Discover how Patrick Lambe’s proven framework for knowledge audits makes it simple to identify information assets, transfer knowledge, and spark innovation. Start preparing for your first knowledge audit by designating leaders and surveying employee expertise. Apply the strategies in this must-read guide.
Patrick presents a systematic approach to conducting knowledge audits that unearth an organization’s full intellectual capital. Readers gain insight into mapping information flows, locating knowledge holders, evaluating content value, and pinpointing knowledge gaps.
Complete step-by-step instructions demonstrate how to administer surveys, conduct interviews and analyze findings to create an “information DNA profile”. Case studies show how outcomes such as transition planning, improved learning and innovation result.
Adopters will find audits energize professional development and succession planning. Internal knowledge remains under lock and key no longer with easy-to-action strategies provided. Learning analytics also reveal where training budgets can refine expertise into a sharable asset for all.
Clear guidance makes information auditing an accessible process augmenting any business seeking to maximize brainpower.
Business, management, leadership, strategic planning, knowledge management, organizational development, information technology, communication, innovation, education
The complexity of knowledge management and its rapid growth have left the field in disarray. Practitioners lack a common vocabulary and often neglect the theoretical underpinnings of their work. Here, knowledge management expert Patrick Lambe delves into the narrower area of knowledge auditing to clarify its language and trace the evolution of its practices. Lambe provides a pragmatic guide to current practice, bolstered by numerous case studies and a comprehensive review of the history and theory of knowledge auditing.
- Knowledge managers can offer greater benefits to organizations by standardizing the practice.
- Knowledge audits reveal the state of knowledge production, access and use in an organization and can help support change.
- Knowledge audits emerged from the communication and information audits of the mid-20th century.
- Knowledge audits target various phenomena, including knowledge stocks, flows and processes.
- Imprecise use of language causes confusion and bias in KM and knowledge auditing.
- Personal or collective dualism and tacit or explicit dualism oversimplify how knowledge is held in organizations.
- Typologies organize types of knowledge to support auditing, sensemaking and action.
Knowledge managers can offer greater benefits to organizations by standardizing the practice.
Knowledge management (KM) benefits large organizations by allowing their members to work together across time and space. It supports systematic, thoughtful, informed decision-making that accounts for the organization’s broad interests and goals. However, KM practitioners typically face several challenges, some inherent to the task and some avoidable. The challenges inherent to the task include aligning the agendas and priorities of various parties within the organization; the ever-changing nature of the context in which knowledge managers work; and the invisibility of some aspects of knowledge use (for example, habits of thought ingrained in processes). In addition, KM works over a long time span, creating vulnerabilities to changes in staffing or leadership support.
“We can improve the effectiveness of the organizations or communities we serve by better understanding the dynamics and levers of knowledge production, access and use.”
The preventable challenges of KM often stem from the knowledge manager’s short-term or limited focus. The KM practice frequently fails to live up to theory due to the priority placed on operational needs and a lack of rigor in selecting practices and approaches. Few KM professionals understand how practices derive from the discipline’s foundations; as a result, these practices often fail to deliver, and practitioners then neglect to learn from these missteps. Finally, KM professionals have not established common ground within the discipline, such as work standards or a coherent shared vocabulary.
Knowledge audits reveal the state of knowledge production, access and use in an organization and can help support change.
Knowledge audits, also called KM assessments, aim to scan an organization’s KM environment to discover opportunities and needs, develop action plans and create alignment across the organization. These assessments are crucial in developing and maintaining KM programs within large organizations. Knowledge audits support organizational change by helping leaders understand how the organization produces, accesses and uses information. The knowledge audit defines the organization’s starting point for change, including its capabilities, obstacles and levers for action. And knowledge audits provide continual guidance, helping to steer change as it proceeds.
“It is not enough to analyze and understand; we must be able to influence a human system toward desired outcomes.”
Knowledge audit teams often face problems that stem from a disconnect between the KM function and the business’s daily operation. In particular, service domains such as human resources, IT and finance frequently resist buying into KM and can hamper the establishment of KM programs. Therefore, knowledge audits should include studying the conditions in these service areas and the overall environment so that the KM team can continually learn and identify needs and opportunities throughout the organization as they arise.
The problems of knowledge auditing stem partly from the fact that no clear definition exists for the term; it can refer to several practices and methodologies. KM practitioners use audits to denote various activities such as inventorying knowledge, evaluating knowledge assets, analyzing records and assessing against a benchmark. Knowledge audits come in many forms, including the following:
- Inventory audits take stock of the organization’s knowledge without making judgments or recommendations.
- Assessment audits incorporate an evaluation and typically prescribe action.
- Discovery review audits expand the audit scope to include behaviors, priorities and gaps relevant to knowledge.
- Participative goal-setting audits consist of a framework that facilitates group reflection and alignment.
Typically, knowledge audits consist of an inventory audit – which can serve as a preparatory stage – plus another type of audit, usually a participative goal-setting audit or an asset valuation audit.
Knowledge audits emerged from the communication and information audits of the mid-20th century.
Knowledge-related audits have their roots in the traditions of communication and information audits. Particularly in their concerns and approaches, knowledge audits greatly resemble the communication audits of the 1950s and 1960s. Communication research of the 1950s generated methodologies for measurement and auditing that deeply influenced the development of KM and knowledge audits.
Information audits emerged in the 1970s and grew exponentially in the late 1990s. Information managers often took their practices and methodologies from the field of records management, which had matured to possess a stable set of practices supported by professional consensus. However, information auditing has developed many models and goals that make the discipline just as incoherent as KM.
“The salient and most important knowledge use is often not the most easily or directly observable.”
As a result of the complicated history of KM, practitioners typically lack awareness or understanding of the tools and methodologies available for understanding organizations’ use of knowledge. The landscape remains fragmented, and lacking a systematic approach to their work, knowledge managers often experience confusion and frustration.
Knowledge audits target various phenomena, including knowledge stocks, flows and processes.
The scope of knowledge audits varies widely. For scoping purposes, a useful framework identifies an audit’s areas of interest according to how knowledge managers approach implementations. This framework breaks the target phenomena for knowledge audits into seven categories:
- Stocks such as intellectual capital, intellectual property and other knowledge resources.
- Flows, which are often inventoried or mapped through social network analysis techniques.
- Goals and needs, including strategy alignment and operational needs.
- Enablers include leadership, policy, organizational processes, culture, infrastructure and people’s skill sets and competencies.
- Processes for knowledge creation, capture, discussion, synthesis, retention, storage, and so forth.
- Capabilities are how processes and enablers interact to facilitate learning and innovation using knowledge to serve the organization’s goals.
- The outcomes desired from the knowledge audit and the KM program overall.
Inventory audits limit their scope to stocks and flows, while discovery review and participative goal-setting audits focus on goals, needs and other phenomena. KM assessment audits look at enablers, processes and capabilities. An audit’s scope and objectives should determine the audit methods used.
Imprecise use of language causes confusion and bias in KM and knowledge auditing.
The duplicity of language frequently leads to misunderstandings and missteps in the field of KM. The word “audit” takes on a wide range of meanings in KM that differ from its definition in other fields, and the word suggests the rigor and authority of financial and operational audits. Yet, the methodologies of KM often lack such rigor. The use of the term “asset” is also confusing because knowledge doesn’t have the same qualities and properties as assets of a tangible or financial nature.
Syllepsis occurs when a word can have different meanings in a single context – for example, “She was only a whiskey maker but he loved her still.” Syllepsis causes problems in KM when practitioners transfer the attributes of one phenomenon, such as financial assets, to a different phenomenon, such as knowledge assets. Further, the International Organization for Standardization’s ISO 30401 standard asserts, “Knowledge is an intangible asset that needs to be managed like any other asset.” Still, knowledge differs from other types of assets and can’t be managed similarly. As an alternative to “asset,” the word “resource” would serve better because it has enough ambiguity that it won’t lead people to make false assumptions.
