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OPINION21 November 2016

The art of managing knowledge

Data analytics Opinion UK

Knowledge management systems are changing the way organisations access, share and use data. But where does this leave primary research and the role of agencies, asks Big Sofa’s Matt Lynch

Why do clients keep on commissioning projects in areas they’ve researched so many times before? What can there possibly be left to find out?

Of course, there are several reasons why it happens. The world changes, and previous research hasn’t quite addressed the precise business question we now have. That we need the reassurance of our own empirical evidence before making an investment decision. Maybe we’re new in the role and want to make our mark. Or maybe we don’t quite trust what’s been done before.

Because what’s been done before is often very difficult and time-consuming to access, contextualise and understand. It resides in projects with mysterious code-names that sit in shady byways off the shared departmental drive. With a couple of years’ distance, an old debrief acquires the strange melancholy of a museum piece in a glass case. Look at how we lived back then!

Conceptually, there’s always been a overlap between the worlds of research and knowledge management. But the digitisation of organisations and the undying managerial data fetish means that what was once the jealously guarded territory of the librarian wonk, is now being made accessible to the whole organisation.

In the early 2000s, SharePoint and staggeringly unhelpful intranets gave knowledge management a bad name. But new, tech-enabled players offering cognitive search, data fusion and a more intuitive user experience are making genuine inroads into the market and changing the way people create and interact with their own organisational memory.

The Harvard Business Review recently published an article about Unilever’s knowledge management system and how it was central to the global business delivering commercial objectives around efficiency and research impact. Most other global corporations are looking hard at this area and deciding how much they want to democratise, what they should mandate – and, crucially, how they make it all work in practice.

At heart, this is an issue to do with culture and ways of working as much as technology. Technically, pretty much anything is possible when everything (text, numbers, video, images) is digital data that can be organised, filtered and analysed.

But if you allow people to access the entirety of your organisation’s knowledge, you can create snow blindness. Where do you start looking? What’s the context for this bit of information? How does it link to other things I know or want to know? Is it even accurate? Can I trust it?

You risk misuse or deliberate myopia. You fuel competing personal agendas. People sharing everything, even the useless bits – or withholding sensitive information, whether for personal gain or the greater good. So it becomes about the shared rules and habits that you put in place for how the business accesses, analyses and uses information. How you signpost and create simplicity. How you help users combine technology with human sensibility to make informed judgements.

From the perspective of agency strategy, the big question is about who controls the narrative. Research agencies – the good ones, at least – have traditionally sought to do this. But if new knowledge management systems succeed in their aims of reducing the spend on primary research, increasing the longevity and breadth of application of insight, and putting analytics in the hands of the masses – then there are some interesting challenges ahead for agencies.

The concepts of ‘content’ and ‘curation’ are now ubiquitous, and for good reason. It’s no surprise that the best agencies are rising up to re-invent themselves as content providers and curators, with clients applauding their transformation. It will be fascinating to see how they ensure that their stories remain the signal among the noise.

Matt Lynch is chief strategy office at Big Sofa

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