Post by Mary Jo Johnson
The biggest asset of a nonprofit or social enterprise is its employees. The knowledge and experience its people bring will determine its institutional knowledge and dictate the direction in which it needs to head. This knowledge is ever-changing and needs to be both accessible and adaptable. So it’s critical to establish processes that determine how knowledge is disseminated throughout every effective organization.
This is where knowledge management comes in.
What is knowledge management?
Knowledge management is the process of creating, structuring, using, sharing and retaining knowledge within an organization. Or simply put, it is the handling of knowledge and resources in an efficient manner inside an organization.
Knowledge management has three main components:
By accumulating knowledge from the various experiences of employees and creating a platform to store it with the goal of sharing and disseminating that knowledge to people, you’ll create and enable a learning culture.
Tapping into two types of knowledge
There are two types of knowledge within the knowledge management sphere. The differences between them is a fundamental concept of knowledge management.
- Explicit knowledge. This is the type of knowledge that is codified and easy to teach. This is what’s found in books, mathematical equations, processes, memos and the like. This type is easily shared.
- Tacit knowledge. According to Michael Polyani, tacit knowledge is “things that we know but cannot tell.” This is knowledge gained through experience and practice, like learning how to balance on a unicycle.
Knowing the distinction between these two types will help greatly when coming up with strategies for sharing knowledge across the organization.
The cycle of knowledge management
The cycle of knowledge management has seven stages:
- Acquisition. Acquiring knowledge either through research, training, and education (explicit knowledge) or through daily experiences and know-how (tacit knowledge) should be done across the organization — individually or as a group. Gathering and exploiting knowledge is the first step of the knowledge management cycle. The tendency of a nonprofit organization (NPO), the vast majority of which have modest resources, is often to pass on this knowledge verbally when it would serve the organization better to codify it.
- Codification. This is the process of putting the knowledge that’s acquired into words. Not all knowledge can be translated into verbal or written language, however. This step involves creating job aids, training materials, write-ups, tests and other printed or written material or any form of media for consumption.
- Storage. This step is where repositories come in. These can be databases or manuals where people can go to access codified knowledge.
- Retrieval. This is the act of accessing stored knowledge. Retrieval should be simple and efficient.
- Distribution and presentation. This is making all that knowledge accessible to the people who need it. Knowledge can be presented in different formats and in different ways. This could come in the form of reports or training modules and presentations.
- Application. After knowledge is gained through distribution and presentation, it is now time to apply what was learned. This is where an NPO will plan its activities according to the knowledge it has gained.
- Creation. Because of the application of knowledge, an NPO can now gain new experiences that will give way to the creation of new knowledge from the new experiences and the cycle starts all over again.
Knowledge management tools
Knowledge management tools are systems used by organizations to share information. These can be customer relationship systems (CRMs) or knowledge bases or learning management systems (LMS). A good knowledge management tool like Slab will allow you to integrate all of the organization’s tools in one knowledge base and allow everyone in the organization regardless of tech-savviness to easily search, access, use and create content.
How nonprofits can take advantage
As all nonprofits know, fundraising and revenue generation are key to helping the organization function and achieve its overall mission. Having a knowledge management tool allows an NPO to keep track of all its data regarding donations and incoming revenue, as well as to keep track of potential sources of additional revenue, not to mention the knowledge and connections that every fundraising event and outreach program will create for the organization. Knowledge management systems allow organizations to keep their books organized and accessible to the people who need them.
Volunteer and paid employee engagement
Volunteers participate in and support NPOs and their efforts to provide for their causes without expecting monetary compensation, and these volunteers have a wealth of knowledge and experience. Codifying their knowledge into a knowledge management tool can ensure that the explicit knowledge that the volunteers bring can be cascaded across the organization. The same goes for paid employees. Engaging both the volunteers and employees through knowledge transfers will not only broaden their experience but will also develop a culture of learning for the organization. This ensures growth for both the NPO as a whole and the employees and volunteers individually.
Sustainability is not just about going “green.” Sustainability for nonprofits means that the organization will endure changes in economy and political climate. It also means that the founders, stakeholders, donors and volunteers find long-term value in the organization. It also means that the NPO needs to take care of its assets, a.k.a stewardship.
A good knowledge management system will help an NPO achieve long-term viability by making knowledge and data easily accessible. Donors and stakeholders need reports and write-ups about the activities and programs of the NPO they support. They need to see that their donations are going to the right place and that the assets of the NPO are well taken care of and accounted for.
Knowledge management and knowledge management tools play a vital role in helping to buttress nonprofit organizations’ operations by making data easily accessible and therefore easily disseminated.
Take advantage of tools like Slab to enable team members to find vital information fast, without having to use multiple platforms and learning to navigate new tools. This helps foster growth through creating a learning environment in the most efficient way.