Managing knowledge as a corporate resource certainly seems achievable. We have made huge advancements in the last decade by providing individual stores of information on personal computers that can be aggregated on shared drives. We have hierarchical folder structures that allow us to locate information rapidly (if we can remember the right folder!) And now, as browser technologies mature, we can search those folders flexibly through browser-enabled portal technology.

With all the technology available in so many different flavors, why do we still end up with the age-old problem of "islands of information" divided by departments or – worse yet – C-drives. With our wealth of potential information growing exponentially, the need for search capabilities is real, but the benefits are slow in accruing. Corporate repositories are not being effectively utilized, and people still rely on their own file folders and sources. Until we reach a critical mass of high quality, easily accessible information in the repository, knowledge management will be a concept, instead of a reality.

What’s Missing? Supply or Demand?

We have each developed personal success criteria – rules that predict how we will succeed. Some seem to be governing principles like "work hard" and "look good." Some are less attractive, such as "do it the way it worked before" and "rely on my own methods, rather than trusting a new way." We are all subject to these internal drivers and, as a result, we act out of habit and a desire for safety, rather than seeking new, more challenging ways of doing things.

The knowledge management quandary is an imbalance of supply and demand. There is not a large enough supply of high quality, relevant information available quickly from the corporate repository accessible through the portal, and there is too much juicy data available on our C-drives and shared folders. Because there is this supply imbalance, there is no demand for the information available from the corporate repository. We don’t need it, because we have our alternative sources. Without the demand for it, there is little incentive to build up the supply. And until there is enough quality information, people will not search it – it does not follow their personal success criteria. Their search results will be poor, and they will feel like they have wasted their time. Until people get results, they will not feel compelled to add to the repository.

How Can We Achieve Critical Mass?

With this apparent standoff, how can we cause a shift in behavior? In the case of the Internet, content had been building for years before the casual consumer began surfing the Internet. There was already plenty to choose from, albeit it in a less than elegant form. The last decade has seen improvements in access and search capabilities, while more relevant and consumer-friendly content has entered the space. Within a corporate setting, we are often starting from scratch, and the shift in behavior is more difficult.

The strategy for organizational transition needs to have two fronts: building quality content and reducing alternatives. With this two-pronged attack, we can create the critical mass of useful information to spark the shift.

Building Quality Content

To build quality content, we need to provide organizational incentives to add content to the repository, using both "carrots and sticks." Leadership needs to set the standard by posting all of their corporate information – client files, proposals, procedures and presentations – in the repository. They also need to expect the same from others. Success stories where people have contributed to the knowledge base need to be shared, and "heroes" in the battle to build content need to be publicly celebrated and rewarded. The incentive system – including performance evaluations and bonus structures – need to include recognition of contribution to the knowledge base in order to really get people’s attention. And it needs to be a continuing part of the corporate conversation in terms of communication and mind share.

Throughout the endeavor, however, we need to acknowledge that people have "day jobs." We ask a lot of our teams in the pursuit of our business goals – selling and delivering products and services – and this type of activity is frequently above and beyond the call of duty. If we ask for the extra effort without recognizing the resources and time required, we get what we deserve – mediocre results and stasis. We need to consider adding the required resources to improve the content. These resources can be virtual or dedicated. Virtual resources could be people who have formally committed a part of their time to building and policing the new repository. Dedicated resources may be required to steward the effort as well. It may be beneficial to look for resources with library science expertise to ensure high quality taxonomy and search capabilities (deficiencies in those areas can hurt the potential results of even high quality content). In either case, we need to be honest about the resource requirements and not squeeze the organization for more than it can give.

Reducing Alternatives

While the fledgling supply of quality content is growing, it is threatened by the existence of other useful alternative supplies. These alternatives take the form of personal C-drives, shared folders or even just friendly, resourceful people who will get the information for us. There is no supply of information more enticing than the person in the next cube. Years of parenting have taught me to resist the temptation to yield when asked for the spelling or the meaning of a word. I steadfastly replied, "Look in the dictionary," to help my kids learn to use that most essential repository, rather than using me to answer their questions. Similarly, we need to "shut down the exits" that people take to avoid using the repository. We need to shift our primary resources (newsletters, directories, primary data files) to the portal or repository and make them unavailable elsewhere. We need to get to those friendly, resourceful people and train them to reply, "Look in the repository," in a helpful, constructive manner. It will feel painful – for those who are used to helping and for those who want to be helped – but the results will be worth it.

The results will be a more empowered workforce with higher quality information at their fingertips. The technology is available; we need to shift our behavior to make it a reality.

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