The rise of knowledge management as a field coincided with the rise of the internet. Businesses realized that they could use an internal subset of the internet— often an intranet or corporate wiki— to house documents and information that employees could access regardless of their geographic location.
In the early days of intranets, the primary focus was on documenting and preserving explicit knowledge (in other words, knowledge that is easy to write down, such as clearly defined policies and procedures). Early intranet software wasn’t known for being user-friendly, and it typically required the IT department to hard code any changes (which meant it could take days or weeks to update the company intranet).
Many traditional intranets use a folder structure to organize information. For example, there could be different folders for different departments of a company, with additional sub-folders nested underneath. The downside of this is that it can be difficult to find what you’re looking for if you don’t know the information hierarchy or labeling system that was used to set up the intranet. Think of it like trying to find a baking dish in a friend’s house: you may waste time opening a lot of cabinets before you find what you’re looking for.
Some traditional intranets and wikis do have search functionality, but a lot of the time, that search only works for the file names and manually applied tags of documents in the system— not the content that exists within each file. If someone doesn’t know the exact name of the file they’re looking for, they’re unlikely to find it through a keyword search.
In the past decade, several categories of software have emerged to support the sharing of documents and information. The goal for many companies is to have one knowledge base for the entire company, but in reality, information often ends up becoming siloed within different platforms.
For example, companies may use file storage platforms like Google Drive, Box, and Dropbox to store shared documents in the cloud so employees can access them when and where they need them, but different teams may create their own siloed drives. Chat platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow users to communicate in the flow of work and share information in real time, but that information often becomes buried in long threads or is limited to one-to-one conversations.
The more solutions a company adopts, the more places employees have to store information— and the more challenging it becomes to make sure everyone has access to the information they need.
Why Traditional Knowledge Management Software Falls Short
With the sheer volume of information available to us continuing to grow, employees changing jobs an average of 12 times over the course of their careers, and information workers becoming more geographically dispersed, traditional knowledge management software just doesn’t cut it anymore. Below are four of the key reasons why traditional knowledge management software falls short in the modern workplace.
In traditional knowledge management systems, there’s not always a lot of incentive for employees to share what they know. Updating the company wiki or intranet may be difficult, and the format in which they’re expected to share content may be relatively inflexible. Employees often just decide that it’s easier to keep what they know on their hard drive or in their mind.
This can lead to information hoarding (the bane of every Director of Knowledge Management’s existence). The same people waste time answering the same questions over and over again, employees lack the information they need to do their jobs efficiently, and individuals or teams end up duplicating work because they don’t know what already exists.
When the company-wide intranet is difficult to navigate or update, individual departments or teams often end up adopting their own tools and systems for knowledge management. While this might be effective for sharing information across their teams, it can lead to knowledge silos across the company. And these silos prevent a unified customer experience, leading to frustrated customers and missed opportunities for growth.
Knowledge silos can cause your company to take a serious financial hit. In fact, Fortune 500 companies reportedly lose an estimated $31.5 billion per year by failing to share knowledge across teams.
Tribal or Tacit Knowledge
As we mentioned in the previous section, traditional knowledge management tools are primarily designed to store explicit knowledge: any knowledge that is easily articulated and recorded (think research reports or policy documents). But they’re not built to capture the tribal or tacit knowledge of employees.
As employees gain experience, they also build their tacit knowledge: a type of knowledge that’s more difficult to articulate than explicit knowledge. For example, a sales representative may spend years honing their communication skills so that they can have productive conversations with their prospects and address their prospects’ concerns with confidence. If a less experienced sales rep asked them to write down their secrets to success, the experienced sales rep might struggle to define exactly what they’re doing.
By its very definition, tacit knowledge is difficult to capture and often requires more context than a simple text document can provide.
Unfortunately, because traditional wikis and intranets are notoriously hard to update and don’t always support a wide range of file types, it can be difficult for companies to capture all this context around their employees’ tacit knowledge.
Remember that stat we shared earlier about how employees change jobs an average of 12 times over the course of their careers? Here are a few more harrowing stats:
Because traditional knowledge management systems aren’t designed to capture employees’ tacit knowledge, that knowledge leaves when employees do. And that means that when a new employee is hired to backfill a role, they won’t be able to easily tap into their predecessor’s expertise, and it will take them longer to ramp up.