posted 30 Sep 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 2
The Knowledge: Carol Kinsey Goman
As a consultant, coach and international lecturer, Carol Kinsey Goman has built a reputation as a specialist in organisational change from a human perspective. Today, her roles as trusted confidant and coach have become interchangeable. She speaks to Rebecca Cavalôt about her passion for unleashing individual potential and the importance of trust, and highlights some shocking KM statistics.
With a doctorate in clinical psychology and a background in short-term therapy for behavioural change, I was anticipating an inspirational and unique perspective on KM from Carol Kinsey Goman. I wasn’t disappointed. Goman describes herself as a pioneer of change – a term that often moonlights as a KM regular, with lectures and papers on change management and cultural change currently in abundance. However, what’s refreshing about Goman is that she is rolling up her sleeves and actually facilitating change on a day-to-day basis, coaching executives, organising management retreats and assisting change teams with strategy development. “I specialise in helping individuals and organisations thrive in an environment of constant, accelerating change,” she says. I was determined to discover how KM has influenced her dynamic career.
Goman’s initial interest in knowledge management was spurred on by her work in organisational-change management and human-capital issues. Some years ago, she gave a speech to a group of corporate-communication executives. At the end she asked the group to hold up their hands if they felt comfortable sharing what they knew. “Out of an audience of 200, only three hands went up,” she says. “Clearly, if those responsible for managing, creating and promoting knowledge sharing were uncomfortable with doing it themselves, we were looking at a major problem.” With her focus on the individual prevalent in her psychology work, Goman realised that she could make a difference. “This was a human problem, not a technology problem,” she says. However, subsequent research revealed that most of the KM literature of the period was on technology, with a little corporate culture on the side. “None of it was on the individual inhibitors and motivators to sharing.” Disappointed but not defeated, Goman was confident that she knew what motivated individuals to make behavioural changes and set about applying this knowledge to KM initiatives within organisations.
Goman’s career was going through massive transition and Kinsey Consulting Services (KCS) was created with a backdrop of the dissolution of the ‘American dream’. Individuals who had devoted themselves to an organisation for life suddenly discovered that the rules had changed. “Companies were beginning to downsize, outsource and re-organise,” Goman explains. “I dealt individually with professionals and developed a reputation for helping people deal successfully with change.” Goman found that the invitations to speak to organisations and at events were flooding in. She began to report her findings, concentrating on the human side of transformation and KM, and how to overcome obstacles. With these demands on her time, Goman closed her private practice and formed KCS in order to devote herself to her newfound passion.
In her role as consultant, Goman is brought into organisations that have realised that their KM initiatives are not going as planned. While many in her field concentrate on technology, Goman focuses on people. The programme she employs focuses on the human side of KM and stems from her faith in the medium of storytelling. “As a professional speaker, I learnt about the power of stories years ago. When it comes to knowledge sharing, it is evident that storytelling is a powerful tool.” But rather than employ the real-life example format favoured by many KM consultants, Goman created cartoon-like characters to represent the reasons people don’t tell what they know. These ‘business fable’ protagonists aren’t exactly set in the Disney mould: they come in the form of a magpie who hoards knowledge; a Martian who is afraid to contribute because he is an outsider; and a three-year old head of IT who speaks ‘dribble’. The characters are accessible and familiar. “The fable format has allowed me to approach touchy subjects in an objective and humorous way,” says Goman. “At the end of the programme, I ask the audience to guess which character most resembles me. My answer is all of them.” The message hits home hard – we have all been guilty of knowledge-sharing reluctance at one time or another. Goman next creates a collaborative environment where participants can discuss initiatives that could best break down barriers and build on successes.
Goman’s sessions aim to motivate: she believes in doing rather than simply talking. This is reflected in the work of those she cites as her KM influences. Her respect for Bob Buckman, former CEO of Buckman Laboratories, and Michelle Egan of the World Bank is born of the fact that they do what the rest of us often just talk about.
But without communication, organisations cannot even begin to tackle the obstacles to change. In 2002 Goman conducted a survey of 200 US-based managers about the state of knowledge sharing within their companies. She admits to being disheartened by the results. She found that leaders often gave only lip-service encouragement to the idea of collaboration and knowledge sharing. Organisations were becoming their own worst enemies, creating their own obstacles. The survey also brought to light that KM is more than simply the technology that supports it. Goman maintains that it is first and foremost about sharing, and began to concentrate on understanding why people are so reluctant to share what they know. From her studies, Goman was able to pinpoint the main reasons why people don’t share. First, people believe that knowledge is power in a business culture that still puts great emphasis on ROI in order to evaluate, promote and compensate employees. Goman also identified those who didn’t realise they actually had anything to contribute. “People are insecure about the value of their knowledge,” she says. Trust is also crucial to knowledge-sharing culture and Goman’s research revealed that we still don’t trust each other. “In the rush to get started on a new project, we often get groups of people together and tell them to get to work,” says Goman. She encourages developing common understanding and vision but says she often faces an uphill struggle as many organisations still embrace the ‘time is money’ mentality. “Unshared knowledge is like the latent power in a battery,” Goman warns. “It is useless unless it is hooked up.” Finally, Goman found that organisational culture is to blame for a lack of knowledge sharing. “All too often leaders withhold information and dole it out on a need-to-know basis,” she explains. “Leaders are failing their employees in this way.”
