posted 8 May 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 8
The role of human knowledge intermediaries
With any approach to knowledge management technology can only offer part of the solution. Lisa Sasson and Joyce Sharon explore the role knowledge intermediaries can play to ensure that knowledge is identified captured and dissipated across organisations effectively.
Most organisations have learned that technology alone does not ensure the success of KM initiatives. As a result many organisations have refocused their attention on addressing the social aspects of KM nurturing a knowledge sharing culture and developing incentive plans to encourage formal and informal knowledge exchanges. Yet while these efforts are well intentioned little is achieved without the appropriate people and respective roles put into place. A key aspect of any KM programme is thus staffing it with the right people to help balance and sustain the organisation’s knowledge management efforts. In many cases however the recruitment of a KM staff is conducted on an ad hoc basis with little understanding of how to design and structure these supporting roles. The strategic design and placement of ‘human knowledge intermediaries’ – knowledge-enablers who work to identify capture and transfer organisational knowledge – can help organisations minimise the time employees spend looking for vital information and reduce rework and redundancy of effort. Leveraging the specialised functions and skills of knowledge intermediaries across the organisation ensures that the responsibility of knowledge management remains a high priority.
Increased workloads and frustration navigating knowledge repositories have often led promising KM programmes to spiral into disuse and discredit. As employees find little time to capture their own knowledge or rummage through repositories to find useful information organisations have begun to think about how to ensure that knowledge is both captured and shared within the organisation. Researchers at IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management uncovered three categories of knowledge intermediary roles: knowledge stewards researchers and brokers. Each of these roles provides different services and requires a particular set of skills and attributes to meet the challenge. Matching an organisation’s particular knowledge needs to the appropriate role is a demanding task.
After careful consideration and reflection organisations can identify the type of knowledge that is not currently leveraged internally. For example some organisations neglect to tap into the rich tacit knowledge (knowledge that resides in people’s heads) of its employees and as a result only explicit documented information is available for reference. In other cases both explicit and tacit knowledge are shared informally among employees but little or no time is dedicated to ensuring the widespread dissemination of this knowledge across the organisation. For each of these cases among many other scenarios a knowledge researcher steward or broker can address these issues and bring the organisation closer to achieving a more efficient and effective method for capturing sharing and reusing knowledge.
When GM identified a bottleneck in its vehicle development process that prevented the company from getting its vehicles to market quicker than its competitors it decided to take a closer look to uncover the root of the problem. The vice presidents of Car and Truck Groups assigned the Corporate Strategy and Knowledge Development Department to “learn how to develop cars and trucks faster”. It became clear to the department director that many cross-organisational vehicle programme teams were running into similar problems within GM’s vehicle development process. If only programme teams could learn from past mistakes and incorporate innovative solutions concocted by other teams then perhaps cars could be developed more efficiently. But how are good ideas captured and shared? Could captured learnings help to revamp the entire vehicle development process? How can team members learn from mistakes while not alienating the team that made them? It seemed like a worthwhile challenge to tackle in the effort to unclog the flow of development.
GM quickly realised that creating access to the tacit knowledge of its personnel could serve as one solution for unclogging bottlenecks in its organisation. The very nature of tacit knowledge – knowledge that is embedded in people’s minds experiences and intuitions – makes its access and capture a daunting task. Faced with this challenge GM created a position with the title ‘learning supporter’. Equivalent to a knowledge steward the learning supporter role was designed to tackle the difficult task of capturing tacit knowledge.
Organisations that recognise the untapped value of their employees’ tacit knowledge turn to knowledge stewards to proactively capture that knowledge and facilitate its transfer throughout the organisation. In virtually every organisation employees find themselves too busy to share their experiences with others or apply their colleagues’ learnings to their own work. Knowledge stewards address these issues by proactively capturing internal tacit knowledge through interviewing and observing people in their work environment. The results are documented and then made accessible to the entire organisation via an active knowledge repository. Posting information within a repository without further intervention of a knowledge steward however is limited as a means of ensuring knowledge sharing. By assigning a steward to the task of guaranteeing the timeliness quality and usability of the content the sustainability of the KM initiative is preserved.
In addition raising awareness regarding the existence of a knowledge base is another essential role for stewards. Where a knowledge repository exists stewards help employees find information in the repository. Once comfortable navigating the repository employees quickly realise the benefits of accessing and applying internal knowledge to their own work. However in some organisations the stewards themselves transfer captured knowledge throughout the organisation. For instance because programme teams work under tight time constraints GM learning supporters (knowledge stewards) help incorporate learnings into the vehicle development process in real-time rather than inputting them to an electronic repository. To be effective learning supporters must adjust their technique to the needs of the team. In this way the lessons captured by the learning supporter are implemented into action immediately and awareness of the knowledge is created by directly applying the learnings into the work process.
