Monday, November 30, 2015

If I had a Hammer - Lessons in Knowledge Management

Disclaimer – the opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the US Government, the Department of Defense, the Army or the Corps of Engineers.
There is a warning that if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.  As a librarian I learned to be wary of always going to the same resource just because I knew how to use it.  There might be a better source for a piece of information from a different source and I should make the effort to know more about all the resources available.

At the outset of my career in libraries I worked as a cataloger.  As part of my training I enrolled in a course at the University of Maryland titled, the Organization of Knowledge.  I thought it was a bit grandiose.  But the course and the professor, the late C. David Batty, opened my eyes to the possibilities of what libraries can be and what librarians can do.

I recall writing a paper for that course way back in the spring of 1989 and I imagined a student writing a paper based upon online research.  It occurred to me that it wasn’t realistic to expect a librarian to know everything.  What I looked for in my education and training was to learn how to find out where all the information is and how to access it.  I had latched on to knowledge management before I even knew it was something.

Since then I have tried to work my way toward a better understanding of who knows what and how do I find information.  I have learned much from my teachers and fellow students as well as my colleagues and co-workers.

KM – the next evolutionary step

KM is a practical outgrowth of library work.  As librarians we learn about our collection and the tools we have – the resources at our disposal.  Then we learn what is available through our networks with other libraries and librarians.  As special librarians we understand that our collection is focused.  Even then we don’t have everything.  As a librarian with different banking regulators I made use of our contacts with librarians at other banking agencies and institutions.

We also know our patrons.  We come to learn who is working on a project and who has an interest in a particular topic.  That’s how we learn who the experts are within our organization.  When junk bonds and derivatives became hot topics I learned a little bit, but I quickly learned who the agency experts were.  There was something quite satisfying to directing someone at the agency to one of our resident experts.  I could facilitate knowledge and also help to develop a professional relationship between two people.

Over the years of attending library conferences I would always look for any of the presentations on the subject of Knowledge Management. 

The most recent was KM in the Trenches at the 2014 SLA Conference in Vancouver.  The presenters were Ulla de Stricker, Cindy Shamel and Connie Crosby.

Army KM

In 2014 I took part in a 3-week Army KM Training course.  I was one of five civilians, the rest were all active duty soldiers and a few reservists.  The US Army has long recognized the importance of knowledge management.  They have incorporated it into their doctrine.

Field Manual 6-01.1- Knowledge Management Operations, dated July 2012 describes KM as:
Knowledge management (KM) is the process of enabling knowledge flow to enhance shared
understanding, learning, and decision-making. Knowledge flow refers to the ease of movement of knowledge within and among organizations. Knowledge must flow to be useful. The purpose of knowledge management is to create shared understanding through the alignment of people, processes, and tools within the organizational structure and culture in order to increase collaboration and interaction between leaders and subordinates. This results in better decisions and enables improved flexibility, adaptability, integration, and synchronization to achieve a position of relative advantage. Sound KM practices enhance

  • Collaboration among personnel at different places.
  • Rapid knowledge transfer between units and individuals.
  • Reach-back capability to Army schools, centers of excellence, and other resources.
  • Leader and Soldier agility and adaptability during operations.
  • Doctrine development.
  • An organization’s ability to capture lessons learned throughout each force pool of the Army force generation (ARFORGEN) cycle.
  • Effective and efficient use of knowledge in conducting operations, and supporting organizational learning are essential functions of KM.

Battle Rhythm

The Army runs its day according to what they call Battle Rhythm.  According to Joint Publication 3-33, battle rhythm is a routine cycle of command and staff activities intended to synchronize current and future operations.

KM is used as a process to review battle rhythm and improve communication and make sure the rhythm is working.  The process looks at the people, processes and tools in place, along with the culture of the organization to identify any knowledge or performance gaps and look for ways of closing those gaps.  Sometimes you find that it is a matter of communication or a need to include someone in a process.  Other times there may be a technology solution – making better use of a tool that is already available.

The Army is very serious about the KM process and they have invested in a training course to ensure they have knowledge managers and knowledge operators at all levels of the organization.

Example – the Army KM Process:

Much of what the Army focuses on in its KM process is coordinating communications.  And that is similar to our role as a librarian.  The Army follows a five-step process – Assess, Design, Develop, Pilot and Implement.


A patron or customer comes to us with a need for information.  Sometimes that need is quite clear and the patron can state it well.  Other times we have to work to understand it what the information need really is.  We are familiar with this process as the Reference interview.

