Making Knowledge Work

May 15, 2018

People and Tools: Encouraging Rewarding Interaction in the Workplace

Filed under: Change Management, Collaboration, Communication, Knowledge Management — virginiahenry @ 8:07 pm


An article I wrote for Business Information Review:

The Humane Factor

As a knowledge manager, responsible for supporting others to use technology to ‘work smarter’ by sharing information and knowledge, and collaborating effectively, I have a lot of helpful advice and models to draw on.

From Harold Leavitt’s 1960s Diamond Model featuring People, Task, Structure and Technology through to the 21st century specialised knowledge management assessment tools, maturity models, frameworks and implementation processes – there is a wealth of knowledgeable reference resource.

Most of these incredibly helpful tools, models, guides and studies will, in one way or another, emphasise the importance of three factors: people, process and technology.
In many cases, these three “ingredients for success” are awarded equal emphasis.  I don’t disagree with the analysis – successful organisations obviously must take their people, their processes and their technology into account.  But I believe greater focus should be placed on the people than on the processes and technologies they use, and I’m convinced that investing care, thought and effort in them as the primary “ingredients for success” is a more reliable way to achieve genuine success.  Over the years, I’ve come to regard this as paying attention not so much the human factor, but the humane factor.

In this article, I want to explore the powerful effect of the humane factor.  I’ll explain why I think it is sometimes overlooked and often underrated, and examine the subtle, but important, contrast between theories and the realities of working life.   And I’d like to begin with the most difficult aspect of adopting the humane factor – being honest with yourself.  Time for some introspection……

Not them, but we

If I’m claiming this: That in order to encourage rewarding interaction between people and their workplace technology, it is vital to invest care, thought and effort in working with people. Then there is an obvious admission I have to make:  that I am one of them.
Laughably obvious, you might think.  So apparent that it goes without saying?  On the contrary, I think it is worth examining the implications of acknowledging that I am one of them.
Most profoundly, there is no longer a them, only we.

How many workplace conversations have you been party to, or overheard, in which “I’ve given them the tool/software/application, but they won’t use it”?  I’ve heard it many times: when an IT manager has iintroduced SharePoint in an organisation, but staff insist on ignoring it in favour of their shared drive folders; when a director has “told them” they must use the new CRM system, but rebellious teams are using spreadsheets instead and claiming the CRM is “not fit for purpose”; when a communications team or knowledge manager has launched an intranet only to find their colleagues determinedly stick to sharing updates on email.
Perhaps you have also worked in organisations where there are multiple (usually incompatible) solutions, fulfilling the same business purpose, being used by different teams or departments?  Invariably, there are as many reasons for this as there are software solutions, but I’ve found a recurring theme is the persistence of “them” (“we are different to them, so a different system suits us better”).

Another implication of liberating oneself from the notion of them, is the need to accept (however reluctantly) that we all, in one way or another, have trouble with tools.  Sometimes it’s because we lack personal discipline: as a knowledge manager, managing my electronic documents and files should be second nature – but I tell myself I’m too busy to be rigorous in sorting them sensibly.  Sometimes it is caused by reluctance to let go of the familiar: I’ve encountered numerous instances in which teams are using software that is several releases out of date.

With estimates varying from fifty to seventy percent of business IT projects failing, there is strong motivation for understanding how to succeed with technology adoption in the workplace.  Much business consulting and academic thought had been devoted to investigating our behaviour in relation to technology.

Some interesting work was published in the Journal of European Psychology Students.  Called “Understanding adoption of new technologies: Technology readiness and technology acceptance as an integrated concept”, the research paper analysed data employing two paradigms.

The Technology Acceptance Model – which is used to determine:

  • perceived usefulness (how much someone believes using a particular system would enhance their job performance)
  • perceived ease of use (to what extent a person believes using a particular system would be free of effort)

and the Technology Readiness Index – which looks at people’s inclination to embrace and use new technologies using the categories:

  • Optimism “a positive view of technology and a belief that it offers people increased control, flexibility and efficiency in their lives”
  • Innovativeness “a tendency to be a technology pioneer and thought leader”
  • Discomfort “a perceived lack of control over technology and a feeling of being overwhelmed by it”
  • Insecurity “a distrust of technology and scepticism about its ability to work properly”

The researchers concluded that it was important to take into account users’ general attitudes toward technology when introducing new systems. But that even in organisations where people are generally optimistic towards technology some systems are rejected because perceived usefulness and ease of use may be low.

