Metaknowledge Part II: The three kinds of knowledge management

The Metaknowledge Guide offers a concise, practical guide to knowledge management for both newcomers and experienced practitioners. 

Part II provides an outline of the three kinds of knowledge management, and how knowledge management relates to learning & development.

Knowledge Management (KM) is a very broad field. It intersects with a lot of different management practices, and means different things to different people, in different sectors. So, when you're researching KM (or even just trying to explain it), you'll find many different interpretations and practices that emphasize different things. That's of course very confusing. To avoid this confusion, you should know there are actually three kinds of knowledge management. Understanding their differences, and what each of them is for, is a huge help in selecting those practices that are most useful to the challenge you're dealing with. 

Process Knowledge Management

The first form of KM is process knowledge management. This form has been pioneered by (and is still most common in) high-expertise sectors where the cost of failure or mistakes is very high. For example: petrochemical industry, military, aerospace, engineering, medical, and finance. Organisations in these sectors invest in process KM as a means to minimize risks and costs.

Process KM is designed to support standardization and collaboration, and reduce the costs of processes and projects. It is also intended to help identify high-value innovation opportunities. This means the implementation of process KM often interacts with the implementation of process management frameworks such as Lean, Six Sigma, and Agile. However, while these frameworks focus on providing a proven base for organisations to adopt, process KM focuses on leveraging the experience of people in the organisation for continuous improvement. In other words, traditional process management is top-down, while process KM is bottom-up. There is synergy in having both though – process KM doesn’t tell you how to run a certain process, only how to embed continuous learning and improvement of that process.

On a day-to-day basis, process knowledge managers focus on connecting stakeholders, facilitating the capture and implementation of lessons learned, and ensuring that process information is accurate, easily found, and implemented in any relevant training. We’ll discuss the implementation of process KM in greater detail later.

Knowledge Service Management

The second form of KM is knowledge service management, though it is more commonly known as Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS), for the framework of the same name. KCS is most applicable in those organisations whose purpose it is to provide information to their customers (internal or external), or where this is a big part of the day-to-day work. This can include customer service organisations, IT, HR, legal firms, consultancy companies, and academia. The goal of this form of KM is to reduce the dependency on experts for information, so that these experts are freed for higher-value work, projects, and changes. It also serves to unblock those who needed the information in the first place. KCS provides practices and tools to turn the relevant knowledge into accurate, findable, and actionable information – and ensure the information remains accurate, findable, and actionable.

Let's use a simple example to illustrate the value of KCS. In this, we have a company made up of a level 1 team of experts, and a more senior level 2 team of experts. When a customer calls the company with an issue or question, these are first handled by the level 1 team. If that team can't help, they escalate the issue to the level 2 team. It costs €15 for the level 1 team to process an issue, and it costs €100 for the level 2 team to process an issue. Note: this is the cost for handling an issue, not resolving it - every time a team needs to look at an issue, there is a cost. So an issue that is escalated actually has both the level 1 and level 2 cost to resolve.

In our starting scenario (A), the company receives 5.000 calls for help. There's no information available for the customers, so they have no choice but to call our team of level 1 experts. 40% of those questions or issues can't be handled by our level 1 team because they have insufficient knowledge or information, and need to be escalated to level 2. This means a total cost of €275.000

In scenario B we use KCS to capture the knowledge of the level 2 team, and provide it to the level 1 team. We set up the right practices to ensure the information is relevant and accurate, so that the level 1 team is able to solve 30% more issues themselves. This lowers the cost for the organisation by 22%.

In scenario C we go a step further, we capture the knowledge of the level 1 team, and turn it into information that is accurate, understandable, and actionable for the company's customers. This information is then published on a customer self-help portal, and the right practices are put in place to keep the information up-to-date and relevant. Through these efforts, 30% of issues can be resolved by the customers themselves without the need for assistance. In combination with the efforts of scenario B, that means our total cost has dropped by 45% from our original €275.000.Or, in other words, that means 45% more resources for projects and higher-value work.

One of the defining principles of KCS is “demand-driven”. Following KCS, a team will not create information they anticipate will be useful, but only create or modify information based on actual demand. This means the organisation’s information system or knowledge base is not cluttered with information that might be useful, but only contains information that has proven to be actually useful. For this reason, KCS is often implemented alongside ITIL and other service management practices. For example, ServiceNow fully supports the implementation of KCS, and allows registered issues and information requests to be directly linked to knowledge articles. This allows leaders to identify common questions and issues, and see which information could be provided to customers to reduce their dependency on the service team for assistance.

Research Knowledge Management

The third form of KM is research knowledge management, which grew out of traditional library management. It focuses on providing structure to the gathering and compiling of information to support research efforts. This can include case studies, legal precedents, market data, technical specifications, and other information. It also means this form of KM mainly applies to organisations that provide highly specialized expertise, such as legal firms, sector-specific consultancy companies, government, non-profits, and universities. It can also apply to communities of practice and other professional networks. In practice, research KM is all about improving the findability and relevance of information, and finding interesting connections, patterns, and trends in that information. In this way, research KM can be considered a parallel for data management, focusing on qualitative information rather than quantitative information.

These then are the three forms of KM. Each form offers different things, but it’s important to remember they overlap in their implementation, and can often provide highly valuable synergies. For example, Research KM can help create standardized information that feeds KCS, while Process KM can help optimize the research process itself.

Learning & Development vs Knowledge Management

Before we conclude this article, we should discuss the relation between Knowledge Management and Learning & Development (L&D). L&D may have a different name in your organisation, but is usually a part of human resource management. It focuses on competence management and the development of employees. Compared to KM, L&D could be considered a “top-down” approach; it translates the competence needs of different roles into defined training paths. By comparison, KM is more “bottom-up”. With training you have a defined outcome, while the results of KM usually emerge more organically through day-to-day work and experience.

That said, KM and L&D both have the goal of preserving and improving the capabilities of the organisation – they just focus on different aspects of that challenge, and actually synergize very well. KM feeds the training content based on actual experience in the specific context of the organisation, which makes the training much more relevant. L&D builds the baseline for competences that KM continues to build on.

23 December 2023

Metaknowledge Part VII : Governance

This part provides an overview of the different methods and tools to ensure a successful KM program.

Metaknowledge Part VI: Technology

Metaknowledge Part V : Roles

A deep dive into the different roles involved in each of the knowledge management activities.

Metaknowledge Part IV: Process

An in-depth examination of the processes and practices related to the four knowledge management activities, with examples for each.

Metaknowledge Part III: The 4X4KM knowledge management framework

This part of the Metaknowledge Guide provides the 4X4KM framework, based on the four core KM activities. This framework is an invaluable tool in organizing your KM, and keeping your efforts focused and productive.

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