Practical Knowledge and Information Management

Katharine Schopflin

(Katharine Schopflin and Matt Walsh at the launch party for Practical Knowledge and Information Management, January 2019.)

Knowledge and Information Management (KIM) has provided material for many books in the last 20 years. Titles abound on intellectual capital, communities of practice and other means by which organisations can better find, share and utilise their corporate information and expertise. Yet as a practitioner, I often struggled to connect what they said to the reality of my day-to-day job. I can remember reading about information management strategy while trying to write one. I couldn’t disagree with anything I read in the book. Of course information should be treated as an asset, be accurate, up-to-date and offer a single version of the truth. But I couldn’t see how to translate it into something meaningful for my colleagues, or the actions they would actually undertake.

This is one of the reasons why we – me, my fellow-author Matt Walsh and Facet Publishing – thought it was time for a new approach. We wanted to make our book Practical Knowledge and Information Management(Schopflin and Walsh, 2019) reflect the daily life of the KIM practitioner, and offer advice drawn from our own experience and the professionals we interviewed. We learned a lot in the course of researching and writing the book, not just from reflecting on our experiences, but also from finding out what others had done. Some of my negative feelings engendered from participating in failed KIM implementations were countered by heartening stories from fellow-professionals making positive changes in their organisations. Below are four things the two of us took away which reflect this book’s approach.

Find the KIM that’s there already

One of the worst mistakes an organisation can make is to announce that KIM is a new thing that will change the way staff work. Having been the newest recruit tasked with selling this story, I can tell you it did not inspire delight, particularly in long-term employees who had their own strategies for getting things done. The first thing you should do when you arrive in a new environment is look for the communities that already exist and find out how they work to share and find information. My favourite ever example of this is outlined in The Social Life of Information(Seely-Brown and Duguid, 2000), where photocopier engineers, working on their own, meet up for beers and chat about how they’ve solved problems servicing machines. Most of us get by in our jobs, for better or worse, through a mixture of learning, asking others, saving information and looking things up. The role of the KIM practitioner is to facilitate this. Is there technology that can help? Are there people or information sources they should know about? What would make it easier to avoid asking the same question twice? If you can make one set of colleagues’ working lives better, they will provide an exemplar for the rest of the organisation.

Engage with the organisation

Matt spoke about this at this book’s launch, remembering how, early in his career, he would think he understood an organisation’s problem and blunder blithely in to fix it. Listening, and adapting what you know to match what you hear, are essential to prove the value of KIM. Most people want to do their jobs more efficiently: if you can show you understand and demonstrate how to solve their problems, they become invested in the process. Be open and honest about what KIM is and what it can do. Remove the mystery and show it’s all about them. Engagement is also about gaining feedback and celebrating successes. For KIM practitioners who are employees, rather than consultants, it’s not a one-off process, but a constant cycle of mutual involvement.

Know your challenges

Real-life organisations are sometimes very different from how they appear in KIM books. Very often, blockers to sharing knowledge are hard-wired. As a KIM practitioner, you need to accept what you can change and work with what you have. Hierarchical organisations, particularly those with high-paid experts at one end, and contact-centre workers on the front line, offer huge challenges of trust and exchange. Any organisation offering competitive incentives based on an individual’s knowledge effectively eliminates any motivation for them to share. Conversely, healthy organisations, where knowledge-sharing works well, struggle to see the point in keeping a corporate record. They may only realise what has been lost when the organisation grows and/or key people leave. You can’t change these cultures overnight, so start by focusing on what your organisation is good at. And look out for the diversity of cultures! Hidden groups, particularly in service areas such as facilities management or human resources, may have their own ways of working and be more receptive to help and advice.

Think big but be agile

KIM strategy can be a hard sell and, while consultants have tried in the past to devise strategies to demonstrate return on investment, too often KIM jobs, functions and initiatives are abandoned when they fail to show positive change quickly enough. In the past, it was common for a new knowledge or information manager (or consultant) to write a strategy with outcomes expected two or three years down the line. A better approach is to work with agreed core principles and develop a flexible strategy over time. Matt advises breaking down strategy into distinct phases, each an enabler for the next. This will help your stakeholders to see the journey from where you are now to where you could be in the future. Each phase should be measurable and have clear deliverables, in line with your corporate strategy. But build flexibility into later stages. Do not attempt to move from nothing to a utopian KIM dream. Your organisation will change and so will your strategy. The only things that will say the same are the underpinning core principles.

These are just a few of the insights we gained from looking at how KIM practitioners do their jobs, what has worked for them and what hasn’t. We don’t pretend to cover every scenario you will encounter, but all our examples aim to be honest, reflective and, above all, practical.

Schopflin, K. and Walsh, M. (2019). Practical Knowledge and Information Management. London. Facet Publishing

Seely Brown, J. and Duguid, P. (2000). The Social Life of Information. Boston, MA. Harvard Business School Press


K&IM Refer 35(1), Winter 2019

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