A generic KM architecture

Peter Strempel

Writing in 2011, Patrick Lambe (knowledge management author, founder and principal of Straits Knowledge, Singapore), was highly critical of what he called a forgetfulness in knowledge management (KM), divorcing it, and its practitioners, from a sound theoretical base and range of professional practices.

That’s still true in organisations clinging to economic models in which information and knowledge have no value because they aren’t regarded as tangible things capable of being liquidated instantly.

On this page I follow on from my explanation of KM basics, treating information and knowledge assets (IKAs) as both tangible ‘things’ and qualitative inputs into value-added processes, products, and services.  To develop a KM architecture from that perspective, I will examine—

The big end of town

The large consulting houses appear not to have changed their own business models much since the 1960s: charming and knowledgeable senior people sell you their services, but junior and not so charming or knowledgeable people do the work; whatever was promised turns out to be no more than the last major consultancy contract turned into a one-size-fits-all template; and there is little regard for organisational fit or strategic and operational suitability.  If your organisation is very similar to their template client, the fit will be better.  If not you might be fitted for a strait jacket.

It seems that the larger an organisation becomes, and the more bureaucratic, the less careful it becomes in evaluating the services offered under seal of consulting brand names.  That’s despite, or as a consequence of, prescriptive procurement processes in which human judgement has been replaced by algorithm and monolithic rules.

This displacement of human analysis and judgement helps to explain why governments and enterprises which spend large sums on big consultancy firms the world over mostly end up wearing policies and systems like badly fitting clothes they found in a charity shop.  Yet, they are unlikely to complain for fear of looking like the fools they have been to spend such big money for such poor returns.

In the same vein, organisations would do well to resist the sales pitch from vendors of knowledge management, content management, and other kinds of ‘management’ software.  These are nothing more than the previously mentioned consulting firm models turned into entirely impersonal algorithms.

Such systems are inherently flawed, most often forcing customers to adapt their internal processes to suit the software rather than the other way around.  And even then, the systems become never ending, hugely expensive programming and configuration nightmares.  Just look around to spot any stable Sharepoint or SAP installations that aren’t ongoing expenditure black holes.

It seems to me that most vendor sales pitch is like big consultancy, but without the guile or charm of senior consultants, which has been replaced instead by the artlessness of hard-sell promoting administrative overhead automation as if this were KM.

Where to start: motivations and goals

Instead of relying on others to tell you why and how you want to do a better job of KM, the best starting point is to examine your motivations and what drives them.

On this page I use an adapted version of TOGAF’s ArchiMate visual language to illustrate how you can develop a sophisticated strategic overview of what you want to achieve, and what you might need to do to achieve your objectives.

Figure 1 below illustrates where I’d start when considering how to get value from an organisation’s IKAs.

Knowledge management architecture
FIGURE 1: motivation and strategy for KM

The interactions in the motivation layer of the diagram show how strategic (overall, general) motivations can reveal or describe the assessments and ambitions that drive goals and targeted outcomes for a KM strategy.

  • An organisational principal-CEO or MD-may be driven in decision-making by seeking a competitive advantage or, in the public sector, an efficiency advantage. The diamond-shaped arrows show that this driver can be composed of other drivers.
  • The illustration shows how drivers may be informed by analytical assessments, perhaps flowing from a SWOT analysis.
  • In our scenario the principal decides to pursue a strategic goal to develop a KM strategy based on metrics linked to value, because a major constraint on achieving the outcome is budget. In this illustration, the dotted line around the outcome shape indicates that it is an ambition rather than a fait accompli.

In the strategy layer, the abstract, higher-level motivational thinking begins to take shape.

  • The strategic goal is defined as a KM process that is measurably aligned with organisational operations and value-added activities. The open diamond-shaped arrows show that the course of action can be an aggregate of sub-components.
  • To turn planned courses of action into reality, the organisation draws on its strategic planning and project management capabilities, which, in turn, depend on organisational resources. In our example those resources are people assigned to help make KM work, including senior management and organisational specialists. If an organisation does not possess a capability it needs to realise a strategic goal, it can import that capability by hiring specialists or a consultant like me.
  • The final strategy step should include at least a conceptual value stream. In our example this begins with an audit and inventory of IKA, like a stock inventory or audit in which costs and values are calculated and assigned to items.
  • A further step in the stream is to develop categories of information to make it easier to acquire, sort, store, retrieve, and transform. IKA by activity and outcome. The categorisation should be thought of as an asset in itself, adding value by increasing speed of access and ease of use.
  • Methods for leveraging value from information vary widely by organisational dynamics. These might begin with surveying information users about ease of access and importance in completing tasks (see the section on metrics below).
  • Embedding the cost and value of information and knowledge assets in products and services requires an initial measurement of what IKAs are used to provide which products and services.
  • The easiest way to create a continuous improvement cycle for KM is to embed it into any existing continuous improvement program. If it is to be a standalone cycle, the business process management lifecycle is a good model for KM.

