In this article, Michelle Unger, head of the Group Business Line Education Systems and Services, interviews knowledge management specialist Professor Michael Kelleher on the importance of Knowledge Management (KM) in our industry. Together, they will explore the differences between knowledge, data and information; the challenges that come with the transfer and use of knowledge; and the recent impact of the pandemic on knowledge management worldwide.
Michelle: We hear a lot about knowledge, but how does it differ from information or data?
Michael: Data are the raw bits and pieces of facts and statistics with no context. Data can be quantitative or qualitative.
Take a look at this image, for example. This, of course, is a tomato. From a purely botanical perspective, tomatoes are fruits. Our raw data has been given context. That’s information.
However, from a culinary perspective, we know not to put it in our fruit salads. We have taken the information that a tomato is a fruit and analyzed that to help us make a decision (take action). That’s knowledge.
Another example can be seen in series of dots and dashes that, when given context, become Morse code, such that certain combinations can help us make decisions and take action. Three dots (data) form the letter "S," and three dashes make the letter "O" in the context of the Roman alphabet (information). So, three dots, three dashes and then three more dots (data), given context, means SOS. Understanding that this is shorthand for the “Save Our Souls” emergency message helps us to take the necessary action (knowledge).
Michelle: What in your view would be the best way (system or process) to store and retrieve data or information to be used in KM?
Michael: The ability to locate a file, whatever its format and regardless of the platform predominantly set by how the document is stored and maintained. In the first instance, you should try to ensure consistency in:
- Structures, hierarchies and naming to support easy navigation
- How systems can be navigated, how users understand “where they are” and the use of any visual aids such as the meaning of colors and icons
- The look and feel of the content, perhaps using templates to support consistency across different types of content such as documents, web pages, presentations and reporting
It is important to create a strategy for metadata that includes contributions from key users of the system. That way, its models will take into account how users believe the content of files can best serve their needs and solve their problems.
A parallel component of such a strategy should include a transparent process for validating the information, for example when might it be best for the content to be reviewed, updated or archived.
So, user input is key to success, irrespective of the system or platform. Metadata will provide confidence in re-use if it also includes review dates for validation.
Michelle: A big problem with knowledge management is convincing staff to transfer their knowledge and provide time for its transfer. Have you experienced this? How did you overcome this?
Michael: Yes, this can be an issue, especially in organizations where all time is attributed to activity codes. My experience suggests that it is not necessarily the staff or subject matter experts who appear to be unwilling to undertake knowledge transfer activities. It is more likely to be middle management not willing to free their staff to do this, most likely due to a lack of understanding of the business benefits.
Because knowledge transfer can be perceived as time-consuming, it is important that organizations send clear messages that this activity is important and encouraged by senior management. Line management must then provide time for employees to subsequently engage in those activities.
The most successful experience I had was where we involved the internal communications team early so that they understood the process and the business benefits. This was coupled with the agreement of HR to include a knowledge risk element in the mid-year performance management review. The communication outputs together with line managers completing this new element of the performance reviews ensured that knowledge transfer goals were built into the goals and that staff was provided with the time to meet those goals, all while recognizing the program.
Michelle: Another challenge is that knowledge has no value unless it is used. How can we convince people to use knowledge?
Michael: Using and re-using knowledge is a cultural issue. Organizations’ leaders are key to this, by stating and re-stating that knowledge is valuable and needs to be used, stored, shared and maintained. Leaders will help to establish a culture where knowledge is seen to be of value and where staff actively engage in its management.
The key here is to ensure that knowledge is embedded in mainstream workflows. For example, in a project-focused organization, do project planning activities include learning lessons from previous projects? Do projects build into their work processes the capture of their own lessons? And when projects close, instead of dispersing the team and moving on to the next project, are there end-of-project knowledge-sharing activities built into the workflow? Perhaps project sponsors should only sign off on a project once these activities are seen to be completed.
One of the major issues I have experienced is that staff members frequently complain that they cannot find what they are looking for – and when they do find “something,” there often are various versions, none of which is evidently the latest validated version. Unless KM addresses this issue, thereby making “life” simpler and more efficient, it will be difficult to convince staff to engage in a KM program. What’s in it for me? Well, instead of spending 19% of your working life looking for things (McKinsey), our KM program plans to reduce this by half in the first instance and by half again incrementally.
In addition, knowledge management should help staff by making engagement as simple as possible. Adding additional metadata when first storing a file may feel like extra work, but it makes this process as simple as possible – perhaps using drop-down menus for choices together with a field for “other.” The benefits when searching will become apparent very quickly.
Michelle: How do you think knowledge management in a corporation has changed pre-pandemic, during the pandemic and after the pandemic?
