Beyond20: A ServiceNow Elite Partner Overview of the ITIL 4 Knowledge Management Practice

A Look at the ITIL 4 Knowledge Management Practice

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

Why Knowledge Management Matters More than Ever

I’m sure every article you will read in 2020 will espouse something to the effect of “the world of work will be changed forever” and, right now, it sure seems that way. Every organization on the planet has changed how work is done; and teams are working, for the most part, remotely in their homes. What I’ve discovered in our own organization is that sharing knowledge has become an exhausting effort. What used to be a quick hallway or “water cooler” conversation, essentially asking quick questions of those around you, has turned into a series of emails, instant messages, video calls, and the like. Knowledge is scattered even more so into a variety of disparate tools and people’s heads, who are now isolated and working remotely. And yet, at a time like this, it’s even more vital to share knowledge (and lots of it) within and between teams in order for our organizations to function successfully.

This article will discuss what great knowledge sharing looks like, what knowledge management is about (pulling from the ITIL 4 Knowledge Management practice), some of the challenges that organizations face, as well as ways that we as team members and leaders can create a culture of learning and knowledge-sharing regardless of where our people are located.

Having Great Knowledge Makes for a Great Customer Experience

Ever wonder how you call certain companies and talk to their Service Desk staff and they just seem to “get it”? It seems like they understand your frustrations and you as a customer. They’re always calm and courteous and, most importantly, can answer your question or fix your issue quickly and easily – and maybe even share a bit of knowledge with you, so you can handle it the next time yourself. We, as customers, end up having great feelings about interacting with these kinds of companies because the interaction appears so seamless. Yet, this experience does not happen by chance. Companies and organizations that provide great customer service spend a lot of time cultivating an environment of learning and knowledge sharing – training their staff, making sure they are extremely knowledgeable on the business as well as the products and services they offer. Their teams collaborate to share knowledge and make sure it gets pushed out to the right people in the organization, including those who are customer facing. So, how do we make sure that we’re creating this great experience for our own customers? By placing an emphasis and focus on Knowledge Management.

The Purpose of the ITIL 4 Knowledge Management Practice

Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about what Knowledge Management is all about, namely:

To maintain and improve the effective, efficient, and convenient use of information and knowledge across the organization.

Essentially, it’s about making sure the right information gets into the hands of the right people at the right time, so that they can make good decisions and help customers.

How Data and Information is Created and Managed

What’s interesting about knowledge is all the new avenues in which data and information is created all around us, both internally and externally to our organization: social media, audio and video data, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, internal documents, databases, and a myriad of IT Service Management platforms and other tools throughout our organizations, not to mention information that’s in everyone’s heads. With so much data and information, it’s hard to wrap our arms around all of it (some of which is unstructured and becomes out-of-date very quickly) make sense of it, and turn it into something useable.

It’s a challenge to provide information that’s high-quality and useable, for example, readily available when needed, accurate and reliable, relevant, complete, and timely. And in regulated environments (healthcare, finance, state, local, and federal governments, etc.), making sure everything is also compliant with requirements and standards can add yet another layer of complexity. It’s a hard balance to strike, and yet, the best organizations take the time to make sure this is done well. In the end, knowledge is only good if it’s usable and beneficial to our organizations and/or customers.

Big Data and It’s Relationship with Knowledge Management

Further, we have the complexity of managing big data, which involves determining the volume, velocity, and variety of the data, otherwise known as the 3 Vs. The ITIL 4 Knowledge Management practice touches on concepts like big data analytics (BDA); however, this gets more into “data management” (along with things like data science, etc.) and is outside the scope of what this article addresses.

Knowledge Assets and How to Best Use Them

So, what exactly is important to manage when it comes to knowledge? Those things that are most critical in terms of knowledge sharing are what are called our knowledge “assets,” defined as:

An organization’s specific information resource that is important for that organization’s operations and value co-creation.

What we care about with knowledge assets are three things: criticality, scarcity (how rare this knowledge is, essentially how hard it is to find it in the first place and replace if we lose it), and the ability to transfer it from one team or organization to another without losing its value, what the ITIL 4 Knowledge Management practice calls: criticality, rarity, and appropriability. It’s our job to figure out what those knowledge assets are and to use them to their fullest potential.

Understanding “Absorptive Capacity” in ITIL 4 Knowledge Management

There are also some interesting, new definitions around managing knowledge that I think are worth sharing, starting with Absorptive Capacity:

An organization’s ability to recognize the value of new information, to embed it into an existing knowledge system, and to apply it to the achievement of business outcomes.

This definition speaks to our skill in quickly understanding the importance of new information and how to use it, making sure that we use this information to get better quickly, and creating a culture where team members are engaged in crafting and sharing knowledge and helping the organization learn and improve.

Teams that perform regular retrospectives tend to do a good job of uncovering and focusing on improving the team and overall system of the organization. Mapping out our organization’s Value Streams and getting teams together to collaborate and see how products and services are being delivered, identifying where there’s waste, confusion, delay, or gaps in knowledge that we can address is also extremely effective in improving how work flows throughout an organization.

Using the SECI Model to Increase Our Absorptive Capacity

One way that organizations can enhance and develop a culture of “absorptive capacity” where knowledge is continually and effectively created and used is by leveraging something called the SECI model, which stands for: socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization. This model details how knowledge is shared and transformed within an organization and is based on two types of knowledge:

  • Explicit knowledge – knowledge that can be transferred to others, codified, assessed, verbalized, and stored. It includes information from books, databases, descriptions, and so on.
  • Tacit knowledge – knowledge that is difficult to transfer to others, difficult to express, codify, and assess. It is based on experience, values, capabilities, and skills.

