2/14/11

KM: The Big Room

A wise man once said, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt". Today I'm introducing my own corollary to that maxim. "Sometimes it's worth the risk of proving you're a fool in the hope that you might learn something from the backlash."

About a month ago I accepted a Knowledge Management position at my firm. My first task? Define Knowledge Management. In the last few weeks I have read several books, many Websites, and a handful of White Papers. I have spent a great deal of time lurking on KM blogs, forums, and LinkedIn groups, and I've asked everyone I know how they would define KM. All the while I've been only too aware of the above aphorism and largely kept quiet for fear of removing that last bit of doubt. The one thing I have definitively learned is that a coherent definition for Knowledge Management is an elusive beast. So, the time has come to risk looking foolish.

A few weeks ago Ayelette Robinson addressed this issue in a post here on 3 Geeks about her KM elevator speech. That was a great post. I've even used her elevator speech a few times since then. (Thanks, Ayelette. The check is in the mail.) Unfortunately, while "I do for my firm what Google did for the web" is descriptive enough to get the concept across to the casual inquisitor, it doesn't help me much when I'm trying to determine what I should be doing at any given moment. Stopping to ask myself, "What would Google do in this situation?", just doesn’t provide many relevant answers.

Probably the most concise definition I've gotten is from one of our resident 3 Geeks, Toby Brown. (Although, I'm going to mangle it Toby, so please correct me in the comments.) He said something like, KM is making sure that people can access the knowledge they need, when and where they need it. Good, simple definition, but again, it doesn't help me understand what I should be doing on a daily basis. So after several weeks of research, and reading and speaking to people much smarter than I, I have a good understanding of what KM is – like Justice Stewart's famous opinion, ”I know it when I see it” – but I still don’t have a definition against which I can weigh my actions or judge my ideas. So like any good physicist I approached the problem as a thought experiment and turned it on it’s head. (And no, I am not a physicist.)

Can I imagine an organization that would NOT benefit from Knowledge Management?

It's a difficult question and I think a good argument could be made that absolutely any organization could benefit from KM of some kind. Of course, it all depends on your definition of KM, so, that doesn’t get us very far. Still, I can say with a fair amount of confidence, that a very tiny company with a handful of employees probably wouldn't derive much value from KM initiatives.

So the next question is, how large can I grow my small company before it would ABSOLUTELY benefit from KM?

I spent a lot of time thinking about this one. I came to the conclusion that once the organization grew to a size that their entire staff could no longer operate in a single large room, then they would definitely benefit from KM.

What does a company working out of a single room have that a larger organization doesn't?

The word had been bouncing around in my head for several days, and then my friend Steven Savage mentioned it in a recent email, and then Ayelette Robinson talked about it in her latest Elephant Post. Something clicked, my weeks-long search finally culminated in a single, simple concept…Transparency.

The employees of my fictitious company operating out of a single room would have no walls blocking their view. They would personally know all of their colleagues, and their skill sets, and their responsibilities. They would know when someone entered the room, generally what they wanted, and when and why they left. They would probably know all of the products that their company sold and know who all of their company's clients were. Or at the very least, they would know where to find that information. If something important or urgent was happening on the far side of the room, those on the near side would be well aware and able to help. Spontaneous and serendipitous connections would happen regularly. Of course, the employees might all be at each other's throats, stuck in the same room day after day, but that's an HR problem. ;-) From a KM perspective, a single open room would be Nirvana.

Unfortunately, large modern corporations and law firms can't even fit in a metaphorical "single room". There are a million examples of things which need to be walled off and unavailable for common consumption. The role of KM is to figure out where those walls need to be and to shore them up, making sure that everyone who needs access to the information on the other side is aware that the information exists and has the keys they need to get to that information. And then to tear down all of the extraneous walls in the company so that everyone can share who they are, how they fit in, and what exactly is going on.

That is something I can weigh all of my actions against. Does this initiative increase transparency within my organization? If so, it's probably Knowledge Management.

Of course, this might be obvious, or completely wrong, in which case, at least you can all help me prove my new corollary in the comments below.

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3 comments:

bbwheeler said...

I think a "room" is a good way of approaching KM. That said, I would argue that even a very small company that only occupies a single room would also benefit tremendously from knowledge management. A computer itself is essentially a virtual "room" -- a personalized virtual space in which a single person employs software machines to perform work, connect to people, connect to information, and then to store it all. If there are three employees working in a single room - and each of them have computers - there are 4 effective rooms. In terms of transparency, the virtual rooms (the individual computers) are no different than physical rooms -- an employee on one side cannot directly share what is happening or what is stored on a computer on the other side -- without some form of KM, of course. I think an analogy with "space" should also account for the virtual spaces in computers. Thanks for the post -- enjoyed it...

Laura said...

The way I defined it to our officer group was:
Knowledge Management (KM) comprises a range of practices used by organizations to identify, create, represent, and distribute knowledge for reuse, awareness and learning (a way to hold on to, access and reuse our intellectual capital).
My job then becomes sort of an information architect. I help identify and develop the technologies to achieve the above. One thing we've started is a sort of wiki. So far it has worked well, but I think we are ready to advance it.

Ayelette Robinson said...

Ryan,
Great analysis.

I agree with the previous comment that if you're anything but a sole practitioner, I think KM has a place in your organization (and even then you might want to think about what will happen to your clients' information when you are proverbially hit by a bus), but to be sure the tools would be lighter in a smaller organization.

And your thesis that transparency lies at the heart of good KM is right on.

 

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