All businesses have access to an extensive pool of knowledge - whether this is their understanding of customers' needs and the business environment or the skills and experience of staff.
The way a business gathers, shares and exploits this knowledge can be central to its ability to develop successfully. This doesn't just apply to huge multinational companies. Knowledge management can benefit everyone from a local newsstand to a manufacturing firm.
This guide explains the basic sources of knowledge available to your business, how you can best harness and exploit this information and how to create a knowledge strategy for your business.
What is knowledge in a business?
Using knowledge in your business isn't necessarily about thinking up clever new products and services, or devising ingenious new ways of selling them. It's much more straightforward.
Useful and important knowledge already exists in your business. It can be found in:
- the experience of your employees
- the designs and processes for your goods and services
- your files of documents (whether held digitally, on paper or both)
- your plans for future activities, such as ideas for new products or services
The challenge is harnessing this knowledge in a coherent and productive way.
Existing forms of knowledge
- You've probably done market research into the need for your business to exist in the first place. If nobody wanted what you're selling, you wouldn't be trading. You can tailor this market knowledge to target particular customers with specific types of product or service.
- Your files of documents from and about customers and suppliers hold a wealth of information which can be invaluable both in developing new products or services and improving existing ones.
- Your employees are likely to have skills and experience that you can use as an asset. Having staff who are knowledgeable can be invaluable in setting you apart from competitors. You should make sure that your employees' knowledge and skills are passed on to their colleagues and successors wherever possible, e.g. through brainstorming sessions, training courses and documentation. See the page in this guide: create a knowledge strategy for your business.
Your understanding of what customers want, combined with your employees' know-how, can be regarded as your knowledge base.
Using this knowledge in the right way can help you run your business more efficiently, decrease business risks and exploit opportunities to the full. This is known as the knowledge advantage.
Basic sources of knowledge
Your sources of business knowledge could include:
- Customer knowledge - you should know your customers' needs and what they think of you. You may be able to develop mutually beneficial knowledge sharing relationships with customers by talking to them about their future requirements, and discussing how you might be able to develop your own products or services to ensure that you meet their needs.
- Employee and supplier relationships - seek the opinions of your employees and your suppliers - they'll have their own impressions of how you're performing. You can use formal surveys to gather this knowledge or ask for their views on a more informal basis.
- Market knowledge - watch developments in your sector. How are your competitors performing? How much are they charging? Are there any new entrants to the market? Have any significant new products been launched?
- Knowledge of the business environment - your business can be affected by numerous outside factors. Developments in politics, the economy, technology, society and the environment could all affect your business' development, so you need to keep yourself informed. You could consider setting up a team of employees to monitor and report on changes in the business world.
- Professional associations and trade bodies - their publications, academic publications, government publications, reports from research bodies, trade and technical magazines.
- Trade exhibitions and conferences - these can provide an easy way of finding out what your competitors are doing and to see the latest innovations in your sector.
- Product research and development - scientific and technical research and development can be a vital source of knowledge that can help you create innovative new products - retaining your competitive edge.
- Organisational memory - be careful not to lose the skills or experience your business has built up. You need to find formal ways of sharing your employees' knowledge about the best ways of doing things. For example, you might create procedural guidance based on your employees' best practice. See the page in this guide: create a knowledge strategy for your business.
- Non-executive directors - these can be a good way for you to bring on board specialised industry experience and benefit from ready-made contracts.
Exploiting your knowledge
Consider the measurable benefits of capturing and using knowledge more effectively. The following are all possible outcomes:
- An improvement in the goods or services you offer and the processes that you use to sell them. For example, identifying market trends before they happen might enable you to offer products and services to customers before your competitors.
- Increased customer satisfaction because you have a greater understanding of their requirements through feedback from customer communications.
- An increase in the quality of your suppliers, resulting from better awareness of what customers want and what your staff require.
- Improved staff productivity, because employees are able to benefit from colleagues' knowledge and expertise to find out the best way to get things done. They'll also feel more appreciated in a business where their ideas are listened to.
- Increased business efficiency, by making better use of in-house expertise.
- Better recruitment and staffing policies. For instance, if you've increased knowledge of what your customers are looking for, you're better able to find the right staff to serve them.
- The ability to sell or license your knowledge to others. You may be able to use your knowledge and expertise in an advisory or consultancy capacity. In order to do so, though, make sure that you protect your intellectual property.
Make knowledge central to your business
In order to manage the collection and exploitation of knowledge in your business, you should try to build a culture in which knowledge is valued across your business.
One way to do this might be to offer incentives to staff who supply useful market news or suggest ways customers can be better served. You can use these knowledge management practices throughout your organisation to build better processes.
As part of your knowledge management, you should also make sure that any intellectual property that your business holds is protected. This means that you have the right to stop competitors from copying it - and also allows you to profit by licensing your business' knowledge.
