posted 5 Jun 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 9
Masterclass - Part one
For beginners: developing a knowledge management strategy
A knowledge manager uses first hand experience to help first-time knowledge leaders establish a KM programme.
By Maria Paola Andreoni
First, you should know where I am coming from. I am a knowledge manager and have worked in the profession since 1999. However, my belief that the power of getting the best information to the frontline so the right decisions are made dates back to my first experiences in customer service.
Because strategy is a way to take you to expected results, I – like everyone else – strategise informally a lot of the time. In terms of formal strategies, I have been involved in three of them. One was my personal attempt to sell a knowledge management (KM) concept to an operations manager who was not interested. The second was an information management strategy for a small consultancy. The last one, which I am still in the process of refining, is the biggest and most ambitious – an organisational strategy for a mid-sized, international organisation with more than 40 offices across the world, most of which are in developing countries. VSO – Voluntary Service Overseas – is an international development agency that works through volunteers.
VSO, as an organisation, is all about knowledge, its motto being ‘Sharing skills, changing lives’. It is definitely committed to learning, trial and error and improvement. In that spirit, I will discuss what I have learned in the 18 months that I have spent working on the KM strategy and implementation.
What is a KM strategy?
Why a strategy?
In the KM programme that was created prior to my joining, I could not see a direction that would help me keep the whole collection of projects going together. Existing initiatives were about ‘generally useful stuff’ that would lead to results that are ‘generally accepted as useful’. Among those was an intranet to connect international staff, allowing everyone to participate, and a collection of best practices from peer organisations. I did not perceive more than a generic connection with the organisational strategy and doubted other stakeholders would see anything more in it.
Gap between information and knowledge.
Addressing the gap between the information and knowledge, my definition of knowledge is centred on the person. Knowledge is the result of an individual’s experiential interaction with the world. It is the way people interpret data and information – based on their understanding of the context – to take effective action in a particular situation. Strictly speaking, you would not be able to ‘manage’ knowledge.
Data and information come from all sorts of sources and an organisation has but limited control on what information the individual employees receive. The knowledge synthesis takes place in the mind of the individual who needs to make a decision. So, there is scope for the organisation to intervene by supporting how the employees understand the context and therefore interpret data and information.
What I’ve described makes me a believer in the systemic view of the organisation, and in the fact that KM draws from principles from a number of technical and social disciplines in order to understand how people make the right decisions or why they do not.
Understanding what is necessary in terms of culture and infrastructure so communication and training produce more sustainable effects, and information is interpreted in a way that is beneficial to what the organisation wants to achieve;
Finding where knowledge lies in the organisation and understanding how it can be released to achieve business objectives;
Creating a learning environment where the stakeholders are enabled to share relevant, context-rich information so that everyone can perform more effectively in their roles.
Defining a KM strategy
Identification of business drivers
KM exists to deliver the business strategy in a smarter way and it should not be conceived as an ‘organisational objective’ in itself. This happens especially when the uncomfortable ‘K-word’ is something that the organisation perceives it should employ because ‘it is necessary to manage knowledge’ – whatever knowledge means. Or it may happen when KM is meant to be a ready-made solution to an immediate business challenge.
I have seen my area in the business objectives defined in exactly that way. All other departments’ objectives are described as delivering a specific benefit to the business (i.e., reduce cost of sending a single volunteer overseas so that more can be sent, increasing the volume of our contribution) while my objectives have been subsumed under a generic heading ‘KM programme’. Frustrating, but not uncommon. An ex-colleague of mine, from a consultancy firm, told me this anecdote: After investing massively in knowledge management for 10 years and achieving a status for the quality of their systems, she was suddenly asked by her boss: 'Do we actually need KM?'
Especially in times where cost reduction is high priority, this perception may lead to dire consequences for the KM department, so it is fundamental to link its strategy to the achievement of very real and measurable business objectives.
What about VSO, then? For example, in our sector, staff turnover is a hot topic and with it the risk of the loss of competence and the struggle to get new employees up to speed in the shortest time possible. Perception of complexity is another issue which derives from the context in which we work – freeing the world from poverty is a never-ending, multifaceted task; there is always something else to consider, e.g., some unexpected impact or newly developing factors that contribute to creating poverty such as HIV in recent decades.
In this context, some of the real benefits KM may deliver are related to:
Easier inductions: New employees can ‘find their way around’ more easily as information is managed more tightly. For example, they receive an induction training and welcome pack when they join and there is a clear way of identifying and storing information.
Mitigation of loss of organisational competence when someone leaves: Some of the knowledge developed as the organisation goes about its business is formalised and archiving meeting minutes or introducing ‘after action reviews’ to summarise achievement and obstacles within a project.
Working with stakeholders
The KM department will not be able to achieve any of its objectives in isolation. There is the need to collaborate at least with IT and the Human Resources / Organisational Development department to create a coherent infrastructure where the different activities, processes and technologies support each other rather than putting pressure on the employee with their sometimes contradictory demands, as in the following example:
Imagine that communicating with colleagues in developing countries is a substantial part of your day-by-day job (business need, knowledge-related). The organisation for some reason is failing to provide you with means to achieve the business need, typically a good telephone connection to a specific country. You are ingenious and find a solution yourself, for example using an internet-based phone. Then you find out that that software is not compliant with the organisation’s IT security policies. What will you do?