Winning business is the primary focus of most consulting firms. At one consultancy firm when a new employee identified a major publishing company as a potential client he began to work on a proposal aimed at improving the publishing company’s order fulfilment and supply chain processes. The new consultant quickly realised that his limited knowledge of the topic made it difficult for him to prepare the proposal on his own. Yet as a new employee he was unaware if any past projects had been done on a similar topic and if so who the key consultants involved were. If only he could track down the right people to learn from them and review their relevant documents his proposal could have a winning chance. Given the competitive nature of attracting new clients the consultant had little time to spend navigating the company’s document databases in search of applicable information. What he needed was to locate quickly and speak directly with the right people in order to benefit from their tacit knowledge. In such cases access to a single person with extensive knowledge about the firm and its employees can speed up the process of tracking down relevant knowledge and information especially in larger organisations.
In response many organisations formally assign well-connected people to the role of knowledge broker to connect knowledge seekers to sources of tacit knowledge (i.e. people with experience or expertise in a particular topic area). In some organisations however these well-connected individuals serve their intermediary role informally without recognition from the organisation. In this particular case a colleague suggested to the new consultant that he speak to a particular person who tended to have a great deal of knowledge about what projects people have been on and what their areas of expertise were. The consultant approached this informal knowledge broker who agreed to use his knowledge of the organisation and network of contacts to provide the new employee with names of industry and process practitioners within the organisation. Once pointed in the right direction the consultant was able to directly contact them and benefit from their tacit and explicit knowledge. As a result he was able to produce a higher quality proposal that won the client’s business.
Knowledge brokers provide a valuable service to organisations by ensuring that knowledge is shared within the context it was originally intended by directly connecting people to people. For example accessing documents without the benefit of an explanation by its authors risks taking information out of context tainting the quality of the final product. Furthermore as mentioned earlier experience insights and other types of tacit knowledge are difficult to document but more readily shared through face-to-face contact. Often the only way to derive benefit from what others know is to have a conversation with them either in person by telephone or even by e-mail. In large organisations brokers make the initial introductions in order to make these critical interactions happen.
Many people question what drives knowledge brokers to sacrifice their time to connect people to one another especially if it is not part of their formal job. In fact most brokers fulfil this role in addition to their ‘official’ duties often in positions unrelated to knowledge management. In many instances knowledge brokers play their role informally without direct compensation or resources (human time technology energy and/or financial) from the organisation. Nevertheless these brokers naturally migrate toward this role as a result of their personal skills and attributes. Brokers are generally responsive and approachable people who are genuinely eager to help others. Thus an extensive network of contacts coupled with a particular type of personality and abilities contribute to what makes a broker successful. Furthermore it is important that brokers are perceived as both trustworthy and credible in order to ensure that the parties being connected to one another share compatible interests.
Companies that are able to identify informal brokers within the organisation can often benefit from formalising the role. By providing these intermediaries with greater exposure more employees can access the broker’s services and the organisation as a whole can realise the benefits of speedier decision making higher quality work shorter learning curves and a reduction in rework and redundancy of effort.
As an international organisation devoted to reducing poverty and improving living standards through sustainable growth and investment in people the World Bank is faced with many challenges. One challenge is ensuring that staff members have quick access to the most current information when doing their jobs. In one case a World Bank operational staff member was assigned to work with newly independent East Timor in reconstructing its education system. Though formerly part of Indonesia East Timor was considering choosing Portuguese as the language of instruction for its education system (Portugal colonised East Timor prior to Indonesia). In order to begin to tackle the challenge of adopting a new language and designing an education programme around it a great deal of research needed to be carried out. Surely someone at the bank must already have experienced helping countries adopt new languages for their educational systems. Perhaps some projects had even dealt with Portuguese. But how could this knowledge be located? If only this World Bank staff member could access relevant documents on how such endeavours had been managed in the past then perhaps he would be able to help the government and people of East Timor rebuild their education system.
Unsure of where to begin his search the World Bank staff member contacted the bank’s Education Advisory Service (EAS). The staff of the EAS consists of knowledge researchers who respond to information requests regarding education from over 250 World Bank professionals from around the world. Knowledge researchers search retrieve and transfer knowledge that is in explicit or codified form. At the World Bank people turn to knowledge researchers for help in tracking down sources of explicit knowledge and information that are both inside and outside of the organisation.