Michael: Prior to the pandemic, I think the biggest change to KM was the emergence and maturing of social media platforms behind the corporate firewall. These have helped the sharing of knowledge, the building of communities of practice and the creation of connections to expertise. Although they are not new as such, many organizations have yet to develop a strategy for their adoption. That said, those that have done so are now seeing the benefits of their investments. I also believe that there has been a growing recognition of the potential knowledge risks associated with aging demographics. Our subject matter expertise is getting older, and “lean” organizations may well rely on single employees for critical knowledge – leaving the business at risk of losing that knowledge, often with just one month’s notice.
The dispersal of staff due to the pandemic may have highlighted the need for a robust KM strategy. We must keep in mind that KM is not solely aimed at the organization and the capture and collection of files for re-use. It is that, but it is also much more. KM is about connecting to expertise, collaborating with colleagues and cultivating the behaviors and norms that reinforce the sharing and re-use of knowledge. The pandemic has challenged organizations, and the use of virtual meetings – which, again, is not new but also not universally adopted – has grown exponentially to mitigate the disconnect that staff may feel when dispersed to hundreds (or thousands) of home locations. I have worked from home for over 30 years, and technological advances have made it easier to connect to colleagues, but there’s no replacement for the energy that can emerge when sitting in the same physical space as those colleagues. Spontaneity and creativity tend to be largely absent from virtual meetings. It reminds me of the lack of emotions in e-learning courses. It is all there from a technical perspective, but what’s missing is the emotional engagement channeled through good facilitation together with participants’ interactions. I have read many commentators describe the onset of Zoom fatigue, and I believe it’s the emotional engagement we enjoy through meeting physically that is absent and extremely difficult to replicate. Over many years, I have heard thoughts that staff predominantly ask questions of and share knowledge with colleagues they can see. This creates challenges for workplace designers, but the pandemic has almost eradicated spontaneous questions and answers because we cannot “see” our colleagues.
I have read numerous commentators who argued that the world of work will not return to pre-pandemic “normality.” A hybrid office/home working model is likely to emerge that will force organizations to ramp up their investments in the IT infrastructure that can enable KM to flourish. At this point in time, organizations should be making plans for blends of working that include remote access but not simply using VPN to find and navigate file structures and also not just virtual spaces to conduct formal meetings. We need to consider new strategies for collaborative spaces that enable the sharing of existing knowledge but go beyond that by facilitating the creation of new knowledge and innovative ideas that can be tested and developed further. Perhaps we need to consider new roles, too. Who in a project, for example, is responsible for learning and sharing lessons within the project itself and from and to other projects?
I once visited the Nation Science Foundation in Washington. On a large wall, there were video images of about one hundred scientists from around the world. They were in “their offices,” but we could tap their images and ask them questions or share something with them. Using the technology available, they were able to ask questions, seek out opportunities and solve problems collaboratively. That was in 2005. In 2020, we seem to be limiting our use of virtual meeting technologies to the holding of scheduled meetings. The technology is there, but what seems to be missing is the social aspects of collaboration, the essential “people” element of knowledge management. If work in the future is going to be this hybrid model that combines variations in our workplaces, then we need to create strategies that make the best use of the technology while also supporting the cultivation of a knowledge management culture.
ROSEN Education Systems and Services will be launching a new series on Knowledge Management by Professor Kelleher – stay tuned to find out more about our surveys, interviews and training courses on the subject. Coming soon to The Competence Club.
Professor Michael Kelleher
Mike’s interest in knowledge management began in the late 1980s when he studied knowledge transfer in organizations triggered by skill shortages. During the 1990s, Mike acted as general secretary of the European Consortium for the Learning Organization, managing research projects and annual conferences. In the early 2000s, he joined CIBIT, which was Europe’s first knowledge management consultancy and eventual became the KM center of DNV.
Since then, Mike has undertaken KM consultancy in a variety of industries, including gas transmission and distribution, nuclear dimensioning and public-sector agencies. He has also been involved in several multinational knowledge-sharing projects for the European Commission.
In the last fifteen years or so, Mike has specialized in supporting clients’ capacities to transfer and retain knowledge held by their subject matter experts.
Michelle Unger, MEng. MSc. CertHE. FHEA.
Based in the UK, Michelle is head of the Group Business Line “Education Systems and Services” for the ROSEN Group.
She has more than 25 years’ experience: her early career involved pipeline integrity consultancy, but her more recent experience is in technical training, learning, education and competence development.
Michelle is a visiting lecturer at Newcastle University in the UK and was a member of the development team of the MSc in Subsea Engineering and Management at Newcastle University. She was also the program director of the Distance Learning MSc in Pipeline Integrity Management at Northumbria University in the UK, which was awarded the ASME Global Pipeline Award in 2014.
Michelle is a civil engineer with a Masters in Pipeline Hydraulics. She holds a PgC in Advanced Academic Practice from Newcastle University and is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the UK.