Topic driven knowledge management: a organisational approach to knowledge management

Topic driven knowledge management focuses on deliberately connecting the core business development goals to the development of expertise in individuals and the organisation as a whole.

It can be applied in 2 ways: as a goal in itself, or as a means to an end. In the latter, technical competitive advantages for example might still be relevant, but the goal of the company is to transform into a learning organisation. All other resources should enable that goal. In the first, if technical competitive advantage is one of the company’s core distinguishing trump cards, topic drive knowledge management might revolve around the topics concerning that trump card.

It’s important to make a clear distinction between the two goals. McKinsey for example is such a big firm, its will have to put topic driven knowledge development first. ASML, a chip producing company, will have to distinguish goals related to its technology.

That doesn’t mean topics like marketing, HR, general management etc., are not to be pursued. But it does mean that e.g. marketing should clearly develop towards marketing the technology ASML offers. Or say ASML had a ‘traditional’ ‘technology-is-boring-and-dusty-and-nerdy’ image that it wanted to get rid of. That would mean its branding experts should have clear knowledge development goals related to changing and managing tech-company brands.

Focus on deliberate knowledge management and development

Finally, it’s important to emphasize that clear organisational and/or individual knowledge management or learning goals must have been specified. For example, in the ASML example above it’s easy for a company or individual to claim to have learnt from ‘learning by doing’. Or to claim “that after 5 years of working as a brand manager in ASML, I experienced in tech-brand management”.

That is not to say that know-how is dispensable, but the learner or organisation was not in control of the learning path. It’s also more difficult to quantify, showcase, sell it as a USP or further invest in it if it (would have turned) turns out to be thé key factor to focus on.

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An example of how a company might want to structure topic driven knowledge management. The complexity of the network can increase if the size of the organisation requires it. It’s visible that (some) employees might choose multiple topics. It’s imaginable that within the core topics, more specific topics will be defined.

How do I get started with topic driven knowledge management?

Step 1: gather as many topics as possible from throughout the organisation

In topic driven knowledge management, the topics relevant to the organisation are listed. This usually happens during a brainstorm-like setting. The more staff involved, the bigger the chances of successful adoption are. Gathering the topics that deserve attention, can been done in a ‘grassroots’ process of gathering information.

Step 2: seek out the champions that create broader support for topic driven knowledge management

The secnod step is to identify champions within the organisation. People that assume leadership roles naturally and who are followed by people in the organisation. Depending on the size of the organisation usually there can be 5 to 50 champions identified. If the company is so big that 50 champions can be identified, it’s common to start with a pilot in 1 place in the organisation.

The champion will gather the input from people on the floor, asking them what they think are important topics for the company, what topics are interesting to themselves, and what they think are interesting, closely related markets to the one the company is active in. This might lead to a long list, and it’s up to the group to decide what topics stay and which ones are removed. Not all employees are obliged to join, but it should be clear that this is their chance to influence their personal and company’s development.

Step 3: combine all the lists and start filtering the topics

Once all the groups have made a list, the lists are combined and might have to minimised again. This is done preferably by a group composed of employees, lower and middle management and some members of the executive board. Once some 10-20 items have been defined, a survey must be set up. People can select a top 3 of areas in which they would to develop themselves.

Implications of choices in topic driven knowledge management

Of course there are many approaches to develop a topic driven knowledge management structure. If the C-level management wants to be more involved for example, a top-down approach to topic generation could be used. The company can also choose between assigning topics to department, teams or individuals, or the organisation can let them choose freely. Ultimately the key is to combine the business goals and the intrinsic motivation, talents and interests of ‘people on the floor’, whatever role they embody.