How should you organise your knowledge management function?

2019-11-14

Interest in knowledge management (KM) ebbs and flows, although the problem itself doesn't go away. While other topics like employee experience or the digital workplace are seen as more exciting domains to be working in right now, when I unpack a problem in an organisation I'm working with, I often find a KM issue or two lurking below the surface.

It is probably worth saying at this point that when I talk about KM in this context, I'm talking about problems that relate to any of what Nancy Dixon calls the “The 3 Eras of KM”:

Problems related to explicit knowledge are often associated with poor information and collaboration practices that have a downstream impact on the ability to access the right information, at the right time. But as we come across more complex KM issues (implicit, tacit, and collective knowledge), then the problem becomes a combination of human-centred design and supporting the effectiveness of systems of engagement. Putting the issues themselves aside (and whatever your particular view of knowledge is or isn't), the problem I want to focus on is that the management response needs to be multidisciplinary.

Which brings me to a question, what is the best structure or operating model for a KM team?

Research is limited in this area and hampered somewhat by the fact that there isn't any consistent definition for “knowledge management” as a business function. It often overlaps with related functions, like information management, intranets, digital workplace, etc.

What I can tell from industry surveys, like those conducted by Knoco and KMWorld, is that:

But this high-level view doesn't tell us much about what activities form part of the KM function or how well this benchmark data reflects actual practice.

So earlier this year, I thought I would conduct a mini-research project to explore in more detail the different ways that organisations structure or operate their KM functions. After canvassing for volunteers, I was able to gather information about seven organisations, summarised below.

Organisational Profile

Note: Organisational size is intended to be indicative only

Structure of the KM Function

KM Responsibilities

  • Professional services
  • Australia, but part of a global firm
  • 6,000-7,000 employees
  • Established function
  • Knowledge manager for each business unit (5 people)
  • KM is a function within a business improvement and transformation area, not IT
  • Knowledge harvesting
  • Knowledge sharing (processes; culture and behaviours)
  • Leveraging the organisation's tools to facilitate these behaviours and activities
  • Design & engineering services
  • Global business, headquartered in Australia
  • ~8,000 employees
  • Developing function
  • Assigned strategic KM leadership and management roles
  • Informal Communities of Practices exist
  • Developing KM strategy and culture
  • State government agency
  • Australia
  • ~3,000 employees and 50,000+ volunteers
  • Established function
  • Part of Knowledge and Evidence team with 4x FTEs
  • KM is a strategic function, working with other internal resources (like IT) to implement their KM approach
  • Their responsibility excludes records management and content management
  • Policy, business rules, strategy and planning work to retain expertise and share knowledge across the organisation
  • Advocacy for good knowledge practices
  • Identifying knowledge risks
  • Sponsorship of projects that relate to KM (e.g. intranet and search)
  • Financial services
  • North America
  • Large enterprise (10s of thousands of employees)
  • No dedicated KM enterprise-wide function, although KM functions for customer service exists
  • Individual corporate functions may manage their own approaches to KM
  • Other KM related initiatives exist, such as expertise discovery and enterprise search but are embedded within a larger digital group, focused primarily in customer experience
  • KM responsibilities are aligned to where the activities are completed
  • Corporate division within a state utility
  • Australia
  • Approximately 30 staff in the division, supporting 3,500 full and part-time employees in total
  • No dedicated KM enterprise-wide function
  • This KM function is division specific, but serves the wider organisation
  • Other functions have teams managing other types of knowledge content
  • Content management including:
    • Reviewing and updating legally approved templates
    • User guides and training materials for LOB systems
    • Intranet content all related to the division's activities.
  • Telecommunications
  • Australia
  • ~5,000 employees
  • Established, enterprise wide function
  • Size of the KM team not known
  • 10 person team for SharePoint, within the KM department
  • Information management - structured and unstructured
  • Compliance and security
  • Document management and intranet (SharePoint)
  • “Haldex”
  • Automotive
  • Headquartered in Sweden, with 20 locations world wide
  • ~2300 employee
  • Developing function
  • Centralised function, during establishment phase
  • A cross-functional team will be formed by a 4 person part-time team covering HR, quality, PMO, and internal communication
  • Supporting key applications, including Office 365 and LMS 
  • Aligning knowledge management activities to support the companies' values and Haldex Way

As you can see, it is pretty clear there is no one single way to run the KM function. Reflecting on this research and my own experience (which includes being part of Ernst & Young's Center for Business Knowledge many years ago), the factors that appear to influence the operating model are:

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to evaluate how successful KM was in each of these organisations, but you can see some hints of the level of maturity in each case and patterns that suggest some good practices, like:

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