Category Archives: People

Knowledge brokering

In response to a post about knowledge brokering by Richard Vines on the ACT-KM listserv, I thought I should also share my comments here.

Before knowledge management came along and gained some traction as a discipline (or at least, a particular kind of management approach) we had libraries where information was provided, some of which was used to solve business problems and improve decision-making. While this form of explicit knowledge transfer was usually one way, in smaller special libraries inside organisations (especially corporate institutions), there were opportunities to harness tacit knowledge through knowledge brokering (even if at the time we weren’t calling this a knowledge broker role).

In my experience in working in special libraries in international banks in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, it was indeed one of my key (implicit) roles to act as a knowledge broker within the organisation. The reason was that it was my job to help people solve problems and improve decisions through providing information and knowledge. And even back then, some of us realised that books and journals and newspaper clippings weren’t the stuff of real competitive advantage – human capital was.

My knowledge broker experience sought to match up those with the right knowledge at the right time to those who needed it. In many cases, this brokering role became an addition to the basic information search, analyse, and deliver role I was already playing. The matching was often serendipitous, often opportunistic, and had relatively poor scaleability en masse. However, it did require me to build relationships and trust, while at the same time demonstrating keen awareness for what people were working on and what interested them. In this sense, the knowledge brokering was highly personal.

Nevertheless, knowledge brokering in these contexts of the time performed the role of matching existing tacit knowledge within the organistion to those individuals where it was needed. At the same time, my knowledge broking role also considered the compliance and “Chinese-Walls” issues so important within investment banking.

Finally, I must say that the opportunities arose because the “library” was regarded as being “neutral” and thereby had the ability to leverage trust, conversation and multiple interactions from which knowledge brokering was possible.

The bottom line, however, was in making conversation and establishing people connections; something that knowledge management still strives to reproduce (with more scale) today.


On the telephone

I have just been speaking with Matt Moore on the telephone. It was good to chat since Matt and I used to spend a lot of time chatting in a coffee shop just off Pitt Street in Sydney. Now that I am in Canberra, that opportunity is no more.

Strange as it might seem, I have somehow managed to only think of communicating directly with Matt at that particular coffee shop off Pitt Street. So it was refreshing to get an email from Matt on Monday where we organised a time to have a chat by telephone (and telephone it was, not Skype) this evening.

When we were talking, I could almost smell the coffee!

And now I am thinking how easy it is to become trapped into a single behaviour without even thinking of all the other possibilities – possibilities that are actually easily available and at little or no cost.

Call me a knowledge manager, or what?

On innovative thought and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

During the week I listened to the first series of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy on CD. I have listened to the series hundreds of times before, the first time being the original radio broadcast on 2JJ when I was at school in Sydney. The radio series never fails to make me laugh or wonder at the clever storyline and characterisation.

But this week I also listened to the CD that explained how the original BBC radio series came about. Having listened to the CD a couple of times now, I can see that there are several knowledge management and strategic organisational issues that come across.

The creator, the late Douglas Adams, first had a thought about a hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy one drunken evening lying down in a field looking up at the stars in Innsbruck, Austria in 1970 or 1971. A few years later Adam’s creative, yet eccentric, writing talents and ideas were picked up by a radio show producer at the BBC who could see the innovative and creative talent of this chap Douglas Adams but wasn’t sure how it could be utilised for the best.

They met for lunch, discussed a few ideas, and the first formative writing of a series began. The initial plan was to have a series of single episodes with different stories but with the same ending. However, Adams looked to find a more satisfying and meaningful storyline that became a single series of episodes, continuing from one episode to the next.

Suffice to say, the first episodes were written (often on the fly, as Adams was renowned for his procrastination and late delivery of story content) and the first series completed. And of course, there was the whole production process working to complete a quality radio show – actor selection and voice recordings, taping and editing (using an eight-track tape machine – all pre-computer and digitisation) and the ingenious people from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who created all the sound effects. The radio series and subsequent books were an enormous success.

