posted 9 Jun 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 9
The knowledge: Elizabeth Lank
As head of the Mobilising Knowledge Programme at ICL (now Fujitsu Services), Elizabeth Lank successfully instilled knowledge-sharing practices into the firm’s culture, people and processes. Today, she continues to facilitate collaborative working in companies across industries. She speaks to Sandra Higgison about her introduction to the field, her current work, and the challenges and opportunities facing knowledge-focused organisations.
With an academic background in cultural anthropology and organisational behaviour, and time spent living in Canada, the US, France, Switzerland and the UK, Elizabeth Lank’s interest in people, how they operate and interrelate is clear, and links seamlessly with her ongoing focus on collaborative working. As one of the field’s earliest practitioners in her role as head of the Mobilising Knowledge Programme at ICL, Lank has learnt to value and nurture the close network of peers that has grown around her. Having left ICL over three years ago, she continues to adopt a hands-on approach when sharing her practical experience on converting sceptics and gaining senior-management buy-in, demonstrating the value of knowledge initiatives, and understanding the need to integrate KM into everyday business operations.
Lank’s initial interest in knowledge management was sparked when co-writing The Power of Learning with Andrew Mayo in 1993. “We had both read Senge’s Fifth Discipline and found the concept of creating organisations that learn fascinating,” she says. “But the book left us wondering what we could do to put it into practice on Monday morning.” The resulting handbook aims to give practical answers to creating a company that learns. It was while researching the role of technology in learning that a CIO told her his company called this knowledge management. When Lank realised that ICL had to be better at knowing what it knew, she began lobbying senior management to focus on the subject, which led to the creation of the Mobilising Knowledge Programme.
Indeed, her success at convincing ICL’s line managers that knowledge sharing was an important issue has been one of her greatest achievements, and is the basis for her seminars and subsequent work with companies struggling with similar challenges. “I was very pleased to get and keep the commitment of the CEO to the programme; not everyone has the luxury of real support for knowledge management,” she says. Lank is also proud that the intranet her team built in the mid-1990s, Café Vik (Valuing ICL Knowledge), is still a key part of ICL’s infrastructure, although she is quick to point out that she doesn’t want to over emphasise the role of technology as she believes the hype generated in the field’s early days was harmful.
One of the most influential experiences during her time at ICL was her involvement in a consortium focused on the strategic management of knowledge and organisational learning. The CEOs of seven companies selected five representatives to take part in the ten-month network and learn about managing knowledge. The consortium involved workshops and study tours to the US and Japan to visit and benchmark against the experiences of knowledge-focused organisations such as Chevron, HP and Dow Chemical. “It was very interesting, especially as some of the members of the group were dubious about how relevant this was to their work, which is how I began to understand where doubts originate,” she says. A quote Lank still uses today came from one of the most sceptical participants. She recalls that he addressed the group at the end of the ten-month process and admitted that while he had been cynical at the start, he now realised that the subject of harnessing knowledge was just common sense, it just wasn’t common practice. “It’s one of my favourite quotes when I’m briefing management teams and telling them that none of this is rocket science, it’s just common sense for business,” she says. The network’s lasting impression on Lank was to reinforce her belief in the value of knowledge sharing and learning from other practitioners.
During her early knowledge work, Lank’s fellow practitioners and peers had a profound influence on her and continue to do so today. “We all seemed to find each other,” she says. “There were people like Leif Edvinsson from Skandia, Hubert Saint-Onge at Bank of Montreal, Kent Greenes from BP and Victoria Ward at Natwest who had full-time knowledge roles and we helped each other out.” Lank also says that TFPL’s CKO summit has played an important role in meeting people and sharing ideas. “The weekend forum allows us to spend quality time with other practitioners and really hear what they’re all thinking,” she says. This year, the 20 senior knowledge managers at the summit produced ‘The Knowledge Proposition’, a document that attempts to prevent knowledge management from being misunderstood and mislabelled. “It was like we were suffering from an identity crisis,” she says. “Despite big budgets, resources and influential positions, we were worried that the hype has created inaccurate associations about our work. Collaboratively, we created a written document detailing the knowledge-sharing proposition we have been making to our senior management. The document avoids the ‘knowledge management’ label and tries to articulate what we do in our jobs every day.” The group members decided that their work aims to ensure the expertise, information and ideas available to them within their companies and with their partners and customers is harnessed to achieve their organisations’ objectives. “Although we could have just have used the word knowledge, it has been helpful to break it down into expertise, ideas and information to show that it is not only about information or documents. It has been liberating to express what knowledge management is in a normal sentence.”
