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What Are the Biggest Barriers to Knowledge Management?

What Are the Biggest Barriers to Knowledge Management?

A knowledge management effort can fail for countless reasons, but the breakdown usually starts with a “people problem.” According to APQC’s research, the biggest barriers that hurt knowledge management implementations are awareness, time, and culture. People either aren’t aware of the tools and approaches available to them, don’t have (or make) time to participate, or unwritten rules and assumptions make KM participation difficult or unappealing.

Below are descriptions of the three barriers, along with ideas to work through each. These aren’t easy problems with cookie-cutter solutions, and the right approach will depend on your situation. But following this advice can get a struggling KM initiative moving in the right direction. 

Barrier 1: Awareness

People can’t do knowledge management if they don’t know what it is. That’s why every KM program needs a cohesive and compelling communications strategy. But if the message is not conveyed early, often, and in the right language and format, employees won’t understand the tools and approaches available to them, when they should use them, or why they should care. Many KM programs struggle to gain traction because they aren’t marketed in a way that cuts through the noise and resonates with employees.

Ways to Overcome Awareness as a Barrier

  • Create a KM brand. Brainstorm catchy terms and phrases to talk about KM, along with a logo or motto that aligns with the organization’s culture and values. Then promote the brand so employees instantly recognize that a tool or message comes from KM.
  • Adopt a multi-channel strategy. Some people never read email, and others zone out in meetings. You’ll need to hit employees regularly on a range of channels to ensure your point gets across.
  • Tailor your messages. Find out what narratives resonate with different subsets of employees, and then customize communications based on what each cares about.
  • Make it fun. Live events, contests, and funny videos can create “buzz” for KM. 
  • Use leaders and managers. Convince leaders and mangers that KM matters, and make it easy for them to both role-model and encourage participation.

Learn more in Overcoming Awareness as a Barrier to Knowledge Sharing.

Barrier 2: Time

Time becomes a barrier when employees think they’re too busy to do KM. Sometimes, this stems from problems within the KM program itself. KM may be asking people to sit through long meetings, for example, or KM tools may be time-consuming to learn and use. Time barriers also arise when employees are overburdened with other tasks or see KM as “extra work” that doesn’t benefit them.

Ways to Overcome Time as a Barrier

  • Make KM as fast and easy as possible. Look for ways to eliminate or automate steps, integrate KM into the systems and apps employees already use, and allow them to set up alerts and reminders. 
  • Position KM as part of people’s responsibilities. Outline roles and expectations for key contributors like experts and community leaders, as well as rank-and-file KM participants. 
  • Make KM training bite-sized and on-demand. Employees should be able to navigate to the exact guidance they need, without flipping through a manual or sitting through a long video.
  • Look for structural obstacles to spending time on KM. For example, if employees use timesheets or project codes for tracking, make sure those systems account for time spent on KM. 
  • Create explicit and implicit incentives. People will make time for KM if they think it’s important to leaders and managers, and if they think it will help their work and  careers.

Learn more in Overcoming Time as a Barrier to Knowledge Sharing.

Barrier 3: Culture

Even if leaders say all the right things about KM, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and unwritten rules about “how things work” may work against the KM program. The culture can make employees afraid to ask questions or share, suspicious about how their knowledge will be used, or skeptical that their participation will be recognized or make a difference. Cultural nuances between functions, units, and locations can also create siloes that complicate cross-functional KM. 

Ways to Overcome Culture as a Barrier

  • Involve leaders in KM strategy development. Executives have a huge influence over the culture, and you’ll need them on board to troubleshoot cultural obstacles. 
  • Coach managers to become advocates. Clearly communicate how they will benefit from their staff participating in KM, as well as the specific support you need. Provide slides, talking points, and templates to make it easy.  
  • Partner with HR on training and measures. Build KM education into the new-hire onboarding process, and integrate KM into performance expectations and evaluations. 
  • Use technology to help with language barriers. Even if the organization has an “official” language, provide automatic translation so all employees feel comfortable contributing. 
  • Educate employees about cultural variations. Misunderstandings can cause breakdowns in knowledge sharing. When people are from different locations or units, encourage them to “level set” to clarify terminology, norms, and expectations.  
  • Reward and recognize KM participants. People are more likely to try KM if they see participants being acknowledged and celebrated. Over time, this can nudge the culture in the right direction. 

Learn more in Overcoming Culture as a Barrier to Knowledge Sharing

You can also find more about barriers to KM in APQC’s Breaking Barriers to Knowledge Sharing collection.
 

Anonymous comments will be moderated before being posted

Daniel "Danno" wrote – Wed, 05/26/2021 - 12:32 pm

Good points... I would also offer from a culture perspective that too often KM is seen as another functional responsibility within the organization.  It is easily identified as someone else's job, while in reality everyone should be intentional about how they can make what they know more available/visible and helpful to others, building team cognition.

Rezwan wrote – Thu, 05/27/2021 - 11:16 am

Points well said. My experience suggests another aspect: you can drag a horse near to pond but how do you make the horse drink the water? It depends on horse's wish. And, how KM can make that wish happen to an unwilling horse?

Lauren wrote – Thu, 05/27/2021 - 4:05 pm

Thanks Daniel & Rezwan! You both make great points about workforce engagement, which is a massive challenge. It is essential to analyze why people aren't engaged. Occasionally you run into someone who's willfully unhelpful, but most want to support their colleagues and the organization as a whole. There are usually structural or cultural challenges that disincentivize or de-prioritize KM participation. If people aren't contributing or interacting with knowledge, it may be because they don't know how, don't see how it will help them, feel overwhelmed, or don't trust the knowledge or the system. If management isn't on board, for example, employees may treat KM as a flash-in-the-pan that will go away if they ignore it long enough. In other cases, performance measures run counter to KM objectives. Changing attitudes and behaviors is a long game, but it helps if you know what the specific obstacles are and can tackle them one by one.