posted 31 May 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 9
The knowledge | Deb Wallace
By creating collaborative learning environments where knowledge is routinely created, managed and used, Deb Wallace is helping us unlock our collective intelligence. Sandra Higgison finds out how her experiences in the private sector and academia are shaping her approach.
Many Inside Knowledge readers will know what it’s like to be at a dinner party and have a new acquaintance ask what you do. A response involving the phrase ‘knowledge management’ will invariably receive the follow-up question, ‘Err… what’s knowledge management?’ Most people at this point will give a weary little laugh, offer their stock explanation and move rapidly onto the inclement weather, latest political scandal or the state of public transport.
However, for some the question of what, exactly, knowledge management (KM) is remains a hotly disputed source of debate as opponents and advocates discuss in great detail what knowledge actually is and whether it can be managed or captured, while coming up with equally suspect alternatives. In the meantime, practitioners such as Deb Wallace simply focus on bringing the fields that embody KM to life to help organisations reap the value and benefits they offer.
As an educator, teacher-librarian, information manager and expert in communities of practice, Wallace has experience with every part of the knowledge lifecycle. From the creation of knowledge through to its management and dissemination, she sees KM as a complex framework that brings together many different elements.
"It is an intersection of a number of fields. Early on KM went off the rails somewhat as it was very focused on technology and the pure management of explicit knowledge. Now I think it has come round to where my work has primarily been based, looking at creating knowledge and using it, not just managing it – a continuum that is often seen in learning communities."
Wallace’s work with communities aims to bring people together to learn collaboratively, expand on each other’s ideas and come out with something that is bigger than what they could have achieved alone. She is also careful in her use of this term.
"A community of practice is a unique organisational structure. There are different ways in which we collaborate, however not everything qualifies as a community. If we overuse the term it will become another buzzword that means nothing. In some respects, we’re not talking about anything new. The need to know or to enhance our skills and capabilities has been around since the dawn of time. We are re-assembling these pieces to leverage our knowledge, and technology is helping us do that."
It was while working at the faculty of information studies at the
As part of the programme committee formed by the university to recommend next steps for the curriculum, Wallace interviewed executives from information-intensive organisations, faculty members, information-industry stakeholders and librarians from a wide variety of firms. It was the mid-1990s and the question of knowledge had started to percolate.
She gives particular credit to Chun Wei Choo, the programme review committee’s faculty chair and author of The Knowing Organisation for helping her uncover the knowledge dimension through this work. "He is a brilliant educator and thinker," she says. "He didn’t tell me to look at the role of knowledge management in our future, he let that come out of the conversations. From our research we developed a curriculum focused on knowledge principles. Not only information management but also the creation and use of information for taking effective action."
To ensure the curriculum’s relevance into the future, the committee ran proof-of-concept exercises to determine whether the principles would meet stakeholders’ needs. They created executive institutes that brought together early thinkers to discuss these concepts.
It was through the institutes that Wallace met Hubert Saint-Onge, who was senior vice president of strategic capabilities at insurance firm Clarica and who would play an important role in her career. "Hubert was already thinking about knowledge in the context of practice and its alignment with a corporation’s strategic capabilities and objectives," she recalls.
Wallace says that her initial reaction to KM was that it made sense and seemed a natural next step. "We had figured out the data management piece with data centres. We had moved on to information management and had done a good job with that. However all we did was create the fire hose, which has given us access to more information than we can ever take in.
"The next challenge is to filter, synthesise, evaluate and package information – corporate intranets are still fire hoses. We haven’t figured knowledge management out, partly because most organisations don’t fully understand what an asset their knowledge is. It receives a lot of lip service but I’ve only seen a few comprehensive applications of knowledge principles."
As she works to decipher this part of the puzzle, Wallace focuses on what can be put into practice. "We can create environments that facilitate the creation, use, exchange and sharing of knowledge so people can do their jobs better, improve their skills, live a better life and contribute at a higher level. Knowledge management should be like breathing: embedded into the way we work, yet continually reviewed and enhanced." She takes a big consulting firm as an example.
"Knowledge is key to its business. If it doesn’t pay attention to the capabilities needed to create, manage and use its knowledge, they will decrease and the firm will lose its edge. Just as athletes train to maintain and improve their skills, endurance and reach, you can never stop increasing your core capability. It should be a natural way of working."
Much of Wallace’s early practical experience with KM followed her introduction to Saint-Onge while she was at the
Joining Clarica in the autumn of 2000, Wallace worked with Saint-Onge’s team to create a community of practice for the firm’s insurance agents. By adding knowledge-sharing principles to their work, she carefully studied their CoP development. "We examined how we set up the community so we could have a process model and guidelines for the creation of future communities," she says.
