Applying Knowledge Management: Experiences from the field

During ancient times in Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks were responsible for education. The “pirivenas” or Buddhist temples were the place youngsters had to go to in order to access knowledge. However some monks were called “guru mushtiyas” and this meant that they hoarded their knowledge and only revealed certain things to the rest in order to not to lose power. They only shared all their knowledge before passing away and this was done to just one person of their choice.


This form of knowledge retention has existed for many years and still permeates many modern societies. The “guru mushtiya” effect is also a problem for organizations here in Sri Lanka, where people still believe that their knowledge is unique and by transferring it to the rest they are most likely to give up their personal competitive advantage.

This is just one of the many things I learned yesterday when I got the chance to make a presentation to a group of HR professionals belonging to the Hotel Division of the Aitken and Spence Corporation, one of the largest in Sri Lanka.

No KM strategy has being developed by them yet, although some sort of action has been taken in order to reduce the impact of knowledge loss due to experts leaving the organization when they reach retirement age. Also, one of their major concerns is to tap into specific job knowledge in order to transfer it to the rest.

The interesting thing is that we actually managed to get to the point where we could classify the levels of knowledge available in the company. There is a business oriented knowledge which is more technical in nature and is required by project team members who are responsible for hotel design, construction and development and so on. There is also another level of knowledge which is by nature more soft, since it’s the type of knowledge that hotel staff must gain in order to “keep guests happy”. Nurturing the relationship with the client and providing him with a unique guest experience is very important in order guarantee satisfaction.

The way knowledge has to be transferred in both levels differs since there are different types of professionals involved. Normally, hotel staff may include young people who have not even completed a certain level of higher studies and do not always have permanent access to technology. So they are most likely to react positively to less formal teaching methods and forms of knowledge transfer. However, technical staff which ranges from project managers, engineers, architects and other similar specialties requires a different structure with formal processes such as lessons learned, discussion forums, etc.

Here are some of the questions we discussed during the work session. Each one reveals some general aspects regarding KM development and tips in order to make the strategy more successful.

-What can be done in order to reduce the “guru mushtiya” effect in the organization?

 First of all we have to understand that KM is a formal strategy that requires certain procedures, actions and measures in order to be successful.  In this sense we have to deploy mechanisms such as performance management and give people specific objectives related to KM. Thus we will not only evaluate them for their technical achievements but also for their contribution to the KM strategy. This way before someone scales up to another position or is given a salary raise he must have contributed in some way in strengthening the knowledge culture.

This is not by any means a harsh mechanism. It is just a way of telling people that “in this organization things are done differently” and that the “knowledge agenda” is taken very seriously.  In fact when we identify critical knowledge and visualize “who knows what” the next steps that follow consider how to capture critical knowledge. In this sense, experts must undertake some form of knowledge transfer.  Responsibility for doing so must be given to the business unit managers, otherwise who will be held accountable for getting it done? Knowledge Managers are merely facilitators. They are not resource owners and must coordinate activities with each business manager.

Apart from this, we have to work on nurturing culture since it will not shape itself. Culture requires time and senior leadership commitment. Communicating value is also very important in order for people to understand what is expected of them.

-Are talent management and knowledge management similar or are they two entirely different strategies?

They are different strategies. First of all, it is necessary to differentiate between knowledge and talent. For me, talent is a learning path. When we speak of talented people, we refer to the moment in which certain knowledge and skills have been developed by a particular person and put into practice in such a manner that he stands out from out the rest. Thus, talent management looks to create a personalized learning path in which individuals have to access certain knowledge and information in order to learn and take into practice the acquired knowledge.  On the other hand, KM looks to make individual knowledge a renewable source of action which can be applied by any person who requires it.

The methods applied are different but some sort of bridge must exist between KM and talent. This is because KM can help the talent department understand just what kind of talent is required for the organization to achieve high levels of performance. KM has a clear understanding of the critical knowledge required and talent programs must be aligned to this.  Besides, KM is responsible for various activities in which knowledge is shared. Therefore any talent program must give priority to these activities which will benefit the general outcome of the program.

-When knowledge is registered and transferred to the rest of the organization, people might just become accustomed to receiving knowledge and simply avoid developing new knowledge. How can this particular situation be avoided?

This is in fact a very interesting question. It has to do a lot with culture and also with the way processes/projects are handled within the organization. KM looks to facilitate work by allowing teams to avoid pitfalls (learn from past mistakes) and act upon valuable experiences in order not to spend time reinventing the wheel. However, just as we expect teams to reuse the registered knowledge we also expect them to think outside the box and innovate in order to generate value. For example, if a new project is starting the project manager must be held accountable for assuring that his team revises the lessons learned and other content which may be available to them. This can be included as part of his evaluation, but it is also just as important that his performance considers aspects such as new methods or processes that were designed or improved upon in order to secure client satisfaction. Of course, they must be registered as well.

From the cultural perspective I would just like to add a few comments. In past days knowledge wasn’t so readily available. Some senior employees have grown up in societies where access to knowledge was restricted and in order to gain it you had to go a step further. Nowadays, this isn’t the problem. In fact there is so much information out there that we don’t know how to get to it. Young professionals are often characterized for their abusive use of Google and Wikipedia but finally what we have to understand is that if we have access to certain tools that facilitate information recovery then we must take advantage of them.

Now if we only rely on the first result that pops up on google and copy-paste everything we find on Wikipedia, then we have a problem. Some learning assimilation must take place and young professionals must be made aware of it.