The EAS is an example of a group of knowledge researchers who generally search retrieve and transfer knowledge that is in explicit or codified form. People in the workplace turn to knowledge researchers with their direct requests for information. When fulfilling these requests knowledge researchers tap into sources both inside and outside the organisation. Knowledge researchers have evolved beyond the traditional role of corporate librarian into a more proactive knowledge worker who leverages potentially valuable information and knowledge from a variety of sources and distributes it to employees with related interests.
The EAS staff draws upon its repository of ‘knowledge nuggets’ or existing knowledge resources from previously researched queries in addition to tapping into a vast network of contacts. Often the EAS staff will also consult with one of the bank’s many communities of practice for more information. When none of these resources are successful the EAS staff reaches out to regional and country offices or even to external groups. One EAS staff person explained: “We keep extending our reach to try and find where we can locate the answers.” The EAS staff differentiates itself from traditional corporate librarians in that its role is not simply concerned with answering queries. Building a client base creating relationships with potential knowledge sources and educating people on how to use the knowledge base at the World Bank are all important responsibilities of these knowledge researchers.
In this particular case the operational staff person contacted the EAS and requested information on other countries using Portuguese as the language of instruction as well as teaching material samples from those countries. In addition he indicated that he was interested in learning about the process of how ex-colonies revert back to their colonial language. The EAS was able to provide the requestor with the bank’s existing information on this topic. Also through its network the EAS connected the staff member with people with relevant knowledge such as a staff member with a background in language policy development and a member of the bank’s Adult Education Thematic Group or community of practice who had recently visited Mozambique (another ex-colony of Portugal). With the help of the EAS services the World Bank staff member was able to access both tacit and explicit knowledge that he could apply to the rebuilding of East Timor's education system.
The EAS staff members are an example of what is called the hybrid knowledge researcher/broker role. We use the term ‘hybrid’ to refer to cases in which a combination of two different roles is evident. As is often the case the knowledge researchers at the World Bank exhibited some knowledge broker functions and skills. Specifically the EAS staff not only turned to internal explicit knowledge resources but also used its vast network to refer people to one another to ensure that tacit knowledge was also shared.
Other hybrid roles include knowledge stewards/brokers and knowledge stewards/researchers. Because knowledge stewards have high exposure within their organisations these individuals naturally tend to adopt brokering responsibilities over time. For example as knowledge stewards at consulting firms observe and interview project team members in order to collect and codify their best practices stewards develop insight into (for example) ‘who knows what’ within the organisation. Stewards then become a valuable resource for connecting people to one another.
Similarly knowledge stewards often take on some researcher responsibilities by conducting intensive search and retrieval functions. Knowledge stewards develop intimate knowledge of the content and organisation of the firm’s knowledge bases. As these knowledge bases expand knowledge stewards spend more time searching and retrieving stored content. As a result stewards become familiar with the content stored in knowledge repositories as well as with the people who have contributed the content. Stewards thus couple their skills in capturing knowledge with their ability to quickly access it to help people locate the information and knowledge that they require for their projects.
Understanding which role is best for your organisation
The knowledge intermediary roles identified in our study describe distinct functions in an organisation – capturing connecting and searching for knowledge. But how do you know which role is best for your organisation? The first step in identifying the most appropriate role is to think about your business problem. What type of knowledge does your organisation needs to leverage (i.e. tacit versus explicit knowledge)? For instance if your organisation is comprised of mostly highly specialised subject matter experts then a steward or broker role is most appropriate for leveraging these experts’ tacit knowledge. But how do you know if you need a steward or a broker?
The second step is to consider how promptly this knowledge is needed. If this tacit knowledge is needed quickly and there is no time for investing in capturing the tacit knowledge then a broker role is most appropriate for making those person-to-person contacts happen immediately. On the other hand in some organisations where turnover rates are high capturing employees’ tacit knowledge with the help of knowledge stewards is a more effective long-term approach.
Knowledge researchers are best when the organisation needs to leverage explicit knowledge from both inside and outside the company. Through their skills at searching retrieving and transferring knowledge researchers provide the most relevant information when people need it. Of course hybrid roles address situations in which organisations face multiple and overlapping knowledge needs.
With an understanding of each of these knowledge roles as well as their application in real-business settings organisations can effectively balance and sustain their KM programmes. Knowledge intermediaries provide value to organisations in a number of ways including reducing rework and redundancy of effort decreasing the time employees spend looking for information and enabling faster decision making. For KM programmes to mature the appropriate people and functions must be strategically designed and implemented. Adding this support to your KM programme will not only help people do their jobs better but also provide great value to your organisation.
Lisa Sasson is an associate consultant with the Institute for Knowledge Management (IKM) in Cambridge MA. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Joyce Sharon is an associate consultant with the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management (IKM) in Cambridge MA. She can be contacted at: email@example.com