Guide: What Is Knowledge Management

Wonder what is knowledge management? You will be surprised how core knowledge management definition is actually as cave-simple as the ancient cave paintings


Written by: Josh Brown

Published: February 01 2019

Does your company still use paper handbooks, PDFs, text documents or emails to store and share the knowledge that is reused within the company and presented to newly hired employees? 

You might find yourself astonished when you realize how backward and inefficient these technologies might be and more importantly how this invisible lack of appropriate knowledge management might be the main reason your company is slowly losing the race with your competition.

What is Knowledge Management

In order to get us closer to the core knowledge management definition, we need to go back in past and see what happened there more than 17 THOUSANDS years ago.

Yep, no kidding!

Roughly 17.300 years ago an anonymous guy decided to draw this horse on a cave rock located in Lascaux, France:

Cave painting of a horse at Lascaux

Today, we have a good reason to believe that this kind of drawing might be actually one of the very first clues of knowledge management, regardless the fact that the term “knowledge management” itself was coined only couple of decades ago.

Although these, and some pretty much older cave paintings, are widely considered as pure art, some scientist believe that these paintings were actually made in order to memorize the behavior of animals and to teach others some basic hunting and survival skills.

Yes, knowledge management is actually that CAVE-SIMPLE!

Knowledge Management Definition

In its core, knowledge management is nothing more than finding the best way to record the knowledge so it could be easily reused on demand to teach someone to do something.

All incredible technology achievements we have today are actually the result of knowledge management and knowledge sharing run for thousands of years. However, we only saw amazingly rapid progress when we started using new technologies in order to fasten the process of recording, categorizing and sharing knowledge.

Therefore, the quality of knowledge management is directly dependent on the quality of the tools that are used for it.

A Brief History of Knowledge Management Tools

Having in mind that quality of knowledge management is closely related with the quality of the tools and systems used for it, we need to take a brief look on the history of the tools used for thousands of years to share the knowledge (and you could note how every time a new, better technology for knowledge management and knowledge sharing emerged humanity saw a tremendous progress in technology and life).

As said before, ancient “knowledge management” started in form of cave paintings, and gradually advanced to hieroglyphs and other similar symbols engraved on wooden and rock plates – these are considered to be the earliest forms of knowledge management known to us and the trails of these can be traced back to more than 30.000 years in past.

Man-prisoner hieroglyph – ancient form of “knowledge management”

Handwritten scrolls made of leather and papyrus and later handwritten books were the next big thing in knowledge sharing and knowledge management – they were used as early as before 3000 BC.

Dead Sea scrolls – an ancient form of recording knowledge

Printed books brought a true revolution in knowledge management. Although Chinese and Koreans were using their printing machines as early as 600 AD, a guy from Europe named Johannes Gutenberg took all the credits for developing first printing machine in 15th century.

A recreated model of Gutenberg press at the International Printing Museum

After printing machines became popular and with the invention of other technologies for faster paper production, costs of printing books have been significantly reduced which led to publication of thousands of books.

Since then, there wasn’t actually plenty of progress in knowledge management when it comes to technology, until couple of decades ago. Although books were cheap enough and there were libraries with hundreds of thousands of books, categorizing and cataloging books and indexing information i.e. knowledge stored within the books was a never ending nightmare for those who were doing this kind of jobs.

If you were about to search for a page or a document, even with the best catalogization you would probably need to spend hours and days or maybe even months in order to find the information.

Finally, the invention of computers and the internet skyrocketed knowledge management like nothing before.

Yep, that’s how the world’s first computer ENIAC looked like.

Soon after the invention of computers and relevant information-storing technologies a brand new term has been coined in order to describe the most advanced knowledge management tool by now: A KNOWLEDGE BASE.

Knowledge Management Tools That Are Used Today

Since the invention of computers and later of the internet, a lot of improvements have been done regarding knowledge management technologies. In fact, knowledge management has never been studied as systematically as after the invention of modern computers. Large corporations like IBM have invested tons of money to develop their own knowledge management tools and systems.

A variety of tools are being used today for knowledge management such as cloud computing (SaaS) solutions or custom installed software. These are mostly developed around features like cataloging and categorization, collaboration, content and data management, discussion boards, FAQ, self service portals and most importantly searchability of the gathered data.

It is not that easy anymore to follow on with all of the latest tools that are being made for knowledge management and custom designed for various forms of knowledge management systems. However, one is for sure; the backbone of any knowledge management tool is a knowledge base and technology for making it searchable.

Actually, what once were cave paintings, scrolls and books for knowledge management, today these are knowledge bases as the most advanced knowledge management tool by now.

In essence, knowledge base is used to store information and knowledge and make it easy to search and access.

So, if you’re planning your knowledge management strategy, you will need to consider having a kind of knowledge base software to be one of the main tools to rely on.

Get free copy of our ebook on how to use internal knowledge base to super-power your organization:

Using Knowledge Management For Business

Today, when companies are running their businesses from offices located all over the world, the need of implementing a proper knowledge management strategy has never been greater.