Interesting, and certainly worth bearing in mind.  On the other hand, I think it’s equally helpful to refer to practical experience: perceptions of usefulness can change with use (we might all know somebody who couldn’t see the point of smart phones, but will not be parted from the one they now own), and our “technology readiness” can shift markedly over time.  Where we once felt discomfort, we may now feel optimistic about certain technologies.
Knowing about the factors that feed failure is useful, but it’s up to us to figure out how to even up the odds.

Where’s Your Conviction?

Again, a good starting point is with oneself.  Before implementing a new system in an organisation, you and/or your team will have done the groundwork.  For example, you will have:

  • a clear understanding of the strategic business case
  • analysed users’ needs
  • identified all the stakeholders
  • carefully chosen the appropriate software
  • classified the risks and benefits
  • have a dazzlingly thorough implementation strategy!

Your knowledge of the new software and its capabilities, your trust in the implementation plan and your understanding of the ways in which adoption will be of benefit to people, are crucial components of the Humane Factor.  It is from these practical understandings that you draw your conviction that the technology is right for the organisation.  It is important not to underestimate the confidence you feel, because it can be genuinely influential.  This isn’t simply a ‘rose-tinted spectacle’ belief of my own, there has been a lot of research into the influence of confidence.

A detailed study published in the Journal of Neuroscience entitled “Independent neural computation of value from other people’s confidence” looked at the ways in which another person’s confidence can influence our own.  In the authors’ own words:

“This study finds that using cues of the reliability of other peoples’ knowledge to enhance expectation of personal success generates value correlates that are anatomically distinct from those concurrently computed from direct, personal experience”.

The team used Neuroimaging to track effects in the brain during experiments such as the way participants predicted the colour of marbles being randomly drawn from an urn, based on their observations of the apparent confidence of other observers.  The study is illustrated with colourful fMRI images and the team concluded: “our findings provide new neurobiological insight into the transmission of value information between individuals and the mechanism by which confidence expressed by others assures or discourages us in our decisions.”

So, there are very good reasons to show how confident you are in the benefits of the new software you are implementing.

Do as I Do

Frankly, the best way to demonstrate your confidence in the value of a software application is to use it yourself.

Remember my example of the director who told staff that they must use the CRM?  The demand had most likely been accompanied by missives or PowerPoint illustrations of the business value, the benefits to be gained in customer or relationship management, even screenshots of the impressive reports that could be run from the new system.   The advocacy might not have included an admission that the system was somewhat unwieldly and would demand dedicated commitment of time and effort to use.  There almost certainly wouldn’t have been a confession that the director disliked using the interface just as much as the staff, and had rarely accessed it since having an initial training session!

Perhaps the director has mitigating reasons for asking staff to do as they say, rather than as they do.  After all, they are very busy and might see it as less crucial that they adopt the new technology, but vital that the staff do.  Those of us whose job descriptions include responsibility for supporting others to use our workplace technology don’t have any excuse.  We must master the technology if we are to have a hope of inspiring others to do the same.

In order to become confident in using the technology, it’s important to set aside sufficient time to learn how to use it.  I don’t mean that you should spend some time becoming familiar with the system’s main features and functions.  I mean you need to really learn how to use it: explore it, find out what it does and what it can do for you.  If your experience of vendor or supplier manuals is like mine, you will already know that in many cases these documents offer scant assistance.  I’ve often wondered who writes these things, and what kind of audience they think they are speaking to……
Even in those cases that the out-of-the-box documentation is compiled to be helpful, your organisation’s customisations might make large parts of the manual redundant, and the rest of it is unlikely to align well with your organisation’s priorities or culture.

The humane factor takes careful account of the need to inspire confidence in others by preparing well yourself.  The time you invest in getting to know as much as you can about the technology you are implementing will pay dividends for everyone.

Means of Support

By becoming a confident user of the new technology, you will have equipped yourself well to support your colleagues through the critical stages of launch, adoption and embedding into business as usual.


There are a number of dos and don’ts to bear in mind when launching a new software application in an organisation:

Do Not


  •   Make your colleagues’ first experience of the new system a “big bang” launch day of banners, presentations, demonstrations from vendors and general disruption orchestrated by the internal communications team or the marketing department.

Enthusiasm is likely to fizzle out long before your branded launch balloons become deflated.

  • Lead up to launch with regular short and informative briefings, and bite-sized familiarisation sessions delivered by early adopters across the organisation.

    This should help set realistic expectations, and show that real users are confident that the system works for them.

  • Launch the system by ensuring it suddenly appears on everyone’s desktop or laptop without explanation.

How would you feel if that happened to you? 

