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Developing a Business Case for Knowledge Management

Whenever I describe Knowledge Management (KM) to someone who may not be familiar with it, I often get a response of surprise due to their lack of awareness of something so fundamental and necessary for any organization to be effective. They express how much their current organization needs KM, and, in fact, how every organization they’ve ever worked in would have benefited from it, as well. In essence, KM makes an organization’s knowledge easier to find and discover so that people can more effectively do their jobs. The value KM offers to any organization is evident, and even more so in cases where a business model heavily relies on providing information and guidance to customers, such as in the finance or consulting industries. Yet many managers still struggle to develop and present a business case for the investment necessary to dedicate resources to KM strategy and implementation efforts. In this blog, I’ll share tips for how to develop a strong business case to help your executives and senior management clearly see how KM can significantly benefit your organization in the near and long-term.

Align KM With Your Organization’s Strategic Goals

At Enterprise Knowledge (EK), we make the distinction between KM Objectives and Business Objectives. Too often, when developing a case for an investment in KM, managers focus on outcomes that prove that KM strategies were effective in connecting people to the knowledge and information they needed to complete a task or make a decision, such as, improved findability, reuse, and retention of content. Although this approach can be useful in demonstrating the success of a KM effort, it is not sufficient nor as impactful as tying those goals to the overall strategic business objectives of the organization. Business cases for KM that make the connection between KM goals and specific business goals, such as increased productivity, market share, innovation, and revenue help to pique C-suite level interest in your ideas for leveraging KM as a means to achieving the objectives that matter most to the organization.

Whether on an annual basis or every three to five years, organizations typically identify the top initiatives that will not only help them survive in a rapidly changing economy, but ideally, gain the competitive advantage they need to stay on top. As these initiatives are being formulated, take note of what initiatives are gaining momentum and make connections with the individuals in your organization who are beginning to socialize them. It’s important to make KM a part of what will eventually become the organization’s priorities over the next few years. Whether it is an initiative focused on digital transformation, innovation that leads to new products and services, operational excellence, or a focus on developing human capital, help your organization’s influencers to see how KM can set the necessary foundation or even fast track the initiatives that will ultimately become the organization’s most critical investments. 

Present Costs and Opportunity Cost

In many cases, KM has the ability to sell itself because of the clear value it adds to any organization. The greater question is how to ensure an appropriate budget is allocated to the necessary efforts to mature an organization’s KM capabilities. KM involves an investment in the internal resources who will need to direct their efforts towards the development of a strategy, design, and/or implementation plan. These efforts could be a stand-alone, targeted KM solution, such as an enterprise taxonomy or search tool, or a more comprehensive and holistic set of KM solutions that complement one another. In addition to internal resources, you’ll want to consider how much it costs to invest in getting outside expertise from consultants who specialize in these niche fields, as well as the technology enhancements or additions necessary to help enable your KM solution(s). Having a realistic estimate of the capital and operational budget you’ll need to achieve your KM goals will help you to request the appropriate amounts so that you don’t fall short of following through on the promises you’ve made to your executive team. Make sure to get guidance from those who have either funded or led similar KM efforts.

In terms of opportunity costs, don’t forget to consider the benefits you are not gaining from failing to act more quickly in addressing your organization’s KM needs. My colleague, Lulit Tesfaye, shares critical insight into The Cost of Doing Nothing when it comes to KM. For every day that goes by that you do not begin designing and implementing KM solutions, you are wasting time and money resulting from people spending far too much time looking for information or duplicating content that already exists. Without proper KM programs, institutional knowledge easily slips out of the organization when someone leaves for another job or when they retire, which results in an inordinate amount of resources spent on training and upskilling new team members. The longer an organization waits to invest in KM efforts, the more time and resources it takes to resolve and correct the issues that have now become commonplace in your organization. Decision makers should understand that your sense of urgency is directly tied to how a lack of KM is affecting the organization’s bottom line. When presenting your business case, be sure to incorporate the opportunity cost of not taking action quickly when you present the Return on Investment (ROI) for the KM efforts you are proposing. 

Provide Expected Outcomes and Benefits

In Measuring the Success of KM Digital Transformation, I share various ways to measure the success of KM efforts. A common misstep people can make is confusing the solution itself with the outcome. Be sure to make that distinction clear. For example, successfully launching a centralized Knowledge Base is a milestone worth celebrating, but the Knowledge Base is the solution. Make sure to explore what that Knowledge Base is allowing you to do that you weren’t able to do prior to its implementation. In this example, the questions you should be asking include:

  • Will people no longer need to go to multiple repositories to find the resources they need? 
  • Will they be able to more quickly make decisions and provide internal and external  customers with the information they need to resolve issues and take action?
  • Will they spend less time looking for information and more time being productive?