The SECI model helps teams find ways to do the following:

  • Convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge and vice versa
  • Transfer knowledge from an individual to groups/organizations

The SECI model also provides recommendations on how to combine, transfer, accept, and share knowledge. For example, when an employee attends an external training course and brings back new knowledge, discusses it with their team, and modifies existing process documentation as a result, they are converting tacit knowledge to tacit knowledge (in sharing that knowledge verbally with their team) and explicit knowledge (in documenting that knowledge for other people to read and use). The more opportunities we have to convert and transfer our knowledge, the better.

Understanding the Differences Between Data and Insight

Often times, we say that decisions should be data-driven. However, data by itself does not necessarily bring insight, which is something different entirely. It’s important to understand that data can be incomplete, fallible, and contradictory. Data can be interpreted in different ways, and two people can look at the same data and come to very different conclusions. I like what the ITIL 4 Knowledge Management practice says about insight:

Insight is the ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a subject. It may be interpreted as knowing and feeling the underlying nature of things. Insights are a result of human intelligence (emotions, experience, and feelings). Insights are a supplementary component of the data and are a result of an individual’s experience and personality. Thus, the greater the experience and expertise of an individual, the more useful their insights will be. Insights cannot be completed by artificial intelligence.

Though tools can be tremendously helpful in simplifying and automating how we work, they cannot give us insight. Only skilled, experienced humans working with good data and the right tools can do that. The good news is that, when it comes to insights, we can’t be replaced by robots just yet.

Another Knowledge Management technique that can be helpful in developing insights is termed ALOE (and like the plant, can help us alleviate some of our sores), which stands for asking, listening, observing, and empathizing. It’s a good mnemonic to keep in mind as you’re looking at data.

An Overview of Knowledge Centered Service (KCS)

One of the concepts that’s alluded to, but not mentioned outright in the ITIL 4 Knowledge Management practice, is that of Knowledge Centered Service or KCS. This is a somewhat recently developed method for creating and managing knowledge that includes immediately searching for and creating knowledge where it doesn’t currently exist, as well as updating knowledge when it becomes out-of-date. KCS was created by the Consortium for Service Innovation, a non-profit group made up of member organizations with a mission to capture, structure, reuse, and improve knowledge within an organization. We’ve helped several customers implement KCS within their organization and they’ve found that their teams are better able to quickly create and share knowledge with those that need it. In fact, there are several tools built on KCS principles that can help organizations automate and facilitate great knowledge sharing.

The Importance of People in Our Knowledge Management Efforts

The more we can create an environment of knowledge creation and sharing, not only will we create better products and services, but we will also be more resistant to knowledge “walking out the door” when employees leave. The ITIL 4 Knowledge Management practice says it like this:

The knowledge management practice aims to create an environment where it will be possible to discover who knows what, who needs to know what, how the organization may benefit from an individual’s knowledge, how to make it sharable, and how to respect an individual’s privacy.

There are seven principles, developed by Dave Snowden, that can help an organization have a healthy mindset when thinking about knowledge:

  1. Knowledge can only be volunteered; it cannot be forced.

  2. You cannot make someone share their knowledge as you can never measure what they know.

  3. We only know what we know when we need to know it.

  4. Human knowledge is deeply contextual and requires stimulus for recall.

  5. The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.

  6. Failure facilitates learning better than success.

  7. We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.

Things I’ve Seen Work Well When it Comes to Knowledge Sharing

We can increase the level of knowledge sharing across our organization by building diverse, even cross-functional teams, so that people with different skillsets, perspectives, and experiences can share knowledge, mentor, and cross-train one another (for example, a team that has someone from IT, marketing, HR, sales, and finance working together to deliver a product or service).

Daily “huddles”, daily scrums, etc. can also help teams quickly connect with one another and share important details about the work that they’re doing and quickly raise issues to leadership. I love this example from Harvard Business Review of How a U.S. healthcare system uses 15-minute huddles to keep 23 hospitals aligned. Collaboration tools can also dramatically increase knowledge sharing within and across teams. A few years ago, our developers convinced leadership that we had to use Slack as an organization. Once we finally did, it elevated our level of knowledge sharing, made us significantly faster in how we work, and actually made the culture a bit more fun. I now cannot imagine working without it.

Another way that organizations can develop a culture of knowledge sharing is to provide an environment of learning opportunities – lunch and learns, demo days, hackathons, 1-day on-site courses, team retrospectives, internal video series, etc.

With distributed teams, the dependency on collaboration and video-enabled conferencing tools becomes even more important. Last, but not least, leaders can create a knowledge sharing environment by creating a culture that allows people to ask “dumb” questions without being judged, challenge the status quo, as well as fail and learn without fear of being fired – essentially creating a culture of “psychological safety.”

Where to learn more about Knowledge Management and KCS Tools and Techniques

The Consortium for Service Innovation has a lot of great, free resources on KCS available online. AXELOS also provides the full Knowledge Management practice (about 45 pages in all) available as part of a MyITIL subscription. Here are three courses that provide a good overview of Knowledge Management along with a deep dive into several of the tools and techniques discussed in this article:

*Note: You must complete the 2-day ITIL 4 Foundation course and exam as a pre-requisite to be able to attend one of the advanced ITIL 4 courses.

Originally published March 03 2020, updated January 01 2024