Knowledge management is the glue that holds organisations together. It’s a critical function of any workplace: how you capture the collective knowledge of individuals so that future generations of staff can continue to derive value from investments made throughout the years.
Our increasingly digital landscape makes finding and recalling information easier, but not without the right systems and governance behind it.
Stephen Bounds, Director of KnowQuestion, has over 17 years’ experience in information and knowledge management. He helps organisations solve problems that lose them time, money and productivity. In this interview, Stephen shares his insights on knowledge management, and how technology can help or hinder us.
Natassja: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today, Stephen! First, could you tell us a bit about you and your background?
Stephen: I’ve always been fascinated by the role that technology plays in helping people be more productive. One of the things I noticed early in my career was that we have a tendency to let technology drive people, rather than let people be in charge of technology. I wanted to learn more about the relationship between technology and the way that organisations ran effectively.
My passion is in making people’s work more productive, more pleasant and less frustrating. I always look for ways to make people feel empowered by the work they do - that they’re not just tools in the machine, but are valued and can contribute in their area of expertise.
After working in the public service for about 10 years I had developed a fairly unique blend of expertise in “pure” IT as well as recordkeeping and knowledge management. With people from other government agencies contacting me regularly for advice, I saw the opportunity to take up consulting work, particularly given the Federal Government’s push to adopt digital recordkeeping. After talking with some potential clients I made the leap to found KnowQuestion, which I’ve been running now for about four years.
How do you work with organisations at KnowQuestion?
Our company motto is that ‘we join the dots’. KnowQuestion sits at the intersection between people, process, governance and technology. We help people find practical solutions by bringing together the right parties and acting as a kind of translator and arbitrator.
For example, it’s often difficult for record keepers to explain their governance imperatives which impact on business and vice-versa. Similarly, the practical implications of a particular technology choice are not always easy to explain to a non-technical person.
We are an end-to-end solution provider, which means we also do hands-on implementation of technology solutions where our clients may not have in-house specialist skills.
What is knowledge management all about?
At a high level, knowledge management is a multi-disciplinary approach that supports better decision-making within organisations. By “decision-making”, I mean practises like taking the correct approach delivering services to clients, being able to handle unexpected situations, having timely access to current, accurate & complete information, and the ability to identify and solve problems.
It can sometimes be grouped with information management, which relates to organising, managing and sharing written or other content. In fact, you can’t often separate them because you need information to make the decisions, and then decisions generate new information. That’s why we tend to deal with them as a whole.
What are some common knowledge management problems you see in organisations?
One of the biggest problems I see is that businesses reward staff behaviour with a short-term focus. A classic example is to skimp on process documentation. Since the documentation is only needed once the staff who first set up the process move on to other roles, it's easy to defer it and move on to the next "urgent" task. A related issue is adopting a technology-focused solution without thinking about the longer term systemic implications of the change.
Another common problem comes from information silos - systems that hold important information which no-one else can access. Silos can develop when a single corner of an organisation implements a system that no one else can access. This causes decision-making errors because no one knows what’s going on in that part of the organisation. The mistakes, rework, and duplication caused by silos can be very costly.
How can organisations improve their knowledge management?
At the end of the day, organisations can only be effective if they agree on what’s important. All too often decisions on which projects get priority are made in isolation, not from a holistic perspective. This can generate substantial conflicts in resourcing and desired outcomes, as well as frustration, resentment, and confusion. Good decision governance and communication of the principles, strategies and values that are driving an organisation forward are essential to identifying and understanding problematic business processes that are in need of attention.
I often talk about priorities in terms of a top five, or top three. I ask people: “what are the top three things the organisation should be doing next, to make things better? Would everyone agree that is what we should be focusing on?”
In many organisations, adopting a big picture approach like this can be a political and cultural challenge. The core assumption of traditional, hierarchical organisations is that work can be effectively delegated into individual, independent areas. But systems theory now tells us that people are far more interrelated and dependent on each other than has been previously thought.
What do you see as the role of technology in helping organisations manage their knowledge and information?
Whenever I deal with organisations, I always think in terms of systems, which are a combination of the people involved and the technology they use. Today, when we think of technology, we tend to think of computers, but technology is really any device that helps us do our work better. Paper was once a revolutionary technology.
Technology shapes what’s possible. There is probably no more powerful tool in changing organisational behaviour than technology. But it needs to be treated with respect. People need to understand its impact and they need to understand both the positive and negative impacts of deploying new technology.
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