Knowledge Management: Building the Bridge while Crossing It

Some time ago I was invited to lead KM implementation at an Oil & Gas Major Projects Contractor (six thousand staff). I was reporting to the CEO’s right hand man who was a former senior officer in Royal Navy submarines. An Engineer by background, he was a character who had seen a lot of the world and a leader in the classic sense of the word. Energetic and visionary, the staff liked and trusted him so I knew I had to engage him well in KM.

Until that point, the organisation had seen KM as an IT system built around a Lessons Learned Data Base (LLDB) and document management. But it hadn’t worked; I recall on my first day being given a tour of the head office including seeing the LLDB – the comment made to me was, “we have 24,000 lessons on there but we don’t know what to do with them.” Process documents were available but not well maintained and applied. I recall my manager saying to me, “we know this system & document-led approach doesn’t work, there is a people engagement side that we are missing, how do we do this?”

Strategic KM is about taking a holistic approach that is a blend of roles, process, technology and governance – supported by very effective communications to deliver the change in outlooks required.

Crucially, it also requires a great deal of piloting – you can’t copy and paste roles & techniques from place to place or even predict the detail of what will work. The act of piloting, engaging and helping staff to test what works, adapting and tailoring the KM approach that works for them is very important to success in achieving the behavioural and cultural change that is required. The right approach for the organisation evolves and emerges over time, bringing people along with you as the staff themselves play a key role in making it right for them. It’s like building a bridge while crossing it with a spirit of innovation and experimentation.

This last point turned out to be a key one. Two years after we started this and a learning organisation was emerging, my manager said, “This is working well. When we started this, I wasn’t sure this evolve and emerge approach would work - but it does.”

I had some sympathy with this, I had also been an engineer by background (eg parking oil rigs alongside platforms in the North Sea applying a combination of GPS and lasers to supervise positioning aspects) - I had learned that implementing an authentic KM outlook was a different approach to my experience in engineering.

Previously in my Engineering related operations I had done everything I could to eliminate ambiguity up front, but in implementing KM I had learned that working together with staff to discuss, air and resolve ambiguity together was very powerful in making and clarifying a new KM environment. Simply stated, KM is a holistic approach managing knowledge as an asset, implemented through effective change management and bearing in mind the maxim, “people support what they create”.