Knowledge Management Trends in 2021

The last year has been a big one for Knowledge Management. Technology is advancing rapidly, introducing capabilities around knowledge graphs, ontologies, and enterprise artificial intelligence that seemed like distant possibilities just a few years ago. The pandemic, meanwhile, forced every organization to confront their ability to share knowledge, support their employees, and maintain development and learning in a remote environment. Together, these influences and others are translating to more executive focus on improving KM within their own organizations, making it a real priority for many organizations for the first time ever.

These seven KM trends for 2021 are largely informed by our experience as the largest Knowledge Management Consulting company globally. The trends I identified are based on what we’re seeing from our customers, the new enquiries we’re getting for services, the trends and priorities of our clients, the trends we’re seeing in our proprietary KM maturity benchmark, and the internal surveys we’ve run. These trends represent where KM is today and where I see it going in the years to come.

The first two of these trends (demand for ROI and Artificial Intelligence) are very similar to items from my KM Trends in 2019 and KM Trends in 2020 articles. As I noted last year, these two items are likely to continue trending for the foreseeable future. The remaining five trends pick up some themes from previous years, but certainly reflect more of what’s happening dynamically within KM today. 

Quantifying the Business Value and ROI of Knowledge Management – As I’ve covered in past years, KM initiatives have often suffered from being considered as “nice-to-haves” within an organization, rather than business critical elements that will ensure competitive advantage and quantified business returns. In today’s world, the days of overly academic or theoretical KM have thankfully yielded to an understanding of Enterprise Knowledge Management, comprising and enabling your People’s performance and expertise, the effective application of business Processes, the stewardship and enhancement of all forms of Content, the development and support for company Culture, and the design and integration of enabling Technology to ensure KM is accessible and actionable for your business. This new and comprehensive understanding of KM comes with a requirement that its value is quantifiable and traceable to tangible return on investment for the organization. As more and more organizations are investing in multi-year KM transformations to address their business challenges, they are also rightfully demanding proof that these investments will be worthwhile. EK has invested heavily in metrics and calculators to quantify the value of KM, and these data points, along with a consistent plan to measure the value of KM within your organization, must be a part of any true KM effort.

KM as the Foundation for Artificial Intelligence – Organizations across the globe recognize that Artificial Intelligence must be a priority for them. Many organizations, however, have already realized that they’re ill prepared to seize the opportunities the latest advances in AI offer. What good is a chatbot if it is leveraging incorrect data and content to provide answers? What value does a content assembly engine provide if its source content is old or incorrect? What’s the point of creating an automated expertise locator if you don’t have consistent ways of describing or quantifying the competencies your organization possesses? In order to make AI work for your organization, core KM foundations are critical predecessors. These include the design and maintenance of taxonomies, content governance, cleanup and formatting, definition of content types and search hit types, and automated classification and auto-tagging strategies to ensure connectedness and machine readability of unstructured content across your multiple content repositories. Organizations are quickly realizing that they need to get their KM house in order before they can possibly realize meaningful value from AI.

Knowledge Graphs, Knowledge Graphs, and more Knowledge Graphs – Last year I discussed knowledge graphs as one of the means by which organizations are beginning to realize Knowledge AI capabilities. However, this field has quickly exploded and is one of the key elements on the roadmaps of many organizations, meriting its own unique placement on this list. A knowledge graph is a representation of an organization’s knowledge, work, and work products that can be understood and “read” by both humans and machines. It is a collection of references to your organization’s knowledge assets, content, and data that leverages an ontology to describe your organization’s people, places, and things and how they are related. Knowledge graphs can be used to power smart search, chatbots, recommendation engines, content assembly tools, and a variety of other high-value use cases. Just like AI, knowledge graphs require solid KM foundations, and we’re seeing the organizations who have previously and consistently invested in their KM maturity as those same organizations that are putting valuable knowledge graphs into production most successfully. This trend is particularly important as it provides a proven model for KM to enhance the value of big data by embedding context and tacit/explicit knowledge, thereby serving as a focused product that makes KM real and visible within an organization and elevates its importance in tangible terms.

