posted 22 Jul 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 10
For beginners: developing a knowledge management strategy
A knowledge manager uses first-hand experience to help first-time knowledge leaders establish a KM programme.
By Maria Paola Andreoni
In part one we learnt the what and why of a KM strategy and discovered the gap between information and knowledge. We defined a KM strategy around business drivers, and then discussed how to present this strategy to stakeholders - with emphasis on the vision rather than the details. Next we learnt the need for assessing the state of knowledge ‘as is’ in the organisation.
Now it is time to move into the actual implementation of a strategy, beginning with the methodologies used during the first year.
Knowledge audits are so well-known for a reason.
I would not advocate a full-blown organisational knowledge audit in all situations, but it is necessary, in advance of defining a strategy, to understand what knowledge is, where it is situated, how it is used.
Facilitated brainstorming sessions are very effective. In the past I have experimented with a methodology called ‘Accelerated Solution Environment’, which was an excellent way to pull together ideas and record outcomes.
Performing a round of conventional interviews with a representative spectrum of organisational stakeholders is, of course, more accessible and easier to organise. It can give an idea of the expected use of knowledge on the one hand, and what people in the front line find easier to do. My first two weeks of investigation included interviews with all the international directors and some senior managers. It was illuminating: with an inquisitive mind and not being bogged down by the details, it appeared quite clearly to me what the overarching issues were - and the trends my strategy might link into.
What I overlooked to a great extent at the time were the expectations of other people across the organisation. It turned out that VSO is a very consultative environment, where lots of people expect to be involved in most discussions as stakeholders. It was a very unusual approach for me, used as I was to a hierarchy-based, result-oriented approach - where people wouldn't want to be involved in all the steps of the process.
Not that I did not take other staff views and behaviours into consideration, quite the contrary! I read a lot of the available documentation, including the feedbacks and results of previous major consultations related to knowledge. I observed people carrying out processes, and asked a lot of questions informally as they came up. I was very obviously aware that, in the particular context,“the process to get to a result is as important as the result itself”, as my line manager puts it.
Cultural strengths, liabilities
This leads me neatly into considering that a KM strategy addresses the organisation from a very specific context and culture, and is often subject to specific assumptions and expectations, from past experience to wishful thinking, for example.
I have explored some of the contextual and cultural highlights already, and I am positive that – because of this – there are no two identical KM strategies, and that to borrow out of context is very risky. Although ‘good practices’ or ‘best practices’ are very popular, adapting them needs a pinch of salt.
In a hoarders’ culture like ours, where all the details need to be considered just in case they turn out to have a greater-than-expected impact, an open document management system, for example, has played on the weaknesses rather than the strengths of the organisation. As a result, the document collection grows by 10,000 a month, and it is almost impossible to find anything unless you know about its existence already. This works totally against information management - and towards information overload!
KM programmes should address tactfully, but openly, whatever might be a barrier to organisational learning, including what a recent paper by BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development) has called the “undiscussables” and thought leader Chris Argyris called Organisational Defensive Routines. (Goold, L. , “Barriers to Organisational Learning”, Bond Briefing Papers).
Definition of the ‘to-be’
Having a freshman look at an environment without being bogged down by the details and the defensive strategies is really useful: the sort of bird’s eye view that helps lateral thinking. There is a bit of an oxymoron in the role of the knowledge manager: on the one hand, you need to be trusted in order to access people’s knowledge, and one good way of doing that is by understanding what they are talking about – their area of expertise. However, critical detachment is a necessary quality - as is keeping the bigger picture in view at all times.
I found joining a network of peers to be very helpful in bouncing ideas and supporting confidence that might be strained by what can be a lonely, less understood job.
Based on experience, I would also consider consulting an external consultant when starting a KM strategy definition process. This would be particularly useful if I were biased by having been in an organisation for a long time.
What consultants generally lack, however, is an understanding of the organisational culture that takes time to develop; and which is quite relevant to pin down what the organisation will accept and how to go about implementing and encouraging adoption.
Continuity has a substantial value, as people naturally find it hard to deal with changes that come out of the blue and which they cannot make sense of.
KM is about change management in the organisation: making people work smarter and, in turn, getting smarter, more flexible people, who can learn and adapt more effectively in a fast-changing business market.
Making very clear the vision for KM, and ensuring it is well rooted in the organisational objectives, is a good starting point. Linking into people’s passions and concerns is a step forwards.
