posted 17 May 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 8
Par for the course?
Exploring the value of academic qualifications in KM
In September 2000, Jela Webb enrolled on the University of North London’s MSc Information and Knowledge Management programme, the first course of its type on offer in Europe. As the two-year programme draws to a conclusion, she looks back at the core areas she has studied and assesses the value academic qualifications can add to the practical skills of a knowledge manager.
Back in late 1998, I was appointed to the role of senior manager, Knowledge Management and Development, in a major financial services organisation and given responsibility for implementing a knowledge management capability in the learning and development function – no mean feat when supporting 60,000 staff with their training and development needs.
Full of enthusiasm for this new area, and fresh from completing an MBA, I was bursting with ideas but wanted to know:
- Where should I start?
- What should I focus on?
- What have others done?
- What worked? What didn’t?
- Were there any good practices I should be following?
At the time, KM was still relatively new in the UK, but there was a feeling that this was not just a new management fad that would fade in the same way as other initiatives – for instance, quality circles, BPR and the like – but that it was much more about culture and changing behaviours so that knowledge sharing became embedded within organisational processes.
I initially did a lot of background reading; the growth in KM related literature meant that there was no shortage of material to choose from. I attended conferences devoted to the subject, participated in seminars and research programmes, as well as building a network of contacts with whom I could share thoughts and ideas. All extremely valuable, and I learned a lot, but what I also wanted was something more tangible that would give me a deeper grounding and would help me move forward along a KM career path. I had decided very early on that this was something I wanted to be involved in for the foreseeable future and was actively exploring ways in which I could develop and hone my skills.
In mid-1999, having spent a very challenging and enjoyable time implementing a very practical and leading-edge KM capability, initiating a variety of projects, I attended a seminar that explored the skills needed for the knowledge economy. What really made me sit up and take notice was the mention of a professional qualification in KM that was to be offered by the University of North London (UNL). At the time this was the only qualification of its kind available in Europe, although there is currently a small but fast-growing market in professional KM education.
At the seminar, I listened intently to Eileen Milner, the course convenor, who explained that UNL had first began to consult with employers about the development of a ‘post-professional’ postgraduate degree in information and knowledge management back in 1996 when the term ‘knowledge management’ was neither commonly known nor understood. The journey from ‘new idea’ to establishing a formal study programme had taken some time but, excited by the thought that this might be just what I was looking for, I obtained a prospectus, enrolled myself on the MSc Information and Knowledge Management programme as a member of the very first cohort, commenced studies in September 2000 and the rest, as they say, is history. I am currently working on my dissertation (the last assignment) and trying not to worry too much about the final deadline later this month, as it will no doubt arrive sooner than I think.
What can I tell you about my experiences of pursuing a professional qualification in KM? First, let me explain a little about the programme structure. It was originally designed to run over a two-year academic model of part-time study, delivered through distance-supported and residential modes, the latter involving seven blocks of formal study run over three/four days, including weekends. The residential sessions, which allow tutors and participants to meet, as well as offering the opportunity to build developmental and supportive networks, are intensive. A typical day starts at 8.30am and lasts about 11 hours. During this time, as well as attending formal lectures, we work in small syndicates, examining problem-based case studies and undertaking group presentations. Throughout, we are encouraged to engage with key issues in information and knowledge management and apply theoretical concepts to practice in terms of our own experiences.
The mode of delivery has been carefully thought out, and is designed to allow students to combine Masters-level study with full-time employment. In between the residential sessions, we are supported via web-based facilities. What has happened in practice is that after meeting initially for our first residential, the group working has fostered the creation of a truly dynamic learning community where knowledge sharing is the norm. We meet up between residentials to discuss and review assignments, and we use bulletin boards, e-mails and chat rooms to share our experiences and challenges. Participants are almost equally split between the public and private sectors. This provides a rich vein of experiences and allows us all to learn across sectors, the common theme being an information and knowledge management agenda.
The university firmly believes that there is a pivotal relationship between the management of information and knowledge. The programme is deliberately designed to ensure that due focus is given to information management, the argument being that to try and manage an intangible asset like knowledge without first underpinning this with appropriate and effective information management strategies is to invite failure. The modules reflect this and comprise six compulsory areas of study, as well as a final dissertation.
Year 1, semester A (September to January):
- Managing Information in the Organisation – explores key issues relating to the identification and management of information assets within organisational structures. Additionally, this module covers information auditing, the relationship between information management and supporting technologies, skills and competencies required for the information economy;
- Managing Knowledge – explores what is meant by ‘knowledge’, both tacit and explicit. This module also considers organisational culture and structure, and the role of employees in relation to the achievement of effective knowledge management. Additionally, it covers the identification and management of knowledge assets within a given context, as well as exploring synergies with information management.
Year 1, semester B (February to May):
- Information and Knowledge Resources: Organisation and Management – focuses on the design of systems to manage an organisation’s information and knowledge resources, examining how these resources may be organised to improve the efficiency of search and retrieval;
- Knowledge Applications – imparts an understanding of current technological applications in managing information and knowledge within organisations. Additionally, assesses the project management implications and challenges associated with the introduction of knowledge applications to the organisation.