From large corporations that run their businesses globally to small companies, knowledge management brings numerous benefits on the fields of internal collaboration, employee onboarding and training and customer service issues.

Although various forms of knowledge management are being used within companies and organizations, there’s one major distinction which can be applied when it comes to types of knowledge management used for businesses:

Internal knowledge management which is used internally within a company for internal collaboration and sharing knowledge between employees.

External knowledge management which is primarily customer-oriented and is most commonly used regarding various issues with customers and for providing better customer support.

Internal Knowledge Management For Better Collaboration

The main purpose of internal knowledge management is gathering all of the relevant data and information and providing employees with the ability to serve themselves when it comes to learning required techniques and accessing necessary data in order to execute their tasks.

Many studies (like the McKinsey’s one) have been conducted by now, regarding internal collaboration. If you haven’t read any of these by now, you will be amazed with how much of time and money can be saved within a company by improving internal knowledge management strategy.

According to the study mentioned above, average interaction worker spends as much as 20% of their worktime searching and asking other employees for information and knowledge they need in order to do their tasks. Furthermore, implementing a searchable knowledge base can reduce up to 35% of the time spent searching for the information.

As you can see, something as simple as a knowledge base with relevant knowledge containing articles stored in it can make a huge effect on internal collaboration. The bigger the company the bigger are the needs for implementing a form of internal knowledge management.

Let’s quickly have listed some of the most common examples of how businesses can benefit from internal knowledge management:

Better collaboration

As mentioned before, implementing even the simplest internal knowledge management system within a company can reduce the number of repetitive “how to” questions asked which, more often than not, are boring to ask and boring to answer.

As a consequence, this might also lead to improving quality of communication within the company once no one has to ask or answer trivial questions anymore.

Better Employee Training and Onboarding

Internal knowledge management is crucial for employee training and onboarding, especially for mid-sized and large knowledge-oriented companies where there’s the need to hire a number of employees every week or month.

Organizing basecamps and training sessions is certainly a proven way to go, but this isn’t always the best solution and it takes time and human resources and costs plenty of money. Implementing a proper knowledge management strategy specially designed for employee onboarding can save lot of time and money.

Better Customer Service and Improved customer satisfaction

Customer service and customer support departments are a great example of how businesses can benefit from running a proper knowledge management strategy.

Although customer relations departments often require developing external knowledge management strategy, these departments can also benefit from internal one. Customer service workers are most certainly among these who need the access to the most of the knowledge about the company and product in order to ensure the best service for the customers. Appropriate record of internal knowledge can save the day (and probably the year) for these departments.

If you are using a proper knowledge management tool, i.e. knowledge base you can easily turn relevant sections of your internal knowledge to become external and available to customers. This will be discussed later on in the external knowledge management section of this article.

As you can see, implications of internal knowledge management are numerous and it is even impossible to count all of the benefits. The cool part of this is that knowledge management itself can induce development of new ideas and ways how can it (KM) be used to improve the business. Having something as simple as searchable knowledge base can bring a true revolution within the company and is a great way to invest for the future.

For more information about benefits of using internal knowledge management strategy, check out our previously published article: 7 Shiny Gold Benefits of Having Internal Knowledge Base

External Knowledge Management For Better Customer Service And Customer Satisfaction

Although external knowledge management relies on pretty much same technologies and knowledge gathering and sharing techniques used for internal KM, it is slightly different.

While internal knowledge management is focused on sharing and distribution of information and knowledge within the company between employees, external knowledge management focuses primarily on gathering and organizing knowledge that will be shared with customers, suppliers etc. who are not directly included in the process of creating and managing knowledge bases.

One of the most common appliances of external knowledge management is within customer relations and customer service departments.

The main purpose of external knowledge management is to create a portal (often called as just “knowledge base”) where customers and third party collaborators and partners can access the data, information and any common knowledge that can help them to solve their issues while using given services related to the company.

Implementing something as simple as a record of frequently asked questions and making it searchable and easy to access to the customers can significantly reduce the number of customer support requests.

See how EventGeek uses Helpjuice to dramatically cut down number of customer support requests:

Here are some of the benefits of implementing proper external knowledge management strategy:

Reducing Costs by Cutting Down the Number of Customer Support Requests

External knowledge management i.e. external knowledge base is a great way to go if you want to reduce the number of customer support requests.

Implementing a knowledge base to your help center pages will allow your customers to self-serve themselves and find the answers to frequently asked questions about your products or services. This way you can cut down up to 50% of your customer support requests just by implementing a simple knowledge base with a handful of relevant articles.

To start your own external knowledge base you actually don’t need too much, if you have a record of your most commonly answered questions, you are good to go and customer will love anything that will save their time they would otherwise spend filling a support ticket and waiting for the answer.

For more info about cutting down customer support requests with knowledge base, see our previous article: Cheat Sheet: Cutting Down Customer Support Requests With Knowledge Base.