Lank’s own work with knowledge sharing involved five years on ICL’s Mobilising Knowledge Programme, but when the chief executive that she was partnering with resigned, it prompted her to take a similar leap. “Although I loved working for ICL and still found it interesting, I’d reached the point where I’d been with the company for 15 years and wanted new challenges,” she says. Since leaving the company, her projects have involved business-transformation work at the Inland Revenue, cross-country knowledge sharing at Tesco and collaborative-working initiatives at the UK’s Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA). “I would describe the work I enjoy and have been doing as organisational coaching, I wouldn’t call it traditional consulting because I don’t have one methodology or answer to share with people; there is no one way of doing any of this,” she says. “There was a time when people were promoting KM consulting as if there were a formula for it, which worried me as a practitioner.” Despite her role as an independent, Lank still likes to be a practitioner, muddling her way through to find the best way forward, bearing in mind the politics of the organisation, resources available and strategic priorities. Her work also extends to teaching on the subject as part of leadership-development courses such as the Cabinet Office Top Management Programme and modules at London Business School, Insead and Henley Management College.
When discussing her work, Lank shies away from the term ‘knowledge management’ preferring ‘collaborative working’ as a more accurate description that encompasses mobilising, capturing and sharing knowledge. “I dislike the KM term as people associate it with the idea of grabbing someone’s knowledge and putting it in a system. It sounds static as if knowledge sits in a warehouse; it doesn’t convey the sense of flow,” she says. “The real enablers are people collaborating and working together.” To support this, Lank encourages people to actively facilitate knowledge transfer rather than simply putting in tools and processes. Her work at the IDeA involves leading collaborative groups looking at common performance-improvement issues in local government. “We had about ten local authorities trying to be more customer focused,” says Lank. “As they’re all working towards the same goal we designed a process to enable them to work together collaboratively, which I then facilitated.” The Accelerated Improvement Consortia are five two-day workshops, however one of the challenges they face is encouraging people to commit the necessary time to get to know each other and share knowledge. “This is where the interest lies for me: discovering what processes work, what’s practical and what people will sign up to,” she says. “The reality of collaborative working is that you have got to invest time and resources into building these relationships.”
Such an investment will in turn require justification and much of Lank’s current work is directed at evaluating the impact and value of these processes. “It can be very difficult to quantify the value of a community of practice, for example,” she says. “And yet, if you’ve been in a good one, you know that you get a lot from it. I’m involved in projects that will evaluate the investment made and processes created around collaborative working.” As KM practitioners well know, the difficulty is not only understanding that knowledge work is often intangible and unquantifiable, but also accepting that even though something is not measurable in typical bottom-line terms it is still worth doing. “This is a big area and I don’t think anybody has the answer,” she says. “We need to find new ways of evaluating knowledge sharing and learn how to do it better.” The notion of learning-based evaluation, for example, is less about proving the ROI to the finance director and more about evaluating how we improve these cross-boundary processes.”
The measurement question is but one of the challenges Lank identifies in the face of knowledge management. The long-standing problem of gaining senior-level support for initiatives continues to be a sticking point for many organisations. “It can be difficult to be a prophet in your own land,” she says. “As knowledge champions we can help teams communicate the importance of collaborative working to the people holding budgets, decision-making power and the strategic view.” Another obstacle is the perception that collaborative working is separate to the set of traditional processes required to run a business well. “Knowledge management should be thought of as one of the things you need in your toolkit to manage a business successfully,” she says. “It would be good if we could integrate it and almost give it less of a label.” Finally, Lank believes that many companies have yet to realise the need for professionals to support their initiatives. “There are great opportunities for individuals that have become knowledge and information professionals because many of the organisations focusing on knowledge sharing lack the right people infrastructure,” she says. “They’re putting in tools and processes but haven’t realised the value of putting in real jobs with paid salaries to make sure the overall knowledge infrastructure is healthy.”
Lank believes these challenges will be overcome in the future. She also expects the software industry to continue supporting knowledge and information sharing but as part of a much bigger puzzle. “Technology will provide more than just knowledge-capture tools and will help individuals deal with information overload, which is where most people face real issues,” she says. “I hope solutions move towards helping people navigate, summarise and visualise information rather than just giving us lots more of it.” She also predicts that there will be fewer CKOs as knowledge work becomes more integrated and dedicated influencing roles become less necessary. “I hope there will be less jargon and that collaborative working is built into leadership-development programmes,” she says. “There will soon be a generation of managers where this will be a natural part of their job.” Ensuring that tomorrow’s workers share this mindset requires knowledge champions to continue driving the message home to senior management that integrated collaborative-working strategies will impact more than just the bottom line and are an imperative for long-term success.
1. Lank, E. & Mayo, A., The Power of Learning (CIPD, 1994)
2. Senge, P, The Fifth Discipline: Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation (Random House, 1993)