The software could become the totem focus for a range of negative emotions – about the organisation’s attitude to its employees, the cold indifference of management, the unreasonable demands made on overworked staff…..  You really don’t want to engender “hate at first sight”.

  •  Consult with staff, well in advance, about the options available for accessing the new system.
  •   Listen carefully to their responses, you will learn from those who have reservations and misgivings as well as from the enthusiasts.

 Even if, for sound business reasons, you decide to deliver access in a way a number of people do not desire – explain the reasoning and reassure colleagues that you have not ignored their concerns.

  •  Launch with a “show and tell” demonstration for users, then reassure them that there is a video on YouTube if they want to learn more.


It is unreasonable to expect everyone to dash back to their desks and immediately start using the system with the knowledge they’ve gleaned from your overview session.
Sure, some people will pick it up with ease – but they would be just as likely to figure out how to use the software without sitting through your demo.
Also, the usefulness of videos, unless they are produced in thirty-second segments showing specific interactions, is much over-rated.

  •  Make sure you have organised training sessions tailored to users’ needs, and their capacity to absorb the new information.
  •   Use your knowledge and experience of the system to create a set of user guides – with screenshots and step-by-step instructions – so that colleagues can refer to them as they need them.


Just-in-time learning is often more useful to people than intense training room sessions.

  •  Make the mistake of believing that launch day signals the end of your project or your responsibilities.
  •  Remember that although you have been living with this system for long enough for its features and functions to be very familiar to you, that is not the case for your colleagues.


When the implementation of new technology is a case of replacing an existing resource, such as introducing higher-spec multi-function copiers, launch and adoption may run relatively smoothly.  Although it can take time for users to become familiar with the new features, and they are likely to need those user guides you prepared for a while.

However, in most instances people will not only be adopting a new technology but new processes, and new ways of working and collaborating.  The change brought about by new software systems is cultural as well as functional.  The humane factor is a powerful resource at such a time.

The humane factor will ensure that the cultural impact of implementing the new technology was recognised in your business case, identified during risk/benefit analysis and carefully planned for in the implementation strategy.  It is during the adoption period that the full implications of that cultural change will become apparent.

If you have prepared well, you will have:

  • created training materials that incorporate strategic aims and behavioural change with the “how to” learning
  • made sure there are enough early adopters and “local experts” for team members across the organisation to turn to when they need guidance and support
  • planned for the regular communication of success stories

What may have been overlooked (and it’s easy to do so) is preparation for the unexpected.  But when people come together with new processes and technology, the unexpected is likely to occur.
When you think about it, this is inevitable:  People are curious and inventive, so if we are given a tool we are likely to experiment with it and explore what it can do.

Your organisation may have a post room, where incoming mail is sorted and distributed by hand.  Before email, that was also the method by which internal mail – memos, agendas, minutes, reports etc – was transferred person-to-person.  I doubt that anyone foresaw the profound reality-shift that would occur once internal mail had been replaced by corporate email.  People found ways of employing email that could never have been envisaged, and the dominant role it now plays in our working lives is far more intrusive and demanding than internal mail ever was.

Perhaps you remember a time you discovered a function in Excel and realised that a world of possibility had opened up at the click of a mouse?  You might now work in a very different way than you did before you got to grips with such a formidable software application.

What I’m saying is that for each individual in an organisation, adoption of a new system will be an individual experience, and it is important that you support, and learn from, all of them.
If we go back to the perceptions described by the Technology Acceptance Model – there will be people who see the system as useful to them and easy to use, and others who don’t feel that the rewards for them and their work are worth the effort of mastering the system.  Where one individual will need greater support, and help to realise the benefits of adoption, another will embrace it and look for additional benefits to those you initially envisaged.
There will also be individuals who share characteristics with the types described in the Technology Readiness Index:

  • The Optimist might be included in your group of early adopters. They can help overcome glitches with the system, as well as demonstrating the benefits they experience from using it.
  • The Innovator will also be on the scene early. They might discover unforeseen advantages of the system and, as a consequence, its impact on the way the organisation works.
  • The person who feels Discomfort is not likely to be an early adopter. They can, however, help you to develop robust training and support resources.  If the materials enable them to feel in control of the technology and more confident about using it, you can be assured of their quality.
  • The individual whose Insecurity is demonstrated by scepticism and distrust of the technology might also be the person who asks the most challenging questions. Your confidence (and, sometimes, your patience) may be tested, but providing clear and reasoned answered to the difficult questions will help you strengthen your business case, and sharpen your communication skills.

