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:
- 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).
- 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”)
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.