It’s all in your head: knowledge management and internal communication

Last week I had the pleasure of working alongside an Employee Comms team to host a bespoke day for them.

During the course of our conversations I touched on the topic of knowledge management.

We rarely discuss it in the wonderful world of internal communication. However, there’s amazing opportunities to be had when you unlock it.

I’ve been a guest speaker on the Institute of Internal Communication’s Masters in Internal Communication Management course for about seven years. I talk about knowledge management and collaboration in my session.

A quote I love sharing in my talks is from the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, Lew Platt, who famously said: “If HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.”

That sums up knowledge management for me in a nutshell. Internal communicators can create opportunities for organisations to articulate what they know and amplify employees’ voices and views. Creating sources of truth and accurate, credible and reliable information is critical.

A recent student of the IoIC course, Patrick Sutton, is here to write for the All Things IC blog. Patrick is a Senior Internal Communications Manager for The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. Prior to this role, he held various roles in both the public and private sector. You can find him on LinkedIn if you’d like to connect.

Patrick has shared five things you can do to help your organisation build an effective knowledge culture.

I’ll hand you over…


Photo of Patrick Sutton. Text: it's all in your head - knowledge management and internal communication.

It’s all in your head: knowledge management and internal communication

I recently completed my MA in Internal Communications Management, a course offered jointly by the Institute of Internal Communication (IoIC) and Southampton Solent University, and for my final assignment I wrote a piece that analysed the intersection between internal communication, knowledge management and culture.

I’m sure this scene is familiar to many internal communicators: being given oversight of a desired function or outcome that doesn’t ‘sit naturally’ with any other team.

A typical example of this is the vast, disparate and somewhat nebulous term ‘employee engagement’; while there’s a role for internal communicators to play in employee engagement, it’s near impossible for us to deliver solo, but often this is exactly what we are asked to do.

Similarly, I would understand why you might not instinctively jump at the opportunity to proactively involve yourself in how your organisation manages what it knows.

If you work for a large organisation, you may have a Chief Information Officer, and/or a substantial knowledge management team. If you’re at a smaller organisation, the other work you juggle may be a barrier to spending your valuable time on knowledge management.

But internal comms can, and in my view should, play a role in helping organisations build a strong knowledge culture. In this day and age, for the vast majority of organisations knowledge is a more valuable asset than physical goods, and much of the remit of a typical internal comms role intersects directly and indirectly with knowledge.

I’ll briefly explain five things you can do to help your organisation build an effective knowledge culture:

1) Showcase explicit and tacit knowledge

Broadly speaking, there are two types of knowledge: explicit and tacit.

Explicit knowledge is the sort of thing you can easily write down and clearly share with others – for example, processes, policies or ‘how to’ guides.

Tacit knowledge is harder to quantify: it’s the sort of knowledge that you pick up from a mix of personal experiences, individual interpretation of events and human interactions.

It’s not always possible to turn tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and vice versa, but both play an important role in giving people the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.

For internal communicators, I see this as being particularly relevant to your intranet. It’s of course important that your intranet completes its traditional function of making explicit knowledge available.

But increasingly, internal communicators should utilise their skills as storytellers to build tacit knowledge through their intranets – one way I like to do this is by encouraging my colleagues to blog about things they’ve been working on or their personal experiences/reflections, and encourage conversation. By doing this, you begin to organically generate tacit knowledge that can be applied across the organisation.

2) Keep an ear to the ground

And on top of this, we can encourage people to share formally and informally.

On the formal side, things like lunch and learns or other informal training sessions can really help. They can be a great way to surface niche or broad knowledge. Listening to the sort of subjects people want to hear more about, and arranging a series of engaging lunch and learns that can fill in these knowledge gaps, provides quick wins. Building a relationship with your L&D colleagues is important too.

On the informal side, ‘water cooler chat’, i.e. serendipitous interactions with colleagues, often passes on information, or builds personal connections that lead to knowledge creation. In the post-pandemic world it can be tough to replicate the spontaneity of water cooler chat virtually, but online versions are more effective if they have light structure, such as trying to resolve a shared problem, which can again lead to knowledge creation.

3) Leverage social media

In my organisation, the pandemic was a real turning point for how we used Slack. In March 2020, the number of messages posted increased two and a half fold, pretty much overnight. This was great on the one hand as there was a strong grassroots feel to the content, but on the other hand it created a lot of noise that was hard for important knowledge to cut through.

In short – enterprise social network channels like Slack and Yammer are effective at creating knowledge, but often the ephemeral nature of these channels means it’s hard to capture that knowledge, and the public setting and feeling of ‘putting yourself out there’ can make introverted colleagues reticent to move beyond being ‘lurkers’.

The role of internal communicators in this is to oversee community-building that can lead to capturing knowledge.

This can range from small things such as encouraging people to engage in two-way conversations, to bigger things such as creating knowledge channels and finding ways to capture the spontaneous and grassroots knowledge that is created.

4) Engage your leaders

Culture that begins at the top trickles down. Do you know how your leaders work? It’s likely they at least (theoretically) value knowledge as an asset to their organisation. But do they proactively lead a culture that demonstrates the value of knowledge – do they walk the walk?

Knowledge hoarding is a negative consequence of a poor organisational culture. When people work in fear, and have concerns about things like their job security, they’re more likely to hoard knowledge with a misplaced belief it will make them indispensable. Leaders play a huge role in setting the right kind of culture, and helping people see knowledge as part of their roles.

5) Keep up with evolving technology

We live in a world of abundant explicit data and information – far too much for one individual to digest. While AI and data science continue to evolve, there is still a very human role in distilling explicit knowledge from vast quantities of information, and creating tacit knowledge. I have seen this applied in practice by observing how my data science and AI expert colleagues work on challenges.

Increasingly, companies live in the digital sphere. More and more digital channels that claim to improve efficiency and productivity are popping up.

It’s vital that internal communication channels remain at the centre of your digital ecosystem, and duplication and saturation is avoided. Each colleague receives more and more little red notifications across more and more channels every day. So it’s vital that you remain up to date with technological developments.

For effective knowledge management, you want your intranet or employee platform to be a central hub – it should be the first port of call for users to find information and knowledge, and even if the information is not on the intranet itself, it should signpost how to find that information through other digital platforms.

Wrapping up

Internal communications is fundamentally a human, people-focused job based in the heart of your organisation, and that’s why many of us love it. This applies as much to knowledge management as it does to other areas of our diverse and varied roles. The role we play in leveraging knowledge for the benefit of our organisations will continue to be an important part of our day jobs.

Do you have any thoughts about the role internal communicators in knowledge management?

Let me know!

Footnote: I’d like to thank Oli Howard of the CIPD for teaching me all about this subject, and helping me immensely during my studies.  

Post author: Patrick Sutton.

First published on the All Things IC blog 23 January 2023.

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