posted 18 Jan 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 5
The knowledge: Mary Lee Kennedy
After six years leading the global knowledge network group of software giant Microsoft, Mary Lee Kennedy left to form The Kennedy Group. Sandra Higgison finds out how her resolute focus on the user and understanding of how people share knowledge, ideas and expertise has put the world at her fingertips.
Being thrown in at the deep end is not an alien sensation to Mary Lee Kennedy. Whether devising an information strategy from scratch in Mexico while still learning Spanish, creating a global knowledge-sharing environment for the world’s most successful computer software company, or setting up her own consulting group, Kennedy has repeatedly shown that she is a strong and accomplished swimmer. Just as her achievements and gamut of experience are vast and impressive, her modesty when describing the highlights of her career and current ambitions leaves an equally enduring impression.
A common theme throughout Kennedy’s work has been her steadfast focus on the user. After completing her studies in social psychology and information science, she quickly realised that her interest lay in the organisational side of information rather than the nature of it. “Information science in the 1980s didn’t tend to examine how people actually use information,” she says. “My career has focused on understanding how different people use and share information, expertise and ideas, and what motivates them to do so to create a free-flowing exchange of knowledge.”
Kennedy says that she has taken lessons from every one of her roles. With an early ambition to do community development work, one of her first positions was in Mexico working for the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán. “The dean of academic affairs asked me and a colleague to put together a five-year strategy for creating a whole information environment,” she says. “It was daunting but we did it. Can you imagine sitting in front of the Overseas Development Agency’s finance board and the British Council at the age of 22, in jeans and sandals, asking for a few million dollars to complete your work? The audacity of it! But it worked.”
Her experience at the university opened Kennedy’s eyes to the power of teams and knowledge sharing. “It was through our ability to work together, partner and be creative that we were able to make something huge happen. We did a lot with organisational design, which gave me my first inkling of how people share knowledge.” After eight years in Mexico, Kennedy travelled north to Canada to work as an information scientist at Sherritt, a metallurgical plant for copper and nickel, cobalt oil and electricity, and a research institute for advanced materials. “I was responsible for how information flowed within the organisation. We wanted to create an environment where the research organisation, sales teams and production units would share knowledge. It was a huge and very exciting remit for such a young person.”
Not only did Kennedy’s time at Sherritt bring home all the principles she had studied, but she also learnt about the multi-disciplinary views of information. “I had to manage all kinds of information, not just that we purchased from outside. It included every department from research to production, as well as the organisational side of patents and trademarks and how we managed our intellectual capital and competitive intelligence.” She also developed an executive information system, which further highlighted how greatly the information needs of each group within the company differed. “It hit me squarely in the face that they were not the same for everyone.”
By the time Kennedy joined Microsoft in the late 1990s, knowledge management was in its heyday even if it was not a term the software company readily used. As would be expected, Kennedy has a long list of lessons learnt from her six years at Microsoft. Based in Redmond, Washington, her responsibility as director of the knowledge network group was to create a knowledge-sharing environment across the global organisation. Internal communications, library services and the corporate portal all reported into Kennedy, while others, such as taxonomy and search services, were managed centrally and shared across the company.
Looking back on her time at the software giant, Kennedy admits that she may not have fully valued how unique the company was while she was there. “Microsoft is a knowledge-based company from beginning to end,” she says. “You never had to sell the idea of knowledge management. Everything the firm does from the moment it starts recruiting you to when you become an alumni is about ensuring the exchange of knowledge, ideas and expertise. It is the company’s whole essence. That working environment is unique and I don’t think I truly appreciated it at the time.”
While many knowledge managers would give their left arm to work in such a knowledge-driven organisation, Kennedy still faced considerable challenges fulfilling her global mandate within the very complex and decentralised company. “You can’t lead by position at Microsoft,” she says. “You have to lead because you are providing something that nobody else can offer and lead by example. This was an excellent learning opportunity for me.” In this way, Kennedy brought together Microsoft’s knowledge community from across the company’s different functions to form a corporate board for deploying community spaces and collaboration practices. Her team also contributed to Microsoft’s SharePoint portal. “We weren’t developers but we were very much involved in the product’s design and establishment. Of course we were also the first enterprise to deploy it,” she adds.
Soon after joining Microsoft, Kennedy met Dave Snowden, then Director of IBM’s Institute of Knowledge Management and now Director of the Cynefin Centre for Organizational Complexity. They worked together on an employee communications and portal design project, which helped develop the notion of personas or archetypes and was the first of many joint initiatives. “Personas are proxies based on an understanding of users in terms of their values, beliefs and behaviours,” she explains. “They can represent your target audience and give you a handle on user behaviour. Although they were first used for product design, they hold great value for information and knowledge strategies as they help you understand how different characters will interact when sharing their information or knowledge.”
