Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Creating a community of knowledge practitioners

I often hear clients tell me that working in knowledge management, or whatever it is called within their organizations, is quite lonely. They feel as though other people do not quite get what they do. I've heard this often enough now that I am sensing a pattern. Given the amount of work it takes to create change in a company, to work in a new discipline, community and support are vital to our long term success.

We have many kinds of KM communities to help support practitioners. And, you don't have to pay much, if anything, to belong. The Twin Cities Knowledge Management Forum is one such community. The group meets every other month on average and includes such Minnesota based companies as 3M, Medtronic, Cargill, St. Paul Travelers, Best Buy, Carlson Cos, Ecolab and more. The purpose of these meetings is to hear about work others are doing in KM, to ask questions and better understand the challenges and enablers of managing knowledge. And, it's free. Folks outside the Minnesota area should not hesitate to let me know if you wish to join.

You can also use David Gurteen's website as a way to begin to build community. David uses many different tools to create virtual communities and often holds Knowledge Cafes as he travels, to bring the virtual members together.

Boston has the KM Forum, Chicago has a group. If you want more information about those, let me know. More than that....start your own! Find others working in the managing of knowledge and information, and ask them to gather for conversation. You will probably find they are as in need of sharing ideas,stories and support as you are. Ensure confidentiality and do not use these meetings as a time for anyone to sell anything. Practice KM techniques-- be open, be honest, be respectful, stand in curiosity. And share your knowledge! You'll find we all have much more in common, even across industries or other 'barriers', then would ever have been thought.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The State of Knowledge Management

I am at this moment in Cambridge Maryland, attending, Braintrust 2007, a Knowledge Management conference. As I listen to my esteemed colleagues, I am struck again by the similarities of our issues. No matter the organization, large, small, public, private....we are all struggling with the same challenges. KM was considered a new 'discipline' 12 years ago. KM groups were formed inside organizations, the Big 6 consultancies created areas of practice and even Gartner told us the KM world was on fire, the next big business craze.

The fire may have died down but the need has become red hot. Baby boomers retiring, organizations 'right sizing', mergers, acquisitions, strategic partnerships....and simple human nature, have created the perfect storm for KM.

How do we manage increasingly complex knowledge in ever changing, highly competitive environments?

In the midst of the complexity, we come back to the basics, the practical decisions, actions and thought which allow us to make clarity in the midst of chaos. Those who might benefit from more complex solutions may disagree. I stand my ground. Before we can implement highly involved technologies we must answer a few difficult questions and consider some key points:

1. What is the business issue we are trying to solve and what is the business benefit to solving it?
2. Who will stand up and take responsibility for the work and how do we get them onboard?
3. Where in the organization do we start?

4. What do we consider as we begin? We begin with the basics.

  • We consider the people around us who need to know what we know or are learning
  • We think of think of the important relationships both internal and external to the organization and how they work most effectively
  • We determine how we can most easily and simply organize our documents, map their locations, make them searchable, use common naming.
  • We learn to build conversation.
  • We tell stories about our key learnings and consider how to share across a wider function
  • We end meetings with: What is our key learning, who needs to know it and how will we tell them

We talk to each other. We listen to each other. We stand in curiousity, not in the assumption we know it all. We think of who outside of the usual group of people, would benefit from the learning that is being accumulated.

Yes, there are complex systems we can use to do these things-- and sometimes we will use them. To be successful, however, the systems start with the people, and with the processes. They will grab the hearts and minds of the users, to help ensure sustainability.

And at the basis, they will be simple. How do you begin today? Have a conversation-- not a debate-- a conversation with someone around you with one single focus-- to learn.

I suggest you also go read David Gurteen's information about Knowledge Cafes. More about that tomorrow.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The new employee

The last time you started a new job, how was the knowledge critical to that role provided to you? Who decided what you needed to know to be successful? If truth be told, did you get what you need to jump into your role quickly and hit the ground running?

Usually, we are given information such as an org chart, a job description, a benefits package, and directions to the restroom, cafeteria and coffee pot. We might be provided the paper files and computer (with an empty hard drive) of the person who previously held the job.

New employees are left to find their own way through the organizational maze, to develop an understanding of how things really get done (usually after stepping in one potentially painful pothole) and the underlying expectations for their role.

Must that be the experience of new hires? The attitude expressed quite often by the tenured employees: "No one did that for me, why should I provide that depth of information for anyone else?" Why indeed.

Who benefits from frustrated, non-productive new employees? Probably your competition. Certainly not your organization.
Therefore provide your new workers with the knowledge they need to get up and running immediately. Do not feed them with a fire hose, but rather in a well considered, planned manner.

Provide the basics needed the first week. Do not introduce them to everyone they will work with, but to those they will work with most often. Help them decipher their job description-- what is really expected of them? Provide the organizational history and knowledge that makes the org chart come alive, and helps them know how things are truly done. What are the basics they need for their computer: passwords, systems, help desk? Where is the basic technical or scientfic information they will need on a day to day basis?

By week two you can begin a more in-depth sharing of knowledge. With whom will they work within and outside of the organization, and how might they best work with them? What are the real expectations of the job, and what learning can you share to help them meet those expectations (or change them)? What business or industry knowledge is critical for them to understand the trends and patterns that will effect their role or the organization?

As the demand for workers increases and the number of workers decreases, being the employer of choice is a strategic imperative for most companies. If your new workers begin their careers frustrated, and their productivity in the first weeks is diminished, no one wins.

