Knowledge systems are fickle beasts. They're often implemented as smooth-running projects and accepted with "no exceptions". But they never really fulfill the promise which motivated the investment in them in the first place. In the beginning, users hesitate to use them, preferring to look for answers to their business questions in the old ways they're accustomed to. Later, as it becomes clearer that the system is not being used, the information provided by it becomes increasingly obsolete. This in turn means that the system is used even less. Until eventually it becomes redundant.
So why's this happening? The chief reason is because, all too often, the knowledge system's introduction is managed as a classical IT project. When in reality what is really being introduced is a change in people's work style.
The goal of a knowledge system is to unlock a company's information - information about its reports, about data and about the terms that are used there. Such a system lives and dies on the intensity of its use. If it isn't used, it becomes obsolete. If it is, it thrives. When it thrives it leads to more information than was ever originally planned being unlocked. So if we want to avoid the situation we described at the start and not waste our money, we need to attract as many users as possible.
A sufficiency of useful content
This has clear implications for the knowledge system's introduction project: most of all it means that the system must be launched with sufficiently interesting content that provides answers to an adequate number of business questions. There are a few examples in the following description:
Type of information:
Benefit: Reports reveal how successful an organisation really is.
Who should be invited: People from business departments requesting reports.
Benefit: The business dictionary should contain an understandable explanation of the logical and conceptual work model that the company follows.
Who should be invited: Data and process analysts, BI and enterprise architects.
The Metadata of the data structures
Benefit: The data dictionary should contain a description of the data-structure's metadata. The data dictionary shows a company's reporting potential and with it, we can determine whether, with the existing data, we are able to prepare a report that answers a new business question.
Who should be invited: Data analysts, BI architects
Benefit: Furthermore we need a space where we can place any kind of unstructured information - it could be a note about your competitors, an innovative idea, a notification on a legal issue influencing the business etc.
Who should be invited: Anybody from the business or BI departments who likes to innovate and is interested in a collaborative knowledge platform.
Insufficient content leading to the project's failure
When the project's acceptance criteria is focused only on the technological functioning of the system. When the newly-launched system provides only a few sample reports and term descriptions and business users cannot get answers to any useful business questions from them. When there's no real road map for further development of the system's content and no plan to allocate the people and time needed to develop one. All of these factors contribute to a system not being "taken up" by the users.
The participation of the necessary people
The relevant people have to participate if we want to put interesting and sufficiently-rich content into the knowledge system. These people are needed both during the project as well as after its completion during the system's operation. Examples are shown in the 3rd column of the table above. Attracting the right people requires skills in both searching for champions and gaining the necessary political support.
Political support: this is a vital factor. The active participation of a sponsor is crucial. The sponsor must be active not only during the project but during the operation as well. It is the sponsor who has to explain to the managers of the business departments the benefits of the culture change. It is the sponsor who drives the internal marketing related to the new knowledge system.
Champions: if there is sufficient political support, it's important to find people willing to introduce and adopt the new system and do it with initiative, creativity and energy - putting in more work than required. There are such people in every workplace. Often these people are the most difficult to convince that the project is meaningful, but when they are on your side, they show unexpectedly good results which are a great example for others.
The project has to identify the company processes which are related to the business knowledge being handled and has to deliver a relevant change to these processes. Another key success factor is adequate time allocation for the people responsible for initial content delivery. We have good experience with "hands-on" training sessions that include scheduled time for working on the system's real business content. Usually the trainees start creating real system content during the workshop sessions, completing it later on when training has finished. It's important that these people have the time to complete their initial content immediately after training finishes. Otherwise they forget what they've learned. The supplier of the knowledge system has to monitor their work on the initial content and provide immediate support if any problems arise.
When the necessary people aren't recruited
If the project runs without any cooperation with the business departments it's providing new services for, only technical people from BI / IT will participate. The result, a system that doesn't address the concerns and needs of business users, isn't written in their language and ultimately excludes them. If the political support isn't there, the required change to the company's work processes won't be part of the project's criteria or even within its scope and there won't be sufficient or clearly planned time allocations for the system's operation.
Internal marketing is crucial
The most important milestone for the project is its business launch. The sponsor of the system should organise a Steve Jobs style presentation for the key users. These users shouldn't be seeing the system for the first time. In fact they should be able to see the ideas and requirements that they've proposed during their initial participation and training sessions.
The system must become familiar to everyone in the company and internal marketing must maintain this. The business launch has to be accompanied by a blog published on the company intranet. Similar blogs promoting interesting new content need to be published several times a year while the system's in operation. The sponsor should meet with representatives of key business users (ideally, once every quarter) and gather their feedback (what is good, what is missing etc.). Communication is everything.
Internal marketing - how not to do it
When there is no "big-time event" business launch, only the formal acceptance of the project, people in the company won't know about the project or even that a knowledge system has been set up and is ready to serve out information. If the sponsor loses touch with the system after project launch, he'll have no idea how to develop it further. If he doesn't speak about it with other top-managers he won't know how to use the system to support their business targets. And finally, with no links between the system and the company intranet and no blogs there, the knowledge system will soon fade from the company consciousness until it's forgotten by everyone but IT/BI and the accounts department who are trying to rationalise its cost.
Yes, a knowledge system can be a waste of money and resources. But this isn't because of the nature of the system itself. Rather it's because of the way it's been introduced. If instead of running it as a traditional IT project, a focus is placed on encouraging people to change their work style, knowledge systems can not only be successful but they can thrive and return their investment many times over. I've outlined some of the lessons we've learnt over the years from successfully implementing Ency, in this blog, if you'd like to find out more about these ideas or ask a different question, drop me an email or comment this blog.