Redressing the balance in developing knowledge strategies

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —February 27, 2007
Filed in Strategy

Strategies should result in a set of actions making the organisation more valuable to whoever it serves. Knowledge strategies are no different but most organisations develop a knowledge strategy in the following way:

  1. the company engages consultants to analyse their needs
  2. the leaders are asked, “what result would you like to see at the end of the project?” The consultants capture this information as the project’s vision.
  3. the consultants interview staff, conduct focus groups and compile an inventory of important knowledge assets
  4. gaps are identified between what currently occurs and what needs to happen to achieve the vision
  5. a report is written and there’s considerable debate over the structure, format and wording of this document
  6. the knowledge strategy and associated implementation plan is presented to the executive group for their approval
  7. everyone is exhausted but pleased with the document
  8. there is little energy left for the actions needed to make the required changes

Don’t get me wrong, a process like this is what’s mostly needed to undertake an effective knowledge strategy. It suffers, however, from a problem of balance. The weight of effort is on developing the document—the strategy or plan. Little energy or process is left for people to take actions that will change how things are actually done. The further the organisation gets away from the initial strategy development exercise, the greater the apathy to implement the original plan. The ideal situation is one where the top down focus on defining what to do is balanced with a process that enables people to do things that will make the organisation more valuable to whoever it serves.

So what if we put less effort into the knowledge strategy design and more into implementing strategic actions?

There are three reasons why we should shift the balance from viewing the strategy as a thing to redressing the balance towards the process for implementing the strategy.

  1. businesses are less predictable and long-term, linear plans rarely achieve their stated goals
  2. embedding actions in the day-to-day activities of the organisation allows new ways to tackle problems to emerge
  3. the process moves the responsibility for making a difference to how knowledge is created, shared and used to everyone in the organisation rather than a typically under-resourced knowledge management unit

So how might this look? The best solution is one developed by people in the organisation, one that develops the process for embedding the strategic actions into the day-to-day activities. To give you an idea of what it might look like here are some ideas adapted from David Maister’s suggested approach for conducting a strategy.

The initial knowledge strategy design should result in some objectives, which might include things like:

  • improve knowledge sharing
  • enhance innovation
  • reduce impact of people leaving (knowledge retention)
  • build skills and know-how
  • improve everyone’s ability to find relevant knowledge when they need it
  • improve how we learn from experience

Ideally, there should only be two or three objectives. Six is too many.
The process starts by giving each group within the organisation one sheet of paper for each objective. Each sheet has four columns. The group lists, for each objective, the actions they are going to take over the next three months to help achieve the objectives. A senior member of staff works with the group acting as a friendly sceptic or mentor. This mentor’s role is to ask question, helping the group to stretch their plans or to reign in over enthusiasm. At the end of the session, the mentor sets a date to meet with the group again in three months where they will review how they went, what they learned and establish a new set of actions for the following three months.

The four columns to fill in for each objective are:

  • the action to be done
  • who is responsible for ensuring the action is completed
  • the date the action will be completed
  • a description of how the group will know the action has been completed

It’s important that the group focuses on actions and not goals. For example, if the objective is “improve knowledge sharing” then rather than provide a goal such as, “build better relationships with the policy division,” describe a tangible action like “organise 3 brown bag seminars with the policy division.”

By repeating this activity every three months the organisation begins to embed knowledge-related activities into their day to day business. It becomes second nature. The three-month time frame also feels achievable and tangible. It gives the groups something in the foreseeable future to aim for. One last benefit of a shorter time frame for action is that it enables the organisation to sense and respond to the changing business environment making it more nimble and resilient.

You might be thinking, “Yeh, but what about those initiatives that take longer than three months to accomplish?” Of course this will be the case. Sometimes the organisation will be able to identify longer-term initiatives, such as the adoption of communities of practice or an intranet implementation, in the initial knowledge strategy design which can be implemented organisation-wide. Here I am arguing for a balance between the more traditional approach to developing a knowledge strategy with a greater emphasis on embedding the knowledge actions.

Maister, D. H. “Ready, Set, Go: Fast-track Strategy.” Strategy in Professional Business  Retrieved 27 February, 2007, from

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. tesseraltyme says:

    The best knowledge management system must contain an implementation interface that is adaptable from the bottom up. In this way, whatever management wants, it can see how its suggestions are implemented and then add stipulations and other requirements for employees to integrate. This kind of feedback supports the two-way communication for targeting management objectives. One such interface is General Knowledge Base

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