Knowledge Management and how it affects accociations and their members

Dominic Kelleher, founder of Halcyon, which helps its clients value their knowledge and know their values. He is a former director of, and remains advisor to, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and is author of three BSI British Standards guides on KM good practice.  Please contact:; 0032 475 317056.

“Cave dwellers froze to death on beds of coal.  It was all around them, but they could not see it or use it. Today, we are in danger of making the same mistakes”
- Arthur C. Clarke

Knowledge Management (KM), which has been described as “the art of transforming information and intellectual assets into enduring value for people”, has emerged as a worldwide management discipline over the past decade, and is now firmly on the agendas of companies, non-profits and public sector organisations.  Perhaps it is time it was on the agenda of associations, too? 

But is it really possible to make KM relevant for associations that serve UK plc, UK SME and the UK public sector? The answer can be an unequivocal yes, but only if forward-looking associations are ready to see KM less as a traditional function, like IT or HR, and more as a conscious attempt to embed the identification, maintenance and sharing of knowledge as a core competence. The actual label “KM” may be de-emphasised in this process, but this can be a good thing, meaning that the active management of knowledge is not viewed as the exclusive reserve of a removed function.

Where this strategy can be particularly effective is in spreading knowledge, be it about new trends, or regulations, or whatever a particular association’s interest area happens to be, as widely and as quickly as possible. At the same time, it can help avoid traditional rivalry between members, by preventing any attempt to colonise knowledge within a small community of members, which proved the pitfall for many early KM initiatives in commercial and public sector organisations.

Indeed, given its increasing maturity as a management discipline, KM is less and less seen as merely providing the technical pipes required for information flows.  Rather, successful KM is now more about influencing behaviours and changing the cultural environment in which people access, store, share and create their knowledge, be it through tools, communities or informal interactions.

Associations’ leaders and members should jointly provide the overall context for knowledge sharing, based on their particular strategic requirements. Thus, a very small association may not adopt any formal KM initiatives at all, as most knowledge will often flow naturally and informally, locally and by word of mouth. However, other types of association may find they have more sophisticated requirements, depending on their size, their geography, or their need to either create new knowledge (e.g. if they are research-intensive) or to exploit existing knowledge (e.g. if they are capital-intensive). 

For many associations, launching individual projects may be as far as they ever need to go in KM; they may never need to launch it as a stand-alone focus with dedicated resources. Yet all associations, large and small, are likely to have knowledge that they need to share amongst members, suppliers, and customers, so they might like to consider:

  • Conducting a simple “knowledge audit”, to get a bird’s-eye view of “who knows what” and “who knows how” within their association; if done well, this should help preserve “organisational memory” in associations in which there is a relatively regular turnover of members;
  • Setting up inter- and intra-association “communities of practice” around a particular issue or problem can be a good way to encourage tacit knowledge* exchange.
    * So-called “tacit knowledge” typically includes skills, experiences, insight, intuition, and judgements and is usually shared through discussion, stories and analogies - it is therefore difficult to capture or represent in explicit form.

In short, knowledge takes time to experience and acquire, but many associations’ members have less and less time and attention to spare, so are likely to be grateful for the chance to tap into the know-how of others. And who knows? With luck, they may then feel more ready to share their own expertise and experiences with others, leading to a virtuous circle benefitting the association as a whole.

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