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2001 by SLA WCC

Knowledge Champions Institute: The 'Human' Side of Knowledge Management and Knowledge Transfer

by Karol Sinats, British Columbia Ministry of Management Services

In mid-April of this year, I was privileged to attend SLA's KCI Institute in Washington D.C. for a 5 day workshop on knowledge management and knowledge transfer based on the work of Dr. Nancy Dixon, author of Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know. It was a 'transformational' experience.

On the evening prior to the start of the workshop sessions, the 16 participants, along with David Bender and Donna Scheeder from the SLA Executive, met with the workshop facilitators in a session introduced by Jeff de Cagna ("the learning guy" at SLA) and led by Seth Weaver Kahn, senior information officer at the World Bank. Through stories about his life, work, experiences and beliefs, Seth set the stage for each of us to share what threads- temporal, spiritual, philosophical - of our personal 'journey' had led us to this place on this evening. From this beginning of openness and sharing, the participants, from Venezuela to the Bahamas, from New York, Washington D.C. and various places in the US, from Quebec, Calgary and Victoria, began a learning dialogue that we would continue over the next days of the workshop.

What did I learn from this experience that I'd like to share? There was so much dynamic learning over the five days that it would be impossible to cover it all in a short article. However, what I distilled from this experience were some "touchstones" that now guide me in making my way through the mass of materials, courses, and literature on KM and knowledge transfer and in formulating a path of action in my own organization.

  1. "Knowledge 'R Us"
    Knowledge is something that is an integral part of who we are; it constitutes what we have learned in the process of living our lives. It is personal and it is precious. We are willing to share what we know but we need to trust that what we share will be treated with respect and our contribution will be acknowledged and appreciated. We also need to feel that similar support will be reciprocally available to us.

  2. Don't Overmanage a Natural Process
    Working in the field of KM and knowledge transfer involves creating a supportive environment and processes that recognize and value the basic fact that people naturally want to share where they can see a benefit to themselves and others. Whether we, as KM practicioners, are supporting Communities of Practice, helping in tact work teams to improve processes, supporting peer review processes etc., the willingness of people to share experiential knowledge, learn, reflect, develop and innovate depends on the value of the process to them and the degree of ownership and control that have over it.

  3. IT isn't "IT"
    Much emphasis these days is on 'systems' that purport to be the "KM Solution". As a result, many early adopters of these systems now possess huge collections of disassociated information lacking the original context or meaning and therefore providing limited usefulness - "information junkyards".

  4. The 80/20 Rule
    It is estimated that only 20% of the knowledge of an organization is EXPLICIT ("know what") and can be written down or expressed verbally. The remaining 80% is TACIT knowledge ("know how") which resides the in the minds of individuals, is learned by 'doing', and is only surfaced in response to a situation or action. Both are useful, but the focus now is on how to surface and employ the tacit knowledge. As a result much attention is being paid to concepts like storytelling in business, social capital and knowledge transfer.

  5. Catch the Tiger by the Tail
    The nature of knowledge is that it is dynamic. It is what we learn in the process of doing and this changes with each new situation or context that we face. We may employ previous knowledge to apply to new situation, but what happens will be different and there will be new knowledge gained through each new experience. Knowledge can't be harnessed, or stopped, or frozen in time in a database; it is a living, dynamic force that requires participation, action, reflection and further action. As KM practitioners, we can not either 'create' or 'control' knowledge in our organizations but we can foster its growth and help focus the sharing in productive ways.

  6. The Most Precious Commodity: Time to Reflect
    One of the largest barriers to knowledge management and transfer is the fact that most people do not understand the value of what they know. Organizations who care about innovating, about learning to improve, about sharing what they know internally must consciously make time for their employees to fully participate in the learning/doing/reflecting/applying/sharing cycle. Project teams complete projects - teams break up - participants disperse - there is a "product". However, unless there is a conscious effort to stop and reflect on what was learned in the PROCESS OF DOING the project, then much of the knowledge that has been generated is lost, even to the team members who were part of it.

The Good News and the Better News...

The good news is that librarians already participate in many forms of knowledge management in our work with clients; the better news is that there is room for us to enhance this function.

We can more systematically identify the current knowledge sharing that is already going on in our organizations: in cross-divisional teams, interest groups, 'get-togethers' of technical staff or managers. The next step is to understand how the groups work and where there may be opportunities to help them improve. This may be by encouraging more reflection by the group on what it is learning, by providing a supportive framework through tools or processes that might enhance the groups' work, by inserting some targeted research at just the right moment - whatever it takes.

Most importantly, we need to continuously enhance our own learning - through reading, attending courses, forming or joining a KM 'communitiy of practice'. However, our most important learning will come though doing: by starting with small efforts inside our own organizations, reflecting on what we learn as we proceed, applying our new knowledge the next time around, and sharing our experiences and knowledge with others.

Knowledge management is not an event, or a system, or a structure. It is an opportunity to foster the continuous growth of collective learning in an organization. We can help this process by being able to understand and identify existing or potential knowledge activities in our organizations, by learning how to most effectively apply the myriad of methods, tools, processes and methodologies available to us, and by highlighting the value of providing the space and time for employees to learn and to share their knowledge in ways that will enhance our organizations and benefit our co-workers.

Recommended reading:

Common Knowledge : How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know by Dr. Nancy Dixon. Harvard Business School Press, 2000

In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work by Don Cohen & Laurence Prusak, Harvard Business School Press, 2001

The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations by Stephen Denning, Butterworth, 2001

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