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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