July 21, 2008

Putting the 'M' (Back?) in KM

OR, "Everything I Ever Really Needed To Know About Management I Learned Captaining a Tennis Team"

Wow, I can't believe it's almost been two months since my last post. In June, I was working on a Gossip Girl inspired KM post to mark the end of the series' first season, but between the untimely passing of a good friend and drama surrounding the project I'm currently working on, I haven't had much desire to blog. This past weekend however, the dark clouds of my project have passed over and I'm gradually becoming a little less melancholy about my friend.

It also helps that the Summer USTA and ALTA season's have come to an end. I'm always excited at the start of each tennis season but, to be frank, I'm equally excited when it's over. Captaining one team is like holding down a part-time job, captaining two teams is stressful as all-get-out! Being team Captain though (and interacting with all of those other captains) has emphasized for me how supremely easy it is to be a crappy manager (regardless of results) and, also, how little recognition good managers can receive from their 'troops', superiors, and peers. Sometimes, I think that good managers don't truly get noticed and appreciated until the shit hits the fan and their skills and experience come to the rescue.

That's actual skill and experience I'm talking about...not luck; know the difference.

At the same time, I've been on the receiving end of some really bad management with my current project (micro-management, bureaucracy, poor planning, tunnel vision - the works). So, my work and play activities have coalesced into this commentary on the importance of management in knowledge management.

Most Knowledge Managers, at some point, have been (or will be) asked how exactly one manages knowledge. For my part, I'm able to recognize when this question is a genuine attempt to understand what KM is all about and when the inquirer is asking solely to be an argumentative ass. Still, I think that it's worth pointing out the need for Knowledge Managers to perceive of and conduct themselves as managers in every sense.

With KM, it's easy to get caught up in strategy design, systems design, processes, taxonomies and a range of tasks - big and small - associated with capturing and organizing information and knowledge-based activity and resources. So much so that the term 'manager' in KM is used more often as a verb than a noun. But, regardless if you are the sole KM resource in your organization or you have an actual staff working with you, shouldn't it be both?

Putting the 'M' (back?) in KM, emphasizing the management aspect of knowledge management, is critical to promoting a sense of empowerment among KM professionals. As Dr. Gerard Blair writes in his article, What Makes A Great Manager:

"When you become a manager, you gain control over your own work; not all of it, but some of it. You can change things. You can do things differently. You actually have the authority to make a huge impact upon the way in which your staff work. You can shape your own work environment."

A manager has influence and authority. A capital 'KM' Knowledge Manager is a change agent; a lower case 'km' knowledge manager is a functionary. It may seem like semantics, but how we are perceived (by others and ourselves) can have a tremendous impact on how we perform, what we feel capable of achieving, and what we actually accomplish.

Despite our designation, Knowledge Managers are not exclusively managing knowledge or information (even though that's clearly a responsibility of the job). We are also in the business of managing relationships that influence how information is shared; how shared information becomes (and generates) knowledge; and how the combination of relationships, knowledge, and information can be leveraged for a variety of purposes (and if you're not, then you should be!)

How each of us achieves our KM goals will vary greatly - that goes without saying - but principles of good management are universal and an important factor in the success of KM...if not the strategy itself, then at least the person/people guiding the strategy.

In his critical reflection, "Confessions of a Reformed Manager: Seven Principles for Becoming a Good Manager", Leadership Trainer & Coach, Randy Siegel offers the following seven principles for becoming a good manager:

  • Good managers know themselves.
  • Good managers share themselves, as well as their knowledge.
  • Good management is servant leadership.
  • Good managers manage the whole person.
  • Good managers thrive on feedback.
  • Good managers constantly check in with their intentions.
  • When good managers make mistakes, they correct them fast.
By inserting 'knowledge' before manager in each of these statements, we begin to see how relevant these principles are to the work we do as well as the way in which we do it.

For my part, I'm not sure if I would describe myself as a great manager (that's like describing yourself as looking "hot" or being a "great catch"....conceited much?!?!) and I'll refrain from climbing up on my usual soapbox and 'enligtening' the masses with Management According to Christian. There are, after all, thousands of books and articles on the subject just waiting to be read. However, in closing, I will share what I've learned about being a manager from my role as team Captain.

Everything I Ever Really Needed To Know About Management I Learned From Captaining A Tennis Team

You can post messages on the team management site (that everyone knows about because you badgered them to log-on and setup their profile), send out the most carefully constructed, colorful, catchy, concise and detailed emails known to mankind (twice), and a supporting text message, for good measure, and it's still a sure bet that the night before your match more than one person will be clueless as to whether or not they're playing, when, where, and what food contribution their meant to bring.

