posted 26 May 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 7
By Jamie Hatch
Becoming a knowledge manager was not something I ever imagined myself doing for a living. The profession didn’t really exist until I completed my undergraduate education, and when I did come to learn about knowledge management (KM) in graduate school, I had a hard time believing that organisations would need a ‘knowledge manager’ to facilitate or codify what I thought of as good old-fashioned common sense. I jumped on the KM bandwagon several years ago after accepting a KM position with Computer Sciences Corporation. But even now, a civilian KM officer for the US Navy, I can’t say that everyone we serve has yet hit the ‘I believe’ button, when it comes to understanding the purpose of KM in our organisation. Understanding is one of the greater challenges for a knowledge manager but one that can be overcome by taking a more anthropological approach to our work.
No matter what type of organisation you support, anyone with a full time KM role should know that having such a title and responsibility often sets you apart from the others in the organisation (if you are a contractor or consultant, even more so). Regardless of your familiarity or former associations with the organisation, being the ‘knowledge manager’ changes how you are viewed. In many ways, you are the foreigner – they are the indigenous population – and although you might be able to gain some insight from traditional observations and surveys, it will not be enough to help you move the organisation forward. In my opinion it is imperative to approach your work and conduct yourself in a manner that establishes trust through relationship building (and dare I say, social networking) in order to gather the data needed to make your most valuable observations and provide the best possible solutions.
I assume, for example, that most knowledge managers working in law firms have never been lawyers, just as I have never served our Navy in uniform. In pondering that disparity, I think back to the lessons learned from watching the ethnographic films made by one of my college professors, Dr. Napoleon Chagnon, who worked for many years among the Yanomamo in
At one time or another it is likely that you as a knowledge manager will be asked (in a sceptical or perhaps even suspicious tone), ‘So, what exactly is it that you do?’. Sometimes, you might simply be asked to define KM. More important than having clever answers to these questions is articulating those answers in ways that are meaningful to your audience. Just as good lawyers are able to avoid speaking in ‘legalese’ when explaining things to clients who may not be familiar with legal jargon, we as knowledge managers can more effectively communicate our message and have a more positive impact by framing what needs to be said in the language of the organisation. In the Navy, for example, our KM team discusses ‘inefficiencies in knowledge flows’, but talks about ‘stovepipes affecting the decision cycle’ when addressing the military and civilian personnel, who are our ‘warfighters’. To the casual observer, this might seem rather trivial because we are, in essence, saying the same thing in different words, but the message is better accepted and understood when put into ‘warfighter’ speak.
Despite the challenges of being misunderstood (although some organisations are steadily getting over this), being a knowledge manager is an exceptional privilege. You are given the opportunity to become a part of a community while simultaneously gaining permission to see and assess it from the 50,000 feet view. You can influence decision makers at the highest levels and have impact on individuals and communities working at every level in the organisation. Taking a careful and consistent approach to our work by understanding organisational culture, and working within it not against it, we have the opportunity to make significant improvements to the quality of performance, products and ultimately the quality of life of those we serve.
Jamie Hatch is the KM officer for the Commander, US Pacific Fleet in