[Ed O’Neal and Guy St. Clair got to know one another at the recent KM Education Forum Summit in Washington, where they talked together about KM work in the corporate structure. Thanks to Ed for sharing his thoughts with SMR’s readers.]
In and out of KM for a career…
I spent 24 years in the military before transitioning to the corporate world as an Organizational Effectiveness Leader for Manufacturing and then to KM. In my experience, few people are what might be called “pure” KM practitioners. Everyone seems to come to this work after experience in IT, information management, education and training, human resources, or some core business activity (“the field”).
I have 7 people on my KM team, and some of my best people came from IT backgrounds, not because they build tools but because they help the team communicate KM issues in terms IT folks can relate to. Information managers are great, too. They bring organization and structure to how we store and retrieve information, and learning folks bring the need to connect KM to our learning systems as an enabler for organizational learning and capability building.
Then there are folks from the field, people like Kenneth, who was a communications systems technician. He does not have formal KM training but Kenneth is a great teacher, communicator and role model for continuous learning and for sharing what he knows. Learning basic KM principles and processes was not a huge hurdle for Kenneth – he had been doing this his whole career.
I really need people like Kenneth on my team because they understand the environments where KM gets used and creates business value. Kenneth worked offshore in the Gulf of Mexico for 28+ years (14 days on, 14 off) and knows the environment, challenges, and people – he knows what motivates and interests them. He now leads the Best Practice replication process for our offshore assets in the Gulf of Mexico, and Kenneth will likely do 4-5 years in a KM role and retire or go to a non-KM role in operations. I believe that people moving in and out of KM roles over a career is actually good for the person and good for the business.
In my company, there are about 20 people globally whose job title is something related to knowledge management. I have shared with all my team members that KM is not a career in and of itself. There are not enough positions to accommodate a real career ladder and leaving this work to return to the field is good for them and KM (and this applies to me as well).
KM requires energy, enthusiasm, fresh ideas and passion, and moving in and out of KM roles provides a break from the field and an opportunity to demonstrate an individual’s many possible contributions to the business. My “dream team” would be half formally trained KM practitioners and half people from the field… the best of both worlds.
[Ed O’Neal is Learning Transfer Manager, Upstream Americas, at Shell Exploration & Production, Learning & OE in Houston TX. He can be contacted at Edward.ONeal@shell.com.]
John Schumaker at LinkedIn’s Special Libraries Association Group writes:
Surprising article and very informative. People who start in KM then leave and re-enter bring frsh ideas into the industry, I take it?
Guy St. Clair: That’s it exactly, John. For many of us, collaboration is the very basis of KM success, and by going “in and out,” as Ed puts it, we enable – and probably strengthen – our collaboration skills. And isn’t that what knowledge development and knowledge sharing (KD/KS) is all about?
Thanks for your good observation.
Benedict Juliano at LinkedIn’s Knowledge Managers Group wrote:
Agreed. As much as I would love to have a KM career… its not feasible in the current global corporate environment. But just because your job title or scope doesn’t include KM doesn’t mean you stop practicing or leveraging it.
Frank Leistner, also at LinkedIn’s Knowledge Managers Group, wrote:
I think the fact that there are not enough roles looking into KM more consistently over time is one of the reasons it fails so often as well. I can relate to the switch between field and KM to some degree, but on the other hand without some consistency how we are going to get the right push and embed it into an organization. We developed focussed roles for almost anything in an organization, just “the most important asset” is something that everybody is supposed to be an expert about. Without the proper investment, the proper education and the right long-term strategy it does not work.
So my hope is that organizations will wake up some day and actually invest more into those support structures vs. just spending it all on “magic technology”. I agree, with you Benedict, the fact that this is not where most organizations are, should not stop you, but it should not keep us from trying to get the necessary support infrastructures established.
And yes, the key is not that they have a KM title, the key is that they do KM core functions – and do it for a living.
Comment from Robert Taylor at LinkedIn’s Knowledge Managers Group:
KM’s been my core career these 25 years – as a consultant and as a manager. But it’s had its ups and downs and it’s been tough to keep on that track. I’ve seen many fall off (or get pushed off). I’d say I’ve spent half of my attention over that time in areas I would not readily identify as KM – partially to shore-up the KM role and partially to learn about other areas. I find they always connect back to KM and make the KM better. What really came home to me at a conference very recently was just how many people there now seem to be who identify their roles and careers with KM – including some still coming in even now as the first ambassadors for their companies.
Guy St. Clair comments: Agree totally, Robert (and wonder if we were at the same conference). Not only are we finding more and more people working in knowledge management, but we have more and more corporate and organizational leaders interested in KM as a concept – although it’s often up to those of us working in KM/knowledge services/knowledge strategy to educate management and raise the awareness of the “people in charge.”
Nevertheless, you’ve stated the current situation well, and the alteration of KM-specific work with other work is always valuable.
Thanks for the good comment.