[The following is the text of the March 23, 2018 SMR Knowledge Services Podcast.]
Today we’re looking at strategy and how we knowledge strategists — some of us — think about knowledge strategy.
But before we get to working with knowledge strategy as a specific kind of strategy, it might be wise to focus on strategy in general, about what it is. And then, after we feel comfortable about our understanding of strategy in these more general terms, we can move on to how knowledge strategy connects with strategy itself.
Certainly many readers of these posts know about strategy, especially if you are a knowledge strategist working in business, organization development or organizational behavior, or in any other field that uses any one of the various approaches and methodologies we have for managing organizations. And it doesn’t matter what the organization’s subject specialization is. If there is a methodology in place for ensuring best performance from all stakeholders, and for ensuring success in achieving the organizational mission, you know something about how the organization is managed (at least as far as you and your immediate colleagues in the workplace are concerned). You know that there is something in place for achieving success. And, in all likelihood, you know that there is a strategy in place for guiding all the organization’s stakeholders in the direction of that success.
On the other hand, there are plenty of people who have come into knowledge services and without any particular education or training about management per se or about leadership or any of the other topics relating to organizational management, find themselves moving into the role of knowledge strategist, with all that that new role entails. These knowledge specialists, knowledge professionals, research managers, whatever background they are coming from, now find themselves with responsibility, authority, and accountability for how well information, knowledge, and strategic learning content are shared in the organization. And often with how information, knowledge, and strategic learning content are developed and used as well. It’s an enormous challenge, and it is a challenge sometimes even self-directed, for knowledge workers who clearly understand that with respect to knowledge sharing “things could be better” and they want to “do something about it.”
So it doesn’t really matter which group you belong to, does it? If you’re working with knowledge services, with anything having to do with information management (including technology management), KM, or strategic learning — the three components that converge to become knowledge services and which, not so incidentally, serve as the foundation for knowledge strategy — you want to know more about strategy itself. And about how strategy is defined in the organization, how the concept is thought about in the specific organization for which you are developing the knowledge strategy.
So before you get to knowledge strategy, you want to come up with and be prepared to discuss with others in the organization a clear definition of “strategy” itself, just to have in mind what you’re trying to do. Many definitions exist, of course, and since the task being defined or considered as the development of a knowledge strategy, it’s a good idea to first be comfortable with the overall concept of strategy, of what it is and how the concept is thought about and defined in the larger organization. And, along the way, how it will connect with strategizing (yes, there’s a verb for it) knowledge sharing within the organization.
And in any case, as the nascent knowledge strategist (or even, for more experienced knowledge professionals) moving toward having the tasks of the knowledge strategist incorporated into your job description, regardless of your current job title), you will more than likely be charged to lead the discussion, to bring all the players out onto the same “playing field,” so to speak, so that you’re all in agreement about what you’re trying to do and, more specifically, where you’re trying to go.
For me, in my experience, the best place to start is not with the larger concept of knowledge strategy but to think about strategy itself, that important management term or concept we deal with all the time, going all the way back in management history and characterized — as I indicated above — by a wide variety of different or “specialized” approaches to management that we all become familiar with over the years. Of course we have all our favorites. For me, of course, and no surprise to anyone who knows me, there is Peter Drucker, whose description of strategy usually narrows down to something like what we used to refer to as “strategic planning,” with the emphasis on the second word. Having written about strategic planning as early as 1973 and then having brought it up again in the re-write of his famous Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices twenty years later, Drucker referred to strategic planning as:
… the continuous process of making entrepreneurial decisions systematically and with the greatest knowledge of their futurity, organizing systematically the efforts needed to carry out these decisions, and measuring the results of these decisions against the expectations through organized systematic feedback. … The question that faces the strategic decision-maker is not what his organization should do tomorrow. It is “what do we have to do today to be ready for an uncertain tomorrow?”
So is it strategic planning? Or is it simply strategy itself?
Here, too, the master had something to say. He wrote in 1990 that he was once opposed to the term “strategy.”
I thought it smacked too much of the military. But I have slowly become a convert. [I originally disliked the term] because in many businesses and non-profit organizations, strategy is an intellectual exercise. But until it becomes actual work you have done nothing. … Strategies are action-focused. So I have reluctantly accepted the word because it’s clear that strategies are not something you hope for; strategies are something you work for.
So in today’s terms, perhaps we might think of strategy as something like a process, a plan, or a direction you use to identify and implement what the work is going to be. And then you do the work.
And certainly there are other descriptions of strategy, ideas about how we lay out our plans for what we want to do and then use them to guide us as we seek to implement them into our working toward success, however success is defined in the organizations in which knowledge services is practiced.
And we all have our own ways of giving some meaning to how we deal with strategy in the workplace. For me, I tend to go a little informal, thinking of strategy as something like a set of actions or activities that will produce an established and/or agreed-upon goal. And this seems to work most of the time when I’m speaking about strategy and as I move into talking about transitioning strategy as a general concept to the more specific context of knowledge strategy.
Related to that, not surprisingly, I have a personal favorite, a discussion about strategy I picked up a few years ago from a colleague in Melbourne (I’ve been lucky to work in Australia on a number of occasions and my professional interactions there have always been extremely rewarding). This colleague and I never knew one another all that well — although we’ve tried to stay in touch over the years — and while we never really worked together, we often spoke together about KM and knowledge services and our role as managers and advisors in the knowledge domain. His name is Shawn Callahan, and some time ago (I can’t remember the exact situation or the source of the quotation), I read that Shawn defines strategy as “a plan to be executed in the future to achieve specific objectives” (along the lines of that “established and/or agreed-upon goal” I mentioned in my own informal thoughts about strategy).
Specifically, Shawn takes his “executed in the future to achieve specific objectives” to a new level (for me), providing a description that is particularly viable for the knowledge strategist. He states that strategy should be viewed as a combination of two elements: 1) the actions that are intended to result in anticipated business outcomes; and 2) the actions that emerge as a result of the many complex activities that are undertaken within an organization. And — again from my own point of view — it’s these actions (particularly the latter one) that take us back to Drucker and his advocacy that we pay particular attention to the role of strategy in helping us deal with that “uncertain tomorrow” he talks about.
So there are a few thoughts about strategy and how we might find ourselves incorporating different approaches to strategy into our work as knowledge strategists. Does it make sense to you, as a knowledge strategist? Or even more interestingly, if you are someone getting started in your work as a knowledge strategist? I hope so.