If you work in a small or mid-sized business, chances are you've probably asked a question like: "Where do we keep the toolbox?" Or "How do we update the information on the message-on-hold system?" "What's the password to the company LinkedIn profile?" Or even: "Please tell me that we have a fire extinguisher, and that you know where it is!"
There's also an equal chance that you received an answer something like this: "I don't know, Judy always handled that", or "I think Daniel was in charge of those, but he retired last month."
The phenomenon you experience when that happens is known by several different names, including knowledge management, knowledge sharing, or the organizational knowledge base. Whatever you call it, this collection of company-specific information and business practices is critical to help your business maintain efficiency, productivity and ultimately, profitability. The failure to realize the value of knowledge management challenges businesses large and small throughout the country, and manifests itself in many ways that often directly impacts the bottom line.
Wikipedia defines knowledge management as: the process of capturing, developing, sharing, and effectively using organizational knowledge. It refers to a multi-disciplined approach to achieving organizational objectives by making the best use of knowledge.
A more practical definition for small business owners is that knowledge management takes into account all the useful business information (from the nuances of organizational processes, to the intricate organizational details of filing, documenting, and inventory management) contained within company files, as well as the collective minds of your employees.
Do You Know What your Employees Do, or More Importantly, How They Do it?
As your business grows, your responsibilities as a leader can take you farther and farther away from the day-to-day operations of your team and the specific activities of individual employees. Certain practices that are critical to your business may be the responsibility of a single employee. They alone may know how to operate or maintain a specific piece of equipment, or interact with a key vendor or customer, or understand the complexities of certain laws or regulations. As long as that specific employee is in place, everything seems to be working fine. Should that employee and their knowledge be removed from the workplace, productivity (and profitability) can come to a grinding halt.
Sameer Bhatia, CEO of ProProfs.com, comments that our economy is now based on dynamic knowledge, not just static information, and that small businesses in particular stand to benefit from implementing a knowledge management strategy and tools throughout their organization. The more critical operational knowledge is distributed throughout your organization, and made easily accessible to your employees, the more efficient your business becomes. Productivity is ensured, employee confidence rises, and customer service is enhanced. Knowledge really is power for your business.
Knowledge Management Keeps Work Flow Consistent Despite Employee Turnover
For some companies, a high rate of employee turnover restricts their ability to maintain a smooth work flow and to be consistently productive. In cases like these, an organization-wide knowledge management initiative will help keep positive momentum regardless of employee turnover. Understanding, documenting and sharing key processes, along with golden-nugget "how-to" advice on specific topics, shortens training times, and allows new employees to be more productive right from their start date.
Sharing important workplace knowledge also helps build a culture of employee confidence. Team leaders feel safe to take time off because they trust their backups to step in capably for coworkers on sick days or on a well-deserved vacation. This culture of capability also carries over into customer service, creating a confident, can-do attitude.
Building a Productive Culture of Knowledge Sharing
Knowledge management is broad-brush term, and while its benefits in the workplace are readily apparent, the ownership of a KM initiative can be rather unclear. Human resources has the greatest opportunity to successfully implement knowledge management on an enterprise-wide level. As the focal point for knowledge sharing, a smart human resources manager can turn a knowledge management program into a road map for a sustainable competitive advantage, quantifiable in real dollars.
There is tremendous value in the specific business knowledge your employees carry around with them in their minds. Knowledge management helps you unlock the knowledge that works best for your business, releasing it from individuals and distributing it throughout your organization to enhance (and preserve) productivity. Pretty soon, employee comments like: "I don't know, that's not my job" are replaced with "I know how to do that" or "I know where to find the answer right now."
Want to know how to get the job done faster and more efficiently? Chances are, one of your employees already knows the way. A knowledge management program allows you to turn employee know-how into actions that propel your business to the next level.