We can call it something else – and in the KM world when we are working outside the library, we would do well to call this the Assessment phase.  It involves a good deal of communication, empathy and patience on our part.  We need to hear the person out before rushing to solve a problem that we don’t fully understand.  In the KM assessment you often want to talk to all the parties involved because you might miss key pieces of information if you only hear from one or two people or people who are only involved with one aspect of the issue.  This step helps us to identify the knowledge or performance gap that may exist. 


The next step is to start our research into the problem.  This is another step that we as librarians understand.  We start our research for a patron, but we might need to go back to her/him to clarify what the need is or to check if we are on the right path.  Sometimes we find a new area of information that the patron wasn’t aware of before and needs to know about that before we can do anything more.


As a knowledge worker or part of a team we develop a new process to solve the perceived gap.  Even in this part of the process we communicate with others to make sure we are on the right path.


Here we test our new process or tool with a subset of the people in the process.  As librarians we have done this with new technologies and resources.  It involves training and testing then making some adjustments.  In the realm of research we might show a patron some examples of what we have found in and check that we are still on target since we first assessed and refined the information need.


Finally the step when we roll out the solution to the problem.  Or deliver the results of our research.  There is always a timeliness factor – but we don’t want to rush to a solution that skips the other steps because we may have missed something crucial along the way.  That can lead to even more work as we then have to assess to see where we went wrong.


Of the four components of the KM process – the processes and tools at our disposal are often easier to see.  The people and the culture of the organization are perhaps more important and often more mystical.

It is important to involve all the stakeholders in a process.  You might find out that the reason a communications process is failing is because the lone clerk needs training on a step of the process.  If you don’t ask the clerk you may not find out what is missing.

I grew up in West Virginia.  One year when the news was reporting the election results there was one hold out precinct in my home county that wasn’t reporting.  There was all manner of conjecture of what was going on.  The breakdown happened because the single light bulb at the polling station had burned out so the poll workers locked everything up and went home until the morning.

Organizational culture:

It is also important to understand the culture of an organization in order to successfully assess a problem and design a solution for it.  Even the training and implementation step can be derailed if you don’t understand the culture.

I have worked for a couple banking agencies.  The majority of the employees worked as bank examiners – or they did at one time.  Bank examiners travel in groups and they are on the road a lot.  To be more efficient they break for lunch at 11:30 so they can get to the local diner before the regular lunch crowd arrives at noon.  The culture at those agencies is that lunch is at 11:30.  Imagine trying to hold a training session that goes past 11:30 and is creeping past 11:45.  No one has been listening to the trainer for the past 15 minutes.

Also find the cheerleaders and get them onboard to help motivate the implementation.  There are plenty of naysayers around.  If you can get them as allies in the process you can often move ahead with a faster implementation.

One library was rolling out a new interface for an ILS and by chance the librarian in charge called on the least tech-savvy staff member.  She was on the spot and cautious, but quickly picked up the new interface and was won over.  Part of that was from being asked to be involved and the other because she wanted to show that she could do it.  It worked out well all around!

At SLA 2014, Ulla de Stricker mentioned an insight to one company where she worked.  The boss didn’t want to hear about KM.  He didn’t think it was important and would dismiss any talk of it.  Her response was to call it something other than KM.  You can call it time-management, improved communications processes, or anything else that will satisfy the boss.

Librarians and KM:

Libraries are part of the KM process in any organization whether the managers and leadership recognize it or not!  People who need information come to the library.  Okay, not all of them and not every time.

I attended a meeting of the KM discussion group at my current job shortly after I came on board.  They had a slide showing the KM structure including various knowledge workers.  I asked if we could add the Library Program into the slide.  They were a little embarrassed because they all know that the libraries play a role, but they didn’t include it in the visual representation.

For many years I have believed that libraries should be part of the KM structure of an organization.  I have worked in agencies where the library has been part of administrative services, financial services, contracting, IT and public affairs.  There is some logic to the placement in any of those structures. 

Only one agency where I have worked has their libraries seated within the organization that they serve – the Federal Reserve Board.  At the FED, the Research Library is part of the Research Division and the Law Library is part of the Legal Division.

Too often the library reports up to leaders who don’t use the library services very much.  If an agency has a Chief Knowledge Officer I seek that person out to suggest that the library be part of that organization.  The library should be part of the Knowledge Office along with our sister organizations – Records Management and Publications among others.

Libraries are stakeholders in Knowledge Management and it is important that we maintain an active role in the KM.  There are certification courses available through SLA, universities and other professional organizations. 

Many librarians are very happy serving in the role of a traditional library and they aren’t looking to re-invent themselves.  That’s fine: but realize that, as librarians, we are part of knowledge management.  We obtain, classify and catalog and maintain information and we make it available to others.  We have been knowledge workers since the first libraries were established.  We have always been on the cutting edge of the information age.

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