The point of this summation is this. An idea was born but that circumstances for that idea to become something tangible did not come into play until a few years later. Conditions and circumstances matter. Secondly, an individual with innovative thoughts and imagination is not always recognised or appreciated within the organisation where such an individual works. There needs to be awareness, recognition and vision. Fostering innovative thought needs a supporting environment, and open and attuned decsion-makers so that an idea becomes realised into something more than just a thought. Thirdly, the production of the idea into a tangible product also relies on the existing social and professional networks to bring people into the project in order to deliver a finished output – a number of actors and production people for the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy came on board due to friendships, university contacts, and having worked together on previous projects. Professional and social networks are important in the workplace.

I wonder what would have happened if Douglas Adams’ talents had gone unnoticed and unappreciated at the BBC. Imagine if the BBC hierarchy had simply said that “we don’t do that kind of thinking around here”. Would Adams’ Innsbruck idea ever have become anything more than an idea? Thinking beyond what is considered the norm or the usual is something we need to encourage if we are to fully realise innovative thoughts within organisations.

And in putting the various members of the production team together, could it have worked out as well as it did if not for all the networked connections between people and past associations?

Listening to how the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy came together has highlighted some key thinking that good knowledge management within organisations must take on board.

On RMAA Convention 2008 – report (3)

Who would have thought that I could make three  blog posts out of the first day of a conference? Well this is the third instalment. I will focus on three papers that dealt with electronic document and records management systems strategy and implementations.

The three presentations were delivered by Jo Stephenson (Victorian Department of Transport), Matt O’Mara (Wellington City Libraries), and Jo Golding (Eraring Energy).

Jo Stephenson detailed her experience in project managing the implementation of an EDRMS across a state government department. The focus was on the people in the strategy and this implementation. Key messages included understanding the diverse work practices and variety of information systems in use; use stories from the front line about the current unstructured information environment (and this is something I am currently collating myself in my current role to support the rest of the EDRMS strategy); listen, capture and reflect on what people are saying; understand the organisational drivers and business activities; involve people along the journey; agree on a start and an end point; communicate often and widely; and, simplify the message – save it, find it, secure it, and save it.

Jo also had some common sense advice about communicating the “what’s in it for me message?”. This is always good practice in my opinion, but too often these basic behavioural and attitudinal factors are left until the end of the implementation. If staff are only exposed to the EDRMS for the first time in training and then in a live operating environment, then people not only feel left out of the actual process but are also reluctant to embrace change based on a lack of understanding about “what’s in it for me?”. Usually, we offer compliance and governance as key drivers for user adoption. Jo recommends advocating other attributes of more direct relevance to people doing the work – for example, improve access and retrieval of documents, assist in decision-making, and saving time.

I recommend understanding the workplace behaviours and workplace needs of individuals within your particular organisation in order to give you a better understanding of where these “touchpoints” are most relevant and where there is likely to be the greatest impact.

I did ask Jo about critical success factors, especially one she mentioned on increased data storage requirements. Increasing data storage might not always indicate success in my opionion. Volume does not always equate to data quality.

Matt O’Mara spoke about implementing an information strategy. Matt only had four months in which to develop a strategy and he chose to concentrate on identifying business needs and business problems, and then looking at what solutions might be relevant and how the solutions would be enabled. I certainly agree that matching problems to solutions helps in getting senior executive interest rather than trying to win support based on records management principles alone. Matt also recommended doing a benefits analysis. In addition, Matt talked about information management maturity models (I have alluded to them in a previous post) and the use of an issues register.

I had to agree with Matt that building sound information management foundations was a critical dimension for organisational success, something that still rings true in the Web 2.0 world.

Jo Golding outlined how she approached the task of establishing an EDRMS within a major NSW energy utility. The corporate information strategy was based on three key objectives:

  • protect our information
  • decrease risk
  • effective use of business information

There was wide consultation with the different Eraring Energy sites. Jo emphasised the importantce of utilising the knowledge of the people within the organisation to discover culture (at different power generation sites), staff-organisation relations, leaders and champions, and effective rewards. Rollout and training occurred together and Jo admitted being fortunate that Eraring had compulsory training days (T-days) that she could leverage for the necessary EDRMS training and skill updates (among other channels).

The common theme that struck me was the recognition that any strategy and implementation needs to find acceptance and support within the organisation. One of the ways I have approached this kind of thing in the past has been to use informal channels to build internal relationships from which more structured and formal communication initiatives can take place. In large organisations (like giant government departments) this approach may well be impractical.

