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Knowledge management evolution: Where we stand today

"80 percent of what a company 'knows' resides in its employees' minds, while only 20 percent reside in repositories such as file shares, documents and wikis."

That's according to a 2007 article by Boeing, in which the company profiled its knowledge management initiatives. It's a pretty compelling statement, no matter who you are. This article was written three years ago, yet many of its concepts around knowledge management continue to ring true.

You might think, if we're still addressing the same issues, does this mean we haven't progressed? Absolutely not. We're just improving on how we address them.

Over the course of the past few decades, our focus has progressed from capturing data, to sharing information, to retaining knowledge. Knowledge management was something many considered abstract and without tangible benefits. This article clearly shows the benefits of how knowledge management can be a market differentiator.

However, while this was only three short years ago, 2010 is a very different world. We "get" that capturing, retaining, and sharing knowledge is crucial to preserving employee expertise, sharing best practices, and accelerating innovation. But a crucial speed bump has surfaced as a result of all these activities: Which pieces of knowledge are most important to the organization?

With a company such as Boeing -- which has approximately 160,000 employees spread across multiple business units around the globe -- you have a lot of smart people, each with their own buckets of knowledge.

But not every drop in those buckets is going to be useful to the company. So while you might have a comprehensive system of processes, tools, methods, and techniques to capture knowledge, the question now becomes how to identify and make available the most relevant information, while keeping people from being overwhelmed by TMI (too much information).

Enter the social phenomena. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And social tools are the perfect launching pad for organizations looking to take their knowledge management initiatives to the next level.

You might liken social knowledge management to Darwin's natural selection for knowledge creation and retention. It helps organizations weed out the "good" information from the "bad." Knowledge of value naturally bubbles up when individuals rate, comment, tag, etc. The bad naturally goes by the wayside through lack of "popularity."

As the Boeing article states, not all people, practices, departments, or companies manage knowledge in the same way. A non-invasive platform that provides structure, but allows for flexibility and capitalizes on the way people naturally work, is going to be most effective.

And Boeing got it right when it had its Engineering, Operations, and Technology organization drive the knowledge management culture. Just as you wouldn't launch your product without testing it, you wouldn't drop in a knowledge management initiative without a beta version to work out the kinks. Once a framework is established, it's much easier for other departments to pick it up and tweak it for its own specific needs.

Boeing sets a great example for us all in how to approach, implement, and maintain a knowledge (or social knowledge) management system. My key takeaway: It's not a one-size-fits-all solution, and managing knowledge is not a goal in and of itself. It is a holistic process that involves people, processes, and technology.

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