“Our choice of language can betray a wishful thinking that delays or subverts effective action, if the language does not match the reality.”
KM is rife with metaphors, too – for example, practitioners refer to knowledge as assets, resources, capital, artifacts, products and objects. Sometimes, these metaphors imply a view of knowledge as a form of value, and occasionally, they suggest a view of knowledge as stocks or “stuff.” Knowledge managers also use metaphors related to flow – such as connections, transfer and mobilization – that highlight people and processes. Metaphors can affect the way people think about and use knowledge. For example, “stuff” metaphors can lead practitioners to discount the human and emotional aspects of KM.
Personal or collective dualism and tacit or explicit dualism oversimplify how knowledge is held in organizations.
Knowledge managers often think of knowledge stocks as falling into two “either-or” categories – either personal or collective, and either tacit or explicit. Both of these distinctions oversimplify the characteristics of organizational knowledge and can lead to errors in knowledge auditing and KM.
The personal or collective dualism leaves out the group that does the work – the core team. This “missing middle” is where people integrate knowledge to solve problems or carry out operational activities. At the team level, individual knowledge becomes functional to serve the organization. This insight underlies the “middle-out” method for inventorying knowledge resources, which starts at the team level and then reaches down to the individual level and up to the organization level.
“The ‘missing middle’ prevents us from understanding how personal knowledge is mediated and rendered actionable to the organization.”
The tacit or explicit dualism leads to an overemphasis on explicit knowledge, as this type is easier to observe. This dualism became widely accepted after organizational theorist Ikujiro Nonaka published an influential article in Harvard Business Review in 1991, drawing on work by the philosopher Michael Polanyi. Nonaka held that tacit (i.e., implied by action) knowledge can be made explicit, though the task might be difficult. In this regard, Nonaka misrepresented Polanyi’s idea. Polanyi defined tacit knowledge as that which can’t be formalized or communicated – for example, the intuition of a neonatal nurse who senses a problem with a baby. Knowledge in organizations exists on a continuum of explicitness and tacitness and is never fully one or the other.
An intermediate category, implicit knowledge, includes knowledge that could be made explicit but has not yet. This knowledge, also called structural knowledge, is held collectively and embedded in processes, products and services.
Typologies organize types of knowledge to support auditing, sensemaking and action.
A typology identifies knowledge types to support the inventorying of knowledge stocks. Typologies also aid knowledge managers in making sense of that knowledge and support the organization in taking purposeful action. “Auditability” dictates that a typology be observable, naturalistic, actionable, granular and comprehensive. Many typologies of the past fail one or more of these criteria.
Typologies for personal knowledge include Michael Zack’s of the late 1990s, which distinguished among declarative, procedural, causal, conditional and relational knowledge. Sociologist Harry Collins based his typology on the explicit or tacit distinction and identified three forms of tacit knowledge: relational, somatic (i.e., embodied, like riding a bike) and collective. Frank Blackler described knowledge as “embrained,” embodied, “encultured,” embedded and encoded. These typologies have aided the understanding of tacit knowledge but fail the tests of observability and naturalism, making an audit improbable.
“Typologies of organizational knowledge should give us a strategic sense of organizational capability and need.”
The literature on intellectual capital provides numerous typologies for organizational knowledge. However, these don’t serve the purposes of KM, such as supporting the management of knowledge resources within specific contexts. Organizational capabilities regarding knowledge prove challenging to identify and understand, and their complexity underlies the difficulty of creating granular typologies for organizational knowledge.
Consulting firm Straits Knowledge’s “Wheel of Knowledge” typology serves well to aid understanding and the management of both personal and organizational knowledge, and it meets all the requirements for auditability. The Wheel of Knowledge identifies the knowledge resource types of documents and data, skills and competencies, method knowledge, relationships, experience, and natural talent. The typology represents these types in a circle to eliminate any suggestion of a linear progression.
About the Author
Patrick Lambe founded the knowledge management research and consulting firm Straits Knowledge and is a globally recognized knowledge management practitioner. He’s also co-author with Nick Milton of The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook and the author of Organizing Knowledge.