Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What is knowledge management?

12 years into my career in knowledge management and the most often asked question is still 'What is knowledge management?' The question which follows is often 'What is knowledge?'

In my experience, working to define knowledge management is the wrong use of energy, time, resources and head space. Think instead of the problem you are trying to solve, of the business imperative you are trying to meet. Is there a knowledge component to it? There almost always is.

I believe most business disciplines experience a life cycle from conception through to awareness, to experimentation and implementation and finally to acceptance.
I wonder when acceptance will come to knowledge management. Perhaps it doesn't need to. Perhaps it is the lack of consistent business case.

Consider the risks faced by your organization, your projects or your client relationships. What knowledge do you need to help mitigate those risks? Where is it? In what form? Is it easily accessed? Does it live in the stories of those most experienced or specialized, or in databases around which someone must make sense?

How do you define the discipline which meets the above needs? Problem solving, critical thinking, decision making all come to mind, though problem solving is the most prevalent. And that is what KM is all about; solving problems, making better decisions as quickly as possible, and having all of the contextual knowledge needed to clearly and concisely consider an issue.

In the end, does it matter how you define managing knowledge? Can you have one definition which accurately fits the above scenarios without it being watered down and simply useless? Ensure what you do has business value, meets or anticipates a need, provides competitive advantage...in other words use common sense. Don't waste time, and do explore and experiment. Whatever you do, have a purpose in mind. Learn. Share your learning with anyone else in the organization who can benefit from the learning. Worry about the outcome and the journey and less about what you label it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

knowledge management is not a silver bullet

Turbulence seems to be a way of life in many organizations at present. The issues raised by the aging of the baby boomers, the economic climate, global environment, regulatory pressures and shifting consumer needs seem to be creating the perfect storm for companies to take on water and run on chaos. During a time of challenge or struggle, it is natural for an organization to look for a way out, more often a band-aid then a true cure for the deeper ailments. They look for what they can see quickly to ease the pain and handle the symptoms. Sometimes organizations decide that better, quicker, faster managing of knowledge is what they need to help them create a more effective organization, build a better culture, address the economic and other challenges.

Frankly, consultants and consulting firms hoping to cash in on a new trend have helped to fuel that misguided belief.

Without a doubt effectively managing knowledge can assist a company turn toward better water, but it can not replace strong and wise leadership, good company practices, and a willingness to learn. Knowledge management can help build the tools, processes and methods of learning but it can not, on it's own, create a learning organization. That is a myth and a dangerous myth at that.

Persistent, authentic, and strong leadership is needed to create the organizational structure, culture and foundation for a learning organization. If knowledge can be quickly shared but no one dares talk about the missteps and mistakes, the knowledge can not be trusted or utilized. Bad behavior can not be changed by managing knowledge. We know this. Yet we wish for a quick fix and something to blame. It takes work and courage to lead an organization in a way where questioning is allowed, mistakes are not a fireable offense and learning is a way of life. It takes deep commitment to the future, not a driving need for short term gain.

My hope is to meet and work with more and more leaders who possess the vision, values and strength of character to lead for the future, rather than for this year's bonus. My fear is that there are fewer and fewer of those people in the driver's seat.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Being Authentic in Managing Knowledge

It's another day of learning and of applying what we discover to managing knowledge. Today's theme centers on being authentic. Coming from a place of no agenda (or as little as possible), to share what we have learned, how we think, what we know to be true, and our perception of what went wrong, is critical to sharing knowledge and to learning.

Yet inside and outside of organizations, people find being authentic a challenge. They are worried about repercussions, ramification, or in other words, fallout. I am finding they are so fearful, in fact, that they simply let things slide rather than speak up for the truth. What are they worried about? Losing their jobs, losing respect or trust, losing face, the list goes on. It's a long list. Yet, where is the benefit in not speaking up, in not being authentic? Perhaps in the short term they avoid confict, but in the long term they sacrifice sustainable organizational success, and even their own self respect.

When will we learn that playing it safe can lead to the downfall of entire companies.? It is sad and it is true. Being authentic is not always easy, but it allows knowledge to be trusted and better yet, you get to sleep at night.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Comprehensive Resource for Knowledge

There is a unique and interesting family of online publications and resources which are part of a group called Freepint. www.freepint.com
As those of you familiar with the British pub scene know, Freepint translates in American English to Free Beer. You have to admit, the name gets your attention.

One of the publications is www.resourceshelf.com, and is run by a knowledgeable guy named Gary Price. For those who love to find valuable, useable and fun information on the web, I have seen fewer more valuable sites then Resourceshelf. The site is designed for professional searchers-- need I say more? You will find everything from copyright information and online sources to real time resources (weather, transportation, public safety-anything that can be tracked real time), business resources and fun stuff.

