The Metaknowledge Guide offers a concise, practical guide to knowledge management for both newcomers and experienced practitioners.
Part VI provides an overview of the different tools that support KM activities.
There are numerous tools and applications available to support knowledge sharing and retention. With so many options, choosing the right technology can be a bigger challenge than actually using them. This article will help you make the right choice for your particular needs. However, this article is not intended as an in-depth review or comparison of the different commercial technologies available. Rather, it provides an overview of the different kinds of tools that are relevant to KM initiatives, and how best to apply them. Note: though we will consider the technologies below within the structure of the four KM activities, many tools have broad functionalities which results in overlap with other activities the tool can be used for.
Before going into more specific examples, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- This article mainly covers modern IT tools, as these are likely a major element of your KM efforts. However, we should not forget that IT (as we understand it today) is a very recent development. Pen and paper are still valid tools for communication and knowledge exchange, and should not be discounted. Even today, printed books remain an effective and popular means of sharing information.
- When organisations have problems managing or finding their information, it is common to point to the technology being used. But the issue most often is not caused by the IT system itself, but rather a lack of proper information management and governance.
- Overall, you should seek to minimize the number of IT alternatives available, especially when these tools serve the same KM activity. Having too many alternatives only causes confusion, and makes it more difficult to have consistent information. Better to play to the strengths of a tool and work around its weaknesses.
"IT” (information technology) is a common term today. However, it was once more commonly referred to as “ICT” (information & communication technology), which I find a better description of its purpose and limits – technology for the communication of information. Somewhere along the way, that explicit mention of “communication” was dropped. And today, IT is often seen (and marketed) as the solution to business problems. But, like any technology, IT only accelerates. If we know what we’re trying to achieve, technology helps us get there faster. If we are uncertain, technology accelerates us straight into a wall.
This is especially true when it comes to communication between people. The efficiency of communication is usually inversely proportionate to the effectiveness of the communication. If you focus on making communication as efficient as possible, that declares the communication to be a cost to minimized. It says the communication is a burden, a hassle. Instead, going out of your way to make the extra effort – in time and money – might not seem most efficient, but it communicates importance. It declares that knowledge sharing is valuable, and that those that participate in it are valued. For this reason, knowledge sharing events are generally far more effective if they are done face-to-face, rather than online. And for that reason, it’s crucial to have a KM sponsor who believes it a worthwhile investment.
1. Connecting People and Direct Knowledge Sharing
These technologies are intended to support direct conversations (either one-to-one or within a small group), and help people find each other.
Direct communication tools allow people to speak directly to each other, through text and/or (video) calls. While they were already an established part of the IT landscape of many companies, they proved themselves essential for many companies during the Covid pandemic. Products like Teams and Zoom are generally aimed at supporting one-time calls and live (group) discussions, while Slack and Discord are designed as enduring, virtual rooms (“channels”).
- Record for future reference: if a call is used to provide a training or tutorial, it pays dividends to record it (though make sure to get everyone’s permission). A recorded call can then be made available for later reference, or to those who were not present.
- Combine with speech-to-text: a recording can be run through a speech-to-text tool. More and more meeting tools already support automatic transcription as well. This written text can then be turned into more concise content, translated into different languages, and is easier to update than a video.
- Don’t use them to store knowledge: while platforms like Slack and Discord allow for ‘pinning’ messages, they make for poor knowledgebases. Better to capture particularly useful comments or replies and store them in another, better-suited repository or FAQ.
- Encourage the use of “threaded” conversations. Threads allow users to respond to specific messages within a conversation, and keep related discussions grouped together. This helps maintain a clear flow of information, reduces clutter in the main channels, and reduces the likelihood of important messages being lost in a busy channel.
- Implement chat bots for automation: explore the use of chat bots to automate repetitive tasks or provide quick access to information. Chat bots can be programmed to perform various functions, such as retrieving data from external systems, providing FAQs, scheduling reminders, or even facilitating simple polls or surveys. By leveraging chat bots, you can streamline workflows, save time, and enhance the user experience.