Saving Time for Your Customers and Making Them Happier

As mentioned before, no one in general wants to spend their time asking questions if they can find the answers on their own. Plenty of studies have been conducted regarding self service and the fact is that customers generally love it.

Having your own self-service help center page is a kind of standard today, even for small companies and startups.

Improving the Quality of Customer Service and Focusing on Your Clients’ Real Needs and Issues

External knowledge management should serve to help your customers and partners to find the answers to general questions which can be answered by a machine.

Once you get rid off these repetitive questions you will be able to channel all of your attention towards solving real issues with your product and focusing more on your customers and you can start thinking about something such as proactive customer service.

Planning Your Knowledge Management Strategy

Whether you are planning internal or external knowledge management strategy, you can apply following steps to get your knowledge management system up and running.

Defining the Access Roles

First of all, you need to define who will be accessing the knowledge that is about to be stored. You need to plan this early because other steps like defining the type of knowledge that is going to be gathered will depend on this.

You will need to answer here a couple of questions such as: whether it will be the internal or external knowledge; whether this knowledge will be accessible to just your employees or just your customers, suppliers etc. or a single group of employees and customers.

Even if you are about to gather the knowledge which is going to be used by very specific group of employees, you still might want to plan the possible expansion of your knowledge management to cover other groups of employees or customers.

Defining Whose Knowledge is Going to Be Gathered and By Who

The next step is to define from which group (or groups) of your employees the knowledge will be collected and who is going to do that.

This step requires to determine what’s the most crucial knowledge that needs to be stored and start from that point.

At some point, your gathered knowledge will need an editor who will have to take care that all of the stored knowledge is structured correctly and is in accordance with the tools you will be using for storing the knowledge.

Defining the Tools and Technology for Managing the Knowledge

As we have discussed this earlier, knowledge management is tightly related with the technologies and tools used for it. Therefore, planning exact tools that will be used for storing and managing the knowledge is one of the most crucial steps.

The previous two steps highly depend on this one. Choosing a proper software solution might help you save some time and human resources when it comes to gathering, editing and contributing the knowledge.

As mentioned before, a searchable knowledge base should be the backbone of any knowledge management tool. You will need a software with a search option that really works, especially if you’re collecting larger amount of knowledge.

Since the knowledge will most likely be stored in form of articles, there needs to be a kind of content management system integrated with your knowledge base with the ability to give different access roles to those who will be browsing and contributing/editing the knowledge.

Gathering the Knowledge

Whether you are planning an internal knowledge management strategy or external one, one of the main issues you will have to deal with is gathering the knowledge.

In fact, this is the main purpose of the whole knowledge management thing – to gather the knowledge from experts in your team so you can reuse that knowledge to educate and train your newly hired employees and to store it to be accessible whenever it’s needed. Therefore, this is one of the very first steps that have to be done when planning a KM strategy.

This is the part of the process where your employees need to jump in and contribute with their relevant information and knowledge.

Depending on the size of the company, various methods can be applied in order to get your employees to contribute with their knowledge. For sure, motivating employees to do anything is a challenge of its own kind. Therefore, this step has to be taken seriously by those who are developing the strategy and by the employees who will be contributing their knowledge.

One of the ways this can be done is by applying so-called high-involvement working environment strategy developed by Edward Lawler, a well known organizational effectiveness scholar.

Although high-involvement working environment practices could be applied anywhere where increased employee engagement is needed, they seem to be perfect to use for harvesting the knowledge.

According to Edward Lawler, in order to create high-involvement working environment all you have to do is provide employees with power, information, knowledge and rewards.

These principles are easy to apply within your knowledge management strategy:

Employees who provide knowledge should be treated as experts who have something valuable to share with others. Consequently, they will feel like they have the power to tell others what to do.

Declaring your knowledge gathering campaign as a kind of top-secret activity or simply sharing all of your plans and introducing your employees with the knowledge management strategy and how company will benefit from it will make employees more open to share their “secret” knowledge with you.

Finally, setting up a rewards system for those who contribute the most should make your employees scramble to get involved.

See our previous post on how to engage employees to contribute to knowledge base for more information about this.

Using Helpjuice’s Knowledge Base As Your Internal and External Knowledge Management Tool

Helpjuice team is totally dedicated to developing a knowledge base tool which is perfect for both, internal and external knowledge management.

Regardless if you are planning an external or internal knowledge management strategy, or both, Helpjuice software can be used to do that.

Helpjuice knowledge base software includes also a content management system for writing and editing knowledge base articles and defining the different access roles.

The main feature is still ease of access to the stored knowledge for the end users as well as for the editors and knowledge base administrators. Once stored, the knowledge is easy to search or to be accessed by previously defined structure of categories which, as the rest of ux-design can be easily customized to look just as you wish.

For more information about Helpjuice knowledge base features, you might want to check this article: Under the Hood: Meet the Brand New Helpjuice V4 Dashboard! or sign up for a free demo.

Ready to try our knowledge base software?

Start scaling your customer support, and collaborate better with your team.