What is a Knowledge Management System? A Clear Explanation

by Shelf

Knowledge management is critical to the success of your company. If you don’t have an effective system for publishing, sharing, and organizing your company’s vital information, every aspect of your business operations will suffer.

Before we dive into KM systems, let’s take a minute to understand all these ‘knowledge’ terms floating around the internet.

Many companies use terms like knowledge base, knowledge platform, or knowledge management system interchangeably. Far too often companies define these terms based on their agenda instead of helping the market understand their differences.

Let’s start with the basics: knowledge management.

Knowledge management at its core simply refers to the people, processes, and technology a company uses to handle and make use of information. KM is nothing more than how people use available resources to manage valuable information.

In this post, we’ll take knowledge management a step further and explain (a) what a knowledge management system actually is, and (b) how the system relates to other knowledge terms.

What is a knowledge management system?

A knowledge management system is an umbrella term that refers to any organized way to store and retrieve knowledge using people, processes, and technology. The system is the blueprint, the roadmap, or the structure for a company’s knowledge efforts.

Your knowledge management system allows people in your organization to both document and access resources and knowledge. The knowledge management system is the operating system (often created by a knowledge or operations team) to ensure employees or customers have access to important information they need to get the most value from your product or service.

The components of your knowledge management system should all work together to provide the answers people need in the most effective format. In this digital-first era, customers expect to be able to quickly and efficiently find answers to their questions.
With the knowledge management system as the umbrella, let’s dive into the next layer: knowledge management tools.

Understanding knowledge management tools

A knowledge management tool is used to manage knowledge content (like articles and FAQs) within your overall KM system—after all, systems need tools to work.

You might already have a few different technology tools as part your knowledge management system (most in the form of software tools). These tools might include: a knowledge management platform, a learning management platform, or a knowledge base. Your knowledge management system is composed of different tools that should all work together.

Even though multiple tools may be used as part of your overall system, you should have a one source of truth specific to knowledge that everyone agrees on.

If you have multiple places your organization stores knowledge, you create silos that are impossible to manage simultaneously.

Knowledge management platform

A knowledge management platform is the top-level knowledge management tool that includes the most comprehensive set of features needed to maintain and surface knowledge.

Few vendors fit the platform category because most can’t surface knowledge everywhere and many don’t support advanced content types like decision trees, FAQs, videos, or other types of content a company needs.

Like a knowledge base (that we’ll cover next), a KM platform also serves as the “home base” for users to find and retrieve answers. A platform should include deep integrations into customer service applications and be able to provide answers on-demand, wherever needed.

Knowledge automation platform

The smartest of all knowledge management platforms—what we at Shelf have coined the knowledge automation platform—represents a huge leap forward in knowledge management tools.

Not only can a knowledge automation platform surface and manage knowledge, it uses data from integrated sources to surface the best answers, and to automate knowledge work for knowledge managers.

This next-generation platform uses AI to process data, serve recommendations, and can automatically provide insight into the knowledge database.

Knowledge Base

A knowledge base is an entry-level knowledge management tool that includes basic storage and retrieval capabilities. Knowledge bases are generally are found in the form of standalone software; you can also find knowledge bases that can be thought of as modules within enterprise software.

Knowledge bases are designed for internal use in an organization—ideal for small, growing companies that need to store and consolidate information. Sometimes KB software will be referred to as company wiki software, knowledge sharing software, or something similar.

Knowledge Storage System

Think of a knowledge storage system as the lowest-level tool in a knowledge management system.

Products like Google Drive, Dropbox, and even SharePoint focus on knowledge storage first and foremost; historically these solutions have been the starting point for storing company knowledge but don’t offer the features of more advanced tools.

These low-level knowledge management tools may have some components shared by knowledge bases and knowledge management platform, but they won’t have the same degree of functionality.

Other systems that use knowledge

So far, we’ve covered knowledge management systems in the traditional sense: enterprise-wide KM systems that include people, processes, and some sort of knowledge software.

There are also systems designed for a specific use case; these systems do handle knowledge in a sense, but the software used by these systems doesn’t always include KM software. Here are a couple common examples.

  • Community Forums are hosted by an organization or third party vendor; this crowd-sourced solution helps engage customers, provide self-help and networking opportunities, assist in market research based on user feedback, and generate authentic content from their fans.
  • Learning Management Systems primarily focus on training and educational processes. These systems give employees access to learning materials wherever they need them typically though an LMS platform. A learning management system may include customizable learning paths, engagement metrics, and interactive quizzes. With a LMS, you can upskill and re-skill current employees, onboard new employees, and track employee training compliance.
  • Customer Service Systems commonly include CRM software as well as processes needed to answer frequently asked questions and common service issues. A growing number of companies choose to integrate their primary knowledge management platform as a part of this system to avoid creating knowledge silos.

Adding technology to your KM system? What to look for

An effective knowledge management system needs the right set of processes and software tools to meet the needs of both employees and customers.

Here are some features you should look for as you decide on the technology you’ll need to complete your knowledge management system:

1. Self-service capabilities

As your company grows, eventually you will need a KM platform that can integrate and surface knowledge in self-service channels. You need accurate information available 24/7 so customers can find what they need when it’s convenient for them.

If your company is at the stage where out-of-the-box knowledge modules aren’t cutting it, look for a KM platform with deep integrations into chat solutions and other self-service channels you rely on to deliver information.

2. Solid enterprise integrations

Your knowledge management system should include integrations with software you currently use, so you can deliver the right information at the right time to customers. Below are just  few common enterprise vendors and solutions that rely on relevant and accurate knowledge:

  • Genesys
  • NICE inContact
  • Five9
  • Kustomer
  • Salesforce
  • Zendesk
  • Third-party chat solutions
  • IVR solutions

3. Knowledge automation capabilities

Your knowledge team puts a lot of effort into managing knowledge, often without the credit. Look for a a knowledge management platform that does the heavy lifting, one that manages feedback, one that can offer automated recommendations.

Any knowledge manager knows how frustrating it is to optimize legacy knowledge solutions, or to integrate them. You should find a KM tool that people around the company actually trust—a solution that can eliminate time consuming tasks, one that delivers content employees need, when they need it (without even searching for it).

4. Agent support capabilities

If you have a team of agents on the front lines of customer support, their feedback is invaluable to improve your knowledge management system. Look for knowledge management technology that not only allows employees to share knowledge, it allows employees to access knowledge in their working environment—like the contact center.

Need to improve your knowledge management system?

Now that you have a better understanding of KM systems and the knowledge management landscape, start with a simple audit to determine what kind of system (including the people involved and the tools within this system).

You might uncover a few common knowledge management mistakes that are holding you back, or software you can do without.

Read this Next

A Knowledge Management Best Practices Guide

Need to improve your company’s knowledge management system? Use this guide as you plan your next knowledge initiative.

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