BS ISO 30401: Knowledge management systems – an end to the confusion?

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Knowledge management (KM) has been around as a discipline and organisational practice since the 1990s, but is still smothered in confusion. Confusion about what it is, confusion with information management and confusion over what it means in practice.

The publication of BS ISO 30401: Knowledge management systems has the potential to end this confusion. For the first time, we have an internationally agreed standard that explains what KM is and how to approach it.

First things first

The standard is a management systems standard (MSS), written to the same template as other management systems standards – including the ISO 9001 Quality management systems standard. ‘Systems’ in the title refers to management systems: frameworks of objectives with policies (ISO-speak for strategies) and processes to meet those objectives. ‘Systems’ has nothing to do with IT.

The standard defines knowledge as a human or organisational asset enabling effective decisions and action in context. Note the word ‘human’. Knowledge is created by people. It includes experience, know-how and insights. It can be individual, collective or organisational. Knowledge can be codified into documents – but it can never be captured completely. Note the word ‘context’. Every organisation has different knowledge and KM needs. KM is concerned with the way people and organisations create and use knowledge to create value – by making a difference to things that matter, such as goals and performance.

It follows that organisations need to produce their own KM objectives, policies and processes. The standard does not do this for you: it explains how to go about doing it for yourself, in your context, to meet your own organisational needs.

Like ISO 9001, the KM standard includes requirements: high-level dos and don’ts against which an organisation can be audited. In theory, organisations can undergo an external audit to seek certification to the standard. This is not the only way the standard can be used, though. It can be used as a business improvement tool, as a guide to getting started or improving existing KM, or for internal audit to check whether an organisation has the basic KM building blocks in place. In any case, there are no accredited external auditors yet!

The standard is written for organisations of all sizes, in all sectors and regardless of the products or services organisations provide. It applies to project work and to business as usual.

Contents of the standard

Because the standard is written to the ISO MSS template, its structure will be familiar to users of ISO 9001 and other MSS standards. It includes terms and definitions, and sections on the context of the organisation, leadership, planning, support, operation, performance evaluation and improvement.

The introduction sets out the principles of KM, including (in my own words):

  • Knowledge is intangible, complex and created by people
  • KM unlocks the potential value of knowledge by making sure it has a positive impact on things that matter to organisations
  • There is no one-size-fits-all-organisations KM solution
  • KM includes interactions between people to build shared understanding
  • Knowledge is not managed directly: KM focuses on the working environment to nurture the creation and use of knowledge
  • Culture is a critical aspect of the working environment

The section about the context of the organisation includes:

  • Knowledge development activities that should be covered by KM: a kind of knowledge lifecycle of acquiring new knowledge, applying current knowledge, retaining current knowledge and handling outdated knowledge.  
  • Knowledge conveyance and transformation: ways in which knowledge is created and shared through human interaction, representation (such as leading by example or writing things down), combination (such as curation and synthesis of knowledge), and internalisation and learning (to put knowledge into practice).
  • Knowledge management enablers: human capital, KM processes, technology, governance and culture.

Three annexes provide guidance on:

  • The range of knowledge and KM
  • Relationships between KM and other disciplines (including information management)
  • KM culture

Help shape the future

As a member of the working group that developed the KM standard, I have little influence over how it will be used. That’s up to you. How might you use the standard? Do you think you will use it? Has this blog post attracted your interest in KM? Are you surprised by the scope or messages in the standard? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

My personal hope for the future is that publication of the standard marks the beginning of the end for KM confusion. At last we have a common language we can use to talk about KM – so let’s start talking.  

The Knowledge SIG annual conference in November will include a presentation and workshop on the KM standard.

 

Judy Payne

Posted by Judy Payne on 1st Nov 2018

About the Author

Judy works as a management consultant and reluctant academic specialising in knowledge management, collaborative working and learning. Her work is positioned firmly on the boundaries between academia and practice. Not the most comfortable place to be, but there’s such a huge gap between the two that there’s a lot of bridging to be done.

Judy works with public, private and third sector organisations to improve their management of knowledge, with universities to develop and deliver online degree programmes and with master’s students to help them learn how to do management research. At APM, she co-founded the Knowledge SIG and is co-chair of the K SIG committee. She has contributed new knowledge management sections to the sixth edition of the PMBOK® Guide and to P3O® Best Management Practice, and represents the UK as an expert on an ISO Working Group developing a knowledge management standard. She is writing a book on KM in project environments.

Judy is also known for introducing collaborative working and social software to the Henley Knowledge Management Forum and for being a member of the #teatowelclub on Twitter.

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