Is Email your Knowledge Management System?

2009 Jed Cawthorne

(c) 2009 Jed Cawthorne

Like a lot of things, Knowledge Management (KM) can be exercised at either end of the; cost, ROI, and elaborateness spectrum. At the high end, very elaborate and costly systems can be built so that knowledge workers can share and collaborate among themselves, with the rest of the company, and with the outside world. The ideal system is a robust many-to-many system that allows for both structured and unstructured information, and that is easy to use, flexible, and secure. This ideal system manages company-maintained information ensuring its security and integrity as it is entered and edited as well as when it is consumed.

These systems function best when they are reasonably easy to use and everyone in the company buys in to it. When these systems are perceived as unreasonable and people don’t buy into it, users improvise workarounds and end up using other systems such as their email systems as their default KM systems (KMS).

Knowledge Paths

Ideally, information flows from the knowledge worker, perhaps through an editor or publisher to the Knowledge Management System (KMS). The consumer retrieves the info from the KMS. This sounds simple. Building, securing, communicating, encouraging, and enforcing such a system is another matter.

What happens in the real world is often quite a bit messier.

  1. Someone suggests that something be documented (because no one really planned for documentation at the outset)
  2. Meetings and email fly
  3. Drafts are passed around via email
  4. Someone may accidentally save a draft to SharePoint or a similar platform
  5. Document is finalized and published, perhaps to the Intranet, or SharePoint… and then forgotten about
  6. Instead of updating the document that’s published, contributors make changes to internal (non-published) copies
  7. Repeat all steps above when revisions are required

The result of this inefficient process is that bits and pieces (artifacts) of the information, and the process to create it, are spread around in peoples heads, in meeting minutes, on note paper, in email, in drafts, on shared drives, or even in collaboration platforms (mostly by accident). As you can imagine, most of this information is easy to lose.

Email KM for Everyone

An easy cheat, or workaround, to an elaborate KMS, is simply to keep your knowledge in your email system. Associates are pretty much forced to do this if they don’t have a KMS, or what they perceive as a  reasonable KMS.

They’ll also do this if  instead of publishing to a KMS, many people simply save all, or most of their email. They may move it around, categorize it, and create folders and sub-folders. But, they’re essentially just saving all of their email. When they want to know something, they search their email. This is obviously not a many-to-many scenario. Each person controls the information in his/her mail box. And can delete it.

Email KM is not efficient, but that’s what is most common in the real world.