When companies are small, everyone knows everyone, and knowledge flows freely. As they grow, knowledge flow can no longer be taken for granted.
But companies grow, new people come in, new companies are acquired, and there comes a time when the existing personal networks are no longer sufficient for Knowledge Management. The personal networks which remain from the smaller company turn into "old boy networks" (see definition), a sort of social elite based on common history, and the new people can be excluded and cut off from these informal sources of knowledge.
We see this a lot when we are running our KM assessments.
- "How do you find knowledge you need?" we ask.
- "I just ask," they say. "Its easy, I just give the right person a call".
- "And how do you know the right person?"
- "We all know each other, we have worked together for a long time".
- "And how do new people know who to call? Or your colleagues in company X, which you have just merged with? How do they find the right people?"
- .................long silence..............
The problem with this situation is that the people who are making the decisions about KM are already part of the old-boy network. As far as they are concerned, there is no problem with knowledge-seeking or knowledge sharing - everybody they know already does it. They don't see the problems that the new staff, the young staff or the merged staff, are encountering when they try to find knowledge.
How networking needs to changeOnce the company grows beyond the point where informal networks still function (ie once it has hundreds of staff), then you need to take a disciplined approach to knowledge management.
- Step one is to map out the problem. Run a detailed diagnostic assessment. Maybe do some social network analysis.
- Step two is to put some simple structure into the knowledge sharing and seeking. Instead of relying on a-hoc informality between friends, introduce after action reviews, peer assists, knowledge-sharing round-tables.
- Step three is to get some supporting technology; in the first instance a yellow-pages system, then a simple Q&A forum, then collaborative software such as a wiki.
- Step four is to begin to build communities of practice around key topics.
When the company has outgrown the old-boys network, that's where a simple KM framework needs to step in and keep the knowledge flowing, even to the new staff.