The APQC Blog

Why KM Initiatives Fail

5 Reasons Your KM Initiative is Doomed in 2020

Most people understand that knowledge management, or KM, is a pretty good idea. Sharing and re-using knowledge helps everyone in the organization work smarter, faster, and with fewer mistakes. But why, then, do so many KM initiatives fail? Let’s look at five problems that can trip up well-meaning KM professionals, and how to solve them.

Problem #1: You Failed to Plan

You set up a KM program without first defining a mission, clear business goals, and a strategy to achieve them. Unfortunately, that old saw still holds true: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

The symptoms:

  • Nobody knows if KM is “working” or not.
  • The KM team is unsure what to do next.
  • People in the business aren’t sure what KM is for (or even what it is).
  • People in the business associate KM with a particular software tool.

The solution: Define the value proposition and business case for your KM program. You need to answer the question, “What business problem is KM going to solve?” and then define how you will get there. It’s best to do this when you’re starting up the KM program, but if you didn’t, do it now. 

Problem #2: You Don’t Know Your Customer

You designed KM solutions without input from business leaders or end-users. Now, nobody is using them.

The symptoms:

  • KM metrics show low activity and employee engagement.
  • When employees do share knowledge, they do it outside of KM channels (e.g., through email).
  • Business leaders don’t think KM is a valuable use of employees’ time.

The solution: Use techniques like design thinking to develop KM solutions that solve employees’ problems and are easy and fun to use.  Design thinking approaches like customer journey mapping help KM professionals truly understand the needs of their end-users. 

Problem #3: You’re Drowning in Administrivia

The KM team is stuck in the back office and spends all its time on tedious tasks such as formatting, tagging, and maintaining content in repositories.  

The symptoms:

  • The KM team feels frustrated and uninspired.
  • Employees equate KM with the company intranet or other “boring stuff.”
  • Big ideas for what KM could do are pushed aside or put on the back burner.

The solution: Three tactics can help lessen the burden of content management administrivia. The first is to help the business own its role in content management by training content owners and establishing clear governance. The second is to use technology: Tools like autotagging and autoclassification can make content management a lot less painful. And the third, which we’ve seen at organizations like Grant Thornton and Mercer, is to create an offshore team to handle content management. Smart KM teams use a combination of these approaches to free up more time for strategic, value-added work.

Problem #4: You’re a Loner

The KM team operates in its own bubble, disconnected from functional and business partners.

The symptoms:

  • Business leaders don’t approach KM for support or guidance.
  • Other functions offer tools that are a lot like KM’s (for example, HR has people profiles and KM has expertise location) and employees are confused about what to use.
  • The KM team’s initiatives and rollouts are often overshadowed by competing business priorities.

The solution: To build a better relationship with the business, you need to get close enough to identify real needs and priorities and then prove that KM can help. Forming alliances with functional partners can be trickier, especially if the KM team has a history of only coming to these groups with asks and demands. So, don’t wait till you have a need to build alliances with these groups: Look for ways to build (or rebuild) your cross-functional relationships today. 

Problem #5: Your Stuff Stinks

Employees hate the look, feel, and user experience of KM tools.

The symptoms:

  • The KM platform looks like something out of the early 2000s.
  • Employees say, “Why can’t this KM tool be more like (insert: Google, YouTube, Alexa, or another consumer technology here)?”
  • The KM team spends a lot of time fielding employees’ questions and complaints about how they can’t find or access stuff, content won’t pull up or looks weird on their phones, or contributing stuff is super-tedious.

The solution: As strange as it might sound, now is a really good time to have this problem. Most organizations are currently undergoing digital transformation. Getting a seat at the digital transformation table can unlock the funding KM needs to seriously upgrade its toolkit. And luckily, KM has a lot to offer to digital teams: KM’s understanding of information flows and employee knowledge needs are valuable input for choosing the right tools and getting people to use them.

The Takeaway

If one or more or these problems rings true for your KM program, don’t lose heart. At APQC, we’ve seen so many KM programs that use failure as an opportunity to build something that’s even better than what they had before. More often than you might think, there is a chance to pull your KM program back from the brink. Maybe a new senior leader comes in who “gets” KM, a crisis opens up an opportunity to prove KM’s value, or a restructuring aligns KM with awesome new partners. But it’s ultimately up to the KM team to spot that opportunity and take full advantage of it. As we kick off 2020, keep your eyes peeled for both problems and opportunities.