Refocus on Enterprise Search – Search has experienced its ebbs and flows, but is presently trending strongly as a critical component of a KM transformation, if not the most visible and central element to an organization’s KM initiatives. There are a couple drivers for this. First, the pandemic and consequent sudden dispersion of workforces resulted in a profound realization by many organizations that their newly remote workforce couldn’t easily find the materials they needed to perform their job. This has, of course, been a longstanding issue for many organizations, but one that colocation in offices and cubes helped to shield. Before the pandemic, many employees reported the number one means of finding information within their organizations was social. They’d ask the people they knew for help on what information existed and where to find it, and in turn, those people would ask others. This is a highly inefficient process, but for many organizations it hid their larger findability challenges. The pandemic, however, created physical and geographic barriers, especially for newer employees, resulting in this newfound organizational awareness that they had a search problem. The second big driver for search regaining its prominence is the realization by many organizations that they will never be able to fully consolidate their knowledge, information, and data into a single, or even a few systems. Promises of data lakes and single master content management systems have failed, and so organizations are again focused on uniting content via search instead of trying to physically bring it all together. The final reason search is now trending is that the technology has made another leap, introducing conversational search, graph search, and natural language search as new features that can make search better and more intuitive if designed correctly.

KM as an Enabler for Remote WorkI’ve written previously about the value of KM to remote work, and this past year has served as an unfortunate proof point for this. Organizations suddenly went remote and saw productivity, collaboration, and culture fall behind. KM can enable and improve findability, connections, collaboration, and culture for organizations that are either choosing or being forced to go remote. This concept is not new, but the pandemic made this gap in most organization’s readiness for remote work abundantly clear. Now, some organizations are choosing not to return to their physical offices, necessitating new maturity around KM to enable their long-term ability to perform and learn. This trend, like the Knowledge Graphs trend above, is responsible for greater visibility and recognition for the importance of KM as a dedicated strategy and investment.

360 Views – If you’re a jargon-watcher, you have probably noticed the rapid increase in mentions of “360 Degree Views,” “Customer 360,” “Client 360,” “Company 360,” and “Employee 360.” The concept behind these new marketing terms is the idea of a single, consolidated view of all knowledge, information, and data regarding your entities. Though 360 degree views aren’t typically being discussed in the context of KM, at their core they are very much KM concepts and require KM solutions to make them real. We’re seeing an increase in organizations seeking an Employee 360 Solution and, moreover, recognizing that such a solution will require KM foundations and will itself address existing KM challenges. If designed and implemented correctly, Employee 360 will offer a single integrated view of an employee from the time they are hired, through the work they are doing, the competencies they possess and the competencies they should possess, and through to the time they leave the company (and potentially beyond). It enables better KM by providing a single place to find everything an employee knows and what they have worked on, and integrates Enterprise Learning by powering tools to help the employee develop new skills and competencies so they may progress through the organization. You should expect to hear more about 360 views over the next year, and when you do, look for the KM foundations and solutions that will help to make it real.

Executive Focus – As the individual trends above should express, KM itself is hot again. Executives up to C-levels are setting KM and the associated items discussed above as organizational priorities and investing at levels we haven’t seen before. Services organizations are taking note and working to improve their own KM capabilities, both for themselves as well as for their offerings. Of course the industry has been here before. Executive interest doesn’t mean there isn’t a healthy amount of skepticism and outright lack of trust in KM based on past organizational failures resulting from overly academic and complex KM initiatives. However, the circumstances in business today as well as marked leaps in technology mean that the letters K and M are ones increasingly uttered in C-suites.

As a bonus eighth trend, one that I see as an emerging trend, is Headless CMS and omnichannel delivery, as additional leaps in technology and process gain greater prominence over the year to come. A headless CMS is a platform that facilitates the authoring and management of content that can later be consumed through multiple channels (hence, omnichannel). You can think of a headless CMS as a content repository database that can serve its content to multiple channels and to multiple types of clients. A headless CMS can be viewed as an extensive collection of web services focused on the authoring, management, and retrieval activities of the content management lifecycle, with a UI catering to content authors. Headless CMS and omnichannel is not exclusively a KM trend, but it does introduce a great deal of functionality that fits within the KM realm, including content customization, content assembly, content delivery, and UI customization. 

Overall, there are a few important themes to pull out from all of this. First, I noted last year that there was an increasing trend of the recognition that KM can and should be enabled by technology and that the right technology can be how an organization realizes the most significant business value from overarching KM programs. The fact that we’re now talking about multiple KM technology trends in search, knowledge graphs, Headless CMS, and AI overall continue this trend and put it into focus. The other theme of note is the overall recognition of KM within an organization. Many of these trends demonstrate the common fact that KM is increasingly central to an organization, shifting from a peripheral nice-to-have to a recognized enterprise-wide initiative. KM, definitively, is on the rise (again), and positioned to enable organizational initiatives and power sweeping changes in how we work, perform, and innovate.

If you’re looking for help in realizing business value from any of these KM trends, or are seeking guidance on your own organization’s transformation, get in touch with EK. We’re ready to help.

Zach Wahl Zach Wahl Expert in knowledge and information management strategy, content strategy, and taxonomy design. Zach is passionate about forming and supporting high-functioning teams and facilitating results-focused outcomes with his clients. More from Zach Wahl »