How do you operationalize knowledge?

By Deane Barker

In the science of statistics, there’s something called “operationalization.” This means taking some logical end state and figuring out how that’s going to be expressed in statistics.

From Wikipedia:

Operationalization is the process of defining a fuzzy concept so as to make the concept measurable and to understand it in terms of empirical observations

Want to find out what effect the addition of candy machines has on the weight of high school students? That’s a lofty goal, but how exactly are you specifically going to do that? I assume you’ll need to gather specific numbers on prior weights, location of the machines, times they were installed, etc. You have to operationalize this information into hard numbers before you can slice and dice them.

Simply put, to operationalize something means to bring it down from a high-level logical concept into something you can actually work with and do something about.

Which brings me to “knowledge management” (KM), which is a high-concept term if there ever was one. In a broad sense, KM means to manage the knowledge resources of an organization with all the care and strategy that, say, a retailer would manage their physical resources. To manage knowledge as a strategic asset.

You can bet a car dealer knows exactly how many and what type of cars are on his lot at any time. After all, he sells cars for a living – they are how he makes money. There’s a good chance you work at a company that sells knowledge, either directly in the form of consulting or professional services, or indirectly in the process of selling or delivering something else of value. If the car dealer knows exactly how many Toyota Celica’s he has on the lot, do you know how many different methods exist for selling your product to customers? No? Is this piece of knowledge not as important to your company as a Toyota Celica is to the car dealer?

The fact is, someone at your firm does know this piece of information. More likely, it’s more than just one person. The knowledge of how to best sell your product exists is in the distributed heads of your 463 global sales reps around the world. The goal of KM is to codify and manage that – to drag that information out of the heads of individual people, and put it into a more public arena where it can be shared and developed.

This is a noble goal. We’re going to suck the data out of people’s brains in a river of knowledge, and spread out among the company. We’ll be better, more nimble, more experienced, more X – the list of advantages goes on and on.

Note that there are other ways of achieving KM. Job swaps, mentoring programs, conferences, etc. are all ways companies try to distribute and share knowledge. However, in the end, a massive percentage of KM methodologies involve some form of knowledge operationalization.

But, how do you do this? There’s no denying that you have the knowledge somewhere. But how do you operationalize it for a KM initiative? How do you get it in some form where it can be managed? Do you throw a wiki out there? Install Sharepoint? Give everyone a blog?

Bob Boiko, author of the Content Management Bible wrote a lesser-known book called Laughing at the CIO which is a good example of what happens when a naïve CEO tries to force systems onto staff. It’s a great book which starts with a work of fiction about the CIO and how he tries to get a KM platform implemented. Not surprisingly, it’s a disaster.

So, in the spirit of Mr. Boiko, here’s my work of fiction about the reality of operationalizing knowledge –

Consider Bob in your Witchita office. Bob is a great salesman – a veteran. He’s been selling your product for 35 years, and has gotten really good at it. He’s consistently a top performer, and the only reason he’s not an executive is because he refuses to leave Witchita and he genuinely loves customer contact and the thrill of the chase.

You desperately want to be able to share the knowledge in Bob’s head with the rest of the organization. There are freshly-minted college grads who are struggling, and longer-term sales reps who could be doing better. Bob’s knowledge could help them. To make the situation more urgent, Bob is thinking about retiring. He’s going to leave the company and take all that knowledge with him.

What do you do about this? You can launch a KM initiative, but it’s going to run smack into our central problem: how do you operationalize knowledge? How exactly do you make tacit knowledge explicit? How do you wrap some explicit structure around a thought in someone’s head?

For instance, Bob knows intuitively that on the first visit to a prospect’s office he should look around for some evidence of their religious inclination so he can specifically send a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah (Qwanza, whatever) card in December. He’s done this for years, and it’s really effective. He usually gets a call of thanks for his thoughtfulness, and that invariably leads to a longer conversation about your product.

Now, this is a great bit of knowledge. This is something you desperately wish the 18 college grads you hired last year could know.

You’re going to run into two problems right away, both of which I’ll mention then shove aside:

  1. First, Bob has to be aware that this is valuable knowledge worth sharing. Some people know this, some don’t. Some go to their graves with amazing bits of knowledge that they really could have shared with the world, but they didn’t realize what they were sitting on.

  2. Second, Bob has to be willing to share. Fact is, a lot of people have hang-ups about sharing for whatever reason – territorialism, job security, immaturity, etc.