Gary and his contributors pull together the best of the best resources for information. In other words, they do all the heavy lifting and we reap the benefits.
I can not recommend this site more highly. If you have any questions, contact Gary and you will find him responsive, helpful and gracious.

Another sister publication in the Freepint group is Jinfo or www.jinfo.com
This publication is designed to help information scientists, knowledge managers and others in related fields find jobs. Though it is focused on the UK, again it is well worth the read. Check out the article I recently wrote for them on job transition.

For those of you who are familiar with the people who work in the reference library portion of the New York City Library (and you can call those people with questions at anytime on any subject), you will see a similarity here, especially with Resourceshelf. These folks are here to help. Isn't that what KM is all about?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

How to share 20 years of experience

If KM were truly embedded in the cultures of our organizations, would the following scenario ever happen?
An employee with 20+ years of experience in the company, and a vast amount of unique, experiential, vital knowledge retires. The company asks him to tell them where his files are, make a list of his projects, and requests, maybe, that he interview his replacement. They then hold an exit interview during which the employee is asked to identify why the employee is leaving (hmmm...the relevance of the answer is what?), what he liked or disliked about his employment with the company (OK, again, the relevance is what?), and what, in his opinion, could be done to help employees stay longer (do I need to repeat the question above?). And that, my friends, is the extent of the knowledge transfer. Perhaps there is a bit more, but nothing formalized.

Why is this? Because there is no process in place, and because they waited 20 years to do it. Sharing 20 years of knowledge is no easy feat. Yes, it can be done. I am working with a client group now in which we are sharing 35 years of unique, business critical knowledge from a group of people and it is going very well. However it would have been so much easier and effective to have processes to share this knowledge along the way.

Start with the small things-- ask people to share key learnings from meetings, invite both the newbies and the tenured folks to meetings you've already scheduled and get them to dialogue, question and tell stories. Have people share their key learnings and make constructive questioning a valued way of life. Let key milestones in projects or initiatives be a driver to do an honest assessment and lessons learned.

Waiting 20 years means many lost opportunities, lost knowledge and hard work. Don't make knowledge transfer more complex then it need be. And, most importantly, don't wait. By the time the knowledge is shared, those who could have applied it immediately are playing with their grandchildren.

Monday, May 14, 2007

live and up close looney view of KM

There are many ways to share knowledge but few as powerful as observation. A delightful example of this is found on the website of Ron Schara who is well known for his stories of Minnesota people, places and wildlife. Ron and his dog Raven have been traveling the great state of Minnesota for years introducing Ron's audience to the hidden treasures of the state he loves.

The current stars of www.mnbound.com are a pair of nesting loons, beautiful birds being filmed in their natural habitat in northern Minnesota as they sit atop of nest of eggs. The filming goes on 24/7 and the audience is treated to a meditative and wonderful world just larger then the size of the nest of a loon. I'll warn you, watching can be addictive and the loons capture your heart.

There is a lot to say for observation and as much to be said for learning and teaching in silence.

Documenting KM as life

How many times have we thought, as we are working through issues of managing knowledge, that taking time to document what we do is rather a pain. Yet we know how important it is. We simply can not find a way to balance the two-- the time it takes and the importance of the task. The bottom line is, we must get it done.

I'm finding blogging much the same way. There are times when you allow aspects of life to rule your time and you set asides the task of documenting what you learn. Blogging is one important way I document my learning. Blogging allows me a moment to reflect on what I have learned in life and turn it into an applicable lesson for managing knowledge.

I found myself this week having little time for reflection and that reminded me of my clients, who also find themselves without time for reflective learning. That lack of time can lead (and often does) to lack of clarity and focus and less well-considered decisions.

Documenting the learning for me solidifies what I have just come to understand and helps me apply it again in the future. The same goes for the organizations in which we work. Not taking the time to document results in not passing on the learning, less consistency in the future and the increased possiblity of repeating mistakes.

I found that when I blog as soon as the idea hits, I am much better off. If I start ideas without worry about immediate completion and keep them as draft, I have more to go from each day. I have not used a template format, but that can work in some situations. In other words, there are shortcuts to documenting. The important thing is that we all see the benefit in acquiring the discipline to write what we learn or to codifiy it and pass it along in whatever vechile works for us. Just do it.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Aging and Knowledge Management

There are moments when I am so pleased to be 'accumulating experiences' as my friends in knowledge management like to call the aging process. Perhaps that feeling is a combination of one part denial and the other part making better decisions by using past learning.

There is no denying however that the population in this country is getting older. All types of new businesses are erupting to help the over 50 crowd. One that I have just seen today is a new twist-- a search engine for those who are 50 plus.


