Knowledge Management and steamed milk

I’ve been involved, in one way or another, in the esoteric science of Knowledge Management for more than 20 years. I’ve lived through KM’s many ups and downs, and I’m happy to admit that it’s never been an easy sell. A lot of people aren’t sure what KM is, much less why they need it. (If this happens to be an issue for you, drop me an email and I’ll give you my take on a definition for it.)

Suffice it to say it’s a complex business process, and adopting KM is more than a matter of buying a piece of technology, slamming it in and expecting it to solve a problem for you. This is true of a lot of business processes for which there are associated classes of software solutions. Each of these is a discipline involving an array of process, cultural and other pragmatic issues that have to be resolved in order fSteamed Milkor the technology you buy to have any measurable utility.

In fact, this is true of just about any product, isn’t it? Even milk – how many variations on milk are there in the supermarket’s refrigerator case? Heavy cream, light cream, half & half, whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim – each of these is a lifestyle choice, and I’m leaving out the whole issue of organic milk (versus…whatever we now call the alternative to organic), to say nothing of rice or soy derived synthetics.

It’s now a matter of expert opinion, what milk is. Your milk purchase is now the punchline in a lengthy shaggy dog story.

Lately, combining two disparate business preoccupations of mine, I’ve been talking to vendors of enterprise software, including KM tools, about their Content Marketing objectives. The gist of Content Marketing is that any brand, technology-intensive or not, is really a complex story, in which the buyer engages with the seller and assumes a part in the play. This is as true for SharePoint as it is for milk. The milk story might involve an elaborate daily ritual in which the buyer whips up a fresh cup of latte. The SharePoint story, analogously, could involve a team of attorneys collaborating on the drafting of commercial leases.

As a seller, your goal is to differentiate your brand and establish yourself as a source of good information – content – that gives the buyer the confidence that you can ensure that the story has a happy ending, whether it’s a perfect latte or a tightly crafted lease, every time.

Over a couple of decades in the knowledge management game, I’ve evolved a brief litany that I recite to give consulting clients a sense of what decisions are involved in addition to selecting and buying software – in fact, typically well before software adoption becomes an issue. Here it is:

Process – People – Content – Tools

At first, this may seem irrelevant to your business, especially if you’re not in the knowledge management field. But it occurs to me that this little bit of doggerel applies to many kinds of technology adoptions. I deliberately drop the product itself to the end of the list, because the non-technical issues have to be confronted to establish a context in which the buyer can successfully adopt the product. That’s a model that fits a wide array of technologies, even beyond IT.

  • Process – The technology buyer is paying attention because he has a business process he suspects would be more effective if a technology like yours were incorporated in it. But what process is it? Is your product really a fit for that application?
  • People – Business processes don’t run themselves. Making any new process or any significant change to an existing process a success will require some degree of organizational culture change. Is the buyer’s team prepared to make that change?
  • Content – Most technology adoption in organizations is concerned with data or information – capturing it, making sense of it, sharing it, and putting it to work. If the adopting organization is producing the wrong information, or presenting information in an impractical form, then no technology, yours or your competitor’s, is going to provide an effective outcome.
  • Tools – Once you understand the buyer’s process, people and content constraints, is your technology the right fit? Can it be shoehorned into place even if it isn’t a perfect fit? If all the stars are aligned, that’s the time to talk technology options.

PPCTThis model has served as an effective way to help clients approach complex technology adoption projects with an appropriately broad perspective. But a new use for my little mnemonic suggests itself: As an organizing principle for a technology vendor’s Content Marketing program.

If you market a software tool – in KM, for example – you already are accustomed to a long sales cycle, as prospects work toward satisfying themselves that your tool is more likely to get them to a successful outcome than your competitors’ tools. If you accept my premise that a successful outcome requires more than a rich feature set, a friendly user experience or a low price, then here’s another proposition: Your marketing objective should be to convince the buyer that you are the authoritative source on the Process, People and Content issues that create the context for successful use of the tool.

Each of these objectives could be met in different ways. It may be that the most effective way to prepare the end users for the change to come is to involve them in a sponsored community of users from other organizations that have come through the experience satisfied and still gainfully employed.

To educate the buyer on process issues, it may make sense to produce a branded White Paper, walking the buyer through a process-oriented roadmap for adopting the business process in which your tool will be used (as opposed to the tool itself).

As for content, think about creating a set of generic templates for the kinds of documents or files you anticipate will be stored in your platform, and offer them through your web site. Think beyond your own tool, and design them for general utility in the business process you support.

If you’re still with me, then your plan should be to fill out your library of marketing content with materials that establish your credibility as a source of expertise on the processes in which your technology is applied; on the methodology for taking the adopting team through the culture change that is required for success; and on the design and delivery of world class content for these applications.

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