But, this isn’t my point, so let’s dismiss these two points by saying that Bob knows he has a ton of good knowledge to share, and he’s altruistic to a fault and would love to pass this information on to the next generation of sales reps.

Now what?

At some point, you simply have to record Bob’s knowledge, and therein lies the rub. What form does it take? How does it get organized? How does it seem more like a cohesive body of stuff and less like random scraps of information?

At the core of this problem is this: there’s really no standard unit of information for knowledge.

Some time ago, Google launched Google Knol. In doing so, they tried to coin a new word. A “knol” was “a unit of knowledge.” The idea is that people would write these “knols” to represent a single, self-contained chunk of knowledge (I wrote one, in fact). The fact that Google had to invent a word is telling – there was no existing word for this.

(Important here is the use of the word “knowledge.” There are differences between “data,” “information,” and “knowledge,” but a discussion of this is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that “30%” is a unit of data. “Year-over-year customer sales increased 30%” is a unit of information. Why this happened and what it means for the company is a unit of knowledge. Boiko’s Content Management Bible devotes a lot of space to this difference.)

So, back to Bob’s intuitive knowledge that when he first enters the prospect’s office, he should look for a yarmulke or a crucifix. What is this? A tip? A method? A procedure? If we wrote this down in a single paragraph, it would be valuable, but what would we call it, and how would we distribute it so people can absorb it?

It would look odd just being sent to all the company in an email. Why is this? Because knowledge really has to be framed – it has to be placed in a larger context. It needs to be strung together with other, similar units of knowledge so the recipient can start to frame it and put it in context. If someone is exposed to this unit of knowledge, how do they know the larger environment it lives in? They need to know:

  • Where it comes from. This is straight from Bob, the greatest salesman in the company, and therefore it’s likely a great idea that will help them close deals.

  • Why they should absorb it. The company wants to start sharing knowledge amount sales reps. This is part of a concerted effort.

  • What they are expected to do with it. This needs to be read, absorbed, and put into practice. Management is on-board with this, and they want to see this happening out in the field.

So, a random email is out. But, in a larger sense – is text even the right medium? Perhaps it would be better to record a video or audio recording of Bob talking about it. Bob carries a huge amount of respect in the organization, and he’s articulate and well-liked. It could be that a video of Bob would carry much more impact than just writing this thing down.

(Or maybe we should have a series of luncheons where Bob gets up and speaks? A lot of books have been written about how the most effective knowledge management involves not operationalizing it at all, but lies in inter-person communication and culture. Check out Working Knowledge or Wellsprings of Knowledge.)

What this all means is that the crux of this problem is external to Bob. He has knowledge he wants to share, but there has to be a framework around this sharing to enable him to do so. And by framework, I don’t mean technical system. The underlying technical platform is interchangeable. Rather, there needs to be some method of operationalization. Some accept way to get a single, tacit unit of knowledge into a codified format that exists in a larger structure which helps other people understand it, frame it, and ultimately do something with it.

So, what do we do about Bob? In this case, we decide text is fine and we create a blog on the company intranet called “Sales from the Trenches” to start to codify Bob’s sales experiences. We decide to codify this knowledge in three formats:

  • Tips: Small, simple things you can do to increase your sales effectiveness. These are a paragraph or less.

  • Case Studies: Longer narratives about specific sales situations and how they were solved.

  • Strategies: Accepted company strategies for common sales problems.

We post something to this blog every week. We decide against audio or video, and decide just to post items as text, but to ensure clarity and consistency, we hire an external writer to interview Bob for this information.

Eventually, we expand beyond Bob and start talking to other veteran sales reps, and the external consultant is brought on as a part-time editor. Over time, “Sales from the Trenches” becomes an ingrained part of the company. New hires are expected to read the last year’s posts, it’s incorporated into training, and getting items posted to it becomes a mark of distinction.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking, “That’s knowledge management? A blog?” It seems so…unglamorous. Simplistic, even. There are obviously much more elaborate systems for managing knowledge – indeed, there are entire industry segments and conferences on the topic. But, in the end, there’s one thing they all do well – they help you operationalize knowledge. They do other stuff too (connecting people is another big competency), but if they can’t help you operationalize your knowledge, then what’s the point?

So, my point is simply this: KM is the abstract doesn’t help anyone. There comes a point where you have to drag the theoretical into the actual. You have to take knowledge from this abstract plane and operationalize it so people can get some use out of it.

Put more simply: at some point, you have to write it down and distribute it. How much thought have you put into this part of it? Understand that, and you’re halfway there.

This is item #129 in a sequence of 356 items.

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