All of these features of the humane factor mean that the adoption process across the organisation can be a lengthy process.  It is iterative, rather than linear and finite.  It may continue at the same time as you move to the phase of absorption into business as usual.

Business as Usual – the way we work here

Encouraging rewarding interactions with technology in the workplace is not the role of a single individual or discipline.  It may, though, be your responsibility to help everybody – from the Board and the CEO to the newest intern – to understand that it is the organisation’s culture and values that set the expectation of interaction.

This might sound like a tall order.  However, because the humane factor doesn’t recognise them and us, but only we, it is very helpful in dealing with this issue of the way we work.   It is the people that express an organisation’s values and bring its culture to life.  The use of adopted technology is an integral part of the life of the organisation (business as usual), therefore it should be reflected in how the organisation talks about itself and how it behaves.  This means that the expectation of interaction with the organisation’s essential tools and technology needs to have a presence in:

  • Recruitment advertisements
  • Job specifications
  • Induction and onboarding processes
  • Appraisals and objectives
  • Corporate websites
  • Annual reports

By acknowledging that the way we work, and the technology we rely on, sits at the heart of our organisation’s life and culture we weave it into our organisational narrative and make a collective commitment.  The latest “IT project” is no longer an irritating disruption or an irrelevant distraction.  Getting the best from the software we have is not simply the domain of the geeky optimists and innovators.  We are all invested in using technology successfully, and our expectations of ourselves and our colleagues are that we will collaborate and support one another in the way we work here.


Godoe, P. & Johansen, T.S., (2012). Understanding adoption of new technologies: Technology readiness and technology acceptance as an integrated concept. Journal of European Psychology Students. 3(1), pp.38–52. DOI:

Independent Neural Computation of Value from Other People’s Confidence
Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn, Arndis Simonsen, Chris D. Frith and Nathaniel D. Daw
Journal of Neuroscience 9 December 2016, 37 (3) 673-684;


October 30, 2011

LIKE 30: Knowledge Transfer – making it work

Filed under: Knowledge Management, LIKE — Tags: — virginiahenry @ 3:55 pm

It’s often easier to talk about best practice than to just get on with it.  I’m sure lots of us have sat in after-action reviews or meetings where projects have been comprehensively analysed and “ways to do it better” have been skilfully identified.  Then everyone returns to their desks and carries on as before!  There are many reason it happens – change takes time, teamwork and, often, training.  Business as usual can dictate the pace of work (even if that work entails time-consuming activities such as trawling through over-loaded email inboxes to find important information).   Introducing new and more effective ways of working can prove to be ‘too much hassle’ – particularly if senior team-members consider themselves exempt from adopting new practices.

Maybe that’s why we’re more willing to invest external agents with the authority to make change or perform services that we could, if we chose, do for ourselves.

Gary Colet is the Facilitator for the Knowledge Retention and Transfer special interest group at the Knowledge and Innovation Network of Warwick University Business School.  He has a strong aversion to the term “Knowledge Management” preferring the description “Organisational Learning”.  It’s not difficult to see why he has a problem with the KM handle – it’s not exactly explanatory, and when practitioners (as they often are)  are called on to explain it, the descriptions of KM’s value and impact can vary widely.
So, organisational learning is what Gary facilitates.

The LIKE evening started with Gary calling on four volunteers to assist in illustrating how ‘knowledge’ rapidly degrades when passed along a human chain.  The first volunteer was told a story that contained a number of facts.  Their job was to relate the tale to the next volunteer, ensuring the facts were transmitted.  That volunteer then had to relate the story to the next person to enter the room and so on.  Surprisingly, one of the participants asked if she could take notes – Gary said that was the first time anyone had ever thought to do so (maybe not so surprising that a LIKE member should think so practically :-)).  His point was well illustrated though – facts evaporated in the telling, and the name of a publication morphed into another (the New Scientist became the New Statesman).

We moved on to analyse the shelf-life and value of various examples of knowledge/information transmitters:

  • Transactional information such as emails = low value, short life
  • Round-tables and seminars = high value, short life
  • Meeting minutes, FAQs, check lists =  low value, long life
  • Partner contracts, design rationales, projects decisions = high value, long life