Establishing an authentic personal profile and building relationships within and between organisations helps improve the effectiveness of raising awareness and garnering participation through more formal communication channels. Moreover, marketing a service or a new workplace activity is improved by harnessing real and personal connections.

My notes reveal one final thought for further consideration: we need to see beyond information management and knowledge management within our organisations. Sure, we have discrete activities and responsibilites that fall within particular designations (as do health professionals), but we need to improve our understanding of the relationship between those knowledge and information activities, increase the depth of our networks, and leverage our skills and capabilities more effectively. I believe we are all heading in the same direction so let’s work together to make the journey more valuable.

Finally, I must thank the presenters and the attendees of the RMAA Convention 2008 whom I managed to talk with on Monday (and Professor Julie McLeod this morning at the IIM breakfast) for some stimulating thinking and discussion – all good stuff!

On records, information and knowledge management strategy

Lately, I have been giving a great deal of thought with respect to information and knowledge management strategy. This is partly because I am working on an electronic document and records management business case and implementation plan at my current work, but also because I want to place the records management case within an organisational knowledge and information framework.

Traditionally, records management has been a stand alone discipline focused purely on documents and records. That was my early experience in that field! But of course, electronic document and records management systems have grown to significant levels of sophistication, as any of the major EDRMS vendors will tell you! At the same time, we also have digital library management systems and web-content management systems.

But the landscape is changing fast as the explosion in information, particularly user-generated content, gathers even greater volumes of information to capture, store and access across a range of different media and repositories. We have seen the physical information world become the digital information world and now the social digital world – Web 2.0.

The transformation is really very obvious in photography, for example. The modern evolution looks like this: a photographic print in physical storage, a digital image stored in a personal computer file, and a digital image stored on a shared global internet platform, like Flickr, for potentially unlimited distribution and comment.

As information has exploded exponentially, across a range of media and via a plethora of channels, organisations are looking at ways that provide a whole-of-enterprise approach to information and knowledge management. And I believe that records management is becoming less an independent arm in the information landscape, and more an integrated process and functional system within a whole-of- enterprise information and knowledge management environment.

I am less interested in discussing turf wars between records managers, librarians, and knowledge managers these days. It seems to me that there are significant benefits of information convergence by utilising a range of information tools and processes for enterprise advantage.

What I am really interested in is how whole-of-enterprise information and knowledge systems can work for organisations utilising specific records, information and knowledge management tools and processes. I can see that to achieve such a whole-of-enterprise solution will depend on a greater degree of co-operation and collaboration at the broad information management level than what often happens now, especially in large organisations. Ironically, as a knowledge manager myself, I can see that information professionals need to collaborate more and to lose the defensiveness that comes with our historical traditions. Moreover, I see human resource management playing a greater role in the discussion about human and social capital, all of which fits the domain of information and knowledge management very nicely.

I can say with a fair degree of confidence, based on my experience and observations, that whole-of-enterprise records management, information and knowledge solutions will become more the norm than the exception. Organisations will look to leverage the complete suite of operational knowledge and information practices and procedures in a completely integrated and almost seamless architecture. These systems and processes will support the organisation’s explicit knowledge needs.

In addition, these systems and processes can contribute to social capital by making information visible across a range of formats – creating network links between people as well as documents and artefacts, and facilitating collaboration spaces and communities within and across organisational boundaries.

In looking at a strategic approach for organisational information management, I believe that we now need to leverage an integrated (or even federated) suite of record, information and knowledge management practices and processes for operational excellence.

Our strategic thinking should therefore be focused on determining how best to utilise our records management, information management and knowledge management practices and processes for whole-of-enterprise advantage. And as I have noted before, we need to keep the dialogue happening with human resources to maximise the intellectual and social capital of the organisation’s people – a resource that needs operational integration as much as systems.

On pegging down taxonomy

Tonight I watched The Collectors on ABC TV – good to have the show back in 2008. One of the featured collections was the peg collection of Mike Bradley. Yes, that’s right, a collection of clothes pegs!

There were some really interesting moments (yes, truly) in this segment on pegs. Firstly, Mike Bradley was terrific at telling his story about the whys and wherefores of his collection. He postulated that his penchant for pegs may have stemmed from his gypsy heritage (gypsies introduced pegs to the world, apparently). The stories were personal, interesting, and humorous.

