In 2011, I was building an on-boarding plan for an innovative aftermarket logistics model at multinational electronics firm, and I needed to have a knowledge audit element.
Since auditing of knowledge, while not a fully mature science, is at least a very well trodden area of Knowledge Management (KM), I had no doubt that I would find a suitable auditing model within a few looks at the work of fellow KM practitioners, a glance in my bookshelf, or a few minutes browsing websites.
However, to my surprise, although there were indeed a great many knowledge audit templates, none fitted the level of detail required for a production line environment like the one I was facing.
As a result, I needed to build a knowledge audit model almost from the ground up that would match the workflow nature of the business environment in a highly complex and large electronics repair organization that was geographically spread across the world, and which included an integrated supply chain. The target was a reverse-logistics chain that included the customer, a call center, logistics partners, multiple repair centers, and the original equipment manufacturer.
Once the model was created, the basic methodology was published in the JKMRP as a position paper on critical activity knowledge auditing for other KM practitioners to use. Although the intention was to solve a practical gap in a specific area of reverse-logistics, it was obvious in retrospect that the audit model was well suited to any environment in which there are specific goals served by a documented workflow, from clinical and surgical environment, to manufacturing and repair industries. In response to requests to expand on the paper, the Ark Group (a Wilmington company) published “Knowledge Auditing: an Activity-Based Method for Organisational Success” . (Free intro and sample chapter available for download).
Like many long journeys, this one started with a very innocent-looking question: How does the person carrying out this task know how to do it?
Yet when I asked this in practice for repair activities, it became obvious that there was some uncertainty about something that was critical to success.
Laying out the flow sheets of how the repair process worked, it was clear to everyone what sequential steps were to be carried out, and there was reasonable agreement on whom the actor would be, but less clarity on how they knew how to execute.
You might ask why this is important to anyone, yourself in particular.
There are three market pressures and three areas of neglect that make this important, and if you don’t have a solution, you are going to be buried.
Firstly the market changes:
- The “Silver Tsunami“
- Market Turbulence
Now the areas of neglect:
- Hiring is a mess: In most firms little better than flipping a coin, in many a horror of wasted talent and superstition that is exceeded only by the secrecy and invisibility of just how bad it is. Hiring is typically done with no regard to knowledge.
- Training is ineffective: Usually decoupled from the actual job and doing little more than putting “bums on seats” (however you would like to interpret that).
- Job instructions are useless: Mostly people have to interrupt each other or create their own “cheat sheets”, which are often out of date, faulty, or downright irrational.
The most knowledgeable people are going to be leaving, there are too few replacements, and those replacements don’t have nearly the training and knowledge of those leaving. The time taken to on-board or even fire up off shoring is excessively long, and efficiency is way down and matched only by worker disaffection.
The market changes rapidly and big players in the top 500 vanish so fast that one can scarcely keep up, while disruptive technologies and business models spring up as if from nowhere. In addition to new customers, new competition, and rapid changes in technology that demand very agile responses and planning, the share of market capitalization has shifted dramatically over the last fifty years. In figure 3 the asset components of the S&P 500 market value is broken down between tangible (standard) and intangible assets. Clearly what a firm knows has become far more important in most cases than what tangible assets like property, equipment, and even cash balance they have.
Figure 3. S&P Market value by asset type Courtesy Ocean Tomo
In a globalized world, new competition and new customers will spring up wherever the market is, not where traditionally located or preferred, and those firms who are unable to rally flexible knowledge application are at a strategic disadvantage to those who know what they know and know how to scale up or down to match market pressures.
If your business has a workflow, then the audit process is designed to identify, on-board, and support workers faster and better, and to result in improvements in the organizational objectives served by those workflows.
The audit does so by making hiring, training, and job aids closely tied to the actual task execution.
The basic auditing principle is not all that hard when one looks at it coldly. The firm comes about to having an actor with the right knowledge, in the right place, and at the right time by some combination of:
- They were hired to have that knowledge already;
- The actor was trained in some way; or
- A job aid would be provided to them at the time of execution.
Precisely which knowledge and what it pertains to would require a bit more granularity, and that hides in the diagram in figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Workflow Sub-Structures
However, this obviously entails a lot of analysis, so another core component of the audit is to focus only on the knowledge that is individually necessary and also collectively sufficient to achieve the organization’s critical goals. After all, organizations have a lot of knowledge that really isn’t on that critical path between work and their main organizational aims. Figure 2 traces the path from the organizational objectives to the individual tasks that lead to their achievement.
Figure 2. Critical Path
So what should you do?
Here’s my suggested shortlist:
- Gather a team to perform an audit to identify the critical workflows and to audit the knowledge needs
- Update hiring practices to match the actual knowledge needs at an activity level, and throw out vague and wishful role-based hiring methods
- Refactor training to align with work activity knowledge needs
- Build a knowledge base of job aids suited to the activities in the critical knowledge value chains, and that will deliver job aids in a fashion appropriate to the working conditions
- Build an audit practice that monitors for deviation and applies Lean principles to fixing wasteful workflow
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
1. Loxton, M.H., A simplified integrated critical activity-based knowledge audit template. Knowl Manage Res Prac, 2013.
2. Loxton, M.H., Knowledge Auditing: an Activity-Based Method for Organisational Success. 2013, London: Ark Group.
Matthew Loxton is a certified Knowledge Management practitioner, and is a peer reviewer for the Journal of Knowledge Management Research & Practice. Matthew works at WBB as a senior analyst applying KM principles to Health IT implementation. Matthew holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra, and provides pro-bono consulting in Knowledge Management and IT Governance to various medical institutions.