What is Knowledge Management?

If you’ve ever sorted your socks by color, then you already understand the basic principles of knowledge management. The activity of knowledge management - which is also known as KM - is often very simple, even though most of the published material on KM is overloaded with complicated and abstract concepts.

Every organization has a great deal of knowledge, which is stored on sticky notes, in desk drawers, in file servers, in the minds of its employees, and in many other places. The continuing challenge is to arrange it so that it can be shared, retrieved, and used effectively by those who should have access to it.

Perhaps it’s easier to know when your knowledge management practices are falling short than to give a perfect definition of knowledge management. Therefore, we invite you to engage in reflection and self-assessment.

Ask yourself whether your nonprofit organization’s staff is experiencing any of the following:

  • When a staff member gets sick, takes a leave, retires, resigns, or goes on vacation, then other employees are unable to locate crucial information.
  • The executive director (or another top-level staff member) is scheduled to retire, but his/her most crucial organizational knowledge is not written down, and there is no strategy in place for conveying it to his/her successor.
  • Project teams generate multiple versions of key documents, but it’s hard to gather all the changes in one place. No one knows for sure which version is the final one, and the wrong version may be used by accident.
  • Manuals of policies and procedures exist, but staff members have difficulty finding the relevant passage in them when they have a specific question that urgently needs to be answered.
  • Staff members don’t know about existing resources and reports that could help them make good decisions that are aligned with the executive team’s policies.
  • Standard information that is needed for a routine operation must be gathered by hand from disparate paper and electronic sources each time it is needed.
  • It is difficult to determine whether the nonprofit organization is meeting its mission fully, partially, or not at all.

If you answered “yes” to any of these items, then you are experiencing problems. Effective knowledge management is simply that which enables you to overcome these problems.

Not every nonprofit needs an expensive and elaborate knowledge management system; for some, it can be as simple as establishing a standard practice for naming files. For very large nonprofits, it might involve a costly knowledge management system that involves months or years of planning, implementation, training, and maintenance. It’s quite likely that your own organization can do very well with a modest knowledge management strategy.