Transient knowledge fits into the high value, short life category – and the high value makes this knowledge well worth eliciting.  Gary is often called in at times of change in organisations: when a round of redundancies is taking place, or when acquisitions and mergers are in progress.  He facilitates meetings or dinners during which the outgoing individual (always a key team member or senior leader) is encouraged to pass on their knowledge and experience.
Gary calls his approach to achieving this ‘O.P.E.C.’: Open, Probe, Examine, Close.  So his questions begin with “Tell me about your current role?”  or “Tell me about the project you’ve just completed?” – deliberately broad and open queries aimed at opening the dialogue in an unchallenging way.  With the discussion initiated, he moves on to the probing questions: “What were your particular successes in…..?”, “What were you trying to achieve in doing…..?,“What didn’t go so well in…..?”, etc: the kinds of enquiry aimed at garnering facts and details.  Then come the ‘examining’ queries: “Why didn’t it work so well?”, “Why did you choose that approach?”, “Who was your most useful contact?”.  These questions focus on clarifying details and encouraging the individual to make their implicit knowledge explicit.  Finally he asks the important closing questions – for example “If there were three main things you’d speak to your successor about, what would they be?”

As anyone who’s facilitated these exchanges can testify – the process is not easy or comfortable.  The last thing a person who is feeling bruised and cynical may want is to share their professional knowledge with the organisation that is discarding them!  So, as Gary pointed out, the approach you take is vitally important.  Even if the organisation believes they own, or have a right to, that person’s knowledge, the individual is likely to see things very differently.   These structured exchanges do, however, offer them something worthwhile: respect for their professionalism and the value of their know-how; acknowledgment of their contribution and importance to their soon-to-be former colleagues.  By making this respect and appreciation clear to the individual at the outset, exchanges which begin with hostility and suspicion can quickly become positive and rewarding experiences for both parties.

It may seem trite to say “do as you would be done by” – but it’s a fact that this sentiment underpins good practice in Organisational Learning (or KM, sorry Gary).  The moment you allow yourself to believe that time is too precious to invest in enabling individuals to exchange knowledge and information is the moment you step onto the wheel of organisational amnesia and recurrent mistakes from the past.

October 9, 2011

LIKE 29 – Connecting Information with Innovation

There was an enthusiastic response to our announcement that LIKE 29 would focus on the findings of a recent report by the specialist professional services company TFPL:  so enthusiastic that the evening was quickly over-subscribed.  The only way to satisfy demand was to run the event twice.

On both evenings the very lively discussions were skilfully led by John Davies , Head of Consulting at TFPL and co-author of the report.

The title “Connecting Information with Innovation” was chosen because responses to the survey forming the basis of the report showed organisations are increasingly linking information services with corporate purpose.  And the purpose of the report was to take a fresh snapshot of the Info Pro landscape.  (Back in 2006 the TFPL team had worked with Hazel Hall to produce “Who’s Managing Information?”)

Of ten thousand questionnaires, two hundred and twenty were returned.   35% of respondents worked in the public sector, 48% in the private sector, and the rest in education and the third sector.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most respondents classified themselves as senior managers.  But more interestingly only half worked in core info management service, while the other 50% said their services were dispersed across the organisation.

Most people reported little change from 2006 in Knowledge and Information (KIM) staffing levels.  But there was much evidence that organisations were reallocating responsibilities – for example with business information being moved into the remit of business intelligence. And there was   strong evidence that organisations were looking for increased value from their information services, with more accountability and pressure to contribute to the organisations’ strategic plan than there had been in 2006.

Many of the respondents could be classified as Librarians, Records Managers, Content Specialists, Information Services providers, Business Analysts…..  but such things as  information security, information governance, communications, competitive intelligence and digital preservation fell outside of their responsibilities.

John said there are approximately 30 million people in work in the UK.  And, based on work done in the US following Drucker, around 60-70% of us are classified as “knowledge workers”.  However, for every million knowledge workers, there are maybe one thousand with recognisable qualifications. And, it seemed, qualifications still matter to recruiting businesses.
So he wanted to know how LIKE people saw their profession – what distinctions they made, and who they thought were “KIM” professionals.

It was clear from the comments people made that we’re not doing a great job of explaining to each other what we do, or feeling particularly comfortable with the KIM umbrella term:

“Business Intelligence is all about coding”. “Business development people get my goad”. “Archivists, Records Managers and Librarians have a similar mindset, but KMs come at it from a very different angle”.  “Knowledge Managers don’t need a qualification but librarians do”. 

Some people were bemused (and amused) by the increasing pressure to ‘professionalise’: “ If someone sees themselves as a KIM professional, they pretty well are”.  “In  Government there’s a move for civil servants to be part of a profession – IT Professional, Lawyer, Statistician etc – so that’s led people like Immigration Officers  to say ‘well I use information a lot, so I’m a KIM professional’”. 

John told us recruitment specialists are having a hard time keeping up with the demands of employers.  Job specifications are getting broader, deeper, more demanding.  The old distinctions between the junior and more senior roles were being blurred as everyone is expected to demonstrate business acumen, project management ability and IT knowledge.