I remember when one of the engineers I work with told me that it was a stupid thing that someone would post such an elementary question (he was referring to a question that was posted in one of our discussion forums). He was so angry and I thought for a moment that he will go up to that person and blast him in front of everyone. I told him that maybe for such an experienced professional, questions of that nature can seem elementary, but there is someone out there who has a problem and who is willing to publicly post it instead of relying on email , asking the person sited next to him  or applying any other method which will only contribute in making knowledge invisible. To this he responded: “in my days we had to go to the library, sit for hours and study. Nowadays people want to be spoon fed”.

So there are various cultural aspects that we have to understand in order to develop a learning culture. I think people have the wrong conception when they think that when someone asks something they just want to be spoon fed. I seriously believe that by helping someone, at least referring them to a book or article is sometimes enough. You cannot imagine the amount of time people waste just searching for information when they don’t have access to it. If we consider it in terms of money we can really understand how it affects the organization. So instead of having people look for solutions in Google let’s start doing things right and develop a culture of tolerance (important for baby boomers).

-How are values connected to Knowledge Management?

Values define culture. As children we are taught values by our parents and they become the essence of our behavior. That’s why if a teenager stays late at a party and comes home after having  a few drinks he feels bad because he knows how his parents will react to that. Unconsciously he knows he has gone against certain things that define his family. In the same manner organizations expect people to behave and act according to certain values which will determine culture and performance.

According to this, organizations must identify and define no more than five values based on what it needs to accomplish. Simple definitions should be developed so that everyone can easily understand them.

Ethical aspects are just one of the things that should be considered. Other aspect such as innovation, team work and knowledge can also form part of the values. This is when KM is linked to the organizational values and whenever someone joins the organization he must be explained what the values are. Thus he will start to perceive KM as something which is extremely important for the organization and not just a light bulb moment where someone woke up and said: “Hey, let’s start sharing knowledge!”

The important to thing is to show how values are brought to life so that people don’t just consider them as some unreachable philosophy. Teams can be asked to develop various activities to show how they are applying values in their daily work and you can be even go a step further and ask projects members to choose one value and demonstrate how they have applied in their project. It can form part of the internal brief. From time to time you can place emphasis on certain values and when you reach the value that considers KM make sure everyone gets to hear it.

-Considering that knowledge is valuable for any organization, should security measures be applied in order to protect it? should access be restricted to certain groups or members? If so, isn’t it contradictory in terms of what Knowledge Management looks for?

Knowledge is indeed a source of competitive advantage and organizations must take certain steps in order to protect it. There will always be certain knowledge that can be made available to all but I believe there is a type of knowledge that cannot be distributed in the same manner. When critical knowledge is identified, the parties that require it are also defined. Thus part of the work that must be realized is to understand the particular segments of the organization that should have access to a certain type of knowledge. I don’t believe this is contradictory to what KM stands for. I seriously believe that just as KM seeks to develop knowledge it also must take the necessary steps in order to protect it.

In some ways it is impossible to protect all knowledge, since it resides in people’s heads.  We cannot wipe out the memory (reminds me of the device used by the Men in Black) of any member who leaves the organization. He will take some knowledge with him and this is a natural thing. Nevertheless I think it is important to take some measures to reduce knowledge loss

-When we speak of learning organizations, are we referring to Knowledge Management as well? Or is it a different thing?

Peter Senge, the father of learning organizations, may have not used the term Knowledge Management to describe some of the mechanisms which we can apply in order to steer forward a culture of permanent learning and innovation. However both terms are closely connected and I strongly believe that the concept of a learning organization defines perfectly what is known as “KM driven culture”.

Which technology can be applied in order to connect people, considering the size of many modern organizations and the fact that workers may be located in various places?

Corporate intranets are a good place to start. They can be linked to some KM tools such as discussion forums, lesson learned databases, virtual meeting rooms, etc. For example software such as Adobe Connect and Brigit allow people to connect in real time and share knowledge with one another (including from any device).  However technology only supports KM and should not be focused as a technology-based solution. Also social network type platforms are becoming quite popular, especially amongst young professionals. In some ways, it reflects their current communication styles and tends to generate more interaction. However, you need someone to oversee activity in order to steer conversations towards business goals and avoid getting caught with an uncontrollable social grapevine.

Can training also benefit from KM?

When you have a clear idea of the critical knowledge required you can turn to training as a form of knowledge acquisition method. This way you are also securing investment and employees who receive training must come back and share what they have learned with others. KM methods will help to steer forward the process.

-What other aspects must be considered when developing Knowledge Management?

-Knowledge Management must be made part of each business manager’s objectives. Thus secure senior leadership buy in first and make sure everyone understands what KM is all about.

-Knowledge sharing is a competency which must be taught to people. Not everyone is an expert TED speaker and even the most senior experts may have trouble when they have to share their knowledge. KM must help them overcome this.

-All KM process must be documented. Otherwise when we try to implement processes such as lessons learned people don’t know who is responsible for it, some may even do it their own way and finally nothing is captured. So take time to formalize procedures in order to institutionalize the practice of KM. Of course this will not guarantee that they are accomplished. For this we must turn to other areas of the organization in order to audit processes.

-Values and Culture are top priority.

-Recognize participation and award employees for their efforts.

-Communicate value. Make KM a brand which everyone wants to be a part of.

-Develop KPI’s related to business objectives.



With the HR team of Aitken & Spence- Hotel Division

©Jose Carlos Tenorio Favero

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