Are You Obsolete or Mission Critical?

Given the state of the economy, it’s wise to ask yourself from time to time if you are closer to obsolete than mission critical.  As you think about your answer to that question, I’d recommend that you take a look at Rick Mans’ post, Should Knowledge Managers Look for a New Job, and the accompanying comments.  The message that comes through is that in an Enterprise 2.0 world there won’t be much of a need for knowledge managers who act as gatekeepers (i.e., deciding what information is worthy of collecting or sharing) or archivists (i.e., collecting and organizing information in a central repository in accordance with a strict taxonomy).  Rather, knowledge managers who wish to remain employed will need to morph into facilitators who help people work with new collaboration tools, comply with community-derived tagging guidelines, and share information.  While I agree with the general thrust of Rick’s post and the accompanying comments, I fear that the implied time horizon is too short.

Why too short?  I suspect that in the long-term organizations are going to be increasingly reluctant to fund large groups of knowledge managers to do work that should be done by front line knowledge workers.  Instead, employers are going to expect that every knowledge worker has at least minimum competence in personal knowledge management.  Accordingly, knowledge managers will move into personal knowledge management coaching.  These shifts make economic and practical sense.  For too long, knowledge workers have been outsourcing their KM responsibilities to centralized KM departments.  The distance between the KM department and the front line often results in central data repositories that tend to reflect management’s view of what’s important rather than the shifting concerns and interests of front line knowledge workers who actually have to use the information collected.  Unfortunately, as Dave Pollard aptly points out, management itself is often too far removed from the front line to understand what the front line knowledge worker truly needs.  The problem is compounded if the knowledge managers don’t have subject matter expertise.  Without the experience of walking in the shoes of the front line workers they are supposed to be supporting, their decisions about what’s important to collect and how to organize it or what collaborative tools to provide will largely be based on hearsay.

Further, the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to information management has disregarded the fact that our centralized collections rarely fit many.  Research reported by the Wharton School of Business found that a focus on knowledge capture didn’t always yield the desired benefits and sometimes incurred some painful costs:

We find that using codified knowledge in the form of electronic documents saved time during the task, but did not improve work quality or signal competence to clients, whereas in contrast, sharing personal advice improved work quality and signaled competence, but did not save time….  This is interesting because managers often believe that capturing and sharing knowledge via document databases can substitute for getting personal advice, and that sharing advice through personal networks can save time.

Partly in response to this research, Harold Jarche has suggested that it’s past time that we moved beyond “central digital repositories.”  Instead, we should focus on enabling what he calls a “parallel system” to support knowledge workers in those many instances in which the central repository proves inadequate.  What would that parallel system look like?  Here are his suggestions:

  • Develop measures that can help experienced knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge. [This is personal KM.]
  • Support the sharing of information and expertise between knowledge workers, on their terms, using personalized knowledge management methods & tools.
  • Keep only essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers, in the organizational knowledge base – keep it simple.

So what might a future knowledge manager spend their time doing?  Primarily, coaching individual knowledge workers to become effective personal knowledge managers and online collaborators. Secondarily, creating systems that facilitate collaboration and allow passive sharing of the results of these individual personal KM efforts.  This mission critical approach puts knowledge management where it belongs — on the front lines and in the hands of the the knowledge workers who can use the information shared to strengthen networks and produce revenue.

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Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in learning more about Personal Knowledge Management and the possible future direction of KM:

[Photo Credit:  Kimberly Faye]

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11 thoughts on “Are You Obsolete or Mission Critical?

  • July 10, 2009 at 9:32 am
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    Outstanding post Mary. I have been focusing on personal knowledge management (initially for partners) and enabling knowledge-sharing through set-up and championing tools like blogs and wikis for much of the past year and find that making the front-line workers work better in these ways is much more effective and adds more value than my personal efforts to create pools of content.

    Where I need to move next with these is to try to measure and quantify the positive effects that these shifts have had, as Cisco has done with their collaboration effort. I find it personally rewarding when someone finds that an existing tool they didn't know about fits their needs or helps them collaborate, but it's harder to judge the improvement their than it is to track uses of a particular piece of precedent or visits to a useful resource on civil procedure that I set up.

  • July 10, 2009 at 9:45 am
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    Thanks, David. It's great to hear success stories like yours. Davenport & Prusak told us years ago that the secret to KM was helping each knowledge worker manage their own knowledge, but we've been ignoring them for years and insisting on centralized “solutions.”

    On the issue of metrics, I suspect that you'll be relying on anecdote in the first instance. However, if you can build tools that allow you to aggregate or skim the cream off the top of individual collections, you'll be able to show the growth of something impressive. And, it will be quantifiable.

    Good luck!

    – Mary

  • July 10, 2009 at 10:16 am
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    This is THE most balanced piece on KM and E2.0 that I've ever seen. Thanks so much. Will refer liberally.

  • July 10, 2009 at 10:46 am
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    Thanks for the tip on PKM. I'd never heard that term before but I need to think about it extensively now. I have been running personal wikis and other repositories for 2-3 years now just to help myself out at work. It would be neat if other people had that option.

  • July 10, 2009 at 12:27 pm
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    Thanks for your kind words, Paula. I'm looking forward to further conversation on this.

    – Mary

  • July 10, 2009 at 12:28 pm
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    Daniel –

    It sounds like you're a natural when it comes to personal knowledge management. Are there others in your department or organization? Is this something you all could leverage in a coordinated fashion? If you can, you should find productivity increasing significantly.

    – Mary

  • July 13, 2009 at 11:03 am
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    I always ask our clients the question: “What is the value of knowledge that is never used?” Easy answer: “Zero” But knowledge is not enough. I have found that there is always plenty of knowledge around but very few people with the wisdom of how to use that knowledge effectively in the workplace.

    The key to getting people engaged in organizations is to get them to understand the wisdom of the top performers of how to best use knowledge to be consistently successful. It took us several years to figure out how to quickly capture this wisdom from any group of top performers and it took several more years to fine tune a method of getting others to engage with that expert wisdom and knowledge.

    It was absolutely refreshing to read your findings and assessment of the need for management commitment and a combination of personal interaction with the best data to bring about positive change. Thanks.

  • July 14, 2009 at 10:11 pm
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    Thanks very much, Rick.

    Over the years, I've moved from puzzling about capture to puzzling about engagement. It seems to me that if we can promote engagement, then that can continue in a self-perpetuating manner without the overhead of a large staff. By contrast, capture often requires intervention and, consequently, staffing. In these lean economic times, it may be difficult to justify this staffing.

    – Mary

  • July 15, 2009 at 2:11 am
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    Thanks very much, Rick.

    Over the years, I've moved from puzzling about capture to puzzling about engagement. It seems to me that if we can promote engagement, then that can continue in a self-perpetuating manner without the overhead of a large staff. By contrast, capture often requires intervention and, consequently, staffing. In these lean economic times, it may be difficult to justify this staffing.

    – Mary

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