7 Reasons Why Knowledge Management Fails

8 min read
About the Author
Ben Little
Ben Little

Ben remains focused on the future of knowledge management and guides the company centered on the intersection of humans, knowledge, and technology. Empowerment and accountability are essential to how Ben builds companies. He knows and values the compounding effect of incremental, continuous improvements.

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    Want to hear a scary story? 70 percent of digital transformation initiatives fall short of their goals, according to research from the Boston Consulting Group.

    If one of your digital transformation goals for the year is to launch a new knowledge management system, you certainly don’t want to fall into that 70 percent. But how do you overcome the odds and ensure that any knowledge management technology you introduce is a long-term success?

    Before you implement new technology, it’s important to understand some of the most common reasons why knowledge management fails. One theme you’ll find across all the reasons is that a failure to adapt processes and culture can cause a failure of the overall initiative.

    Let’s take a look at seven deadly sins that cause knowledge management initiatives to fail—and how you can avoid committing them. 

    Weak Implementation

    Imagine that you open your inbox one morning to find an email inviting you to use a new platform. You remember hearing your manager or other leadership team members mention that they would be rolling this platform out soon, but they haven’t shared any other information. 

    How likely would you be to jump right into this platform and make it a part of your regular workflow? If you’re like most people, then the answer is “not very likely.” A lack of effective communication and implementation is a surefire way to set new technology up for failure. In fact, 63 percent of managers believe that their organization’s pace of technological change is too slow due to “lack of urgency” and poor communication.

    When preparing to roll out a new knowledge management system, it’s important to have a strategy for your launch and communications to end users. Companies that are most successful with knowledge management systems spend time making sure 90 percent of the content is uploaded and organized before their end users can even access the system. They also dedicate time to training employees on the system and making sure they understand how the technology will benefit their work. 

    Poor Onboarding 

    A lackluster implementation and poor onboarding experience often go hand in hand. Giving employees tools without guidance sets the tone for a system that may not make it off the ground and certainly won’t be sustainable over time. Even when technology is user-friendly, there will be some employees who want to receive training and see the product demonstrated before they feel comfortable using it.

    Make sure you’re planning training sessions at launch and when new features become available in your knowledge management platform. It can be valuable to find a knowledge management platform vendor who will partner with you through the onboarding process and ongoing training. As an expert in knowledge management best practices (and their product), they can help ensure employees feel comfortable in the platform and are getting the maximum value out of it.

    Lack of Executive Buy-In 

    If company leaders aren’t bought into a new knowledge management initiative, then why should employees be? A “do as I say, not as I do” approach isn’t going to cut it here: all team and department leaders need to be champions of the new system and encourage employees to use it during implementation and after. 

    One good way to make sure you have executive buy-in early on is to make sure you include an executive champion when evaluating, purchasing, and setting up your new knowledge management system. This champion should be someone who recognizes the value of this system and can demonstrate its value to other executives and their own team.

    You should also encourage your executive champion (and other leadership team members) to engage with your knowledge management platform so that other team members get comfortable doing the same. For example, you might ask a member of the leadership team to record and publish a short video explaining their vision for the platform at launch and then have them publish a new update in the platform at least once a month. 

    No Cultural Buy-In 

    It’s no surprise that companies with a culture of knowledge sharing tend to use knowledge management systems more. On a more frustrating note, businesses that lack a knowledge sharing culture will have a harder time getting new knowledge management technology to stick.

    Using a knowledge management system needs to be built into the cultural foundation of the company. It must be routine for employees to use your knowledge management platform as part of their daily workflow.

    This starts by making it as easy as possible for employees to share knowledge. Establishing a sense of psychological safety, where people feel they can share knowledge and feedback without fear of negative repercussions, will help people feel more comfortable contributing and collaborating within and across teams. Providing positive incentives, such as shout outs or small quarterly prizes for valuable knowledge contributions, can also help strengthen a culture of knowledge sharing. 

    It’s also important to remember that change takes time, and people may need reminders. For example, if you launch a knowledge management platform but still have team members emailing or messaging you with one-off questions, you should encourage them to post the question in your knowledge management platform (if it hasn’t been answered yet) or share a link to a post in the platform that answers their question. This will help reinforce the idea that the knowledge management platform is your company’s single source of truth. 

    No Owner 

    Who owns your knowledge management system? Lack of clear ownership is one of the most common reasons why knowledge management fails. Typically, when businesses leave a responsibility to everyone, no one will be accountable for it, which is why an owner is important to the longevity of knowledge management.

    The owner (or owners, depending on the size of your organization and initiative) should monitor all new content and regularly review existing content to determine what needs to be archived or updated. They should also work with all department heads to confirm that nothing important is being left out. If the tool has analytics built in, it’s also valuable for the owner to review which individuals are not engaging as much. If necessary, the owner would see that those individuals receive more training or become re-engaged in some way. 

    Stale Content 

    If the content in your knowledge management platform becomes outdated and is no longer relevant, employees will slowly stop trusting that information–and will start shunning the platform as a result. Even a strong foundation established through your implementations can rapidly erode without ongoing maintenance. 

    Automated content scheduling and review reminders can be helpful for maintaining content. But just as you need an overall knowledge management platform owner, you also need owners of categories and content within the platform–and they need to clearly understand their responsibilities. You might consider assigning subject matter experts (SMEs) to monitor and contribute to specific categories and answer questions that correspond to their areas of expertise. You should also establish how often these SMEs are responsible for reviewing their owned content. This will help your organization keep content fresh so that the knowledge management platform remains a trusted resource.

    No KPIs and Measurement 

    It’s hard to know what you’re doing well–or not so well–if you haven’t defined what success looks like. If you don’t establish and track key performance indicators (KPIs) for your knowledge management initiative, you may fail to see opportunities to optimize the platform, and engagement may drop off over time.

    It’s important to choose metrics that align with your goals and track them over time so that you can determine whether you’re moving in the right direction or if you need to make changes to meet your goals. For example, if one of your goals involves reducing the average time employees spend searching for information, you might send out surveys before and after you launch your knowledge management platform asking employees to estimate how much time they spend looking for information every day. You could ask this question again at regular intervals (such as every quarter or every six months) to measure change over time. If you don’t see a reduction in time spent searching, this would likely indicate that you need to rethink your approach to knowledge management. If you do see a reduction, this will reinforce the value of your platform and help you get ongoing buy-in.

    Conclusion: The Relationship Between Technology, People, and Processes 

    As you can see, poor planning and lack of cultural change are some of the biggest reasons why knowledge management fails. Failure often has more to do with the people and processes surrounding the systems than the systems themselves. Before introducing any new technology, it’s essential to make sure you have a knowledge engagement strategy in place. Avoid the seven deadly sins above, and you can look forward to building a successful culture of knowledge engagement at your organization.

    This blog post was originally published in October 2015. It was updated and expanded in January 2022 to reflect new information and best practices.

    About the Author
    Ben Little
    Ben Little

    Ben remains focused on the future of knowledge management and guides the company centered on the intersection of humans, knowledge, and technology. Empowerment and accountability are essential to how Ben builds companies. He knows and values the compounding effect of incremental, continuous improvements.

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