TL;DR: They’re different and you probably need them both.
Over the years, we’ve been asked frequently about the overlap between knowledge management (KM) and content management (CM).
- “Can I do KM in a content management system (CMS) like Microsoft SharePoint?”
- “If I’m doing CM well, should I also do KM, or is that redundant?”
- “If I’m doing both, what goes where?”
A recent spate of these questions had me revisit some work I’d done with a KM vendor some years ago to share it with you.
Why Content Management?
CM is an enterprise must-have. Sure, the paperless office hasn’t arrived, but CMSes have helped enterprises to make great strides in storing, retrieving, sharing, and managing electronic documents.
Teams used to work together by email, sending attached files back and forth. This seems like an easy way to collaborate. But it means that there’s no single place to go to find the most up-to-date set of project documents. As a result, team members often make conflicting edits on different versions of the files. And, when new people join the team, there is no easy way to get them all the documents they needed to start work.
CM systems solve these problems by providing a single place for teams to store, update, and share content in an organized and efficient manner.
What Do Content Management Systems Let Knowledge Workers Do?
- Contribute. CMSes provide users a way to add content. Generally, this content is created using a standard office application that is separate from the CM system, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat. In more specialized applications, content comes from scanned image files or optical character recognition software.
- Organize. CM systems allow content to be filed in folders, tagged with metadata, and otherwise made easier to find and manage. Titles and summaries (what one of our customers calls “bytes” and “snacks,” as opposed to the full document “meal”) can be added. CM systems also keep a version history of the document as it evolves.
- Approve. For documents that need to be carefully controlled, CM systems implement a review process that ensures the right sign-offs by the right individuals or groups.
- Search. CMs use search engines to find content by matching metadata or keywords in a search string.
- Retrieve. Content that has been found by browsing or searching can be skimmed (through titles and summaries), extracted, and opened, usually using the desktop application associated with its file type: Adobe Acrobat Reader for PDF files, Microsoft PowerPoint for PPTX files, and so on.
Most general-purpose content management systems don’t really concern themselves with the content, per se, other than titles and summaries. The content is created and viewed in other applications; CM-managed metadata is associated with the file, but not with the content inside the file. The search engine indexes the text inside the file, but without regard to the structure or organization of the document. CM systems treat content the same way that warehouses treat boxes: they put labels on the outside, so they don’t have to look inside.
The fact that CM systems are content-agnostic is generally a very good thing—it means that they can manage content created in any possible tool equally well. This strength turns into a serious liability, however, when we consider KM.
How is KM Different?
KM is different from CM in four big ways.
Nuggets, not novels
Knowledge isn’t just content. It’s actionable information: information needed to make a decision, the resolution to a problem, or the answer to a question. It’s a nugget of know-how. Knowledge articles stored in a KM system are about one thing, and they’re structured to meet a specific need.
Documents—the focus of enterprise CM systems—aren’t knowledge. Sure, there may be answers to questions buried inside, but their scope is generally much larger than that. They’re not designed for a specific purpose.
For example, let’s assume someone is having a problem with a specific feature in a complex piece of test equipment. She could download the 233-page manual (properly stored and managed in a CM application), and rummage through it to try to find her answer. But isn’t it a better experience for her to put a very specific query in a search box, and receive just the information she needs to be successful? That’s what KM provides.
Knowledge management best practices like KCS require that knowledge must be structured for reuse, separating the problem or question being asked, from the environment in which it occurs, from the underlying cause, the actual resolution or answer, and other topics. In effect, knowledge capture becomes a case of filling out a form that specifies both what’s to be done, and under what conditions to do it.
The tools that are typically used to author documents managed by a CMS aren’t designed for this kind of structure. The CMS may add a veneer of structure—metadata, titles, and summaries—but for KM, it’s not a veneer. The structure is everything.
Knowledge must be integrated into the workflow
A CM system is a little bit like a filing cabinet: you take files out of it, use them for a while, then put them back so you can get to them later if needed. It enables the work to get done, but it’s not part of doing the work.
Knowledge management, in contrast, is the work. As the KCS Practices Guide says, “Knowledge management isn’t something we do in addition to solving problems…it becomes the way we solve problems.” Accordingly, KM systems need to be tied in to the workflow of our hands-on jobs.
It’s especially important to capture knowledge in real time, rather than waiting for later, because so often “later” never comes. And, if you don’t integrate knowledge capture into the workflow, it’s hard to remember both the customer’s words—our internal editors tend to substitute the words we would have used—and the specific steps we took to resolve the issue.
Motivating KM users is an ongoing effort
People deploying CM systems don’t tend to need to think very much about adoption or culture change. The logic for using CM is fairly clear, and it’s possible to adopt CM one workgroup at a time—CM isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.
For knowledge management, the primary obstacle to success is getting a critical mass of people to use it consistently throughout their workday. Unless knowledge is consistently used, it won’t be improved by its users, and people will be reluctant to take the time to contribute knowledge. With insufficient or out-of-date knowledge, people will lose confidence and will be less likely to use the knowledge. So unless people are actively using the system, it’s easy for the whole initiative to go off the rails.
What Does This Mean To Us?
Despite the superficial similarities, content and knowledge management are pretty different from a people, process, and technology perspective. And, you probably need them both. Without a content management program, teams and groups won’t be able to share and manage the documents they need to do their work. Without knowledge management, the insights and answers that come up in the course of doing business will be lost.
So, KM people, don’t let them CM people tell you they’ve replaced you. If they insist you should use their tool, be skeptical.
CM people, KM isn’t an alternative to your work; it’s a complement. Even if the KM tool was really expensive, you don’t want to upload all your documents into it.