Too much data, too little insight

Ah yes, that familiar sinking feeling. Ed sits at his desk, watching his inbox flood with messages about a new project he’s working on. He opens one from his manager; ‘We ran a project like that a few years ago I think, you should take a look at it’, she innocently remarks. Unfortunately, these well-intentioned words of wisdom have devastating effects. It results in what can only be described as an inner stress explosion as the volcano of frustration and tech-based anguish begins to bubble. In extreme cases, this volcano can erupt, manifesting itself in an insatiable urge to bang his head against his desk, (causing injury and eventual embarrassment). Poor Ed.

Well, that escalated quickly. Unfortunately, this is the reality facing employees. Organisations aren’t short of data, that’s for sure, but the lack of curation means that finding practical and applicable insights at work is nigh on impossible. The above scenario highlights the twofold problem posed by knowledge management. The labyrinthine antiquated systems we use to manage organisational knowledge are themselves a source of anxiety. People’s anger and frustration at having to use them has become so embedded that it now appears to be another. It becomes a second battle to get employees, for whom everything is so immediate, to travel back in time and use one of these systems.

What is a knowledge management system?

A knowledge management IT system is designed to archive the data and information your organisation holds and present it employees in a way that makes it easy to access and apply in their working lives. Intranets, wikis and enterprise social networks are all forms of knowledge management system.

In its ‘Predictions for 2014’ report, Bersin singled out the need to improve ‘knowledge contribution’ and ‘extend learning architecture’ as important steps companies can take to improve performance. Saffron ran a survey to find out more about exactly what’s going on.

We asked a random selection of workers across all sectors to complete a survey about knowledge management at their organisations. We found that 85% of employees regularly go to Google instead of using their organisation’s KMS (knowledge management system). In fact, just 30% of respondents regularly use their organisation’s KMS. Employees are driven into the arms of Google, endangering the competitive advantage that should come from leveraging your own proprietary insights, rather than relying on commoditised information available on the wider internet.

Let’s go back to our panicking employee. To stop Ed from reaching for the easiest (and most commoditised search tool in sight, your own search facility must be up to the job. It needs to be comprehensive and predictive. It needs to take the user’s requirements and direct them towards the most relevant information available, or, as the case may be, the employee who will be able to help them.

If your search is able to offer users information about resources they ‘might find useful’ because other colleagues in similar situations did, you can create a knowledge base within your own organisation, rather than relying on Google. Remember that using a large number of fields to refine a search is an antiquated and lengthy process that will only leave stressed-out Ed feeling worse than ever. Being able to offer Ed information he didn’t even know he needed gives your organisation a competitive edge: our employee, initially researching one particular project, will be directed towards another, perhaps a more relevant one that his colleague hadn’t told him about.

So, let’s imagine that Ed had been able to find out about a project that looks relevant to the one he’s just started to work on. But he wants to know more. A search engine is a great way in, but once Ed’s been directed towards the information he needs to know, he might need to speak to a relevant colleague who can help transfer this knowledge into a change in behaviour – it is this that truly marks the progression from passive data, to actionable insights that will improve business practice.

For some users, who are perhaps used to using LinkedIn to find out about colleague’s area of expertise, a profile page will provide an opportunity to showcase their expertise in certain areas. It will also enable their colleagues to search for competencies and capabilities within their own organisations. Profiles enable Ed to connect with Helga, who is based thousands of miles away, but has previously worked on the similar project. She’ll be able to provide Ed all the advice he needs with regard to dealing with the client, and improve his approach towards project management.

In return, Ed can endorse her and recommend her to colleagues. When I spoke to a particularly cynical management consultant about the idea of profile pages, she pointed out that employees will try to ‘protect what they know’ as ‘this is what gives them value in an organisation’. But the nature of these profile pages discourages such protectionist attitudes. Users will be encouraged to add as much as they can to their profile pages. Their reward is that they will be known as the ‘go-to’ in their organisation for a particular area.

Helga wins because her expertise within the organisation is acknowledged, Ed wins because he knows what to when working on this project and the organisation wins because they insight has been shared, rather than being limited to a single employee. They’ve managed to run a successful project because of it.

I realise that this is a rather idealistic picture, and whilst we’ve been idly fantasising about a world in which insight is just a few clicks and a friendly colleague away, poor Ed has been having visions of trawling through reams of data. The reality remains that quite frankly, some senior stakeholders are reluctant to invest in something as woolly sounding as ‘knowledge management’.

After all, knowledge is something immaterial; it can’t be quantified. In order to get buy-in from senior stakeholders, it’s essential the financial implications of poor knowledge management are made clear. Anne Hylton points out in her article ‘The Business Case for Knowledge Management’ that the Y2K crisis (which cost businesses an estimated $1 billion) is a prime example of this. Insights are missed so frequently that it’s a case of not knowing what you’re missing out on. This is far harder to make a business case for than say, the material need for new computers. But when it’s done correctly, a good knowledge management system will provide a sound basis for innovation and tap into revenue streams you may not have known existed. Untapped revenue, and a better ability to cope with disruptive technological changes, are what makes effective knowledge management a worthwhile investment.

But to prove this, it might be necessary to make some small adjustments to your knowledge management system before making a big leap. There are a number of changes you can pilot within your organisation to improve knowledge management. Curation on a user-by-user basis is one key factor. Rather than wading through seemingly endless amounts of data, investment in curation can go a long way. Getting contributors to enter a few simple details (name, date, department) alongside their posts will contextualise information and enable users to immediately gauge how useful it is to them.

Another feature to include would be a rating system. If you leave users to rate their own content you may find that insights will emerge organically as people begin to select the information they find most useful. These won’t seem like overwhelming tasks for Ed to perform and slowly but surely, insights will emerge if information is contextualised in a way that makes it easy to action.

Nearly everyone agrees that knowledge management is becoming a problem – 85% of our survey respondents agreed that their knowledge management systems needed to be improved. But, just like making the leap from data to insight, moving from this passive state of mind to a proactive approach towards knowledge management is not something that can necessarily happen overnight.

Crucially, our research showed that the most popular reason for non-contribution to knowledge management systems was that people simply didn’t think their colleagues would bother to look at their contributions- 40% of respondents felt this way. Whilst the terrible user interfaces certainly don’t help, when it comes to knowledge management, the war of hearts and minds is one that simply cannot be ignored.

Transforming your ‘users’ in to ‘collaborators’ is something that can only really be achieved through giving users a sense of ownership in their system – encouraging curation, profile building and easy access to information. Ed needs to realise that knowledge management has the power to help, rather than hinder his efforts. The very notion of knowledge management needn’t have such dramatic effects on the employees it’s trying to help. If it does, you’re not doing it right.

To start making a change, take a look at this recent blog post for seven quick tips to improve knowledge management at your organisation here.

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Ruth Neligan

Ruth is a learning technologies consultant at Saffron Interactive. Passionate about knowledge management, gamification and learning engagement, she’s always looking to use social media to spark a debate about all things learning and performance related!

Ruth has experience working alongside clients to establish what Saffron’s behaviour-changing interventions can do for them. Responsible for managing Saffron’s blog, Insight articles and newsletters, her role at Saffron is to stay ahead of the trends so that your organisation can do the same.