Year 2, semester A:
- Legal Perspective on Information and Knowledge Management – provides an introduction and overview of the principal areas of law governing information, particularly in relation to new technologies. Also covers UK national, EU and international legislative and legal provisions and decisions relevant to information management;
- Research and Evaluation Strategies for Information and Knowledge Management – focuses on the deployment of a range of research and evaluation techniques to support a business case for adoption and development of information and knowledge management strategies. This section also informs the approach to the final project (see below).
Year 2, semester B:
- Information and Knowledge Management Project – the programme concludes with a project – of the student’s choice – relating to an aspect of information and knowledge management. In liaison with a supervisor, students develop a methodology and carry out their research, culminating in a dissertation of 12,000 words.
Each module is assessed by means of course work in a specified format, typically an analytical report, although there are also two assessed presentations within the programme.
Let me move on now to talk about the mode of delivery. The distance-based model, supplemented by the residentials, has worked well as it enables students to manage the process of academic study alongside busy professional lives. My fellow students come from a broad range of sectors – local and central government, management consultancy, the construction industry and the police, to name a few. This ensures that debates are always lively. Representation is predominantly UK-based, although currently there are also participants from Ireland, France and Jordan.
There is a good fit with the broader world of work, with the emphasis being on the practical application of theory. As such, it is a requirement that students should be working within an organisation during the period of study although, exceptionally, this requirement may be waived. Assignments are focused on applying the learning in an organisational context, so any students who are not working in an organisational environment will, I feel, be at a disadvantage when completing their assignments.
Because we are actively encouraged to share our experiences (and we would only be paying lip service to KM if we didn’t), we have learned almost as much from each other as we have from the formal coursework. Everyone has been willing to put their experience to use both during the residentials and in peer reviews of assignments.
We established a community of practice early on and I believe that we will continue to network long after we complete out MScs. One of the advantages of study is the network built up not only with fellow students and lecturers, but also with other practitioners and consultants who have presented sessions on the programme. These contacts all provide valuable support and will be a career-long networking asset.
Why study for a professional qualification?
Knowledge management is becoming an accepted business discipline and organisations across industrial sectors are creating roles for knowledge managers. For some individuals, the range of information available from literature, conferences, seminars and industry journals such as Knowledge Management will be enough, but others will be keen to gain a professional qualification and distinguish themselves from the pack as they move along the KM career path.
Employers seeking to recruit staff into senior information and knowledge management roles accept that knowledge managers come from very diverse backgrounds. The MSc equips students with key underpinning skills, based around organising information and knowledge management for practical use, as well as ensuring that they are well placed to meet the challenges presented by working in the knowledge economy. In the 21st century organisation, knowledge managers should exhibit high-level awareness of asset management, performance measurement and strategic planning, and these are all skills that the MSc in Information and Knowledge Management emphasises.
Have the last two years been worth it? For me, it has been an invaluable experience. I am now working as a consultant, lecturer and trainer in KM, and being able to add this qualification to my CV helps to establish my credentials with potential clients. Having first obtained the practical experience, I have now supplemented this by a formal academic qualification, which has made me even better equipped to offer my clients professional expertise and knowledge of the subject and help them to really reap the benefits knowledge sharing brings.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a professional qualification in KM is of value. KM is a relatively new discipline, and as such there is no set career path. A straw poll of knowledge managers confirms that they have different facets to their role depending upon the organisational structures within which they work. By building on the foundations of practical work experience, a professional qualification enables students to make the transition to a higher level of awareness in this dynamic arena.
In the knowledge economy, many organisations are keen to demonstrate that they are knowledge-centric; this is in turn giving knowledge managers a high profile, and those who can demonstrate both practical and theoretical awareness will be the ones best placed to succeed in their chosen KM career.
Jela Webb is a knowledge management consultant with Azione. She can be contacted at: email@example.com
“It’s been a really valuable experience, especially the close tie-in with work-related activities.” Bill Wood, knowledge manager, Essex County Council
“It really challenges you to think and makes you look at business in a different way… from a perspective where information and knowledge are seen as key organisational assets. The course helped me to understand and appreciate why the management of these valuable resources is so important to continuing business success.
“I’ve valued the opportunity to work with experienced professionals in the information and knowledge management arena and have developed personally and professionally through my studies.” Andy Jamieson, business analyst, Foster Wheeler Energy Ltd
“My role in the university covers a number of areas: the development of our information strategy; information projects such as audits; knowledge sharing projects; and, legislative compliance. Every module of the course related in some way to one of these areas, and I could relate all the assignments to real initiatives and projects that I was carrying out at work, even my dissertation. The course helped me in a practical way to achieve results, rather than being simply a tiresome burden necessary to achieve a qualification.
“The opportunity to meet colleagues in the field has been invaluable. We have learned an awful lot about and from each other, and a strong sense of community has developed. I hope that we continue to learn and share in this way after the course has finished. I suspect that we will as we already interact and work with each other outside the bounds of the course.” Alison Wyatt, project manager, Open University