You gotta wonder what is different in the information needs of the baby boomer/traditionalist generations as opposed to others. The first thing I noticed is that the default font when I type in search is a larger size. Ah, yes, the eyes are going... It makes me want to explore the issue further and yet, I have to admit, I am not sure I agree with the separation of data or knowledge for any one demographic. I might get some emails on this (which I do though no one uses the comment option) but I am not sure determining how to organize knowledge per some type of label brings us forward. In any case, check the search engine out. The nickname: Cranky!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Have we forgotten how to listen?

I just received my e-copy of the InnovationNetwork newsletter. In it is an excerpt from the book "How To Talk To Customers" by Diane Berenbaum and Tom Larkin, Senior Vice Presidents of Communico Ltd., a customer service training and consulting company. http://www.howtotalktocustomers.com

The subject is 'listening' and as always, the lessons can apply in our personal as well as professional lives. Listening-- seems we take for granted that we all know how to do that. We have ears, we hear people talk-- or we can understand what they are saying via other means. But do we really? Have we lost the ability in our fast paced, overloaded, ultra productive lives to really stand in their shoes and hear them from where they are?

The piece of managing knowledge we seem to forget to address is the receptor's ability to hear and listen as well as our ability to build a common language and understanding. We are continually looking at how to get people to share knowledge, how to judge what needs to be shared, how to store and catalog and utilize but we rarely focus on what is needed to listen. We must hear people from where they stand to get the context of what they are trying to share. We must take a breath and put ourselves in their shoes before we judge their words. From what vantage point and background of experience are they sharing? We simply forget to consider that.

I am continually reminded in all of this that the best place for me is to stand in curiosity. As my colleague Paula Love states, this is the place to hear from a new perspective.

I recommend reviewing the Innovation Network newsletter and the book referenced above. Brought to you by the InnovationNetwork

Let me give you a brief rundown-- The rest of this blog entry contains an excerpt. I may not agree with the descriptions of the levels, but I do agree with the basic points the authors raise. Well worth the read. Enjoy.

There are really four levels of listening:

1. Level One -- Here, the dialogue itself is largely transactional
- focused on the task..
2. Level Two -- Rapport building characterizes this level of
listening. You ask more questions to gain a greater sense of the
other person's meaning.
3. Level Three -- The dialogue is characterized by a sense of
warmth and perception. The focus at this level is on empathy.
4. Level Four -- This is the deepest level. Your attention is often
intuitive and you remain largely silent.

Much of our communication--particularly in a business setting--
occurs at levels one and two. It's largely an empirical process,
dominated by an exchange of facts and figures. That's not to say
it's "bad" -- just, perhaps, not as effective as the level of
listening that we would like to establish.

By contrast, Level Four focuses on letting the other person talk and
typically only occurs in close relationships where there is trust
and mutual respect.

Level Three listening is attentive, nonjudgmental, and genuinely
recognizes the other person's feelings and perspective ... it's in a
word, empathic. This is the level you want to achieve in your
interactions with customers.


However desirable, listening at Level Three is often difficult. We
may be preoccupied with other concerns, distracted by what's
happening around us or simply eager to address the problem.

If you have a tendency to listen at Level One or Two (listening for
facts and details), then you will not "hear" what the customer is
really saying. You need to listen to his words and tone in a
different way ... in a way that goes beyond the facts. Level Three
is about listening for and acknowledging their feelings and the
significance of the issue. Then and only then are you really
connecting with the customer, and thereby, building or restoring the

So, what do you do when you listen at Level Three? First, listen
for the big picture and be careful to not get bogged down in the
words and details that are coming at you. Provide a space for the
customer to share what's on his mind, without interruption.

To be truly empathic, choose a non-judgmental attitude. Watch your
tendencies to make assumptions, judge what you are hearing or
project how you would think or feel in that situation. Just
recognize how the person is feeling and accept what she shares.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Strategies for KM organizations

The debates continue about how to organize KM efforts within organizations. Virtual teams, dedicated resources, corporate level, grassroots, everyone has a viewpoint.
Lately I have seen more and more client groups moving to the virtual team model. Yesterday an esteemed colleague from a Fortune 50 company said they thought it was a sign of perceived value when an organization dedicates headcount to KM.

I have to say I disagree. That had been my way of thinking some time ago. Now I have come to think that might be detrimental to embedding KM behaviors within the culture. Yes, there might be a period of time where people are focused on a KM initiative, and there might be business unit or site KM leaders who have managing knowledge as part of their jobs. Full time resources would indicate that knowledge is managed by one group of people and perhaps not be the job of every individual.

I would rather see a revolving virtual team of people who can all learn the skills and hand-off the processes to new people on a yearly or bi-yearly basis. This would increase internal competency and yet not make it too easy for the organization to shrug off accountability for KM. Yes, there would be other challenges in this model, but I think the payoff might well be worth it. The world is changing, resources are at a premium and we must do what we can to change the behaviors and competencies of our groups to meet the new challenges.