May 14, 2008

Knowledge Management: The Organizational War Chest

OR, "How To Survive Being 'Voted Off The Island' During A Recession"

Survive This!!What's this?!?! Two posts in a month!?!?!? Shocking, I know :-D

So, after a weekend of exceeding my insanely frugal budget, I finally got around to completing last Friday's checkbook reconciliation on Monday. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I'd received an additional tax refund. Of course, it took me a while to realize it wasn't a mistake and that I'd actually been given a Stimulus Refund (whew, 'cause it would have sucked to have used that money towards my airline ticket to London for Fiona's wedding and then have to give it back). I guess this is the downside of not watching the evening news and mostly reading the entertainment section of the newspaper. But, hey, with my crazy work and tennis schedules, if I've got to choose between Gossip Girl and CNN clearly, I'm "movin' on up to the upper East side".

Anyway, as I wiki'd the Stimulus Refund while on hold with Sprint to order a new Palm Centro to replace the one I've only had for five months, yet still managed to brutalize (because, apparently, I'm hell on cell phones) I started thinking about the general crappiness of the economy which is resulting in an increasingly crappier job market and wondered about the role of KM during this downturn.

Considering how much Economics confuses me (especially those friggin' graphs), it's hard for even me to believe that I have a BS in Urban Policy Studies and that I was just two or three courses shy of getting a minor in Economics, but I do seem to remember that one of the major effects of a recession is unemployment. Not that I'm saying we're in one, just that the signs we're headed in that direction have been hanging in the sky for a while now. Of course, if you're getting an economic outlook from me, then you clearly have deeper issues.

It's ironic that in the information age, people are both an organization's greatest asset and greatest liability. At any rate, the massive loss of talent, experience, knowledge, and information that companies suffer during a recession is just one of the many reasons organizations look to KM as a strategic solution.


I say 'unfortunately' because downsizing and layoffs have the effect of transforming KM from a suppportive, cultural change strategy to a gestapo tactic operating in a culture of fear.

Even under optimal conditions, it's difficult to shift employee practice from knowledge hoarding to knowledge sharing but, during an economic downturn, when few are certain of their place in an organization (or the ability to find a new position should the need arise), it's down right impossible. At least not in a positive, reaffirming way. I mean, you might see an increase in accessing/downloading information from your knowledge base as employees "stock-up" in anticipation of a pink slip, but the uploads might be a little skimpy. After all, a good majority of folks derive a significant amount of their identity and self-esteem from their careers and when they feel threatened about the security of their job it's kinda hard to get them to participate in any process that diminishes their perceived value.

And, this isn't just about non-KM folks either. Having experienced the joy of being laid-off during rough economic times (and knowing other KM professionals in the same boat) you can bet your sweet patootie that unless KM is a money-making venture and/or you have friends in high places (i.e., social capital), your department and KM efforts may - in homage to Survivor - have it's torch extinguished.

This is one of the reasons that I don't like the "one big family" metaphor that too many orgs like to bandy about. Because, inevitably, when the hard times come, the ties that bind are hardly familial.

KM is Disco Baby!!So, the point of all of this rambling is that a well-conceived, well-implemented strategic KM solution is a war chest that organizations can lean on, particularly in times of economic uncertainty. KM professionals need to be prepared to help their organizations navigate such waters while also demonstrating/confirming the value of KM AND building social capital, 'cause you can never have enough clout, baby!

How, you ask?
  1. Be aggressive and proactive in addressing the challenges facing the organization and in offering strategic solutions
    To paraphrase President Kennedy, "Ask not what KM might could do for your organization, get off your butt and show them" (yes, the bad grammar is intentional). It's possible that your organizational leadership will seek out your input on an impending economic downturn, but there's no guarantee. A strong sense of self-preservation is necessary, so don't play wait-and-see. Take initiative! And, if for some reason, they are hard-headed and don't want to listen, that should be your first and last clue to get out of Dodge anyway!
  2. Be a part of the process of assessing the organization's vulnerability to a recession and contingency planning
    If it turns out that such an assessment has already taken place, identify ways in which KM can be utilized and sketch out action plans for presentation to the leadership.
  3. Establish or strengthen critical partnerships
    Particularly with Sales, Product Development and Finance...especially Finance...and, also with HR. By understanding and successfully helping these departments to meet their KM needs during a time of crisis, you're not only making them KM co-champions, you're generating social capital among those who hold the ear of the-powers-that-be and, hopefully, elevating yourself into that role as well.
  4. Look for ways to leverage organizational knowledge
    I had a manager once who chided me for suggesting that we should build and sell our custom KMS to our clients as a new product offering. I understood his reasons for being against the idea, namely that the primary function of KM in that company was as a support service, not a revenue generator, but I disagreed. I still disagree.

