What does it take to make your organization agile? If you go by the tenets of the "Agile Manifesto"—the seminal document on agility in software development—you'll find answers that center around making business operations more flexible and scalable.
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One topic curiously missing from the "Agile Manifesto," however, is knowledge management. It can be easy to overlook the importance of an agile knowledge management process as a building-block for overall agility. Nonetheless, the fact is that without an agile approach to managing and sharing information within your business, you'll struggle to achieve an agile organization.
Here's a look at what agile knowledge management means, and how leadership can help make information agility a reality for their organization.
What is information agility?
The "Agile Manifesto" was created as a way to overhaul traditional software development practices. According to the “Manifesto,” organizations should prioritize processes that work over achieving perfection; simplicity over complexity; and seamless communication between business management and technical staff, to name just a few of the document’s key points.
Although the authors of the “Agile Manifesto” were thinking about software development, not knowledge management, many of the principles that they espoused can be applied to the art of managing and sharing information as well. An agile approach to knowledge management entails the following.
Openness to change
Your knowledge-management requirements today may change tomorrow. Your knowledge management process should be designed to embrace and support the need for constant change.
Focus on results
The success of a knowledge-management solution should be assessed based on whether it works and effectively achieves its intended goals, not whether it is perfect in all ways. Perfection is a distraction.
Wherever possible, knowledge-management systems should prioritize simplicity. It’s better to have a system that is simple to create, manage, and use than one that is sophisticated but overly complicated.
No matter how effective your knowledge-management solution is today, there is always opportunity to make it better. To that end, your organization should consistently evaluate the current system and identify ways to make it better.
Alignment between technical processes and business goals
The most technically sophisticated knowledge-management solution is worthless if it doesn’t address the needs of the business. For this reason, management and technical staff must work together closely to ensure that the design and implementation of knowledge-management tools reflect actual business needs, rather than abstract technical concepts that may or may not translate into business value.
All of these concepts reflect ideas spelled out in the “Agile Manifesto.” They’re a good starting point for designing a knowledge-management solution that reinforces the overall agility of your organization.
Other qualities of agile knowledge management
That said, agile knowledge management shouldn’t be based solely on the principles of the agile software movement. After all, knowledge management is not software development.
There are a few key principles to add in order to achieve information agility.
Knowledge management should be a self-service affair
First and foremost is the principle that, whenever possible, the users of a knowledge-management system should be able to get out of it what they need, on their own, with minimal assistance from others. In other words, knowledge should be self-serviceable.
Self-serviceability doesn’t come up within the context of the agile software movement, probably because the concept doesn’t really make much sense when you’re dealing with software. (Most end-users of software don’t need to be able to “service” their software themselves.)
But when it comes to knowledge management, self-serviceability is key for ensuring seamless, efficient access to information. The more barriers you have separating the users of knowledge-management tools from the information that those tools host, the less agile you’ll be.
Face-to-face knowledge sharing is not ideal
One of the principles of the “Agile Manifesto” is that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
For software developers, meetings may indeed be the best way to coordinate plans and share information. But when you’re dealing with knowledge management for your organization as a whole, relying on meetings is rarely the best approach.
In numerous ways, meetings are an inefficient way of sharing knowledge. They require effort to coordinate. They create “dead time” that you waste waiting around for other participants to show up. They are a disadvantage to people who, for various reasons, have trouble consuming audible information.
This isn’t to say you should avoid meetings altogether in an agile organization. That’s obviously not practical. But your knowledge-management tools should be designed to help you minimize the number of meetings you organize in order to share or provide access to information To put this into context, consider the example of an employee who needs to learn how to use a new software application at your business. One way to convey the knowledge is an in-person tutorial with someone who already uses the application. That would work, but it would be an inefficient use of both employees’ time. A better solution would be one where the employee who needs to learn the tool can access digital instructions at a time that is most convenient. Those instructions can be reused for any other employee who needs to learn the same tool. And they could easily be extended with collaboration features that would let people ask questions when they need to.
Questions should be welcomed, but kept to a minimum
No matter how complete and understandable your knowledge-management tools are, there will inevitably be a need for users to ask questions from time-to-time. Those questions should be welcomed, and your knowledge-management system should give users an easy way to ask them.
At the same time, however, your knowledge-management solution should be designed with the goal of minimizing the number of questions users have to ask in the first place. Constant back-and-forth is inefficient and undercuts the clarity of information.
Thus, to go back to the example of an employee who needs to learn a new software application, the employee should have a way to ask questions about the application when necessary, and receive answers quickly from people who can provide them. However, the need for this type of back-and-forth should be minimized. This can be done, for example, by ensuring that questions about the same topic that were asked previously by other employees can be easily accessed, along with their answers, when the employee is learning about the software application.
In many ways, agile knowledge management builds upon the same principles as agile software development. But because knowledge is not quite the same thing as software, building agility into knowledge management requires some additional considerations to ensure that information flows smoothly and with minimal interruption between the people who create it and the people who need to access it within an organization.
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