Building the Knowledge Culture

Other Voices: Johel Brown-Grant on Working with Knowledge Strategy in Technology Management

Guy St. Clair


Over the past four or five years, I’ve been observing a new sense of collaboration between technology “people” and KM “people.” Colleagues seem to be talking about this subject a lot, and there’s a general sense of agreement that the so-called “separation” between information technology and KM is breaking down. Indeed (in one example) some  companies are re-naming the corporate intranet, now referring to that critical communication and knowledge-sharing tool as the “corporate KM system.”

And why not? We’re all trying to reach the same goal, aren’t we?

Inspired by this new approach (is it a trend? let’s not go that far – it’s a little soon to tell), I asked Johel Brown-Grant to tell us a little about his work. Johel is Assistant Dean of Instructional Technology and Media at the Columbia Journalism School in New York City and he recently added the M.S. in Information and Knowledge Strategy to his other degrees, including his Ph.D.

Here’s Johel’s guest blog describing some of the knowledge strategy approaches he’s using in the technology group at the Journalism School:

Brown-Grant 2013 03 20As the leader of the technology division of the Journalism School I have been working with my staff to pilot a small, but ambitious knowledge strategy to bring more efficiency to our division’s operations. The division is organized in three areas: information technology, broadcasting and multimedia, and educational technology. An initial knowledge audit revealed that the strengthening of certain areas in our operations would yield greater operational efficiency and this, in turn, would directly enhance productivity in our division and in the Journalism School at large (our long-term goal is to share the lessons from this implementation with the stakeholders of our school and hopefully replicate this strategy throughout the larger institution).

Our pilot knowledge strategy is based on two implementations, the capture of tacit knowledge and the share and transfer of knowledge.

In the first – the capture of tacit knowledge – we have focused on formalizing the documentation processes that exist in our division. By recognizing and declaring that documentation is an essential practice in all the departments of the division, managers are able to work with staff to integrate this practice into their daily routines. An important part of this process manager’s work is to document information about processes and procedures that are essential to the organization, or helpful to other departments in the division. In formalizing this approach to document processing, we are helping staff develop the habit of documenting innovative solutions to problems or difficulties that come up in the implementation of a process or repair. As part of this activity, we are documenting notes and agendas of staff meetings, creating a knowledge base that we will use to gauge our growth and progress over specific work cycles. Our benchmark for success will be a full integration of documentation in the routines of every staff person in the division.

In our second implementation we are establishing robust practices focusing on the transfer and sharing of knowledge, starting with a review of our on-boarding processes. Our goal here is to develop a series of activities through which new employees get important, just-in time information about their department and the division at large. This implementation grows out of two frameworks in our workplace.

Intradepartmental knowledge sharing

Strong technology implementations are based on robust redundancy processes, and we are using that same approach for the transfer and sharing of knowledge. As a result we are pairing up new employees with experienced staff members to facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge. Our immediate goal is to enable new staff members to perform certain duties and functions if a staff member is missing.

Interdepartmental knowledge sharing

We are also working to improve the transfer and sharing of knowledge between departments in our division, with the goal of minimizing the development of a siloed or “stand-alone” mentality. To achieve this goal, we are promoting interdepartmental discussion and cooperation at all levels (not just among managers) and between staff members in the different departments. We base this effort on our belief that the more each department knows about the work and projects of the other, the more we can help each other solve problems. Where possible, we actively encourage the collaboration between staff members of different departments by highlighting their expertise in particular areas or fields of interest (as is often the case, even in small technology organizations, not everyone is aware of colleagues’ areas of expertise or special skills.) One of our goals here is to capture this intra- and interdepartmental expertise informally, so it can be shared with the organization at large.

– March 21, 2013

  1. Guy St. Clair says:

    Ben Keefe at the Knowledge Management Division of SLA’s LinkedIn Group writes:

    That’s interesting. I know that my role involves quite a bit of interaction with technology. I think it helps because I can understand what’s possible with the technology, and compare that to what people want.

    Guy responds:
    Thanks, Ben, for your thoughtful comment. I think that’s what I like about what Johel is doing in his work, teaching his staff and his colleagues what’s possible with technology. Good way to put it. It’s knowledge development and knowledge sharing (what we like to call “KD/KS”) at its best, isn’t it?

