It happens without warning: an unexpected crisis significantly disrupts the work your company is doing. Depending on the situation, your company may lose an incalculable amount of knowledge, experience, and wisdom — intellectual capital. Every midsize firm must engage in contingency planning so that a significant event will not cause chaos in a firm's operations, stunting its performance for months or years.


Knowledge Management vs. Continuity Management

Contingency planning must be enacted from two perspectives to ensure that a firm remains stable and successful over the long term.

  1. First, there should be a plan that serves to counter an improbable crisis, such as severe damage to a production facility, extended electricity outage, or prolonged transportation or supply chain disruptions.
  2. Second, there should also be a plan — a continuous process, actually — to preserve the firm's institutional knowledge in the face of common employee turnover in order to prevent stagnant organizational performance over time.

Not only does the latter plan — called knowledge management (KM) as opposed to continuity management for crisis situations — protect the company, but KM actually helps employees bond and feel more valued and satisfied with their jobs, likely resulting in less turnover.

The process of capturing, developing, sharing, and effectively using organizational knowledge requires a multi-disciplined approach. At the largest firms, KM efforts are often centralized in human resources or even in the IT department, given the variety of technological tools used for KM these days. For a middle market firm, since KM efforts tend to naturally overlap with formal organizational learning programs, KM should be coordinated through the personnel that handles training, in conjunction with executives who oversee the firm's strategic direction.

The reason that execs should take part in KM initiatives is that KM programs are aimed at overarching organizational objectives such as competitive advantage, innovation, integration across departments, stronger corporate culture, improved employee performance, and continuous organizational improvement. This should all be driven by those responsible for the general direction of the company.

Making Use of KM Technology and Tools

KM is surely not a new concept, despite the prevalence of technology now being used to handle the task. Manager-to-employee mentoring, peer-to-peer conversations, interdepartmental discussion forums, formal apprenticeships, corporate libraries, after-action assessments, and other means of communication have been around for decades. But network computing brought about electronic-based knowledge repositories, expert systems, group-decision support systems, intranets, wikis, groupware — even proprietary Facebook pages — that enhance the depth and effectiveness of KM programs.

But which KM tools are best for a middle market company to utilize? It depends on various factors specific to that firm: its products, its culture, and its size, for starters. The all-important goal within any KM program, however, is to encourage maximum participation from both the push and pull directions. Push means that employees are active in adding to the KM system, in terms of the explicit and tacit knowledge they've gained from their experiences, while pull means that employees are active in drawing upon the intellectual capital that's been captured by the various KM tools the firm uses.

One key advantage for firms with healthy cultures is that they are able to encourage personalization of the KM effort, as well. KM systems become even more valuable if they are being contributed to by proactive employees; they can share their knowledge directly with one another at critical times, in addition to filing pertinent information into KM systems. For interpersonal and other soft skills that are used in important situations involving customers, vendors, or colleagues, having case studies and other offerings within the system is especially beneficial. But the ability to quickly locate and then transfer intellectual capital more directly is a true competitive advantage within a firm.

Other strategies for driving an effective KM program include:

  • Compiling internal "expert directories" that address all aspects of work within the company (both employees and executives should contribute to this)
  • Requiring a minimum amount of content submissions to KM systems from employees; encouraging in-person (one-on-one or group) interactions to transfer knowledge or experiences
  • Rewarding employees if they contribute something to the KM system that makes a tangible difference in an area of operation
  • Holding contests for storytelling to encourage the personalization aspect of KM

The goal of a KM program is to capture and give access to intellectual capital. For middle market companies, the benefits from implementing KM policies are vast: better product innovation, shorter product cycles, improved customer service, more efficient back-office operations, higher employee engagement, and improved job satisfaction.

Besides providing incentives, how can midmarket executives make their employees more active in contributing to KM systems? Let us know what you think by commenting below.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, he has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets.