What is a Knowledge Management System (KMS)?
A traditional Knowledge Management System (KMS) is a technology that helps the creation, capture and transfer of knowledge. This can exist in many forms and will differ heavily between each company. Due to the variety of KMSs, the definition is often used very loosely.
The use of a KMS is tied to the current Knowledge management (KM) strategies used by the company. This will define the KMS type and how it is used. For example, if a company invests in social and person-to-person KM strategies, then any KMS will function in a support capacity (e.g. video chatting). Technology examples:
- Corporate blogs
- Company wiki
- Video chat
- Collaborative technologies
- Lesson learned databases
- Document management systems
- Expert information systems
- Some forms of corporate social media
Benefits of a KMS:
The benefits of a KMS are almost as numerous and varied as the benefits of a KM strategy. A better way to think about it is how does this KMS benefit my KM strategy. You can see the benefits of a KMS by examining its target goals.
- Knowledge Creation
This is where the knowledge is created on the system and is not captured from a certain individual. Think online chat rooms. These systems basically provide new avenues for knowledge creation. This is done by providing uncommon resources, access to new individuals or collaborative processes. Knowledge creation is always a bonus for the company, with the exception of time wasting activities.
- Knowledge Capture
This is the capture of knowledge for the use of team members and new hires. This is often seen as the primary goal of KM. In the KMS context this would be data captured from employees for future use. KMSs are normally judged on the ability capture new knowledge.
- Knowledge Transfer
This is the use of knowledge for team members and new hires. By retaining knowledge in a technical system, it puts less pressure on existing employees to mentor each new arrival. While the system could never replace an employee, it does provide a valuable starting point or reference structure to bridge knowledge levels. These benefits are the easiest to quantify: employee performance, training time, problem solution times, etc.
It is important to note that a KMS by itself is not a KM strategy!
What success looks like:
A successful KMS will operate in the background of employee focused processes and will support the KM strategies being used. For example, take a project team that uses a corporate (team level) blog with a document management system. The knowledge management (KM) strategies used are weekly knowledge cafes, outsider inputs, role reversals and promoting a sharing culture.
(See the strategies of KM section for more details)
As the team progresses through the project and completes the above KM activities, they can update and create new entries for the blog, while adding new documentation and master templates for future use.
While these team processes help create, capture and transfer knowledge, the KMS provides central documentation for team members and outside entities. This simple KMS will know allow the sharing of knowledge through quantified information and resources. The advantages of this example will be seen in knowledge retention rates, the training of new employees, management oversight and the sharing of knowledge among other project teams.
When a KMS fails, it rarely has anything to do with its technical operation. This means that the technology itself functionally operates but fails to satisfy its purpose to help the capture, transfer and creation of knowledge. A KMS will be at risk of failure from a range of reasons, lets explore this by using the example of a lessons learned database. These failure points include:
- Low user involvement
Even the best KMS system will be considered a failure if no one uses it! This will be tied to a lack of employee incentives, poor user experiences or a perceived lack of value in its use.
- Ineffective knowledge capture processes
This may occur when employees are required to write down lessons learned at the end of a project. This may sound useful but in long-term projects, team members may have either forgotten the details of key lessons or lack the incentives to write meaningful explanations to the context of this lesson.
- Incorrect usage of the KMS
This is often the problem when the designers or project champions of a KMS fail to adequately explain the purpose of a KMS and is the used in alternate ways. For a simple example, project members may only update the database with soft skills learnt when management wanted new technical lessons learnt.
A KMS can exist in multiple forms but is generally referred to as the technical system that supports KM strategies. Due to the vagueness and poorly understood definitions of KM, managers can see the benefits of KM but don’t know how to achieve them. This normally presents itself when a manager invests in a KMS but does not know how to deploy it properly. Without employee focused strategies, the KMS will be under used and will likely fail.
As you can see from above, a KMS can fail for a large number of reasons before you even get to the technical side. The KMS is not the primary actor in Knowledge Management (KM), it supports the key strategies and if done right, it can benefit the company immensely.