Knowledge management is certainly a hot topic amongst HR professionals today, but I just can’t help but wonder how we really define knowledge? I’m sure there are scientific definitions but my point is what are we so hung up about with this knowledge management thing? Knowledge feels so 20th century. Let me explain what I mean.

We are now operating in a world where precious knowledge, that once rare currency, is now increasingly distributed across networks. Last century, if I had a problem with my radiator or my satnav or my cat, or my medical condition, I’d have to ask an expert. Someone with distinct chunks of carefully accumulated knowledge in their head. It would take me time to locate this expert, and once located, I would do well to pay heed to them. If I didn’t like their approach or opinion I could get a second opinion, but it was a one-to-one thing, one expert at a time.

Now knowledge is more accessible

Today, I Google for the answer. Knowledge resides in many pools across the web – in forums like MoneySavingExpert and Melcrum, in wikis like Wikpedia and in ratings and reviews like those in Checkatrade, Glassdoor, TripAdvisor and Amazon.

Now I get many opinions. They are all flawed, of course, but I filter them, make my decisions and I learn and decide what to trust and what not to, just like in the old days. Notions of knowledge are now changing. Who hasn’t annoyed their doctor or plumber with a sideways mention of ‘what it says on Google’?

OK, so now what?

So as organisations become more porous and as the people that make up our workforces get more and more accustomed to sourcing ‘knowledge’ from wherever they can find it, then how do we best manage and maximise knowledge in the workplace? And is it even knowledge any more, or instead – as I’d suggest – connections. You see personally, I’d take a network of smart, diverse connections over the world’s greatest knowledge resource. Wouldn’t you? Smart networks beat knowledge management in the 21st century.

What does that mean for your organisation?

I think it means 3 things:

  1. Cultivate connectivity, get over knowledge
  2. Open up
  3. Reward networked knowledge

So let’s break these down a bit.

1. Cultivate connectivity, get over knowledge: In HR, we can influence powerful organisational levers around what gets rewarded. Day one, start changing the conversation from desperately trying to get busy people to document their knowledge into empty technological ghettos, and instead focus and invest on getting them to connect with one another. One of the biggest opportunities presently is using social technologies to connect the business better with itself! By linking the guy in Dubai stuck with an Excel problem to the woman in London with the spreadsheet-smarts, we connect knowledge to a problem in a dynamic way. So cultivate this: through your HR technology decisions, through your guidance to managers, through your work with IT and internal comms, and most of all through your daily decisions as an HR function. Cultivate connections first, and the knowledge challenge will begin to sort itself.

2. Open up: The great power of networked knowledge is all of the corners of expertise we couldn’t quite reach before. But to reach it, it has to be open and available. One of the most powerful movements we can then make as HR leaders is to help the organisation see the benefits of openness, internally and externally. As I talk about in my book Culture Shock, openness is a powerful source of advantage in this networked 21st century. So start working on the resistance to openness: challenge the people in your organisation to share more, uncover the barriers that they believe are holding them back, check that policies in both HR but also around corporate firewalls and social media policies allow personnel to contribute to expert forums outside the business as well as inside. Most of all, get the CEO on board. If the most senior person in the organisation – as many are now beginning to – can start role-modelling positive internal sharing of timely, relevant snippets, then the rest of the guys will begin to follow.

3. Reward networked knowledge: Finally, but perhaps most straightforward, if you really want to maximise the value of knowledge in your organisation, reward the right behaviours. We collectively are trying to move our people from a world where knowledge was power to a world where connections are power. That isn’t easy. But it can be done, and how and what we reward is crucial. Find practical ways to signal internally that connecting, sharing and helping others are valued, noticed and rewarded. Use hard and soft rewards, and create momentum. It’s not rocket science, but it works.

And it is with this final thought that I now leave you. What if all 21st century organisations maintained a primary focus around developing and enhancing a smart network of diverse connections, fully tapping into and utiliising the brain power that currently runs through the very veins of their business? For me, this is what the future looks like. Knowledge is so last century, it is now time to connect, to connect well and to connect fast.