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The stay at home or shelter in place (SIP) orders (here’s my local order) due to COVID-19 have forced a proof of concept (PoC) moment for knowledge management. While many organizations were already practicing knowledge management to a lesser or greater degree, the sudden change in business operations have forced the hand of unprepared organizations, launching them into a trial of knowledge management practices. The current pandemic crisis is the proof of concept we did not want but have had to accept.

In this moment, we’ve seen both KM successes and failures. I believe this is a golden moment for knowledge management to address what have at times seemed like the theoretical or hypothetical benefits of KM in the context of real-world emergencies.

Knowledge Sharing & Handover

A staple premise for knowledge management is the ability to quickly create, share, and assimilate structured and unstructured knowledge. Workers need not only the tools to do this, but the practices and guidance of knowledge management specialists to lead the way.

In our current world, the rapid and decentralized distribution of information regarding COVID-19 policies and recommendations have made finding the best sources of information difficult. Worse, updating the rapidly changing information has been nearly impossible. Who is the best source of information: the CDC? WHO? Johns Hopkins? Should we wear masks or not? Should I follow my local, state, or Federal guidelines (or in combination)? Should I be getting outside for exercise while my gym is closed or stay inside at all times?

For us in the vocabulary management business, the rapid introduction of terms requires centralized, rapid updates so everyone understands what is happening: work from home (WFH), shelter in place (SIP), social distancing (and the attempted replacement “physical distancing”), flattening the curve, etc. Even the naming of the virus and disease have been confused and changed over time: coronavirus (the general category of viruses), severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or SARS-CoV-2 (the specific virus causing the current disease), and coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 (the disease caused by the virus).

Similarly, the ongoing problem of the deliberate or accidental spread (or should we say contagious transmission akin to the word as virus theories of William S. Burroughs?) of misinformation has been particularly troubling and difficult to combat, particularly as what is known about COVID-19 has evolved. Everything from unclear guidelines to changing knowledge of how the virus has spread has sowed confusion which, unsurprisingly, has cultivated misinformation and conspiracies. Some theories were relatively harmless, such as linking coronavirus to Corona beer. Others, however, have real-world effects. For example, attacks on 5G towers because of the outrageous linking of 5G technologies and contracting COVID-19 and the idea that Africans are immune to COVID-19 because of the initially low instances across Africa are not only fallacious, but dangerous.

Another fundamental activity of knowledge management is knowledge transfer and handover. There are many ways in which knowledge must be transferred in the current crisis. While many knowledge workers are able to work from home, many others have seen their pay reduced, have been furloughed, or have been let go, especially in industries hit hard by the economic impacts of COVID-19: travel, retail, and service, just to name a few. Unfortunately, this knowledge must be transferred to other workers who are still on the job. Likewise, given the numerous unknowns, there is knowledge which must be transferred between people with knowledge and skills only relevant to a larger audience now, such as health, safety, and environment employees. In addition, knowledge must be transferred in training sessions, many of which have been conducted in person and now must be conducted remotely. This shift in the way training is delivered requires the trainers and the students to learn new technologies.

This uncertain information environment requires the tools and tactics of knowledge management professionals and related skill sets.

Meetings & Collaboration

You’ve probably seen the increased advertising (and security scrutiny) for tools like Zoom and Houseparty. As I mentioned, some companies have been knowledge management practitioners who have the right tools for accessing and sharing content. These organizations have a lower barrier to transitioning to working from home than companies who do not have these technologies and infrastructure in place. For others, working from home may also require employees to get more creative about what tools they use to be productive. 

As workers are shifting to a work-from-home setting, they require the tools and access needed to do their jobs. Workers need access to their normal applications for work such as email, shared document repositories, and any other systems particular to their company or role. Companies may require employees to use the company VPN to get through the firewall, so workers need to know how to do this and ensure everything works before they are stuck at home unable to get to what they need.

In addition, there are other systems workers need to successfully work from home, such as productivity tools (Microsoft Office, Mac-based office applications, Google Suite), a conference call tool (WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, Skype), a content management system (SharePoint Online, Box, Google Suite), an email client, and other tools particular to their role. Again, employees must make sure they are set up correctly and securely.

There are knowledge management tools to enhance productivity when employees can’t meet in person. There are really too many to name; some are priced for the enterprise, some for personal use, and some have price points for both. If these systems are not already in place, this is where we need to look to knowledge management organizations and professionals for guidance.

New Ways of Working

I’ve been working from home for three years, and there’s very little I miss about being in a physical office building. My commute time is as long as it takes me to get from one room to the next, my schedule is more flexible, and I’m more productive. While working from home is not for everyone (or is not possible for every job) it is becoming more common and the recent work-from-home directives may very well have a lasting impact on the way we work.

Organizations have already become increasingly decentralized, using cloud and browser-based tools employees can access from anywhere. While improving infrastructure to support remote work will incur up-front costs, the overall cost to implement and maintain over time will be relatively low. If this trend continues, knowledge management and related roles will be one of the necessary functions making decisions about what tools to use and how information is captured, stored, and retrieved. Shifts like this will be a positive for the knowledge management discipline and those who work in it. However, there are larger implications for the future of work and how things may change in lieu of the current shift to working from home, and not all of them may be positive or be readily accepted by employees.

For example, companies could move away entirely from the showy overhead of corporate buildings, choosing to get rid of them and the high costs involved of maintaining expensive real estate. When buildings go, so too will building employees, like security and maintenance. Companies could operate with less overhead by shedding physical structures and offering fewer onsite perks while paying the employees the same amount. We may also see many hidden costs passed on to employees. The costs of desks, chairs, lighting, environmental control, Internet, etc. may fall to the employee (with potentially some small stipends from the company).

Despite the potential downsides, I believe the positives will outweigh the negatives: people will gain more time by not commuting as much or as often; there could potentially be fewer vehicles on the roads and, hence, less traffic and pollution; and studies suggest there may be a productivity gain if employees work from home. In addition, the increased attention on ergonomics and the self-discipline to stay active while working may benefit employees’ health.

It is knowledge management’s moment to shine and lead as we weather the current crisis and make potentially long-terms shifts in the way we work. Organizations will need guidance, and knowledge management specialists and related skill sets should be positioned to lead.