Knowledge Management

I actually spent some time doing my “real job” yesterday – that is, instead of just job hunting I actually did some work for which I will get paid.

This, and a few conversations in a closed circle of professional acquaintances, led me to realize I’ve got an opportunity to pontificate – sorry, a subject for today’s blog post.

I’ve said in several places that in a lot of ways, the modern buzzword (buzzphrase?) of “knowledge management” is not really that different from its predecessor “information management.” That’s… not completely true. Mostly true, but only because the better practitioners of the latter did things that are now the common provenance of the former.

Oh, now that was clear, wasn’t it? Let’s try again, being (I hope) just a tiny bit more detailed while avoiding jargon.

Simply speaking, information is bits and pieces of trivia, of fact and assumption, of what in the field is called “data”, that has been organized. In other words it is grouped so that common data is together, it’s linked so you can find related information that isn’t common but has some connection. It’s tagged so you can find what you’re trying to find and only (or at least mostly) what you need to find. There are a host of tools and processes that started in the era that preceded the telephone and run up through modern database and network structures.

Because my background is libraries, and because most non-practitioners actually have a decent idea of how libraries work, I usually use the library as analogy. Data is the books. (Yes, I could stretch further and say it’s the words, but I don’t need to go that far.) Information is when we put the books on the shelves with some sort of organization system, and when we create a tool (the catalog) that allows us to know ‘this’ group is history and ‘that’ group is literature and further allows us to find things for both when we want to know the context of Shakespeare’s writings.

For a lot of information specialists, that was the goal. Make the information as accessible as possible, make as many avenues as possible to find the information, and let the user decide what he needs when he needs it.

For a small group, however, it wasn’t enough. There were basically two flaws, both of which become the essential differences of knowledge management.

The first flaw is the assumption the user knows he needs the information, or at least knows to some extent what information he needs. Returning to the library analogy, to a small extent this is what librarians called the purpose of the reference interview. “Hi, I need a book” it starts, and then a series of questions, both open and leading, help the reference librarian know what resources (not necessarily books) the user actually needs. The problem is that the user had to realize he needed a book.

The much abused buzzword here is “proactive.” Part of the knowledge manager’s business is helping the user realize he needs a book. The solutions… no, let’s look at the second flaw, because interestingly the solutions tend to work for both.

The second flaw is the assumption that all the data can be organized, can be made into stored information. The jargon here is “tacit knowledge”. It’s the stuff between the ears of the other guy to which you don’t (normally) have access; Information you may not even know exists.

The solutions broadly fall into the umbrella of communication. Not just pronouncements — in fact, getting away from pronouncements from on high and getting actual communication. Just as, and in many cases more, important are the tools and processes to get people to actually use the communications.

And that’s actually some of the hardest part of it all. I mean, let’s consider the guy who is an outstanding salesperson. The company’s had some layoffs in the past but he’s been safe because of his output. Now here you come and you want him to share all his tricks and techniques and other things he knows – his ‘tacit knowledge’ – so other salesmen can do as well as he does. So… what does he get to ensure doing this won’t make him suddenly vulnerable to cuts in the next drawdown? After all, if he doesn’t have special knowledge…? Yes, there are answers to that but you get the principle.

The other hard part is an unfortunately typical problem of restricted flow. Only accounting needs to know accounting, only sales needs sales, only purchasing needs purchasing, you get the idea. Another version is of bosses pontificating instead of communicating and subordinates reacting instead of anticipating. Or of ‘the only people who need to do this are management and above’, or its reflection of ‘only the people of site management and below’.

Now as I said, the communication issue has been around for a long time though there are some new tools and techniques that better help to resolve. However, where knowledge management extends it is not just in enhancing the communication processes but in tying that communications process to existing information management principles.

You can’t “organize” knowledge – can’t collate and inventory and arrange various means of access. At least you can’t do so directly. But what you can do is what I think of as doing it by proxy. I can’t tag Joe’s knowledge, but I can ‘tag’ Joe and what Joe says and does.

The ultimate goal of knowledge management is that every person in the organization gets all and only the information they need for an action in both timely and usable fashion. And in all those (all, only, timely, usable) it’s per THEIR need, not what someone else thinks they need.

It’s complex. To me it’s as much art as science, and it is no way a ‘one size fits all’ process. And I got to do some of it yesterday. If it worked as it should I should be busy in a few days for a couple of weeks, and the company will be the better for it.

I just thought I’d share some of what I do. Besides, it let me fill another post (grin).

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