KM in VSO – as their equivalent in other international development organisations –has highlighted this issue of contradictory demands and we are still working on achieving a risk assessment supported by training and clear policy to solve this problem. Our plan is to mediate among IT, facilities, business functions and budget holders, and link into communications and the training department.
Smarter, not more
KM means doing things in a smarter way, not doing more things (KM should not be retrofitted to the business).
As a result of collaborations as the ones cited above, users would be able to do what they do already in a smarter way.
A wise colleague from a scientific organisation decided on an altogether label-less approach to KM through what he called “knowledge-enriched services”. Being responsible for both IT and quality assurance he is in the best position to do that.
This prevents any negative, off-putting associations in the mind of internal clients related to KM as being one more onerous activity to take care of. Besides, KM can be seen sometimes as a very theoretical discipline, too difficult to understand to possibly deliver any results, or as a very presumptuous one (the title I was given of “international knowledge manager”, for example, is considered a grandiose one by some colleagues) or as scary (for those who still think hoarding their knowledge is a way to power) or all of the three together.
My experience is that you do not need to have a complete strategy straight away, especially as you need to develop an understanding of the stakeholders, their objectives, their constraints, and how knowledge management can connect into those to create ‘knowledge-enriched services’ for
the organisation and deliver on the business objectives.
However, you do need to have a vision that can be communicated clearly. The vision needs to make sense for the stakeholders and justify what you are trying to achieve. After all – I learnt from my first attempt to sell a knowledge strategy without touching
on the right spots—if the budget holder is not able to visualize a ROI or the stakeholders do not see what is in it for them, then there is no chance for success.
KM’s vision statement for VSO is the following:
VSO is one and international: KM will align behind VSO’s global vision and values, thinking internationally and partnering with our stakeholders worldwide for their local perspective.
KM will support the creation of clear information and clear sharing flows, enabled by technology where appropriate, in order to simplify the perception of complexity and therefore improving learning and accountability.
KM will support collaboration across the organisation, devising the knowledge sharing infrastructure to connect with the whole VSO structure, and working as knowledge brokers to empower the VSO community to take the right decisions.
The vision statement is there for all to keep an eye on the bigger picture and not be bogged down by details.
Without the vision statement I would have found a daunting prospect when I realised I had to manage a team with a history of library work and transform them into knowledge managers, coordinate an international working group, improve internal communications, and to plan, coordinate, implement and review projects for the delivery of the strategy.
Ambitious demands are fairly common in KM – after all, knowledge is an encompassing concept and KM may overlap with quite a few other support functions, such as Organisational Development, IT, Communications, and organisational initiatives such as quality control, business process re-engineering or auditing, to name a few. Some organisations that are all about knowledge, i.e., research organisations or education institutions, find it particularly difficult to draw a line between business unit and support function. And VSO has some of these traits.
Assessment of the ‘as-is’
A KM strategy depends on what either you or your organisation thinks knowledge is, and in the context and culture of the organisation for which you are making the strategy.
KM strategy addresses the organisation from a very specific context and culture, subject to often specific assumptions. In VSO’s case, for example, KM sat within IT at the time I joined the organisation, and I was required to be involved for almost one year in delivering an intranet tool, hoping to get a fairly ‘quick win’.
With hindsight, I should have dedicated more of my time to core KM activities rather than their IT implementation. My time would have been better spent making explicit what knowledge is for VSO instead of assuming it was clear with everyone. I should have spent the time getting to know the culture and context better, besides sharing my vision as widely as possible.
What is knowledge for your organisation?
It has taken me some time in a context where information was audience-focused, and without a prior knowledge of the organisation, to identify what knowledge is for VSO.
I find it useful to think of it in two main categories: ‘thought leadership’ – that is what makes VSO unique as an organisation and ‘operational knowledge’ – which is what makes the day-to-day work possible. I use ‘knowledge’ in an extended meaning for this purpose.
Thought leadership consists in two major types of knowledge – learning (from programmes about the issues and countries we work in and selection and training of volunteers), and operational knowledge which includes staff competence and operational information
Stakeholders have been responding well to this categorisation as it makes clear that in VSO, there is roughly a function to deal with each type of knowledge.
This, in turn, highlights there is room for the KM function to oversee all the work that is going on already and to address any shortcomings in the existing arrangement by acting as brokers and facilitators to make connections.
Being a new function in between more established ones is not as easy as you would like it to be, but there are methodologies that help.
Part two of this masterclass will appear in the July/August issue of IK and will cover the methodologies used during the first year of a new or renewed KM programme.
Maria Paola Andreoni is international knowledge manager for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). She will speak on knowledge strategy for beginners at Ark Group's Knowledge & Content UK event, 25-26 June,