"We spent six months building the first one and eventually refined the process until it took only three weeks. I then became the firm’s learning architect to ensure that learning and knowledge sharing were embedded in all aspects of our work." Communities of practice were a huge success. The team helped nurture some that were highly structured and strategic, and others that grew from the organisation’s grassroots.
The significant inroads made by Saint-Onge’s team were, however, disrupted when financial services giant Sun Life bought Clarica. The new company failed to fully comprehend and appreciate the value of communities of practice and they received no further support.
Despite the premature end, one of the lasting and much valued results of Wallace and Saint-Onge’s work at Clarica was their collaboration on ‘Leveraging Communities of Practice for Strategic Advantage’. Packed full of detailed and practical examples of how they leveraged situated learning at the insurance company, it is a much respected and oft-cited book on CoPs development.
Wallace also took away a raft of lessons that she continues to draw on today. "Some of them are process oriented and taught me about the fundamental building blocks of a knowledge architecture," she says. "The majority, however, relate to the psychology of working with communities, how to deal with issues of culture and how to position CoPs in an organisation. I also learnt a lot about working collaboratively, building momentum and gaining buy in.
Since then, Wallace’s work has been focused on building knowledge and learning ecosystems. She has led workshops, written, taught and spoken about the development of communities of practice, and continues to be amazed at how many people still miss the point. "I was running a workshop on building capability," she says.
"We spent the first part of the course outlining the context of learning, the need for knowledge and describing how adults learn. After this overview, one person raised his hand and said that this was very interesting, but he had come to hear about communities of practice. He had failed to understand that they are just a shell. They are about learning, building capabilities and using what you know."
Wallace is using many of these lessons in her current role working alongside former Microsoft KM guru, Mary Lee Kennedy, at
To ensure Baker Library meets the needs of the faculty, students and administration, their work is focused on three main streams:
How knowledge is generated, through research and course development;
How it is disseminated, through teaching and writing books, articles and cases, for example;
How it is internalised, via the learning process.
"The library has one of the world’s pre-eminent collections, but that’s not important if people don’t use them. We want to make the library live and breathe by wrapping the right people around it – subject experts and education-savvy people – and helping our customers collaborate and build relationships to foster knowledge sharing." While Wallace and Kennedy want to create an info-structure – rather than an infrastructure – that fuels these processes, their key challenge is to create an understanding about what they are trying to do.
They communicate the vision by engaging their customers. "Our primary role is to listen and build on what people need whether they are researching, teaching, learning, writing or managing. For example, we want to be more closely aligned with our customers in a proactive way, helping them find and use the information they need to solve their problems, and then help them package and disseminate the knowledge they generate."
For the future, Wallace hopes to be able to look back on her work – preferably from a sunny beach with a piña colada – and see how she has successfully created collaborative learning environments where knowledge is routinely created, managed and used to meet an individual’s or organisation’s objectives.
Before reaching her retirement beach, however, Wallace has a challenge to meet. "We have a collective intelligence we must bring together; how do we connect these dots to identify what we still don’t know?"
As she searches for the answers, she draws inspiration from visionaries such as Chun Wei Choo, Mary Lee Kennedy, Tom Davenport, Larry Prusak and Saint-Onge and the people who live these knowledge principles. If there is one thing that Wallace wants people to understand about working with communities and knowledge, it is that it’s not all about structure and tricks. "We have to be careful not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. You don’t build a community of practice or buy knowledge management tools just because you can. It’s about developing a learning culture that enables people to apply what they know."
It’s clear that her advice is based on personal experiences, good and bad. And as a consummate learner who is always looking for opportunities to collaborate with others and we can be sure that she will have many more lessons to share before settling by the sea.
Deb Wallace can be contacted at Deb@tkgconsult.com.
Name: Debra Wallace
Place of birth:
Employment history: Manager of Business Development, ISM Library Information Services (IBM); Assistant to the Dean, Knowledge Management Initiatives, Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto; Knowledge and Learning Team, Clarica Life Insurance Company; sole proprietor, Wallace Consulting Services; Managing Director, Baker Library Services, Harvard Business School (present)
Personal strengths: Passion for teaching and learning – building and leveraging individual and organisational capabilities
Must improve: Ability to multitask!
Biggest inspiration(s): The people I work with and have worked with; my friends battling cancer
What I do to relax: Knit and roller blade (but not at the same time...)