KM for small business: an array

Tool Cake from AboveAnother long post.  My apologies.  I hope you find it interesting.  At least you can enjoy this picture of a tool-embedded cake.

I received a number great responses from my last post on KM for small businesses: more than just email.  The most important comment I will repeat: whatever you do has to fit with the style of the business.  There is no such thing as one-size-fits all knowledge management.  Therefore there is no one-size-fits-all technology.  And for small businesses, the technology is most likely a smaller element anyway.  Much more of what's considered to be knowledge management happens in the conversations and interactions amongst the members of the business.

The first layer of technologies that many small businesses look at are those that are freely available: from blogs and microblogs for thoughts and comments, to Skype for meetings, to wikis and Google docs (and others) for collaboration around specific documents.  This is one of the reasons that email is so popular: everyone already has it (whether their personal accounts or the company account).  Of course, one of the concerns are the security and privacy of the information.  This can knock out public Twitter or blogging, but there are plenty of options that maintain privacy. 

Another thing that makes this discussion interesting is that each business comes at this question from a different perspective.  What is behind the "I need X" cry?  Is there a big problem that's causing them to seek out better ways to manage?  Or is there a general sense of need for improvement in several areas?  I'm not sure which is best.  The first approach can help focus the search, but then if you pick something that is too specific to that problem, it may not help in the long run.

Many of the services out there do a lot of things, but their focus is in one area.  Other tools do one specific thing exceedingly well, but then you need to pick up a multitude of tools as your needs expand and change.  37signals' products are a great example of this quandary: Basecamp (for project management), Highrise (contact / customer relationship management) and Backpack (for idea and file management) all have very similar features, but depending on your specific needs, you might pick one or the other.  Zoho offers a dazzling array of services that cover collaboration, business and productivity applications at an even more granular level.  (I'm surprised that it seems you can't just buy a larger package of services.)

Is your need related to the social and connection aspects first?  In that case, there are many offerings out there that help bring all the social-type interactions under one roof.  Many of these options also make it easy to bring in outside partners / customers to portions of the service.  In that case, you'll want the ability to have unique URL's and a branded interface.  I know that Elgg has been used by many people, and they have a developers platform that companies like Mitre have used to build bespoke internal applications.

If the need is around creating new content and working together around that, there are the platforms that started as wikis.  As Stuart French mentioned in the comments, it's another place people start thinking of adding technology to their KM mix.  There are a number of services out there, some of which still have a wiki feel and some which have expanded beyond that.  There are too many to list, but since I have a friend at Traction Software, and I am very much interested in exploring their TeamPage in our small business setting.  Stuart mentioned Atlassian Confluence.  and I have known about SocialText as an option in this arena for many years - it has expanded well beyond the wiki concept.

If customer relationship management (CRM) is a focus, then the established player to consider is the well-known Salesforce.com.  They have a small business offering and these come with their Chatter service that extends their core capability into a more conversational / discussion look, which grows a CRM tool into something that might support more of the needs of KM.

But wait a minute.  Why go with these additional systems?  Why not just help people in the business do a better job with what they have?  Why not teach and encourage advanced Personal Knowledge Management skills, possibly using some of the online services?  That's not a bad idea, actually.  If everyone can use the same tools and those tools can share information amongst colleagues, that may be a good starting point.

Circling back to the opening, though.  This all depends on what the people in the business need and want from "knowledge management," and it depends on where the principals think things will go in the future.  If everyone is tech-savvy,  you have a very different discussion than if you have a mixed group or a group of people who are reticent to use anything beyond email.  Or simply, if people don't have the time. 

Knowledge management is heavily dependent upon the culture of the organization (both the real culture and the desired culture). 

[Photo: "Tool Cake from Above" by Jenn]

4 Comment(s)

Nemo said:

There's also Bloomfire, which is a newer platform.

Thanks, @nemochu.

This reference to Bloomfire made me realize that there is another angle from which businesses might approach the "I need knowledge management" problem. Communities. Maybe they participate in communities of practice, or they realize that they have a large community of customers that they'd like to engage in better ways. And Bloomfire addresses that need from the learning perspective, which is yet another angle, though I see it show up with larger organizations (businesses, communities, etc), rather than in small.

Atle Iversen Author Profile Page said:

This reminds me of the big/small/personal KM discussions.

I believe that the needs for small businesses are often similar to what a project group needs, or what a sales/marketing/support department needs.

People in small business (or project groups etc) have a lot of things in common, and many similar responsibilities/tasks, and therefore need much of the same/similar knowledge.

However, for big businesses with thousands of people, their needs differ enormously, and the "common knowledge" that everybody needs is actually *less* than for a small business. Which is also why I believe that they need different tools and strategies to be successful.

And of course I agree that teaching and encouraging advanced personal knowledge management skills is a great starting point (and will also "educate" people and help them understand their KM needs better later on).

Final point: I would much prefer that people apologized for *short* (mostly useless) ad hoc posts (especially twitter++) than long, thoughtful posts :-)

Small businesses have never been so challenged than in this economy. It’s interesting to read about how small businesses go about deciding what to do based on their need; and kudos on identifying the most important aspects and needs that SBs should be trying to figure out. I find that the reality is not necessarily as strategic. It seems that the one common denominator these days (and typically with SBs in any economy) is budgetary issues/limitations. SBs typically need to be extra cautious about their spending, particularly when it comes to marketing and sales. With this in mind, SBs tend to look at how much they can afford to spend on something first, and not what they should buy in order to meet their needs. Equally important is that SBs don’t necessarily know what’s available. From tapping into social media to streamlining internal communications, it’s hard for SBs to know that they can optimize their sales and internal operations with today’s technology. For these reasons, I think we should throw away any of our assumptions about SMs today, and provide as much information and guidance as possible.

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