The advantage of charting or mapping these motivational and strategic considerations is the quick overview offered for quite complex interrelationships that takes quite a few spoken or written words to explain. This method also makes rearranging the components much easier than narrative prose re-writes.

IKA and KM metrics

Meaningful KM metrics have to relate to value.  To calculate the costs of acquiring, creating, storing, and retrieving your IKAs, it is likely we would start with an enterprise records management (ERM) framework, in which we consider records lifecycle costs.

Each retained record (database item, digital or paper document) should be linked to–

  • A value-driven reason for record acquisition and storage
  • A date for record destruction or updating

And each record is associated with the costs of–

  • Acquisition
  • Storage
  • Access
  • Disposal

For some types of record, like a manual of procedures, or a standard, there might also be a cost of turning the record from information into knowledge.  This might be thought of as the time it takes to absorb instructions in a manual of procedures on how to undertake a particular series of workplace tasks, along with and understanding of how the related ISO standard applies and turning this information into the knowledge within an individual to perform a series of tasks in the right way.  The cost is principally the hours it takes of employee time to reach that level of competence.

On the other side of the ledger, we have value being added by rapid access to the right kind of up-to-date information in order to create client or customer value.  The cost is either intrinsic in product or service delivery prices, or calculated as the cost of not being able to access the right information in a timely fashion.

KM measures might also adopt some balanced scorecard measures, relating to staff morale, customer satisfaction, and innovation or quality improvements traceable to IKAs.

Precise metrics always depend on the unique individual circumstances of each organisation.  I can help you identify and develop metrics that will work for your KM initiatives.

Process, interactions, and infrastructure

Following on from strategic planning for KM illustrated in Figure 1 above, Figure 2 below illustrates a generic process for creating a KM system, and normalising it as part of everyday operations.  The diagram includes an insight into an elementary choreography of interactions (shown above the process sequence), and some IT and infrastructure considerations for KM (below the sequence).

Knowledge management architecture 002 diagram
FIGURE 2: business and infrastructure dimensions of KM.
  • A first step in any KM system is discovery: what is the existing IKA landscape of your organisation. This discovery, audit and inventory process can be effectively conducted using the normal tools of business process management, which is one of my specialties.
  • Once the discovery phase has identified IKAs, a design phase can classify the assets, develop a storage and retrieval system, identify gaps that need to be addressed for information and knowledge the organisation needs, but doesn’t yet have, and any other considerations that fall out of goals and targets.
  • A major influence on the design phase is to align KM systems and processes to operational processes and procedures, so that IKAs become clearly assigned to appropriate business processes, business rôles, and intended outcomes.
  • A final design factor is the integration of a new or altered KM system into an overall cycle of continuous improvement. That is usually best handled as part of the business process management lifecycle itself.
  • The generic choreography shown suggests that the KM audit and design phases are best undertaken with the involvement of senior management, subject matter experts, a consultant like me, and a project team for implementation. Exactly who will be involved and how will be determined by the specific circumstances of each organisation.
  • On the technology layer, interfaces are important when we consider how information will be consumed or produced (paper, computer, tablet. Phone, and so on).
  • Other infrastructure concerns storage and retrieval options, and the physical hardware involved.
  • The IT layer becomes quite important in larger organisations, with significant volume of IKAs and complexity of interactions between storage, production, and access systems. Under those circumstances the generic example shown here could become several more layers deep with far greater detail than shown in Figure 2 above.

Some objections

Isn’t all of this just a fancy way of making money off practices we already have?  Maybe.  Only you can be the judge of whether you are managing your information and knowledge to your best advantage.  In my experience, only conducting an audit will let you be certain.

Why bother describing a KM process in such detail?  Why not just pick away at it incrementally?  That probably works in smaller organisations, but risks creating cross-purposes in larger teams, where multiple strategies and processes should work in harmony rather than independently of each other.

Why bother paying someone like me to help out?  It’s really a question of whether you have the skills and experience to make KM work internally.  Getting me involved gives you my experience with having done this a few times, and with a complete toolbox of other design and process improvement approaches, including business process management, enterprise architecture, ITIL ITSM, PRINCE2 project management, strategic planning, and training and workshopping.

Contact me to find out what we might do together to get more value from your information and knowledge assets.