As with many roles that those with LIS qualifications find themselves in, Knowledge Management is not something that you can say you work in and not expect a couple of follow up questions. Unfortunately I still find myself getting tongue tied at this and not sure how much detail to bestow upon the the curious relative or friend. My simple answer is that I work on improving the way that people create, save and share their knowledge. In terms of defining what exactly constitutes this knowledge, I still don’t have a snappy answer. My personal interest is in the type of tacit knowledge that is shared and built on when people are better connected and can collaborate on projects together. However as I work within an IT department, I fall back on clumsy explanations about IT systems and access to information, and sometimes feel that I use technical terms just to confuse the well meaning inquisitor and hope they will now leave me alone. Of course comprehensive knowledge management requires both the person and the systems focus, balanced to ensure both functionality and usability. This then begs the question, who should lead a Knowledge Management initiative within an organisation?
Before starting my current role I came across this Reboot post which really framed my thinking around what exactly KM is and in particular how it relates to development organisations: Knowledge Management based on people not processes. I am completely swayed by the argument that KM should be less about knowledge accumulation, and more about knowledge sharing. This requires high levels of facilitation. For this approach to be successful a lot of resources are needed, in addition to the understanding and support of key stakeholders throughout the organisation.
Looking at KM system providers, they might make you think that just having the right IT in place will solve all Knowledge problems. Many vendors are focused on retrieving quick results and are very corporate focused, not prioritising the relationship building and human process involved in KM. Interestingly, CIO.com states straight out that KM initiatives should not be lead by the CIO. Good IT systems are certainly very important for supporting KM initiatives, so having someone in IT who fully understands the value and needs of a KM system is useful in the building or maintenance of the tools to be used.
An element of KM that I have been very interested in evaluating and supporting is knowledge sharing via our internal enterprise network, Yammer. This fits with the approach that we should focus on people and foster relationships, especially when the organisation works from multiple locations. It can also be a place to share knowledge products, but is an enterprise or social network enough to encapsulate all of the organisation’s knowledge? A social network for knowledge sharing can be messy, but it allows for greater creativity and can be driven by purpose. To capture this free-flow of knowledge there still needs to be an element of management, and maybe a more structured layer alongside or above the social.
It is increasingly clear to me that improving KM really needs a multi-pronged approach if it is going to be highly effective. This then would require a lot of nurturing over time, and cannot be seen as just an add-on to another person’s role. From all that I have read and experienced, it would seem that one system, one initiative, or one overarching strategy is not quite enough. It might improve some things for some people, but what is most effective to gradually shifting towards a culture change within an organisation. Making small changes and supporting staff with their information needs as they arise could be crucial. With many organisations faced with big change plans and initiatives, introducing yet another initiative, particularly one as slippery as KM, is probably a recipe for rejection.
For this culture to permeate all areas, the KM initiatives need to be embraced by all areas. With IT taking the lead, will others in an organisation follow? Traditionally, IT departments provide a service to an organisation – for a culture to be embraced, does it need to be led from a more influential department, and certainly by more senior staff than an intern or fixed-term contract employee?
David Gurteen writes:
“The most effective way to create a knowledge sharing culture – is first to start to practice it at your level. The higher up the organisation the more effective you will be in changing the culture but even if you are low down the hierarchy – you have an influence. Second, put in place the knowledge sharing technology and train and educate people in its effective use.”
I’m not sure if I agree that you can have much influence if you are low down the hierarchy. The training and educating I can get on board with.
If training and participation requirements are to be introduced, then there is possibly a need for HR to be involved in engaging employees. If loss of knowledge is seen as a risk to a particular department then it would be useful for that department to identify the particular areas of knowledge they need to capture and retain. By adopting KM practices this department may then lead by example. An overwhelming agreement exists in the research that staff’s willingness to engage in KM is dependent on the involvement of senior management in initiatives. Whilst staff must learn from each other and share knowledge horizontally, support and encouragement for this activity really needs to be demonstrated from the top.
So, if a balance between understanding both people and systems is needed for successful Knowledge Management initiatives it is clear why library and information professionals are ideally suited to carrying out this work. But where this LIS professional should be positioned within the organisation, who they should be supported by, and what place they lead the initiative from can be less clear.