By clearly outlining what people will be able to do differently as a result of your solutions, you will be able to help shed light on why KM is worth the investment. Be prepared to discuss the specific stakeholder groups in and outside of your organization and have clear explanations of what’s in it for them. Perhaps, the business development department will have better access to past proposals to help close deals faster or your customer service team will be able to increase satisfaction ratings and decrease the time it takes to close tickets. Not only does articulating the benefits of KM help you to gain buy-in for your proposed solution(s), it also helps to define the ways in which you will measure whether or not you achieved your expected outcomes.

Define How You’ll Measure Benefits Over Time

Beyond knowing what to measure, you should also think about how you will measure success. Most KM technology, including content repositories, search engines, and collaboration tools make it easy to natively track user analytics, but you’ll want to design your proposed KM Analytics Plan to produce the necessary outputs you need to report out on your progress. Oftentimes a dashboard that centralizes analytics pulled from various sources can help to tell a compelling story of how your KM efforts are moving the needle in terms of helping your organization achieve its goals. A few things to consider:

  • What will you measure?
  • How often will you measure?
  • Are there ways to automate analytics capture and consolidation?
  • What information do you want to present in your dashboard?
  • Who will be responsible for ensuring that the inputs are accurate and reliable? Who will be responsible for designing and maintaining your KM Analytics dashboard?

To supplement quantitative results, also consider measuring qualitative feedback using employee surveys conducted either electronically or via interviews and focus groups. This will give you a full picture of the impact your KM efforts are having on the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that matter to your organization.

Support Your Case With Strategies for Success 

It’s not enough to articulate what your proposed KM solutions are and how they will benefit the organization. You’ll want to strengthen your business case by explaining the methodologies you’ll be applying in order to increase adoption of the new KM technology or ways of working. In my Agile, Design Thinking, and Change Management course, we explore tools, methods, and techniques for avoiding the common mistakes that cause KM projects to fail. These strategies include:

  • Taking an Agile approach so that you’re delivering value to the organization within weeks and months rather than years.
  • Using Design Thinking principles to prioritize the challenges you focus on and design your solutions in an innovative way that takes into account the experience of those who will ultimately benefit from them.
  • Implementing an Integrated Change Management Plan to decrease resistance to change and increase the likelihood that people adjust to the changes you’re introducing.

What these disciplines have in common is that they take into account input and feedback from  the various individuals who should be involved throughout the process of planning, implementing, and maintaining your KM solutions. Incorporating these methodologies for success in your business case will help you to gain the trust and confidence you need from decision makers.

Present Investment Options 

Given that there is no silver bullet for KM, it can often be quite an investment to implement the foundational elements of KM along with all of the KM solutions that build on top of them to further mature your KM capabilities. Keep in mind that there is no one technology or solution that fixes all of the challenges that can be solved with KM, so your decision makers may experience sticker shock when they see how much KM costs over time. The key point to remember is that KM doesn’t necessarily require one large investment. You can offer various options for investing in KM that allow for smaller investments over time as you begin to reap the benefits of your initial investment. For example, rather than investing in a multi-year, multi-million dollar KM initiative, you can provide options for pilot projects that introduce Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) or Proofs of Concepts (PoCs) of the various KM solutions you’re proposing. It’s always good to present options to try or sample before you buy. Alternatively, you want to take into consideration the economies of scale that can be gained from taking a holistic approach to KM and investing in comprehensive effort. Be sure to lay out all of these options and share the pros and cons of choosing one over the other.

Provide Case Studies and Benchmarks

Lastly, KM sounds great in theory, but without roots in practical applications of KM principles, methods, and tools, KM projects can fail because they are too abstract or conceptual in nature. By connecting with organizations who have had similar experiences and successes with KM projects and presenting those stories to your senior managers and executives, you are able to strengthen your case for investing in something that has been proven to work in a similar organization.  If you need some starting points, check out the Case Studies and Success Stories we have on our site. Keep in mind, however, that although there are organizations that are more successful in reaping the benefits of KM, there is no single organization that is the benchmark for all things KM-related. Be specific in presenting case studies in a targeted way so that you do not set unrealistic expectations regarding your KM solutions. Take the time to speak to KM practitioners regarding their lessons learned because more often than not, the road to these successes were paved with obstacles and unexpected circumstances that were overcome. 

Conclusion

Knowledge Management is not a trend, buzz word, or fad. Although, in its history, it may have been associated with failed attempts at harnessing institutional knowledge, it is and always will be a critical element to any organization’s success. Whether you call it “KM” or not, your organization needs a strategy and plan for connecting people to the knowledge and information they need to do their job and it’s up to you to develop a case for why. If you need help developing your business case, Contact Us at Enterprise Knowledge. We’re ready to help!

Mary Little Mary Little Mary Little is an expert advisor and management consultant in the area of knowledge management strategy and implementation. She ardently believes in the value of servant leadership, effective communication, human-centered design, and maximized talent potential as means to organizational change and success. More from Mary Little »