Goman is passionate about the role of the leader. She believes that leaders should facilitate a climate for collaboration. She describes this environment as “a kind of corporate greenhouse, where employees are nurtured in trust and can grow in confidence and value by exchanging thoughts freely without fear of ridicule, bullying or being ignored”. Goman realises that trust is a fragile and slow process. “Small risks and acts of faith need to be justified and reciprocated. Unless there are reserves of trust, it can be destroyed overnight,” she says. Goman suggests that leaders provide opportunities for people to meet and interact in formal and informal settings to develop relationships, learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and build social capital. Only then can trust pervade an organisation, energise staff, release creativity and facilitate a truly productive working environment.
Goman believes that the most important developments in KM have been built on the culture of trust she champions. Organisations still have a long way to go but she believes that the human elements of KM are evolving. She highlights CoPs, the value of social capital and informal collaboration (chance meetings and coffee-shop chats) as the most effective elements. “They are finally getting the attention they deserve,” she says, with more than a hint of relief. She believes the money spent on technology designed to capture wisdom, such as corporate portals, intranets and collaborative software, could be better spent elsewhere. Her passion for the personal gives me the impression that she sees the “hundreds of millions of dollars” spent on technology as not just a misguided expense, but an obscene waste.
Goman has a battle on her hands. She craves the shift from technology to human in the KM arena, yet is aware that individuals are still disinclined to share what they know. Again, Goman comes back to trust as the greatest challenge faced by KM pioneers. “Brain power could save billions,” she enthuses. “Or, in the current economic climate, could keep an organisation afloat while others sink all around.” Her antidote is a simple mix of open communication and effective collaboration – it is just down to the organisations to make the vision a reality.
Despite her seeming aversion to technology, Goman is positive about technology’s role in an increasingly global enterprise structure. The modern-day workforce is often remote or mobile and geographical boundaries are being broken down as organisations meet clients’ international needs. “This is the area in which technology has been fabulous,” she says. Her latest book, This isn’t the Company I Joined..., tells the story of Fluor, a project manager in South Africa who posts a quick question via the company’s knowledge-sharing programme that produces a next-day solution, enabling his project to proceed. Diplomatically, Goman believes that global knowledge economy must embrace technology that facilitates speedy and effective communication.
Goman however is defiant about one element of KM. “I’d change the name and banish the term knowledge management,” she says. The term has provoked much debate but no-one seems to be able to come up with an alternative label. Goman is one of the first to try. She suggests “creative collaboration”, “knowledge sharing” or even “the way we do things around here” as viable options.
The future of KM itself is not such an elusive issue for Goman. She believes that demographics will accentuate KM’s importance. “By 2011, the leading edge of the baby-boom workforce will be 65 years old and eligible for retirement. Their collective wisdom will walk out the door with them unless it has been captured and transferred to the next generation.” To avoid this costly scenario, Goman puts faith in succession planning, mentoring programmes, storytelling, collaboration and knowledge sharing as critical to any future financial strategy. If that is not enough to shock organisations, Goman quotes the International Data Corporation, which has calculated what it calls the ‘knowledge deficit’. Allegedly, the knowledge deficit among Fortune 500 companies is costing them at least $12bn annually through inefficient working practices – a chilling statistic.
In KM, the stakes are high. In order to retain staff, leaders must be aware that the ‘command and control’ era is over. “No leader or executive team has all the answers,” says Goman. She feels that the successful leaders of the future will be those that create collaborative environments where employees are free to innovate in order to solve organisational challenges. Goman calls us a “teaching and learning species” but recognises that we will not share unless there is a compelling and emotive reason to do so. If leaders can learn how to instil employees with this passion, the psychological boost will power KM’s future. As a KM coach, Goman can rally the team, but essentially the performance is up to the individuals within an organisation. “Human beings thrive in collaborative relationships. Given the right context, we can do great things together,” says Goman. I can only hope that Goman’s well chosen words will inspire the dynamism she has shown in her short but rich KM career in us all.