Five attributes that were key to recruitment, came out in the survey.  He described them as:  Visionary, perseverance, logical, pragmatic, collaborative.  He wanted to know what we thought of these, and which of them we’d prioritise.

Several people said they’d never heard two definitions of ‘Knowledge Management’ that were the same.  Others confirmed that the same went for ‘Information Management’.  So how would it be possible to attain definitive descriptions, or prioritise attributes?
One Consultant had stopped putting job titles on her CV entirely.  She found they confused her clients and didn’t add value – her skills and experience were more important.

Someone said most Information Managers are just Librarians by another name.  And a professional from the British Library said “I work in the biggest library in the country – not a single post at the British Library is called Librarian.  Titles are meaningless!  I’m a Reference Specialist – what does that mean?  Even within the reference team there are different interpretations of what a Reference Specialist does and is.”

This was one of the areas of consensus on both evenings.  Lots of people felt it was pointless to define terms when each organisation had its own definitions.  Every organisation has its own jargon – “So you read the job description and interpret – then you repeat their language when you fill in your application for a job.”

Someone said “we’re good at collaborating among ourselves, but maybe not so good at doing it within our wider businesses”.  And it was suggested that some Librarians see themselves as Librarians first, then employees of their specific business.

But of the five key attributes Collaboration, Vision and Pragmatism were seen as the most important.  So we proved to be pretty good at prioritising!

John told us that since 2006 training on the job had fallen by the wayside.  In-house training is increasingly in demand, while external courses are being cut.  LIKErs confirmed that they were being directed to develop or use in-house resources for training.  Some are making use of online courses.  And, of course, transferred knowledge inside the organisation is an important element of Knowledge Management, so there’s a case for looking inside for skill development.

On both evenings the discussion about training and development inevitably led back to the issue of professional qualification and its importance – both to the professional and the employer.  Although “Some people are professionals in the field without having professional qualifications”, it was agreed that these individuals usually have years of experience to support their ‘claim’.  For others, especially those just starting out, it was seen as essential to have a professional qualification “so you have credibility and can demonstrate that you know what you’re doing.” “It’s a badge of honour, showing you can do the job” Some people also saw professional qualifications as a means of gaining a broader understanding of their specialism than can be gained in an isolated role “it gives you a structured core skills base”.  But there was a rider to the importance placed on qualifications: “courses really do need to link up with reality”.    And qualifications alone wouldn’t cut it in modern business: “inside the organisation it’s your success stories and the reputation you’ve built up.”  “It all comes down to demonstrating you have the skills to do the job”. 

During our discussions we briefly revisited a question that comes up pretty regularly at LIKE meetings (and elsewhere) – the value of professional bodies.  It’s always an interesting debate.  The specialised roles (such as Law Librarian) need to have their own knowledge networks.  It makes sense doesn’t it?  But what doesn’t make sense to many KIM professionals is to have professional bodies that are out of tune with their members’ requirements and experiences.

John Davies was very complimentary about LIKE – he said it was invigorating and refreshing,   a model for how professional bodies could develop “rather than the ossified, committee-ridden groups I’ve been so familiar with over the years”.

If LIKE is any kind of model, that’s brilliant.  Our primary focus, though, is on providing LIKErs with what they tell us they want – open, inclusive discussions about issues relevant to them.

We seem to have done that with LIKE 29, and LIKE 30 should fit the bill too!  Gary Colet from Warwick Business School will be getting us thinking about how to make transferred knowledge stick.




February 27, 2011

Real Knowledge Management – LIKE 22

Filed under: Knowledge Management — Tags: , , — virginiahenry @ 5:50 pm

For February’s LIKE we wanted to explore what Knowledge Management really is.

There are so many books and academic papers devoted to the discipline, so many definitions and declarations of its rise/demise/resurgence…… that we thought it’d be refreshing to look at KM from the perspective of practitioners.  You know – people who really do it, in real jobs, in real organisations 🙂

It was a popular decision: the upstairs room at the Crown Tavern was packed, and the four LIKE members who delivered speed presentations on KM were compelling speakers.

Matt Walsh is Knowledge Manager at the Medical Defence Union.  He’s been working in knowledge management for around 7 years, and knows about the challenges and practicalities of making it work.