  2. Guy St. Clair says:

    Howard Nevin at The Institute for Knowledge and Innovation at GWU LinkedIn site writes:

    One aspect that needs to be explored is the “visionary” aspect of how knowledge can be leveraged (not just shared) by technology and conversely, what knowledge can spur the direction technology implementations in organizations take. Another aspect is what technologies can expand knowledge capture and leveraging that.

    Guy responds:
    A very thoughtful comment, Howard, and I agree totally (and I expect Johel agrees as well). It’s very important that we give attention to leveraging/utilizing knowledge and while I tend to get all caught up in the KD/KS “bit” – recognizing that some organizations need encouragement with respect to the “sharing” – you are right in noting that knowledge when developed is a critical element in organizational success/effectiveness when it is leveraged and implemented to its full capacity.

    Thanks for responding with your good thoughts.

  3. At The Institute for Knowledge and Innovation at GWU LinkedIn site, Howard Nevis continued the discussion:

    Thanks, and BTW — I am a GW Alum

    After 4+ decades in technology spanning IT, energy, and a number of other areas, I’ve been exposed to and worked with numerous organizations in which knowledge truly was a criticial asset and resource of the company. Knowledge was NOT king … it was the lifeblood of the organization.

    But there are rules about knowledge, and knowledge sharing, and none stand out more than when the shuttle Challenger burned up on atmospheric reentry on February 1, 2003. (This hit me since I was at Martin Marietta in Orlando 17 years earlier when the shuttle Columbia exploded after take off. I was with people working ON that program who knew the crew very well.) Some months after the Challenger tragedy I was at a luncheon of NASA contractors, and the guest speaker was the NEW director of Safety for NASA. Around me were perhaps 200 wizened technical and marketing folks. Columbia was mentioned as was Challenger in quiet pre-lunch conversation.

    When our speaker addressed us, he mentioned that the greater tragedy (my word) about the recent shuttle disaster was that different pieces of NASA HAD all the information which, if they had put it together, would have raised the flags relating to the pending problem that destroyed the shuttle and took the crews’ lives. This insight was made public, BTW.

    He went on to say one thing that rang so very, very true, and reinforced a tenet I had formed years earlier:

    we know what we do know, we know what we don’t know, we don’t know what we don’t know … AND we sometimes don’t know – or share — what we DO know ….

    NASA had the knowledge/information re the potential problem inhouse and basically held in pieces by different groups. Again, if they had put it together, if the groups had shared information, it would have triggered the flags relating to the pending problem that destroyed the shuttle and took the crew members’ lives.

    Part of knowledge management and the roll that IT can play is in connecting the dots. There are scant few people who can keep volumes of data and info and knowledge in their heads and be able to apply and leverage all of that in different situations and for different needs/purposes.

    In 1991-94 I had the opportunity to work on a system for DOE … and a key – CORE CRITICAL – function of that system was determination of data being input at 23 major data accession stations and thousands of user terminals, and any necessary automatic notification and routing if required of that info to the few-to-thousands of people who might need it based on their “knowledge required” profile. The profile was derivied from a 3000-word lexicon that was critically and carefully defined for accuracy, and a simple rule set. In a way, it was content, context AND semantically driven.

    This was 1993. I think we can do better today.

    Guy’s comment:

    What a story, Howard! Thank you for sharing it with our readers.

  4. Guy St. Clair says:

    Suresh D. Nair at the SLA Knowledge Management Division Group writes:

    Quite interesting and seems doable by any organization.

    Guy responds:

    Absolutely. I see many applications for Johel’s thinking across many different environments. Thanks for the good comment.

  5. Posted by Stephanie Barnes at the Special Libraries Association Knowledge Management Division Group site:

    Aligning and integrating people, process, and technology is an approach I have always advocated for, but I definitely noticed a shift at KM World 2012, much more talk about the importance of everyone working together. I also just did a talk to ARMA Metro NY on this very topic (also here’s a link to a summary of trends that I noticed at KM World 2012 )

    Guy responds:

    Thanks so much for this, Stephanie, and for the KMWorld 2012 update. And I wish I had been at your ARMA presentation. Really appreciate your sharing this content with us.

    And a note from Stephanie: you’re welcome Guy, let me know if you have any questions about any of the presentations, I’m happy to talk to you/anyone else about them. (my Ark Group report on Aligning People, Process, and Technology in KM is here ), if you’re interested in more details.

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