Example tools: Teams, Zoom, Slack, Discord, IRC
Digital Q&A and messageboards (“forums”) are some of the oldest IT tools in existence. In fact, they were among the earliest applications of the Internet, and still retain their value today. They allow people to discuss topics through permanent messages in threads that are visible to all with access to the board, and allow users to search for messages using specific key words.
- Categorisation: Create well-defined categories and subcategories to help users find relevant discussions easily. This improves the overall organization of the message board and enhances user experience.
- Moderation: as community tools, they should have moderators and facilitators to keep discussions relevant and focused on the intended topics.
- Leverage the data: while message boards tend to build up a lot of clutter over time, they can nonetheless be invaluable sources of insight and experience to ‘feed’ into more structured and managed content. For example, to improve the onboarding program in one company we set up a digital message board where newcomers could ask all their questions, and would be assisted by their peers (making the information tailored to their specific context) and a few experienced ‘mentors’. The most common or valuable questions and information were then added to the company’s official newcomer intranet pages.
- Reward good behaviour: incentivise constructive participation through features like reputation systems, badgers, or verified accounts. Many experts are more than willing to contribute their experience, if only they are recognized as such.
- User Feedback and Suggestions: Create a mechanism for users to provide feedback, suggestions, or bug reports. Regularly review and consider user input to improve the message board and address any issues that arise.
- Engage the community: Encourage active community engagement by organizing regular events, contests, or discussions. This develops a sense of community and keeps users involved and interested.
Example tools: Discourse, Vanilla Forums, Invision Community
People Finder or Enterprise social Network (“Corporate Facebook”): a people finder allows you to do just that; to find people with the right knowledge to help solve your problems. A good people finder should list their particular skills and experience (with regions, business lines, projects, technologies, …), and should allow other users to search by these traits. Enterprise social network tools often mimic the features and functionalities of popular social media platforms, adapting them to meet the specific needs and requirements of businesses.
- Good practices: coming soon
- Example tools: Microsoft SharePoint, Slack, Chatter, Yammer, Workplace by Facebook, Jive, IBM Connections
2. Capturing Scalable Knowledge
Voice & video recording: there is a myriad of options available for knowledge engineers that want to create audio or video recordings.
- Good enough is enough: the choice of tool is most often decided by the context and need of the recording, and the available resources. If the recording is only going to be used in a small team, using a phone camera (which are capable of high-quality video these days) will likely suffice. If the recording is intended for wider distribution, it might be a good idea to use more professional equipment (and people).
- Mind editing costs: keep in mind that the recording will likely need to be edited before distribution – and you should include this in the estimated costs and time needed for the recording.
- Integration with meetings: check if your tool integrates with platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Skype if you need to record remote interviews.
Example tools: coming soon
Speech-to-text: while an audio-visual recording certainly has advantages over text, recording a written text does make it easier to search for particular information later on. Speech-to-text tools can take a voice recording (or even process in real-time) and create a written transcript of what was said. Information of particular interest can be distilled into useful content, and can be translated into different languages. In fact, many speech-to-text technologies already support real-time translation.
- Apply AI: natural language processing (NLP) algorithms can extract sentiment, identify keywords, perform language understanding, and enable advanced analytics on transcribed speech, which helps identify information of particular interest, or can help with properly categorizing the content in your knowledgebase.
Example tools: Google Cloud Speech-to-Text, IBM Watson Speech to Text, Microsoft Azure Speech to Text
Process Mapping Tools: also known as BPMN (Business Process Management Notation) tools, these applications help users to easily make visual representations of processes and procedures. In fact, any Process KM project will/should rely on these tools as a core part of their implementation, both for documenting the process flow and for maintaining it.
- Define scope and purpose: before starting the process mapping, it’s crucial to set the scope and objectives. Identify the specific process or sub-process to be described, to ensure the exercise remains focused on its intended goal.
