Best Knowledge Management Practices Improve Performance

Focus must shift from knowing to doing, researcher says

By SHRM Online staff Sep 6, 2013

Organizations are capturing and sharing the wrong kind of knowledge, according to a new report by the University of Greenwich. Based on a five-year investigation, the report, Transforming Knowledge Management, lays out a pragmatic approach to knowledge management that focuses less on acquiring “knowledge about things” and more on “knowledge of how best to do things” to improve overall performance.

“Knowledge management initiatives have been excessively general and overly complex, and they have not delivered hoped-for results,” University of Greenwich professor and researcher Colin Coulson-Thomas said in a news statement about the study. “A more focused and flexible approach is required that can quickly impact performance, [help] achieve multiple objectives and provide clear benefits to both people and organizations.”

According to Coulson-Thomas: “Many organizations just load material onto a corporate intranet. What is captured and shared is often commodity knowledge that is available to others. It does not differentiate or represent a source of competitive advantage.”So what’s needed, he said, is a shift in emphasis from knowing to doing.

“A shift of emphasis is required from ‘knowing about things’ to ‘knowing how to do things,’ from the storage of knowledge to its access and use, from serving the needs of C-suite executives to helping front-line and key work groups, from ‘top-down’ motivation and management to ‘bottom-up’ support and performance, and from information management to knowledge entrepreneurship,” he wrote in the report, released July 2013. “Performance support can have a quick and direct impact on performance by focusing on knowledge of how to do things and, in particular, how to excel at difficult jobs.”

“There are people who know a great deal about the theory of accounting who[m] I would not ask to prepare a set of accounts,” he noted.

The report questions traditional approaches to knowledge management and sets out a more affordable route to greater returns on investment and to achieving multiple objectives, using mini-case studies that illustrate a successful response to a generic challenge organizations face. Each case study briefly presents the problem, what was done about it, and the results that were achieved, as well as what made a difference in reaching the end result.

Coulson-Thomas also studied and shared what high achievers do differently. Focusing on particular jobs and the requirements for success in them, the recommended approach involves:

  • Assessing the roles and tasks that will be required.
  • Identifying steps in work processes that have the greatest impacts.
  • Ensuring that people in key jobs can excel by providing them with appropriate performance support that captures and shares critical success factors and makes it easier for them to do difficult jobs.

“We need to step up from information management to knowledge-based performance support that helps key workgroups to excel,” he explained. “Personalized help relevant to a particular job, issue or situation should be accessible 24/7 wherever people are, including when on the move. Knowledge management needs to help key workgroups to adopt the superior approaches of high performers. Refocused, it can enable us to create high-performance organizations and teams that remain current, competitive and vital.”

The report shows how the benefits of knowledge-based performance support can include higher productivity, custom responses, reduced stress and proven compliance.

“It may be possible to simultaneously improve quality, cut costs and save time,” he said. “Crucially, we can do all this with existing people, cultures and structures.”

The report is published by Policy Publications in association with Adaptation at


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