Knowledge management field traditionally starts with this question "what is the most critical knowledge that must flow internally (amongst employees) in order to best serve our clients and to win more contracts?" Different businesses may have different answers, e.g. professional service firms tend to say "proposals, project experience, consultant's skills and CVs, methodologies, tools, and propriety software". Knowledge base and intranets have been built to allow these types of knowledge to flow across silos. On a non-technical side, approaches such as after action review, communities of practices, practitioner's newsletter come into the picture to get people to learn from one another. These approaches can well be applied to share knowledge with clients.
Some knowledge management professionals (like me) start to digress and also ask this question "what is the most critical knowledge that must be shared externally with our clients to build our brand?". This touches on the PR and external communications field. Typical critical knowledge include "information about a company, media tool kit, annual reports, company news, CSR report, case studies, client compliments, good stories about a company etc." To facilitate the knowledge flow with clients, these type of knowledge get published in printed brochures, e-newsletters and on company website. This is the point where external communicators and KM professionals share similiar interest in the use of communication tools/channels to communicate with their target audience. (Note: With the rise of social media tools, there is recognition from both fields that sharing this kind of one-way corporate-speak polished knowledge is not good enough to impress clients. Both KM and communications fields are learning to embed social media to transform their service offerings to allow two-way dialogue.)
And to push it even further, one can ask "what is the most critical knowledge that must be shared amongst our clients in order to deliver most value for them?" This touches on the new marketing and external communications approach which look at adding value to clients by creating customer-networking platform (I mean, both face-to-face event and online networking forum). Within the KM field, we have been building communities of practice (COP) for ages, and the COP toolkit can be well applied to faciliate client communities. I think Richard McDermont will back me up on this point.
From the marketing professionals' perspective, one of their required critical knowledge is "knowledge about customers and markets". This is typically translated into market research activities, including conducting interviews and focus groups with clients to gain insights from them. Increasingly, and defintiely in the KM field, there is recognition that the employees who deal with clients day-in day-out have most clients/market insights and should be tapped into. Some marketing professionals agree. (Note: With the rise of social media tools, and the abundance of information on the internet, there is also recognition that traditional market research needs to be supplemented by insights gain from online conversation and near real-time information published on the internet).
From the internal communicators’, HR or staff engagement professionals' perspective, critical knowledge is defined as "a set of core values or messages about company direction and leaders' vision" which should be shared with all staff. This group tend to be interested in using what they call internal communications channels (e.g. intranet, newsletter, town hall meetings, flyers, souvenirs) to distribute the core messages and to interact (or what they call “engage”) with staff so the core messages sink in. If you read between the lines, you will notice that internal communicators and KM professionals share similar interest in the choice of channels and communication approaches.
I think there is a lot the knowledge management field has to offer by working closely with (or blend in seamlessly) with the internal communications, staff engagement, external communications and marketing functions, as we share common channels, communication approaches to get our work done. We all struggle to move from one-way communciation to two-way communciation. We all want to break down silos. We all face similiar challenges to figure out ways to fully exploit social media tools to facilitate meaaningful dialogue and to create new business value.
So this leaves us with a question: what does this knowledge management function really look like? Will it take on internal and external communications and/or the marketing function? Will it be absorbed into internal and external communications and/or the marketing function?
Perhaps these are meaningless questions. To me, a KM function which adds business value look something like this:
- Able to spot what critical knowledge must be shared in order to add value to the business (and able to get senior executive buy-in to do something about it).
- Able to partner with the business functions - whether it is internal or external communications, marketing, HR (which generate the knowledge or need the critical knowledge to function) and do something to make the critical knowledge flow.
- Able to offer innovative approaches, processes, two-way communication practices, online tools, channels, systems to facilitate the flow of critical knowledge (both face-to-face and online). This is where the KM landscape changes quickly over time as we move from 1st generation, 2nd generation to 3rd generation KM from data mining, database design, information management, story telling, facilitation techniques, after action review, communities of practice, intranet design to Web2.0, Enterprise 2.0, social media.
- Able to switch from partnering with one business function to another based on evolving business needs (i.e. don’t get complacent and too comfortable, keep moving with the changing business needs). Therefore, you may swiftly move from partnering with marketing, to strategy development team, to HR, to internal communications/staff engagement team over a short period of time. (Isn’t this exciting?)
Now, you should see why it is so difficult to scope out the knowledge management function for a company before you get to know the company and understand what knowledge is critical to deliver its business goals. This is why every knowledge management function is unique to each company.