- Start with What: make sure you have clear definitions for the applicable concepts and terminology. The same words can mean different things even within the same company, and without a common understanding these can confuse any efforts to have clear process descriptions.
- Process, not Procedure: don’t use process maps to describe complex business decision logic – keep that in a separate procedure. Instead, use it to visualize the overall sequence and dependencies between process contributors. For example, when your process involves setting the priority of following steps, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a “decide priority” step in your process, followed by a gateway with “high”, “medium”, and “low” paths. You can describe the logic by which the prioritisation is done in a separate document, and link it to the process step as needed.
- Keep focus on the customer’s perspective: it's essential to consider the perspective of the customer or end-user. This helps identify the value-adding activities and potential pain points within the process from the customer's viewpoint.
- Work top-down. while process mapping exercises are often undertaken to resolve a particular issue, it pays dividends to start with the most generic, highest-level process within the scope of your KM project, and then create sub-processes of each step. Often, the cause of an issue is not the process most impacted by it, but one of the processes feeding into it. As process mapping is ultimately a tool to visualize the dependencies between different teams, don’t make your focus too narrow.
- Useful in itself: conversely, the value of process mapping often lies more in the exercise itself rather than having the final product available for future reference. The mapping is an excellent opportunity for the organisation to critically reflect on its way-of-working, to identify opportunities for improvement, - and to discuss what better means in the organisation’s context to begin with. Don’t rush through this – unless the organisation is already mature in its learning mentality, that sort of opportunity doesn’t come along very often.
- Invest in keeping it accurate and relevant: process documentation is only ever a snap-shot representation of reality. As with most information, its value begins to degrade almost immediately so it requires constant refreshing to keep up to date. If your organisation intends to have an accurate and valuable reference to its way of working, it should be prepared to make the necessary investment in people and time.
- Start at the end: should you start with describing the current situation (as-is) and then design the desired future (to-be), or should you start with the to-be process and then work backwards to the as-is? This depends on who you ask. Some find it easier to start with the current situation, and then use the process map to identify concrete opportunities for improvement. Personally, I’m in favour of starting with the to-be – or rather, to first identify the goals of the organisation, then design the processes that would deliver those goals, and only then map out the current situation, and the steps needed to get to that to-be situation. Though it can be a challenge to get people to look beyond the way-of-working they’re used to, starting with the desired future situation makes developing an improvement mindset easier.
Example tools: Microsoft Visio, Lucidchart, Signavio, Bizagi modeler
Lessons Learned System (LLS): not to be confused with a Learning Management System (LMS), an LLS offers a structured approach for documenting, analyzing, and sharing knowledge gained from past experiences, projects, or activities within an organization. It helps identify what worked well, what did not, and the reasons behind successes and failures. The insights gained through the LLS can then be integrated into the organisation’s processes and way-of-working.
- Award learning, spotlight dummies: an LLS can certainly help in creating a learning culture, but its success is itself dependent on that mindset as well. It doesn’t do much good to capture valuable lessons if nobody ever draws from them. Instead, encourage and incentivize open and honest discussions about successes and failures. Giving out awards for “best lessons learned” helps – as does a “dummy award” to spotlight problems or issues that would have been prevented if those involved had taken the time to learn from others.
Example tools: iAuditor, Lesson.ly, Confluence
Blogs: much like the forums discussed above, blogs can be used to capture knowledge and insights. However, like forums, blogs rarely work as a true knowledgebase. Rather, they should be used to capture knowledge in the moment, which can then be distilled into a more permanent form.
Good practices: coming soon
Example tools: Jive, Yammer, Sharepoint, Confluence, Wordpress, Hubspot CMS
Service Management Tools: while these are not knowledge sharing tools per se, they nonetheless bear consideration if you are working in Service KM context. These tools are mainly designed for the registration and processing of service requests, issues, and problems, but they commonly have knowledgebase functionality as well. These allow work instructions and documented solutions to be stored and made available to the people that need them. Often this includes the customers of the service as well.
