How Knowledge Management Drives Innovation in IT Departments
Knowledge and innovation are interwoven; you can’t innovate without knowledge. But true innovation emerges when knowledge is organized, archived, updated, curated, and aggregated effectively, creating a sum that is far greater than any of its individual parts. Knowledge is the foundation on which ideas are generated, problems identified, and solutions developed, giving companies and IT departments a distinct competitive edge.
But just how does knowledge contribute to innovation in IT departments? It’s more than a mere archive of lessons learned, more than a set of standards and process outlines that detail how operations are carried out on a day-to-day basis. Knowledge management, or the use of knowledge for a greater purpose, is the real key to IT innovation.
Fueling the Five Types of Innovators
Of course, there’s no universally accepted definition of knowledge management, and if the sheer volume of tools and frameworks that exist for managing knowledge are any indication, it’s possible that no two organizations’ knowledge management processes look exactly the same. In fact, there are even different types of innovators — 5, to be exact — all of which play an important, yet distinct, role in the development of ideas and the furthering of those ideas through the various stages of development and implementation:
- Movers and Shakers – Innovators with a strong internal drive are often innovation leaders. You’ll find them leading the charge, driving projects forward, and wielding their charismatic influence over others.
- Experimenters – The innovators who are always open to new ideas and embarking on uncharted territory, experimenters are willing to fail to solve problems. They’re persistent and passionate and are often the catalyst that motivates a project forward when other innovator types are holding back.
- Star Pupils – The master-of-all-trades, Star Pupils are innovators who excel at developing their personal brand, selecting the right mentors, and recognizing strengths in others. These innovators are often found in CEO roles and might be described as the glue that holds it all together.
- Controllers – Kind of the antagonist to the Experimenter, the Controller is the innovator who approaches all things with caution and prefers to think logically through all possible paths and outcomes before taking action.
- Hangers-On – While the name might make you think of the unabashed, chaotic ‘Stage-5 Clinger,’ the Hanger-On is actually the finishing touch, the element that rounds out a team and keeps everyone grounded. They often take the middle ground and may even prefer to stick to the tried-and-true, proven methods rather than embrace risks.
Despite the vast differences in styles and personalities among the different types of innovators, they all share one thing in common: a thirst for knowledge. Their differences, though, lead them to derive knowledge from different sources, interpret it in different ways, and come to different conclusions than their counterparts. Within an enterprise, and even within an IT department, it’s likely that several types of innovators co-exist. Knowledge management serves as the foundation for collaboration, enabling these personalities to evaluate existing knowledge, share interpretations, develop and expand on ideas from a variety of perspectives.
Identifying Hidden Opportunities
Over time, the growth and expansion of knowledge can lead innovators to discover hidden opportunities. These discoveries are often the catalysts to the development of new products or services or entry into new markets. The Conference Board shares a few worthy examples of how knowledge management drives innovation in two major enterprises:
- Samsung, which had skills in manufacturing and production, capitalized on its growing knowledge to begin developing its own products rather than merely serving as a subcontractor for other companies. This transition enabled the company to remain competitive in a fast-moving industry — an industry in which Samsung otherwise would likely have been squelched out by more innovative competitors.
- Hyundai pivoted similarly, evolving from a parts manufacturer to a major automobile producer in its own right thanks to knowledge management.
- Apple is widely recognized as a major innovator, but some thought leaders posit that Apple’s continued ability to innovate is due in part to its acquisition of other companies and the knowledge that comes with them. Often, the combination of two previously distinct collective knowledge vaults results in fresh insights and ideas.
Freeing Up Resources
IT departments are notoriously over-stretched, often utilizing every available resource to the max. After all, IT is typically a single department tasked with the monumental duty of managing the entire enterprise’s technology needs. IT is also a discipline that’s divided into dozens of specialties, meaning that it’s not unusual to have multiple specialists within an organization that serve a niche need — and when that specialty is in high demand, it’s not always a simple matter of sending a substitute technician.
Knowledge management enables the technically inclined to share and organize essential IT expertise that makes it easier for one IT professional to sub in for another when resources are stretched thin. But it also frees up resources as a whole by disseminating technical documentation in digestible formats that can be more readily utilized by non-technical staff. To put it more simply, KM enables IT to create and disperse always up-to-date documentation that can empower non-IT staff to solve many of their own IT challenges, vastly freeing up IT resources and making room for innovation, or as Harvard Business Review puts it, “making time for the work that matters.”
Revealing Knowledge Gaps
One of the biggest benefits of knowledge management doesn’t even relate to the accumulation of knowledge, but to the lack of it. For IT departments, comprehensive KM practices reveal knowledge gaps, which can be crucial for both enhancing company security and for procuring technology solutions that underpin business processes.
If repeated questions arise regarding the operation of technology systems, there’s an obvious need for better documentation or training. Likewise, if you’re continuously documenting workarounds or addressing glitches, KM is providing the distinct advantage of making your IT department acutely aware that it’s time to consider technology upgrades to better, more comprehensive tools.
Sometimes, it’s the knowledge gaps that enable companies to innovate akin to Samsung’s pivot from manufacturing to proprietary product development. Thanks to knowledge management, Samsung was able to capitalize on the areas in which its knowledge was most robust while simultaneously building and expanding in its weaker areas through knowledge acquisition. That’s why it’s important not to place value on KM solely based on the volume of knowledge that your company has already accumulated, but based on the opportunities that arise from understanding precisely where your strengths and weaknesses lie.