posted 26 Oct 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 3
The knowledge: Melissie Rumizen
Renowned for her work as knowledge strategist at Buckman Laboratories, Melissie Rumizen has been instrumental in transforming theory into pioneering practice and is happy to share the lessons she has learnt along the way. She speaks to Rebecca Cavalôt about facilitating cultural change and nurturing the individual, and offers her personal take on the future of KM.
The Idiot’s Guide to Knowledge Management was my own official introduction to the world of KM and Melissie Rumizen’s offering can be found on the bookshelf of any self-respecting knowledge practitioner. The straight-talking style of the prose was a welcome surprise and, as anticipated, meeting the woman who took the jargon out of KM literature proved to be an insightful experience. Rumizen is not someone who minces words: “Our field has gurus, stars, practitioners, rabble rousers, novices and even frauds galore,” she says. She describes herself however, as a “knowledge curmudgeon” – someone who is stubbornly and determinedly grounded in the practical when it comes to knowledge. In Rumizen’s eyes, theory is only interesting when it is applied to work.
Rumizen’s no-nonsense attitude to KM can be traced back through her working life. After ten years in the US army, as linguist, platoon sergeant and, finally, an education specialist, Rumizen moved to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) language-testing branch. She eventually ended up in the total-quality-management office, where she introduced benchmarking to the NSA. “I was intrigued by the techniques other organisations were using to share and leverage knowledge organisationally,” says Rumizen. This curiosity led to her into the formal world of knowledge management when, in 1995, Rumizen attended a conference on KM. What she experienced there convinced her that KM was essential to the NSA’s future success. Following an intense campaign to bring the discipline into the agency, in 1997 Rumizen won the struggle to introduce KM processes into the agency’s business strategy. She threw herself into implementing KM at the NSA, but her journey had only just begun.
In 1998, a Buckman Laboratories (BL) associate invited Rumizen and some of her NSA colleagues to visit. “At the end of the day, I stood in the lobby, looked around and refused to go home.” Bob Buckman, the CEO, hired her on the spot. Now knowledge strategist, Rumizen’s duties include assessing capabilities, identifying knowledge gaps and taking action to remedy any short comings. Combining the ability to think strategically with an ability to implement tactically is the secret of her success at BL, Rumizen says. She believes her diverse background has been invaluable to her role and she has often found herself on the podium as the face of Buckman’s KM efforts. She is both proud and passionate when talking about BL’s pioneering attitude to the discipline. “In 1992 we started our first formal effort in communities of practice, long before most even knew the term,” she says. Rumizen is animated when discussing Buckman Laboratories’ milestones, citing developing business processes based upon the knowledge needed to work with customers as a worthy contribution to the field. Other Buckman ‘best bits’ include creating a support infrastructure for team building and the work around centres of excellence now blossoming at the organisation. Rumizen has personally nurtured these initiatives and is harvesting the fruits of her labours at BL on a daily basis.
Rumizen’s greatest sense of achievement stems from her adaptation and implementation of the after-action review (AAR). She describes the Buckman Laboratories she initially joined as an organisation with a “fireman’s culture” – dashing to the scene, putting out the blaze then rushing, sirens blaring, on to the next challenge. Rumizen was witness to a change in behaviour as BL began to incorporate reflective processes into its daily work. She saw an opportunity and, true to form, seized upon it. “After some fierce initial resistance the AAR spread like wildfire,” she says. “I am most proud of how our creative people at Buckman have adopted the AAR for a variety of uses.” The AAR is now an integral part of the way BL does business. Rumizen is delighted to have been part of a turning a non-reflective culture into one that is continuously learning.
“Keep learning” is Rumizen’s mantra – there is always plenty to learn and she is comfortable taking her own advice. “I’m a sponge,” she says. “I like to soak up ideas and processes to stick on a back shelf, hoping for a day when I can use them.” Theorists and practitioners that have shaped her beliefs and work over the years include Verna Allee, Karl-Erik Sveiby and of course, Bob Buckman. But she is most impressed by practitioners who turn theory into action, citing the group that developed the cognitive and effective taxonomies for education as practical pioneers. Rumizen is not afraid to endorse technology in KM – she sees it as a critical enabler. She is, however, quick to point out that it has its place. “It is the servant, not that master,” she says.
Like those she admires, Rumizen is a great believer in getting things done and is refreshingly honest about practical mistakes she has made. When developing a community of facilitation at BL she attempted to create a culture where open, free-flowing discussion was the order of the day. It was a brave leap into a cultural unknown and Rumizen discovered that some employees found this new tack difficult to digest. If she could do it again, Rumizen believes she would put more focus on addressing these difficulties. “We should have shared our lessons learnt more broadly with team owners, leaders and members in a systematic fashion,” she reflects.
Positioning the individual at the heart of a KM initiative is essential to Rumizen – she is a great believer in changing the way people work. “Target specific behaviours and help change them,” she says. She encourages linking work practices to organisational strategy, thereby creating solid foundations upon which both senior managers and employees can begin to build a knowledge-sharing culture. Rumizen advocates motivating and encouraging each individual knowledge worker. “You have to make what you offer worth their while,” she says. “It is difficult enough for workers to find time for additional tasks.” According to Rumizen, workers need constant care and attention in order to keep knowledge flowing effectively.
Keeping knowledge moving within an organisation is the focus of many KM initiatives. The evolution of the communities of practice (CoP) phenomenon is something that Rumizen champions. She believes that CoPs add a new dimension to organisational structure. Although she applauds the continuing emergence of new approaches such as complexity, storytelling and social-network analysis (SNA), she still sees gaps in the KM field and warns of the difficulties in helping people wade through the huge volumes of information that stem from intense research. Rumizen also has concerns about how to develop and use customer knowledge. She worries about drowning in data before knowledge workers have had the opportunity to put their extensive learnings into practice.
Organisations continue to face an uphill struggle and Rumizen is aware that the global economy is only adding to the pressures companies face. “A global organisational structure has forced us to collaborate across boundaries, which is difficult due to differences in both time and culture,” says Rumizen. In order to keep afloat internationally, she believes that organisations must create an ecology that promotes knowledge creation, sharing and leveraging. Easier said than done. But then, as Rumizen says, KM doesn’t have all the answers. “All too often we hold out for the Holy Grail of the perfect KM strategy,” she says. In any organisation, there are a number of potential strategies. Rumizen advises simply picking the ones that make the most sense to the individual organisation and the resources it boasts. There are no guarantees – the best we can do is ensure that the strategy-based choices we make are as informed as possible. Rumizen believes there are many critical success factors to any KM effort. “Many believe that all you have to do to be able to succeed is attain the support of the CEO,” she gripes. “Hogwash, pure and simple.”
To succeed in the future, Rumizen believes KM advocates need to continue to explore the informal means and structures for collaboration through communities and SNA. She is very aware of the impact of demographics upon the KM arena. “In a number of countries, the baby boomers retiring fuels the need for knowledge transfer and retention,” she says. Organisations need to act quickly.
Rumizen herself has a way with words beyond her linguistic background. Her outspoken nature has made her an admired figure in KM circles worldwide. Her love of travel enables her to spread her version of the KM word. Her own personal knowledge, bred of extensive experience and self-teaching, makes Rumizen a force to be reckoned with. The good thing is, she’s on our side. “I’m interested in ensuring that people have what they know to do their jobs,” she says. From my own experience, I can say that with Rumizen’s support, even former knowledge idiots like myself can be guided towards an understanding that individual knowledge is the foundation for sustained business success.