- KCS: there exists an entire framework of good practices specifically for service KM called Knowledge Centered Service (KCS®). More on this can be found in Part IV: Process.
- Q/I ratio: Certain service management tools allow for directly linking a registered issue (“ticket”) with an article in the knowledgebase. This enables measuring the Question-to-Issue (Q/I) ratio – that is, the percentage of issues that were solved with a knowledge article. Or, more interestingly, the percentage of issues where the cause was a lack of knowledge of the customer. With this data, common knowledge gaps can be identified and mitigated by providing the right information and training to these customers. This, in turn reduces the number of issues the service team has to deal with, freeing them for higher-value work.
Example tools: ServiceNow, TOPDesk, 4me, Zendesk, JIRA Service Management
3. Ensuring the Quality and Accuracy of Information
Knowledgebase: a knowledgebase is a platform that allows for the storing and finding of useful, applicable information. It can take many forms depending on its purpose.
An internal knowledgebase is designed for internal use within an organization. It contains information, guidelines, processes, and best practices relevant to employees, departments, or teams. Internal knowledgebases facilitate knowledge sharing, onboarding of new employees, and serve as a centralized repository of internal documentation. Example tools: Confluence, Sharepoint, Guru, Wiki,
An external knowledgebase is meant for customers, clients, or the general public. It provides self-service resources, FAQs, troubleshooting guides, and other helpful information related to products, services, or topics of interest. External knowledgebases aim to empower users to find answers to their questions independently and reduce the need for customer support. Example tools: Help Center by Zendesk, Knowledge Base by Freshdesk, Knowledge by Atlassian
A developer knowledgebase focuses on technical documentation, programming languages, APIs, software development tools, and other resources aimed at developers and software engineers. These knowledgebases often include code snippets, tutorials, integration guides, and troubleshooting information to support developers in their work. Example tools: MDN Web Docs, Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN), DevDocs
A customer support knowledgebase is specifically tailored to support customer service and helpdesk teams. It contains articles, solutions, and troubleshooting guides related to common customer issues and inquiries. Customer support knowledgebases aim to improve response times, enable self-service support, and ensure consistent and accurate information across support channels. Example tools: ServiceNow, TopDesk, ZenDesk
Collaboration Platform: while a knowledgebase is intended to provide purposefully curated information, a collaboration platform is intended for the ad-hoc storing and exchange of information within or between teams or projects. These platforms usually support a variety of different information types, and integration with other tools.
Good practices: coming soon
Example tools: Microsoft Sharepoint, Google Workspace
4. Making Information Findable & Reusable
Enterprise Search: Enterprise search tools are software solutions designed to help organizations find and retrieve information from various sources within their enterprise environment. These tools are specifically developed to handle the large volumes of data and content that exist within organizations, making it easier for users to locate the information they need quickly and efficiently. Recent enterprise search tools integrate AI to help users quickly find what they need, based on their common interests and activities.
- Tags are great when managed: Adopt tagging, if possible, which allows people to search information by category or topic. It’s good practice to base tags on a common taxonomy, and to carefully manage the creation and changing of tags to avoid duplicates.
- Implement relevance tuning and search optimization: relevance tuning involves configuring the search tool to prioritize and present the most relevant results based on user queries. Understand user search patterns and behaviors, leverage analytics and user feedback to fine-tune the search algorithms, and continually optimize the relevance ranking. This can involve adjusting weightage for various factors, applying synonyms, or leveraging machine learning algorithms.
- Keep security in mind: enterprise search tools handle sensitive information, so it's crucial to implement strong security measures. Ensure that the search tool respects access control rules and data privacy.
- Analyze searches and user feedback: regularly examine search patterns, user queries, and feedback to gain insights into search effectiveness. Leverage this data to make informed decisions on relevance tuning, content organization, and user interface enhancements.
Example tools: uman.ai, Elastic Enterprise Search, Microsoft Search, Coveo, Apache Solr, Algolia