His organisation has adopted five key principles – they were originally developed to guide a specific intranet project, but were so well received that they’re applied for all aspects of organisational knowledge management now:

  1. All users must be able to add content and use content in any system. (Matt told us that when they started on the journey, 5 years ago, they were confronted with folders with names such as “Bob’s stuff”, and information was widely duplicated across the organisation).
  2. Everyone has to share collective responsibility for information, and for putting it into the systems. They must share their knowledge and take it forward.  (Matt’s been working with people to help them take ownership of information and develop the confidence to say “this is in the wrong place – it should be moved to somewhere more intuitive”)
  3. Information should be shared wherever possible.  (Matt spends much of his time dispelling the belief that “knowledge is power” by negotiation with people and getting them to exchange knowledge with their colleagues.  Demonstrating that shared knowledge is ultimately more powerful than small islands of know-how)
  4. Information must be current and accurate.  The organisation is interested in using their qualitative information, or business intelligence, to inform their decision-making: connecting current knowledge with the people who need it, when they need it.
  5. Information should be easily retrieved. (The MDU has found taxonomies and ontologies are important in achieving this)

Linda Woodcraft has the challenging role of Global Portal Content Manager at Hay Group.

She told us that selling KM as a stand-alone proposition is incredibly difficult to consultants whose primary concerns are selling and billing, not sharing best practice.  Particularly so, as the Hay Group has no CIO or CKO, and KM is not endorsed or advocated at a senior level.

Linda’s tiny global team of 4 KM professionals have to take a covert approach.  They’ve developed a tool for ‘project summaries’ – when a project worth more than $50,000 is recorded, project managers are sent an automated form which they must complete before the project can be closed and the billing credit activated.  The story behind the project can then be shared on Hay Group’s portal, and consultants working with a similar client or sector can benefit from the experience and use an already-invented wheel.

To connect the knowledge-poor with the knowledge-rich in their global firm, there is another tool – “Ask the Experts”.  Questions are submitted through the portal and the KM team direct them to relevant experts.  The responses, and any supporting documents, are collated and published on the portal – tagged with a rich range of metadata so they can be easily found.  Some expert groups are less responsive than others, but the tool has proved very successful and the team receive up to 40 responses a week.  They’re developing an extensive knowledge base, and are planning to enhance its value by adding discussion forums.

Linda explained that the Q&A tool illustrated an important aspect of Knowledge Management – connecting people with content (news, documents, tools, methodologies) is important, but connecting people with the right people is key to successful knowledge sharing.

She identified another trend that showed the important role of the Gatekeeper: a move away from unmanaged collaboration areas to team/project sites which use the standards, taxonomies and guidelines her KM team have put in place through their global portal.

James Andrews The Knowledge and Information Management Officer for the British Red Cross began his speed presentation with a couple of quotes on what Knowledge Management is about: “Helping people to work better together”,  from Chris Collison. And from Dave Snowden “Helping to drive organisational improvements and better decision making based on past experiences and better understanding and appreciation of our current situation”

James told us that the British Red Cross KM strategy is focused on People Processes and Technology – they advocate the provision of technology, and of KM tools and techniques, to support activities wherever they occur in the organisation.

‘People’ encompasses social media, collaboration, loose networks, unstructured data etc (the unordered side of Cynefin framework )

‘Process’ includes records management, information management, approval flows, structured data, HR systems, Finance systems, CRM etc (the ordered side of Cynefin framework)

These elements of the KM strategy are supported by a platform of technology and techniques.  This approach emerged from the organisation’s overseas work – the experiences of their international divisions in a number of the programmes and emergency responses they’ve been involved in: reviewing the programmes and identifying improvements to be made around knowledge sharing and the coordination of their work.

They’ve developed a new programme for information management – starting with their people:  finding out how they work, the similarities and differences between different teams, what works well, what doesn’t, how things can be improved. Having gathered that information, they applied it to the processes, tools and procedures for programme development and delivery. They then identified suppliers of the technologies that would help them.  SharePoint 2010 has been chosen to deliver new standardised procedures, linking with key corporate systems such as HR and Finance, allowing global collaborative working and enabling access in high and low bandwidth areas using a specially designed interface  It’s currently being developed using the Agile approach.

Katharine Schopflin is the Head of Information Management at the House of Commons and Head of Information and Knowledge Management at the Houses of Parliament.

She told us she’d first come across the term “Knowledge Management” about 14 years ago, and was completely sceptical – KM systems seemed to be just databases, and Knowledge Management seemed simply to be what information professionals had been doing for ages.  Her scepticism wasn’t alleviated by the knowledge that the BBC had a ‘Head of Knowledge Management’, who had nothing to do with information or archives, but worked in the internal communications department.