In your personal life, over-communication may be relationship suicide, but in tennis and business matters it's better to over do it than get caught ass-out. The trick is to understand the variety of ways you have access to your people and treat each critical communiqué as all out war.

Or you could pull a 'Miranda Priestly' and just have everyone be deathly afraid of you and hang on your every word.

Yeah, that works too.

As Salt 'n Pepa so eloquently rhymed in their 1995 Grammy Award-winning song, 'None of Your Business', "Opinions are like assholes and everybody's got one".

So harsh, yet so true.

Ironically, while few want the responsibility of leadership (even less so once they realize what the work involves), almost everyone wants to tell you how to do your job. Often, it seems like you spend more time managing criticism than anything else.

While being a great manager involves eliciting and considering feedback, it's important to remember that, ultimately, the buck stops with you and your level of accountability is the highest of your team. So, set boundaries and heed your own counsel (unless you have a poor track record of making good decisions, then don't).

And, when able, always make leadership decisions that minimize your personal levels of stress and aggravation. Don't go putting yourself out unnecessarily; masochism is so '80s.

A good Vision is contagious.

I have a vision that one day my team will not only be recognized for the outstanding food and hospitality we offer our opponents, but will take the State championship as well. I'm still waiting for that day to arrive (hopefully before Hell's wildly anticpated freezing over), but for now I'm content with the reputation that my team has created for being fun-loving, amiable, and fantastic hosts! Teams in other divisions talk about us and even players who leave my team to join others or create their own take that vision with them and try to emulate it. In business, that kind of buy-in is priceless.

The key: keep it simple, make it achieveable, and, most importantly, believe in it yourself!

Hard to believe, but playing League tennis has done wonders for my planning skills. Not surprisingly since, quite literally, you have to begin planning for the next season as soon as the current one begins (at least with ALTA).

As a result, you come to understand that planning is an on-going process. Short-term, you're planning each week's matches, lineups, and practice sessions (which are driven by the previous week's performance); simultaneously, for the long-term, you're planning the next season - securing courts, recruiting new players, maybe trying out new coaches; and all of this planning activity is interconnected and under the umbrella of your overall vision for the team.

While your team members are focused on the very next match they are going to play, you have to be able to see both the details and the bigger picture. In the beginning, it's daunting, to be sure, but blessedly, it can all be learned. Which is a good thing too, because the workplace is significantly less forgiving environment to learn some lessons.

Ah, now we come to the area that most challenges my leadership skills. All I can say is Thank God IRB approval isn't necessary to be Team Captain 'cause I'm sure I'd be sitting before a tribunal by now facing some sort of ethics charges. Okay, maybe it's not that bad and I'm certainly no B.F. Skinner or (IMO, the anti-Christ of knowledge management) 'Dick' Taylor (don't ever get me started on my utter dislike of scientific management/Taylorism, but trying to understand what motivates the variety of players on any team - work or play - and then implement motivational techniques/strategies is enough to drive anyone bonkers. I've tried various incentives, disincentives and positive and negative reinforcement tactics; next season I'm even pushing the team up to a higher level of play to encourage a stronger sense of competition.

I suppose, if I've learned anything about motivation it's that you have to start by recruiting team members who have a good attitude to begin with. And, you have to be willing to get rid of people with a bad attitude. Again, it sounds harsh, but in the long run you aren't doing yourself any favors by indulging the whims of divas and "Bad Andy's". Beyond that, focus on developing people's potential; the more success they lay claim to, the more they want and that can be priceless motivation.

For example, I have players on my team that started out with little or no tennis experience and no one wanted to play with them (as a doubles team). Less than a year later they are, undoubtedly, they were (and still are) the most popular players on the team (as well as some of the best). Contrast that with the players who came on board as self-styled 'rock stars' who are definitely good players, but their egos take up so much room on the court that few people want to play with them. Each season I've had to uninvite at least one of these folks from the team. It's hard to 'fire' folks that don't fit the team you're managing, but at all times you've got to do what's best for the team.


"What's the use of running if you are not on the right
- German proverb

For the purpose of full disclosure, I must admit, modestly, of course, that I'm fortunate enough to be something of a strategist, naturally. While my duties as Captain have benefitted from this skill, it's my on-court time that has helped to sharpen them.

During a match, too many players (even some of mine) enter into play with Plan A and when that falls apart so does their game. You see this happen with business strategies all the time. If you're a smart cookie, you learn the art of continuously developing strategies - from Plan A to Plan AAA - re-evaluating your options and taking a new approach to your game, as needed and on-the-fly, for the duration of your match.

Of course, sometimes you just get out-played, it happens. But, in either sport or business, having a quick mind and being able to keep your wits about you in stressful situations is what keeps you one step ahead in the game.