He told a great story about a trip to India and the purchase of some unusual pegs – the guide/translator telling the storekeeper about “this idiot who loves pegs” and then arranging a higher price than normal and splitting the difference! Mike also related a shopping trip to “plastic city” in China where he bought a load of plastic pegs with different designs. Returning to Australia, the customs officer wanted to know about the metal clips showing up in the X-ray image. Mike replied that they were pegs he was bringing back from overseas, to which the customs officer replied: “don’t we make pegs in Australia?”.

Mike reckons he has the largest collection of pegs in the world, albeit only about 50% of the total number of different pegs out there. And he admitted to not being shy in swapping an ordinary peg for one not in his collection if he comes across such a specimen on someone’s backyard clothesline! You have been warned.

Mike turned a potentially lacklustre story into a great feature on collecting; turning the mundane into something special with his natural storytelling abilities. The storytelling worked. [Note to ABC TV – a podcast or videocast of such segments would be really worthwhile].

Then there was the in-studio discussion between Mike and Collector panelists Nicole and “The Professor” (and this strikes at the heart of taxonomy, can you believe it?). Nicole admitted to hanging clothes on the line with a pair of pegs that had to be the same colour. She wanted to reassemble and order Mike’s peg collection by colour. Mike actually ordered his collection by size and type of clip. The Professor had no such preference for peg order. And now let me confess, that when I hang out the washing the pair of pegs for each article of clothing must be of the same type – no mix and match here!

Now if there was a manual for the “correct” way of pairing pegs or assembling pegs in a collection, what would be the one-size-fits-all determining taxonomy? Would it be chronological (historical or purchase date?), or colour, or size, or type, or shape, or country of origin,  or type of use, or complete randomness (perhaps the order being determined by the position of different clothes on the clothesline itself)? You see, it all depends on what means the most to the individual, if in fact it means anything at all.

The moral of the story: don’t put a square peg in a round hole … or can you?

On conversation

One of the questions I am often asked is why people in knowledge management are so preoccupied with conversations. Why does conversation need to be facilitated, is another question.

Let me answer with the following points:

1) Sometimes conversations inside organisation need permission since there is still the belief that conversation is just idle chatter. Knowledge managers like to enable and allow conversations to occur since conversation is good for business.

2) Conversations are important because they are interactive communication styles that enable work to be done more quickly, or more effectively, or more clearly, or with the assistance of others. Conversation is often told as a story – “Did you hear what happened when Vlad went down to the blood bank yesterday? He met the incoming CEO and as they both sat together giving blood, they discussed the problems we are having with the new content management system. The incoming CEO said he’d like to follow up and help sort it out when he starts next week”.

3) Conversations are not work-related. This is a common comment to which I say: “Please tell me how you differentiate a conversation that is work-related or otherwise”. Individuals inside organisations spend a lot of time together and rarely do they work in isolation. There is a social side of work that needs greater support. Social relationships at work that engender fun, trust, co-operation, and respect are all good things. In addition, conversation acts as the glue that brings people together inside organisations forming part of the organisation’s culture from which “real” operational issues can be affected. Moreover, you might be surprised to learn that much of the conversation that takes place at work IS work-related.

4) Conversations happen anyway. Yes, this is true but it is also true that facilitating people or situations can lead to more rapid and more targeted interactions. There are sometimes people who remain unconnected without some assistance.

5) Conversation can only occur face-to-face. This is partially true since it is also possible to have a conversation via text and SMS, or over the phone or over the internet. When I established communities of practice at a former employer I created an infrastructure, a permission-based system that said it was ok to speak to colleagues in other offices scattered around Australia and New Zealand, and a medium of communication that could approximate the friendly conversational atmosphere of a social chat at the local pub.

6) Finally, conversation is all about connecting with other individuals and larger people networks, enabling an individual to tap the minds of many or make possible connections to people you have no idea about. Remember, without conversation there is no communication, and no communication is bad for business.

It is clear to me from my experience, and discussing the issue with colleagues and knowledge management professionals, that conversation is more than just idle chatter. Put conversation to work in your own organisation and see how it works for you. And if need be, hire a knowledge manager to help the conversation along.