Knowledge Management

In case you haven’t yet figured it out, I’m the landscape architect who went to library school and is now a knowledge manager at an architecture, planning and research firm. I’m lucky enough to utilize all of my skills and interests in what I do, and wanted to dedicate this section to help people understand not only my experience with knowledge management, but also its overall purpose of achieving organizational objectives by making the best use of knowledge.

First, what is knowledge management (KM)?

In a nutshell, it is the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organization. KM is a very effective way to help meet organizational objectives in improved performance, competitive advantage, innovation, integration, continuous improvement, and the sharing of lessons learned. It is a multidisciplinary approach that requires aptitude in business administration, information systems, management, library and information sciences, and media. There are many schools of thought and perspectives out there about KM along with many strategies and related technologies. With the advent of big data, an aging workforce, and the desire for enhanced organizational learning, many larger companies, non-profit organizations, and public institutions now have resources dedicated to internal KM efforts. Without consulting the many official definitions cited in textbooks, I would simply add that KM is about helping organizations understand and leverage their intellectual capital [collectively human, relational, and structural capital] for the sake of enhanced performance. Because all organizations want improved performance, KM theory asserts that performance is directly tied to how organizations can effectively make information and knowledge available.

What do I do as a knowledge manager?

In general, my job is to fully understand the flow of knowledge and information occurring at the firm and to in turn ensure that we have the right tools in place to leverage these assets for positive outcomes. A large part of my job is consulting with teams, groups and units to reinforce best practices. Another part of my job is to maintain, promote and research KM tools and systems to ensure that project goals are being reached effectively and efficiently. Another component of my job is first identifying and then problem solving the pinch points, barriers and roadblocks that are preventing a more efficient flow of information and knowledge. Each opportunity is essentially one large exercise in consensus building to ensure firm-wide adoption, buy-in and understanding. With each change, roll-out and process improvement, I help to create instructions, communicate those instructions, and eventually follow up to ensure long-term success.  As the community manager of our social network and co-leader for our communities of practice, I also identify where knowledge sharing is occurring to then capture and make searchable.

Here’s some other buzz words, jargon, and processes I’d like to share that are truly relevant in helping all organizations improve synergies, teamwork, collaboration and knowledge sharing.

“De-siloing”

An important task in KM is to “de-silo” collections of information that are useful to the organization. Data stored on personal computers, complex folder hierarchies of network drives, or simply living as institutional knowledge in individuals or groups, this information cannot be leveraged and maximized by the organization on the whole unless it is first identified. A major component of KM is doing inventories and audits of organizations to determine where, when and how information is being created. “De-siloing” is especially important in fast space, high asset creation organizations like architecture firms because teams are often performing very similar tasks and activities at the same time, and centralizing such assets can provide context, create time-savers, instill best practices, and even standards.

Centralize and Daylighting

Once silos of information and knowledge is recognized, my job is to centralize. Instilling a KM approach in an organization can be a philosophy or set of processes, and it can also include a set of tools and platforms. These tools provide a solution for storage and retrieval, but are fairly useless without first having a general philosophy and approach to information workflows. With each “siloed” collection identified, it’s my job to establish the right tool or platform to house the information based on a number of conditions. Who is the primary user? Why is the information important? Can it stand alone? My current go-to tools remain: SharePoint, Yammer, and OpenAsset.

Access and Retrievability

Next, my job is to make this information accessible. With most of today’s data living in some form of a database, accessibility is best enhanced though friendly interfaces as well as leveraging metadata. Creating a master taxonomy and a series of metadata schema is highly important to give meaning to the data and provide multiple levels of searchability. It allow us to control our power for running queries and the extent to which our data can be displayed as in sorting and filtering. It is very important to tailor and customize tools and interfaces only to the extent where company vocabulary aligns, navigational elements make sense, and the experience becomes intuitive.

Standards and Workflows; Taxonomies and Metadata

In high-asset creating organizations, its important to develop standards and workflows so staff understands the life cycle of a document and can actively participate. The sooner people understand the power of metadata for improving their access, the easier it will be to establish new practices and standards and protocols in document management. Databases are a useful place to centralize documents, but how do they get there in the first place, and how are they treated over time based on use? As an example, a PPTX file titled “good presentation” living in a SharePoint environment has little value vs the same presentation titled “170501 Presentation to Client” and also coded with searchable metadata for keywords, author, and timestamps. Furthermore, instructions, diagrams and teaching can be deployed to help staff make sense of their duties. While in the long-term these changes will be great for KM, there will be some growing pains with adoption internally, such as the concept of inputting metadata. This aspect can be the most emotionally charged and requires components of consensus building, behavioral change, leadership and communication. From office wide roll outs, to focus groups and other messaging formats, the authorship of clear instructions and standards is vital to success.

Quality Assurance / Quality Control

And when a KM plan and roadmap is finally set into place in real time, that doesn’t mean that the KM job is over. Data and information collections for all organizations is dynamic. As collections grow, new patterns can be recognized that may lead to leveraging and harvesting the data in new ways. Because of this, its important to continually evaluate how knowledge is being created. Why is it being created? By who? For who? How is it being shared? What value does it have for the rest of the office? In my office, for example, we’re testing out new tools on a weekly basis, acquiring new products, and integrating new features into our work. The additions of these continually shift the dynamic of current processes, further highlighting why KM is a very active task. It’s an ongoing quality assurance / control exercise.

Capture and Communities

Identifying data and information is one thing, but capturing the institutional and specialized knowledge living within people requires a new approach, also of which is part of KM. In my work, I call this “capture” and my question I always pose in this context is this: “How do we harvest or capture this knowledge?” what tools can we leverage to achieve this?”. This type of knowledge is mainly what is described in the literature as “tacit knowledge”, and can be difficult to write down or verbalize and requires more creative ways of transfer. Capture methods typically first require that the person gain membership of a social network or community of practice, which has widespread personal contact, regular interaction and trust. Then, I implement strategies to record or daylight the information being shared. This idea of communities of practices is also a part of KM, and along with an internal social network is something I help manage.

Fostering Collaboration

Sharing and collaboration. Most all organizations want to ensure that the right tools and framework is in place so staff can efficiently share what they’re learning and what they’re working on with a wide range of user groups. From a technological perspective, its important to have the right tools and software in place that allow for seamless collaboration both externally and internally that matches the pace and workflows of the office. The process of identifying the right tools can be arduous and time consuming, and to help address this I recommend instilling a culture of exploration and piloting within your organization to help improve comfort levels and staff ownership and buy-in. Technology solves many of our day-to-day problems and offers many conveniences, but it can also slow down the flow of creativity and knowledge creation when not working effectively. When technology is introduced, it is a good idea to instill workflows and instructions to guide staff and provide direction to explain how these tools meet objectives.