My analysis of the VSO book library, for example, revealed it was not a cost-effective investment. Being internationally mobile, volunteers were able to access it for very short periods of time only. However, it was a very welcoming environment, and some of the local staff felt losing this would be a big loss. And so politely heated debates ensued. While cost-effectiveness was a subject dear to the heart of management, environmentalism and fundraising had been passionately embraced by most staff. In addition to value-added services to support research done by the volunteers, not having a book library was also ‘greener’, as we had most of the material online anyway. And, by linking into a referral scheme we would be able to do some fundraising if volunteers bought some physical books to take with them on their assignments. The project linked more broadly into the organisational values.
Identification of quick wins in KM is a long-term change investment to develop a sustainable business. However, some people concentrate on the short-term success, and quick wins are a necessary Trojan horse to let more radical and long-term change happen.
Of course, it is really important that quick wins are chosen carefully anyway, as otherwise they can backfire dramatically. For example, it is very common that the implementation of quick wins in the form of provisional processes or tools takes the users’ attention off the real change and improvements that will come later in time.
Technology is not everything
Speaking of quick wins that often backfire, technology projects that are expected to deliver KM on their own fail in no less than 84 per cent of cases (Booz Allen Hamilton, 2005).
There can, in theory, be a KM programme that does not involve any technology.
Look at the size of your organisation, at your budget and the use of technologies already. There is no reason to drain finances – especially at the start – or to believe that KM will magically bring about a dramatic change. It may not make sense, in the first place, to have an intranet in an office of fewer than 10 people; having lunch together can be cheaper, more effective in terms of team building, and with no technical maintenance required!
KM should help the organisation define and encourage the development of a knowledge-sharing environment; promote a coherent approach to organisational learning; and ensure quality information is available as an enticing alternative to information overload. Technology may or may not follow from that.
Buy in from authoritative stakeholders
“A better way of doing things implies that people believe in the proposed vision of ‘better’” ~ C.Emberson.
This is the time to get black-on-white support from champions: because KM is a long-term investment, it needs extensive support and an agreement on the outcomes, which might not always be tangible.
What would they consider success? Would they accept qualitative, as well as quantitative, results reports?
I found you need to give senior people time to think about your proposal, but not too much time to be forgotten. Sending an executive summary and some exploratory questions in advance of a meeting might be useful. By this time, they should have interacted with you already anyway.
When planning for what comes next, I have found I tend to be optimistic: it takes time to develop a relationship, influence and give time for change to happen.
I have now a three-year high-level plan that puts my short-term efforts into perspective. It covers the following areas:
Establishing our function as specialist support to VSO on knowledge sharing;
Enabling person and group communication and knowledge sharing;
Putting into place expert advice and access to ‘official’ policies and organisational directions for clarity of direction;
Educating the VSO community on information literacy.
My one-year plan is going to be conservative, to cover for staff turnover in the team and for adaptation to any change that might take place and affect us. I have also underestimated the operational sides to our programme (i.e., publishing information on the websites on behalf of people) that coexisted with the project work over the past year; we are still in the process of learning what the team can achieve towards its new objectives.
Measuring progress and achievements
KM is famously hard to measure as it comprises so many intangibles. In addition, there is the risk of inappropriate key performance indicators stimulating deviated behaviour and ending up with something unexpected. A well-known example refers to the NHS trying to cut the waiting time for general practitioners. They are said to set a target of two days’ waiting, with the result that some doctors decided not to allow for advanced bookings in order to meet the target.
This does not mean that measuring is not possible. As I am creating some services I will make available to VSO, I will be measuring quantitatively whether there is an increase in the demand of these services, while at the same time a decrease in the request for services that I want to discourage, i.e., my team formatting documents for others.
Qualitative measurements are also useful in some cases. For example, if you aim at involving a group of employees in particular to use a technology they are not enthusiastic about, you could measure their perception of satisfaction with the technology at different times, i.e., before and after training, and before and after changes take place.
A knowledge-management strategy involves considering implications of managing knowledge at different levels within the organisation, including overlapping areas with other departments, and the impact of the organisational culture and context on any initiative. It always appears to be of a bigger size than the individual can bite, but involvement of appropriate stakeholders and networking with peers will take some of the pressure off the task.
Defining a knowledge-management programme takes time and commitment to the long-term benefit of the organisation, but, it can benefit from well chosen ‘quick win’ projects that develop trust in the relationship with stakeholders.
Maria Paola Andreoni is international knowledge manager for Voluntary Service Overseas (VS) and is a member of the management committee of Network for Information and Knowledge Exchange (NetIKX). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.