    For me, what differentiates a Knowledge Manager from a corporate librarian (information 'gatekeeper') is the ability to take all of the knowledge and information resources that are being captured and shared, analyze it and develop strategies for leveraging it to improve an organization's market share and position. This is the holy grail of KM. Color me crazy, but in a bottom-line business what better way to demonstrate value than to have a direct impact on the bottom-line? Even though I know for many it isn't, in my opinion, this practice should be a regular part of a KMer's job. If it hasn't been, a recession would be a good time to demonstrate KM's ultimate value. (If you're doing your job correctly) You've got access to vast organizational information resources - use it!!

    As Carl George, Chairman of AICPA's National CPA Financial Literacy Commission posits, "Somebody's always making money, even in a recession, so if you can find out where those pockets are and if you have services you can provide to them, maybe you want to expand those services."
  5. Stay the KM course
    This is more for the leadership than the KM professionals. If you want people to continue their participation in KM intiatives, even with a cloud of doom floating above their heads, then continue to support and promote your KM initiative. Clearly, putting your KM strategy and/or professionals on the chopping block suggests that either you weren't really serious about KM in the first place or that the KM strategy you were working with sucked...I mean, it wasn't working for you.
Lastly, I came across this little gem of wisdom from Mark Riffey's "Business is Personal" blog:
"If an economic recession does occur, choose NOT to participate. Everyone else will be cutting back, weakening their companies. They will let go of people who might be hungry enough to be your next superstar. The weakest of them may fail, or come close to it.

Almost anyone can run a company successfully during good times. During less prosperous times, the real management shows itself by preparing for the next boom and strengthening themselves."
Outwit. Outlast. Outplay. Survive.


Mark Riffey said...


Thanks for your kind words about my post. I appreciate the link.

It's a brilliant idea to draw a line between Survivor and business.


Nina Platt said...

Very interesting post that can't be written about too often. I do, however, take exception to the comment about corporate librarians. Many librarians understand the need for strategy. Not all, but other professions have that problem as well. You may be thinking of the librarians you have known in the past. Today, if librarians don't operate strategically, focusing on knowledge and information whether it is internal or external, they too will find themselves in jobs that have little future or, unfortunately, unemployed .

Christian Young said...

Hi Nina,

Duly noted! I should have written corporate librarian in lower caps (I've changed it just now). My intention wasn't to 'knock' or downplay the role of Corporate Librarians (who may, in fact, be the sole KM professional in an organization), just to differentiate between someone who collects, organizes, and polices the access to information - a gatekeeper - versus those who actually look for ways to make that information more viable).

asenith said...

Good Morning

I am soooo happy I came across your blog. I recently applied for a Knowledge Manager position and have been conducting a bit of research on the specialization. I possess the skills for the work but not the applied knowledge. I would like a bit more insight into the actual process of managing knowledge.

A bit on my background, I have a Bachelor's in Sociology and a Master's in Urban Policy Studies. I've worked for the state legislature for over six years and have over seven years in the government affairs field.

Any thoughts on where I can go and who I can talk to about this?

Thank you

Christian Young said...

Good morning and thanks for reading my blog.

Gosh, trying to point you in the right direction is such a big deal, because there's so much information out there and, once you get past the useless info the rest can be a bit too academic, theoretical, and just plain wordy for my tastes.

If you send me your email address I will thumb through my favorite links and pass them along to you, however my best advice is to approach this opportunity (and all future KM endeavors) less like an applicant and more like a consultant - using the position description, interviews, and conversations (ask lots of questions - 'Why KM?, What's the culture? What is the level of support, Expectations of KM and of this role, etc.') to assess & identify the companies KM needs and pitching a strategy around those needs. I have a KM Roadmap that I use that I'd more than happy to share with you.

asenith said...

That would be awesome.

I noticed that the information I found on KM was a bit wordy, theoretical and in some instances difficult to decipher. I was really happy to find your blog. I also read the "Tough Love" article and will keep it for many years to come as well as pass it on to friends. I think it builds passion as a creative thinker and organizer.

Thanks for the advice for the interview. I've really been thinking about why this law firm would endeavor on this track and looked into the managers background for assistance in answering that question.

I look forward to any information/links you forward. Oh yes, I've downloaded your "Route KM" too.

Christian Young said...

Hello again! I hope things are goign well with your application/interviews. I came across a 2002 article at highlighting KM roadblocks and must-haves in law firms that you might find interesting!!

asenith said...

Thank you.