Through their work together, Kennedy has used the Cynefin Centre’s models – based on sense making, networks and narrative – when addressing different situations. “It is very useful to know that you can apply different methods to solve different problems rather than assuming that one size fits all,” she says. “If you approach a situation as an enabler rather than an expert you can help people discover the solutions for themselves and unveil things that they’d never seen before.” As well as endorsing Snowden’s models, Kennedy says that he has also been a source of inspiration for her work. “He put me through the biggest loops in my mid-career. He made me ask a lot of questions and think differently.”
One question Kennedy had to ask herself recently was whether she wanted to commit to more time at Microsoft or explore new opportunities. “I went there with a vision of what I wanted to achieve and achieved it,” she says. With that sense of accomplishment and a desire to do something new, Kennedy left to form The Kennedy Group, a company dedicated to knowledge strategy and solution design. She is rightly proud that within a year the firm has grown from being a sole practitioner to a team of five experts, and has clients around the world that range from governments to product-development organisations to agro-chemical corporations.
While the differences between working for a major multinational and establishing your own company are enormous, Kennedy has transferred many valuable lessons. “One thing that is true about Microsoft and this little group is that they are both focused on innovation and doing your homework,” she says. “You have to be able to step out of your box and be very objective about what you’re doing. You must ensure you know what you’re talking about and have strong communication skills, both as a listener and a communicator. You don’t want to bring misinformed ideas into the conversation.”
Areas that The Kennedy Group currently focuses on include product and service development; identity marketing and knowledge transfer; collaboration; and innovation, as well as the more traditional areas of taxonomy development, content management and intranet services. The group also works closely with the Cynefin Centre, not only in terms of applying its underlying principles with its clients, but also by being part of its network. Described by Snowden as an open-source consulting model, members are part of a global network that enables them to take on larger projects as they can tap into a diverse and worldwide source of expertise. “Few projects today are based solely in one country so you will always have to deal with cultural, linguistic and legal issues,” she says. “By having this built-in global network, we’re learning all kinds of things together, which is extremely powerful and has a great future.”
Having such wide-ranging knowledge management experience, Kennedy is well placed to offer her views on how the discipline has changed since its introduction. “I’m not the first person to say this, but at the start, everyone thought that all you had to do was to document what people knew, provide others with access and that was it,” she says. “Today we realise we can’t document everything. By understanding the nature of human discussion, conversation, collaboration and communities, we can create environments for knowledge sharing that may not be accessible to large numbers of people.” The second shift is in technology. “We can now do things we hadn’t even dreamed about. It has changed what we do and has made things more complicated as we accommodate how different people choose to use and share information.”
Kennedy’s early interest in social psychology has had a continuous influence on her work, which is remarkable considering that she admits to choosing to study the subject as she did not know what else to do. “Social psychology has had a huge effect on me, and how I look at human behaviours and relationships, and what motivates people to share.” Kennedy has a keen appreciation of the cultural challenges facing knowledge-management initiatives and organisations, and recognises that it is not only cultures of countries we must be sensitive to, but also disciplines, organisations and leaders. “All of my work relates to issues of culture. Unfortunately I don’t have an easy answer. One thing knowledge management has taught me, however, is that you can’t change culture. The western world was slow to appreciate this and thought that it could dominate nature. To make organisations work effectively you need to understand them.”
On a personal level, Kennedy has a clear understanding of where she sees herself and her work in the future. Her love of travel, music and photography complement her continued interest to work around the world. “I learn a lot from working in different countries with different cultures, which I hope brings something of value to people,” she says. There are particular areas that she is targeting where she would like to make a difference: “Health continues to be a challenge for so many; education makes a difference to our ability to thrive in this world; research and development keeps us innovating; and security is something we all need. My father told me long ago that you have to have something to give that people can use. This seems to be a talent I’ve got.”
Kennedy believes that she has been a very fortunate person. “I didn’t realise what this career could hold until my vice president at Sherritt handed it to me. He understood it before I did and believed in me before I knew to believe in myself. That goes a long way.”
The string of accolades that Kennedy has received since then proves that her former boss was right. Organisations she has led initiatives for have won a number of awards, including the Special Libraries Associations Center of Excellence in Technology Award and the Innovation in Technology Award. Microsoft, meanwhile, received the widely coveted title, Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise. Indeed, when looking at her ability to take on new challenges, maintain an unfaltering user-centred approach and repeatedly turn visions into reality, it is clear that luck has had little to do with her success.
Mary Lee Kennedy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Mary Lee Kennedy
Place of birth: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Education: B.A. Social Psychology, MLS
Employment history: Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan, Mexico; Sherritt Inc., Canada; Digital Equipment Corporation, USA; Microsoft Corporation, USA; The Kennedy Group, Harvard Business School, USA
Personal strengths: Determination, a sense of humour, critical thinking
Must improve: patience
Biggest inspiration: People who think and do things a lot bigger than themselves
What I do to relax: Talk to my kids
Favourite film: Shakespeare in Love or The Mission
Must read: Anything by Shakespeare or, for professional reading, "When Sparks Fly" by Dorothy Leonard