A planned approach will help new workers quickly have impact in their role and feel connected to the organization.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Discipline of Managing Knowledge

I often hear clients ask for a whiz bang process to manage knowledge, as though there is a click of the ruby slippers and knowledge is transferred from brain to brain. Click, whoosh and done.

The truth of managing knowledge is that it is a discipline, just as project or risk management are disciplines. If it were not a discipline, knowledge would be passed from person to person or team to team, simply by osmosis and passing each other in the hallway. Yes, some knowledge is shared in that way, and that is important. But is informal, ad-hoc knowledge transfer enough to ensure the hard-earned knowledge critical to your business and unique to your organization, is captured and shared with those who need it at the time they need it, in a way they can use it?

Consider the last time you encountered a new problem and set off to find the expertise, documents, research, or other information relevant to helping you solve that problem. Remember trying to identify who had experienced this before, where the right document would be located, what it would be called if you could locate it, and whether or not it was up to date? Hours of time trying to locate something only to find that when you did, if you did, it was not quite what you needed.

It takes discipline to capture the learning you have about an issue you know may come up again, if even in another flavor. It takes discipline to consider who might need it next, and where might they go look for it, to help you know where to store it. It takes structure to organize that knowledge to make it easy for the particular audience to use-- especially if they are of a different generation, function, culture or organization.

Rather than a silver bullet or a click of the heels, I suggest going back to the basics. Start with the disciplines you already know and practice. Look at your project management and enhance it with questions such as: why did we approach our project this way, what alternatives did we consider and why, who else needs to know this and how will I get them the information they need. Begin by disciplining yourselves to share knowledge in a familiar way, by enhancing structures already in place.

Discipline yourself to role model the behaviors of sharing knowledge and watch the culture change toward doing the more whiz bang knowledge management interventions. Without the foundation of discipline, there is a great likelihood that knowledge shared now may be gone tomorrow. No one has time for wasted effort.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Knowledge Management: Where do you start?

The amount of critical knowledge, information, insights, ideas and learning in our organizations is overwhelming. We all want our teams to learn from each other, experts to share their way of thinking and leaders to make decision making more transparent. We know we need to learn from customers, vendors, academics and our colleagues.

What we don’t know is where to start. How do you begin to ensure the right people get just the right information exactly when they need it? What is that first step?

Change is driven by a sense of urgency. You can create a vision for managing knowledge and pull together a team of people to get it done, but without a sense of urgency you have little chance of making headway. We are all too busy in life to spend our time on things which have seemingly little impact when other things more immediate compete for our time and energy.

If you want to get people rallied around the need to manage knowledge, ensure you can clearly and concisely describe the problem you are addressing. Give them a purpose, an issue to solve which energizes them to do what is needed to get it done.

Organizations face many issues which can be addressed by efficient and effective knowledge sharing and transfer. Pick one. Pick the right one.
1.Is the issue well defined? If not, you will have a hard time making your business case.
2.Does it have a powerful, potentially far reaching impact? For people to sit up and take notice of the work you are doing, much less get involved and committed, they need to see the value in the outcome.
3.Is there a champion who will commit to visibly backing you to work it takes to solve the problem?

Go for an issue faced by a team which has been experienced before or probably will be again. That will give you both immediate and long term benefit.
Address an ongoing issue such as a new vendor partnership especially if the vendor needs to have operational, organizational or process knowledge aside from an SOP to get the work done.

Better yet, consider what issue keeps you or your colleagues (or your boss) up at night. Go for the issue that is most pressing. Begin there.

Start with a sense of urgency and develop the competencies and processes you need. All of the other necessary components to managing knowledge will begin to emerge, from culture and behaviors to organization of documents. Without urgency, none of the rest matters because no one will get on board.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Focus on the issues not on the definition of KM

The term Knowledge Management has been over used and misused. If we, as practioners and interested parties were honest, we would admit that no one truly understands what the term means. Though many have created what they consider the ‘definitive’ description of KM, just the sheer volume of absolute descriptions tells us they are simply best guesses. Like a measure of competency, those who have created definitions of KM are quoted time and again by practioners who follow up by saying ‘this is the best definition I could find but I am still not sure I agree.’

Concentrating on what the term means tells me we have lost the plot. Should we not re-focus on the challenges and business issues the term and the ‘discipline’ were created to solve? The challenges are real; the term was simply a created to describe the various approaches to face the issues at hand.

Are we not simply problem solvers, rather than Knowledge Managers? Yes, the type of work we do has evolved throughout the history of our society and we now work much more in the realm of creating knowledge then creating goods. Yes, there is now a proliferation of facts, figures, data, experience and wild guesses, all available at our finger tips. At the end of the day, are we not still trying to solve the problems immediately at hand while looking for the trends, patterns and ideas which lead us to better prepare for the future? We are still trying to solve problems. Just as the problems have become more complex, so has the amount and types of information and knowledge to apply against those problems. Have we, as human beings, evolved quickly enough to handle the vast amount of knowledge available, given the technology created to deliver it to us? That, to me, is more central to the issue then what the term KM means.

We have created complex problems in our world, becoming more complex by the moment. We have amassed complex information and knowledge to apply against those problems and amazing technology to help us find, store, reuse and apply it. Are we, as humans doing all we can to handle this reality effectively?

This blog has been designed as one forum to discuss the aspects, challenges, ideas and theories surrounding how organizations and individuals might benefit by focusing on the practical application of our common experiences in our endeavors to manage knowledge.
Collaboration, innovation and organizational/individual effectiveness are by products of such endeavors. We welcome all who wish to contribute as long as it brings us forward, stays on the topics addressed here and is respectful of the participants and readers.

Kathy Hagen