the end user doesn’t need to understand how all that stuff works. For them, getting the knowledge they need is simple and easy.

APQC has identified a standard knowledge flow process that describes how knowledge flows through organizations. It’s a seven-step cycle:

  1. Create new knowledge (this happens every day, all the time, across all areas of the business)
  2. Identify knowledge that is critical to strategy and operations
  3. Collect knowledge so it can be shared with others
  4. Review knowledge to evaluate its relevancy, accuracy, and applicability
  5. Share knowledge through documentation, informal posts, and collaborative activities
  6. Access knowledge through pull (e.g., search) and push (e.g., alerts) mechanisms
  7. Use knowledge to solve problems faster and make more informed decisions. 

For KM teams, the key is to identify ways to build these steps into the business processes people already use every day. For example, you can build knowledge collection into stage gates, or integrate knowledge review into certain job roles. Technology tools can also help with this—by, for example, delivering relevant alerts in the flow of work—but ultimately, you need to understand people’s processes first. 

For more, see APQC’s Knowledge Flow Process Collection

Content/IT
Content is any kind of documented knowledge, from vetted best practices to quick-and-dirty tips shared amongst colleagues. Content can be immediately reusable stuff like templates and how-to videos, or it may be messy and unstructured information (e.g., project documentation). We put content alongside IT because IT infrastructures enable people to create this stuff, put it somewhere, and access and reuse it. If you don’t have KM, people will still create and use content—but they’ll put it in places others can’t find, re-make things others have already created, and (most dangerously) reuse content that’s out of date or incorrect.

Effective KM programs have workflows for creating and vetting content, taxonomies to organize content, and technology tools to connect people to content. Advanced organizations use content management to facilitate collaboration, uncover innovations, and automatically serve up content to employees in their most teachable moments. 

For more, see Getting Started with Content Management, Curation, and Findability.

Strategy
Every KM program needs a clear, documented, and business-relevant strategy. You can have the best technology tools and a super-smart KM team, but it will be all for naught without strategy. Perhaps Kenichi Ohmae said it best, “Rowing harder doesn't help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction.” 
You need a solid business case that demonstrates a deep understanding of your organization’s critical knowledge needs. The business case should outline:

  • the value proposition for KM (that is, how KM will solve business challenges);
  • the tools, approaches, and roles you’ll need to get there; 
  • a budget; and
  • the expected impact of KM (ROI).

For more, watch the webinar, “Strategic Planning for Knowledge Management.”

See How Your KM Program Stacks Up
These four components form the basis of APQC’s KM Capability Assessment Tool (KM CAT), a diagnostic that hundreds of organizations have used to evaluate their KM programs. After completing the assessment, you’ll receive an overall maturity rating and be able to compare your KM capabilities to peers and competitors. The KM CAT is a member benefit for APQC’s KM and enterprise members, and is available to nonmembers for a fee.