Knowledge Management, Centralization, Decentralization

Synaptica blog KM centralization

Knowledge Management

I recently attended and spoke at the KMI Showcase in Arlington, Virginia. There were a variety of topics, but two seemingly opposed themes struck me as I listened to the speakers and panels.

At its heart, knowledge management is about capturing, storing, and retrieving information. Each of these three phases in the knowledge lifecycle can be broken down into more granular components, such as content management, records retention, and search, just to name a few. However, all other activities come back to these three essential lifecycle phases.

Capturing knowledge involves recording both explicit and tacit knowledge in a structured and organized manner. Considerations include processes for capturing the knowledge; structuring the content using taxonomies, naming conventions, and folders or other navigational schemes; and policies and procedures around knowledge transfer.

Storing knowledge includes defining locations for storing the content, processes for managing the content lifecycle while stored, and archiving and records management policies for saving and disposing of the content when appropriate. Storing knowledge must also take into consideration the nature of the content: storing and retrieving images is not going to require the same technology as storing textual documents or even discussion threads.

Retrieving information typically is about the ability to navigate to or search for content when needed. The ability to search with high precision (the ratio of the number of relevant records retrieved to the total number of irrelevant and relevant records retrieved) and recall (the ratio of the number of relevant records retrieved to the total number of relevant records in the database) are measures of a successful search. Put simply, did you get all of the relevant information from amongst all the information you search? In addition to seeking, there is also pushed information which may come in the form of memos, alerts, notifications, or other passive methods of distributing information.

I outline these knowledge management basics in order to focus on two seemingly contradicting themes.

Centralization

The information paradigm has traditionally been centralization. Employees create knowledge and that knowledge is captured, stored, and only retrievable within the organization. While centralization has largely been replaced in the era of rapid computing, personal devices, and cloud storage, there are still aspects which are pertinent.

For example, some organizations require a high degree of security and may not allow information to be accessible without being physically present onsite or distributed through highly secure networks. While it seems this may be relegated to the realm of government information, the health, legal, pharmaceutical, and technology industries are likely to have stringent regulations about content handling.

Centralization is more than security, however. Centralization is also about consolidating siloed, disparate, or conflicting information sources. The answer may not always be about moving to a single content management system or data lake; centralization may take the form of shared structure tying these separate sources together. Taxonomies and naming conventions are just two of many centralized knowledge management practices which enable the storing and retrieval of important information.

In addition, centralized content and processes allow for tighter control over knowledge retention through the establishment of internal policies and procedures tied to corporate content platforms. While such structures may make it more difficult to access across multiple devices (though not impossible), it ensures streamlined processes for controlling and retaining organizational knowledge.

Decentralization

Decentralization, in contrast, is a different approach to content and one becoming well entrenched as companies embrace a mobile, agile workforce. Cloud content management and blockchain are examples of decentralization in which the real ownership of the platform and content is potentially taken out of the hands of the organization.

For instance, some of the largest companies use decentralized content creation, management, and storage platforms on the cloud to conduct business. The ease of creating documents, sharing them with colleagues, and managing the content lives with the content creators and owners, taking the burden off the organization. Distributed and decentralized content creation and management makes for an agile work environment but comes with significant problems.

Lacking a centralized knowledge management program–including processes and procedures for structuring and managing content–leaves this knowledge inaccessible, varied in form and structure, and subject to sharing outside acceptable practices. The amount of knowledge which can find itself locked away in laptops, distributed platforms like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Box, or other platforms not managed by the organization, is staggering. How does one even begin to address knowledge management policies such as knowledge transfer if the knowledge is inaccessible, or, more likely, completely unknown?

Hybrid Model

Smart organizations may use a hybrid model. A hybrid model allows organizations to take advantage of decentralization, including ease of knowledge creation, access, distribution, and technology management. Similarly, the organization can also retain the characteristics of centralization, including access by all employees, structures such as taxonomies which reflect the organizational principles of the business, and a unified search across all content.

Among the large business platform companies, hybrid on-premise and cloud solutions are the norm. While these companies offer the solutions, it is up to the organization to determine which content is tightly controlled and centralized versus content which is decentralized and how to establish processes and structures which bridge internal and external content.

The move from centralization to decentralization has freed the office worker from the desk, surfaced content from shared drive folders to mobile-accessible content available anywhere, and loosened cumbersome, slow processes. The same move has also put the focus on knowledge management teams as leaders of content strategy as the boundary between internal and external corporate knowledge disappears.

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