Knowledge Management is an Immigration Experience

Passport 1Forty years ago today, my parents packed up their children and every material possession they had to move to the other side of the world.  In retrospect, I can only marvel at the bravery involved in taking that step.  With that move they had to start all over again —  in a culture and climate that were very foreign to them, far from the comforts of family and home.

Since that time, I’ve moved to and lived in two other countries. The first one was to pursue an educational opportunity, the second one was to pursue an professional opportunity.  Unlike my parents, each of my moves involved countries that on paper shared a great deal.  Nonetheless, after each move I discovered that the local culture was quite different from the one I left.  As a result, I had to learn new ways of being and acting.  Most surprisingly, even though each of these countries was English-speaking, I soon found that I had to learn a distinctly new vocabulary and way of speaking in order to communicate.

When I made the move from client-facing lawyer to lawyer-facing knowledge manager, I found myself in yet another immigrant experience.  Suddenly I was faced with the need to analyze and understand the organizational culture around me in a new way so that I could maximize my effectiveness in my new role.  This involved an anthropological exercise that I return to often in  order to be aware of the changes in the culture around me.  Interestingly, even though I’ve been with the same organization for twenty years, I’ve found it very useful to keep the mindset of an immigrant in order to perceive cultural shifts as they occur.

Knowledge managers often find themselves in a particular organizational world, but not of that world.  While this can mean initial frustration as you struggle to learn the folkways of the organization’s culture, that distance can be hugely helpful when you try to understand objectively how the people around you work and succeed.  Learning to observe the signs, find and pull the cultural triggers, and, ultimately, shift the organization into a more knowledge-sharing culture are critical to a knowledge manager’s success.

Without a doubt, immigration is a challenging experience.  For knowledge managers, I’d argue that it is a necessary experience that helps develop a sense of inquiry and understanding.  So don’t get too comfortable — there’s too much to learn.

[Photo Credit: Craig James]

2 thoughts on “Knowledge Management is an Immigration Experience

  1. Mary, immediately after my call to the bar, I packed my bags and left for Paris, where I studied law for two years at the Sorbonne and then practised with a French firm for a further two years before coming back home. I had never thought, before reading your post today, that that experience may have prepared me for my career in KM. Thanks for the insight!Cheers,John

    1. Thanks, John. The experience of being a newcomer, an outsider, can be hugely helpful in developing listening skills, powers of observation and empathy. I'd argue that all three are critical for good KM.

      – Mary


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