Nowadays she’s an advocate of Knowledge Management and feels it’s important to define it: “If we can’t define it, how can we justify it – and how can we justify our role in delivering it.  We need people to understand it’s a profession, and to prove its not, as I once thought, just a gimmick but a way of making organisations work better.”

The definition is challenging, however, because at one end of the KM spectrum you can have mandated organisational processes – for every operation and project you do, you note down your method and what you’ve learned.  But on the other hand you can have unstructured staff events and discussion forums and that’s knowledge management too.  Katharine said that in theory she manages a department that does things in a structured way, but in practice they often find that it’s the less structured approaches that work better.

Katherine took up the challenge of defining KM:

“If Information Management is ensuring useful information can be found again in a logical place.  KM aims to do that with knowledge that has not been expressed or written down but is held in the heads and capabilities and skills of the workforce”.

The four speakers sparked an animated debate – groups of five or more LIKE members gathered around their tables to continue the discussion of what KM is.  Matthew Rees had the unenviable task of calling the room to order and asking for summaries from spokespeople.

A number of discussions focused on the differences in organisational cultures, and how “KM-ready” they might be. Some people felt that many organisations get stuck at the information management stage, finding it too challenging to move on to knowledge management, or actually believing that they’re doing KM with their databases.  Others considered the many barriers to knowledge management – people have other things to do, there are prejudices against KM, there can be paranoia about sharing knowledge and thereby losing influence, lack of desire or will to be bothered with KM….. but at the same time, many organisations are recognising the strategic angle of KM, and seeing that they need to do something about managing their knowledge.

There was talk about the valuable knowledge of people who’ve worked in an organisation for years, and the risk of losing that expertise – KM helps ameliorate the risk by connecting others with that person and by helping them to make their knowledge more public.

Another table asked how much it mattered if an organisation lost knowledge in that way.  For some evolving businesses, the loss may not have too much impact, but for an organisation such as the British Library, where focus is on the long-term, it probably is important to capture it.

There were debates about KM’s value in informing business decisions, and stopping the continuous ‘reinvention of the wheel’, and there was quite a lot of chat about enabling informal knowledge-exchange (I’m sure someone mentioned the effectiveness of KM down the pub!)

It was generally felt that social media was tailor-made for KM, and there was a realistic debate about the challenges of tagging content with meaningful metadata.

There was no single answer to the question “What is Knowledge Management?, but underlying the variety of opinions and interpretations was a belief in its constructive role in building businesses and informing business decisions.

I think the late Lew Platt has been so frequently quoted over the past couple of decades (“If only HP knew what it knows it would make three times more profit tomorrow”) because he was right.

I remember working with an insightful CEO who also understood what Knowledge Management could achieve. When she took over a recently merged group of companies, her brief to the knowledge management team was to “create the culture” of the business.  Using the intranet as a central collaboration platform, and a network of local knowledge managers as “match-makers”, the barriers of discipline, geography and habit were gently dismantled.  Not an easy process, but achievable because the leadership made knowledge management central to the success of the business.  Everyone was responsible for knowledge-sharing, and all managers were accountable for their teams’ contribution to the organisation’s growing knowledge assets.

That company wasn’t too different from most of the organisations I’ve worked with.  There were the inevitable “black holes” – where knowledge and useful business information went in, but nothing came out.  Often, at the centre of these black holes was just one individual, whose reasoning were variations on one of the themes identified during our LIKE discussion.  Maybe you’ll recognise them:

The “I’m too important and busy” person: often a member of the leadership team.  They never had the time – always rushing to a meeting, dashing for a train or plane, too busy to do anything they didn’t want to do.  Sometimes their lack of input was underpinned by a belief that their knowledge really was their power, and to give that up too readily would somehow emasculate them.

The “I have people to do that” person: often a manager with an impressive title such as “Head of….” or “Director of….”.  Sometimes their belief that managers delegate rather than do was accompanied by a conviction that attending courses or workshops – where they might learn how to manage a team or how to lead by example – were also activities they were exempted from.

The “They can’t mean me” person.  The motive for this notion could stem from a number of beliefs – different for each individual.  There were the old hands who’d been in the same, relatively junior, role for some time, and believed they had little knowledge of worth to contribute to the organisation.  There were those who were new to the organisation and felt they had much to learn before they could share what they already knew.  There were the “fast track” graduates who focused on their career and the benefits they could accrue from the organisation, rather than the contribution they could make to it.  And there were the poorly-managed, highly skilled, people whose confidence had been so diminished by their daily experiences they doubted anyone would be interested in what they had to share.

It’s a pity, but we don’t see too many of those people at LIKE events.

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