The Psychology of Quality and More

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How Knowledge Management Systems Fail and Succeed

~ David Straker ~


-- How knowledge systems fail -- How knowledge systems succeed --

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A knowledge system has the purpose of providing knowledge for all people in the business who need it, in the appropriate format (where possible) and accessible with reasonable ease. Many knowledge systems fail, particularly in environments where knowledge is power. With care, a knowledge system can be optimally effective in delivering and building the company’s knowledge and brand.

How knowledge systems fail

Knowledge management systems have a reputation for costing a lot to set up, running into difficulties when trying to get everyone to contribute and ending up with a great deal of information that is inconsistent and irrelevant for most of its users.

IT overkill

A common mistake that is made is to think first of the technology rather than the users. IT experts understand the technical possibilities and push for a complete database system with detailed indexing that can fulfil complex searches. This carefully-specified system then takes significant time and effort to develop and, later, to maintain.

When its users only want a simple system and do not have the time to learn how to use it fully then such systems are liable to fall into disuse. Where they do work is where frequent searches of massive amounts of data are required, such as in call centres or pharmaceutical research labs.

In many environments, although there can be moderate amounts of information used, it may not warrant complex databases. The reference frequency is also likely to be low and high complexity could well be seen as an irrelevance.

Low benefit to suppliers

The value of knowledge systems is in the knowledge they contain and the time, effort and expense they can save for their users. This knowledge has to come from somewhere, which means at least somewhere along the line people have to become involved. This work can be significant as it may include writing down what is currently only in their minds, formatting it into a state where it is useful to others and inputting it into the system.

The question must consequently be asked: why will people do all of this work? They may be busy (and people with useful knowledge often are). They may find writing and inputting tedious and unsatisfying work. They may feel they are ‘giving away the shop’, deskilling their job and reducing their employability or potential to earn higher wages.

Experts, in particular, live and die on what they know. Where knowledge is power, to give freely what you know to others can seem like professional suicide. It may also be work that is rewarded relatively poorly and can lead to people following up and asking you for further information.

Low benefit to customers

If I go to a knowledge system (as a 'customer' of that system) looking for information on a subject, I can have a number of experiences that will dissuade me from ever wanting to return.

First, the ‘IT experience’ may in itself be uncomfortable. If I am unfamiliar with the interface and especially if it is not intuitively easy, then I may not find the useful information that is actually there. Also related to IT is the problem of having to wait for material to download and open, only to find that it is not what I really wanted.

The quality of information can also be a turn-off. If the first item I open is unexpectedly scrappy then I not look further. Quality includes both content and presentation. If I am developing a presentation then quality may mean knowledge gems and ‘aha’s that will make my audience sit up and think. If I am selling services it may mean a slick presentation on the strengths of the company.

Knowledge customer needs vary and can be specialised. Some needs are for demonstrating capability whilst others are for saving time in development of presentation materials. Focusing on just one of these may satisfy some people but will result in others calling into question the value of the knowledge system.

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