Protecting and exploiting your knowledge base will be more effective if you develop efficient systems for storing and retrieving information. Your files - whether stored digitally or on paper - contain knowledge that you can use to make your products, services, systems and processes better and more customer-focused.
Keep knowledge confidential. Your employment policies play a central role in this. For example, you might get staff to sign non-disclosure agreements (also known as confidentiality agreements) when they join the business as this ensures that they understand the importance of confidentiality from day one. Employment contracts can be written to reasonably limit your employees' freedom to quit and work immediately for one of your rivals (restraint of trade clauses) or set up a competing business to yours in the vicinity (restrictive covenants).
Sharing knowledge across your business
It's essential to avoid important knowledge or skills being held by only a few people, because if they leave or retire that expertise could be lost to your business. If you have efficient ways of sharing knowledge across the business, it will be more widely used and its value and effectiveness are likely to be maximised.
Consider the best ways of sharing new ideas and information with your staff. You may already have regular meetings when you can brief employees and ask them to share ideas and best practice.
You could consider holding innovation workshops or brainstorming sessions at which staff are given the freedom and encouragement to think of ways in which the business could improve.
It can also be a good idea to create a knowledge bank containing useful information and instructions on how to carry out key tasks. Putting this on an intranet is ideal as it will encourage staff to post news or suggestions.
Technology alone isn't the answer to sharing knowledge - it has to be managed carefully so that information is channelled properly. You may decide to appoint a senior manager as knowledge champion for your business. See the page in this guide on how to make knowledge central to your business.
Incentives and training
Remember that offering staff incentives to come up with suggestions for how the business can be improved is often an effective way of getting them to use and share knowledge.
Don't forget the importance of training in spreading key knowledge, skills and best practice across your business.
Create a knowledge strategy for your business
If you want to get the most from your business' knowledge, you need to take a strategic approach to discovering, collating and sharing it. This is done via a knowledge strategy - a set of written guidelines to be applied across the business.
If your strategy is to be effective, you must make sure your senior managers are committed to it and are fully aware of the benefits it can bring. Discuss with them the best ways of collecting and using knowledge.
You may decide to appoint a senior manager as knowledge champion for your business. For more information see the page in this guide on how to make knowledge central to your business.
When you're drawing up the strategy you need to:
- consider how effective your business currently is at using its knowledge
- analyse your internal processes for gathering and sharing information - are there successful ways of generating ideas and do staff have a good grasp of what's happening?
- make sure that knowledge management, acquisition and distribution is a continuing process, so that it becomes central to your business' strategy
You should also identify the value of knowledge to your business. Think of ways you could exploit your knowledge for financial gain - perhaps by gaining a larger market share, developing new products, or selling or licensing your protected intellectual property to others. Ensure this fits in with your overall business plan.
Using information technology to gain and manage knowledge
Information technology offers powerful tools to help you gain and make the best use of knowledge. Some of the systems can be complex to set up and time-consuming to maintain. You need to choose systems that fit with your business and that will improve it without becoming a burden. You may find it useful to consult an IT specialist.
Types of information technology
- Databases organise information so it can be easily accessed, managed and updated. For instance, you might have a database of customers containing their contact information, their orders and preferences.
- A data warehouse is a central storage area you might use if you have a variety of business systems, or a range of information in different digital formats. Many businesses now use digital asset management to store, manage and retrieve information, and this can be particularly helpful if you sell online. It is, however, a complex area technically and in task management, and you may wish to seek specialist advice from an IT consultant.
- Data mining is a process in which all the data you collect is sorted to determine patterns. For instance, it can tell you which products are most popular and whether one type of customer is likely to buy a particular item.
- Reporting and querying tools let you create reports interpreting data in a particular way. How many of your sales have been handled by one particular employee, for instance?
- Business intelligence portals are websites that bring together all sorts of potentially useful information, such as legal issues or details of new research.
- The Internet and search engines - these can be a powerful source of knowledge, although be certain to check the credibility of your information source. Internet newsgroups can be specific sources of business information, but check the authors' other postings before deciding how to view their opinions and claimed facts.
- An intranet is a secure internal network for the sole use of your business.
- An extranet is similar to an intranet but can be extended to customers and suppliers.
- Customer relationship management software helps you build up a profile of your customer database and enables you to target them through e-mail, telephone or postal marketing campaigns.
- Call-centre systems enable you to serve large numbers of customers if you sell by telephone.
- Website log-file analysis helps you to analyse how customers use your website so you can improve its effectiveness.
- Systems to analyse and file customer letters, suggestions, emails, and call centre responses, which will enable you to spot trends, improve customer service and develop new products, services and systems.
Original document, Importance of knowledge to a growing business, © Crown copyright 2009
Source: Business Link UK (now GOV.UK/Business)
Adapted for Québec by Info entrepreneurs