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Sailing a ship towards the right direction

Why knowledge management is a crucial element in the strategic compass

As sea captains cannot monitor every single thing on deck, they have to rely on their compass and the information provided by their chief mate to steer the ship towards the right destination. In a similar way, CEOs use their carefully designed corporate strategy to sail their ship into the desired direction. They do so in close alignment with their C-level peers, who are responsible for executing the strategy and fueling back essential and valuable information. Yet, these information channels and tools are not error-free, as illustrated by yearly reports on ship accidents and company bankruptcies.

Surprised by burning platforms

Imagine that one night at sea, the captain is surprised by a deafening smoke alarm: the kitchen is on fire. After the chaos, the captain finds out that the fire was caused by a part of the kitchen installation, of which the security inspection advised against using it already one year ago. Considering the strict operational budget, the Prevention Team did not recognize this advice as a priority and briefed it to the chief mate as only a minor risk. The captain was not aware of any of this, there was no way for him to have avoided this emergency situation. As a consequence, he promptly decides to introduce an additional weekly captain-review-meeting to avoid future unanticipated issues on the operational side. Now, if you replace the fire on deck by losing a key account to a competitor, you get where this parallel is going.

More chats and reporting will not prevent the fire

C-level managers often grab to corporate governance tools, such as introducing more meetings and reports, when feeling that they are lacking crucial bottom-up knowledge. However, adding another meeting to your agenda is not necessarily a sustainable solution for knowledge management issues. In essence, knowledge management refers to getting the right knowledge to the right person at the right time. Corporate governance, on the other hand, focuses on setting up a system of rules and practices to direct and control the organization. Although knowledge management and corporate governance are oftentimes intertwined, simply installing an additional meeting does not automatically imply that knowledge gaps belong to the past.

Prepare for smooth sailing

Structurally embed weak signals

So, how to handle knowledge management issues in a more grounded way? Start by reviewing your current way of transferring information throughout the organization. Obviously, knowledge does not only reside at the top of a company. Even more, employees closer to the field usually sense weak signals on market dynamics a lot earlier. Think of a sales representative who receives direct feedback from a customer. To make sure this information lands at the right places in the organization, it is crucial to install the appropriate processes and systems that allow for exchanging such insights.

Back-up every Single Point Of Failure

Be aware that some people might actually have become irreplaceable within a company because of their knowledge. Single Points Of Failure are employees with very specific, often tacit, knowledge within the company. Tacit knowledge is rather intuitive and largely experience based, while explicit knowledge is all the know-how that is written down and reported. SPOFs should be de-risked by encouraging and incentivizing these individuals to make their knowledge explicit by training other colleagues.

Promote an organizational culture of knowledge sharing

Encouraging people to share knowledge might initiate resistance. Employees can feel threatened, and as such, they might react very defensively when it comes to 'their' knowledge domain. Promoting a knowledge-sharing culture can mitigate this resistance, for example by adding knowledge dissemination as one of the yearly evaluation criteria, organizing internal workshops for knowledge dissemination, and openly praising colleagues who spontaneously share their knowledge.

Authored by Jolien Vandenbroele, Strategy and Innovation Consultant