Hands On: Use it or lose it

Written by Diana Cawfield

It’s 10 o’clock Monday morning. A week’s worth of e-mail remains in your inbox. Your briefcase is cluttered with last quarter’s sales report and three back issues of Industry News. The new sales guy can’t find the old sales guy’s last presentation to the client he’s lunching with. And your production team is launching into a project with no record of how the last one went so well.

You’re not alone. Factors from multiple career changes by the average worker and growing dependence on freelance expertise to the sheer volume of information generated in the Internet Age are creating a knowledge management (KM) crisis for companies of all shapes and sizes. But within every crisis lies opportunity: find ways to filter, capture and distribute the knowledge that resides within your walls, and you will gain a distinct advantage over your rivals.

Some of the best corporations know this: 25% of Fortune 500 companies have a chief knowledge officer (CKO). Still, many Canadian firms are not making KM a priority, says Nick Bontis, director of the Institute of Intellectual Capital Research and a professor at the DeGroote Business School at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. “By 2010, the world’s accumulated information base will double every 11 hours,” says Bontis. “We’re going to be bombarded, so you have to come up with skills and tools to protect your company.”

PROFIT asked Bontis to share his most effective tips for managing knowledge at the personal and organizational levels.

1. Leverage technology“I don’t want to be a software pusher because [entrepreneurs] already have a lot of the tools they need,” says Bontis. One such tool is the message filter built into most e-mail programs.

These filters or “rules” enable your e-mail client to place incoming e-mail from an individual or on a specified topic into its own folder. Bontis offers this example for managing communications on specific projects: ask those involved to start the subject lines of project-related e-mail with a preset, three-letter code, and program your rules to place all messages beginning with that code into a folder. “It’s simple,” says Bontis. “Don’t ask your IT people to teach you; they have better things to do.” In most programs, pull down “Tools” and look for “Rules.”

“Instead of taking you one hour to manage your inbox every day,” says Bontis, “you can drop to 15 minutes.”

2. Pump up your intranetWhen corporations jumped on the Internet bandwagon, says Bontis, most pumped huge investments into linking employees with the Web. “What they didn’t do was make the same commitment to developing the company’s internal website.”

Facilitating communication and access to information, an intranet stores company documents and information in a searchable format for all employees’ use. Bontis also specifically advocates for a “corporate Yellow Pages” — a shared database containing employees’ expertise.

For the time it takes to put it together, such a directory can save your company time and money. For example, an employee about to begin a research project can type in keywords to tap into information already produced by the company, reducing project overlaps. Or if Sue in your Halifax office needs to know whether there is a Spanish speaker at your Winnipeg location, the directory can tell her in moments.

3. Appoint a CKO

The mandate of a CKO is to evangelize the concept of KM. Their role from a profit-generating perspective, says Bontis, is twofold: to increase revenue by harvesting the full talent of the firm and to decrease expenses by reducing duplication costs.

Aside from working with HR and IT on the corporate directory, the CKO would also publish intellectual capital reports that highlight the talent of the firm to shareholders. “Nobody trusts financial statements anymore,” says Bontis. “An intellectual capital report is a more predictive leading indicator of future success.” Unlike financials, which are only a historical record, the report could answer for shareholders questions such as “How many PhDs do you have?” or “How many new, innovative products have you launched?”

Finally, a CKO should also implement a reward-and-recognition structure that promotes knowledge-sharing. As CKO of Knexa Solutions Ltd., a Vancouver-based software firm, Bontis offers points to staffers who share information with each other. For example, every time an employee poses a question on the intranet and another employee answers, both receive points that can be redeemed for personalized rewards.

4. Revolutionize exit interviewsTurnover is inevitable. But it’s critical to find out what employees know before they leave. Bontis suggests using exit interviews — not the kind aimed at gathering opinions about the workplace but a whole new breed of debriefing.

“Your 10-year sales manager who knows all the intimate relationships with clients announces he’s leaving in two weeks,” says Bontis. “And what do we say? ‘Fine, leave today.’ That’s the biggest mistake you could make.” Bontis recommends hiring a third party to conduct a two-week-long exit interview that captures the employee’s most useful knowledge. “Find out what knowledge domain is leaving; what does that person know that nobody else knows?” This includes clients’ quirks, and even seemingly banal things, such as where documents are stored, how he names computer files and where he stores his keys.

Of course, all the information gleaned in the interview process would then be archived on the corporate intranet.

5. Learn to speed-read. Seriously“Making decisions and acting fast can mean the difference between winning and losing in business,” says Bontis. “Imagine if an analyst’s report takes you an hour to read but [your competitor takes] only 10 minutes.”

Skeptical? According to Bontis, the average person in Canada reads 200 words a minute. After taking a speed-reading course, followed by practice, he could read 1,200 words a minute. (You can diagnose your reading speed and comprehension by visiting www.bontis.com/speedread.)

Initiating these recommendations is a surefire way to harness knowledge and boost revenue. “You’re bombarded by all this information,” says Bontis, “and all you really want is that little nugget that lets you do your job more efficiently. That’s what knowledge management is all about.”

© 2005 Diana Cawfield

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com