By Meredith Farkas | July 2, 2006
On Friday, I had a meeting with the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies to discuss future plans for integrating information literacy instruction into the curriculum. On several occasions I brought up issues that involved communication problems between the programs and the library. In response, he discussed the internal communication problems he’s seen. He said that it was so easy when there were only a few online graduate programs to get everyone in a room and frequently discuss what is going on. Now, with so many programs and so many employees, he only hears about things when they’re really bad or really good. Programs don’t know what other programs are doing. Even within programs, the communication isn’t always great. E-mails don’t go out to everyone they should and some people are just so inundated with e-mails that they don’t read them all. Clearly something needs to change to make sure everyone is on the same page and that knowledge is being transmitted better. But, as the Dean said, “it’s not like I can say, let’s get our R&D people on this” (we’re a small school and don’t have R&D people or really anyone who has the time to handle this).
A few months after I had started my job, the Dean discussed with me the idea of using blogs and wikis to improve internal communication. I had done a presentation on these tools and he could really see the potential uses for improving communication and collaboration. Terrific! However, when these ideas were presented to the entire group at a retreat, it became clear to me that blogs and wikis were not going to fly. Many people saw blogs and wikis as yet more tools that they would have to use and as a burden, rather than something to improve and streamline communications. Some people were just plain antagonistic to new technologies. A few people saw them as replacements to talking and believed that the best way to communicate was just walking to someone else’s desk and chatting with them (try doing that when there are 100 or more employees). Obviously the culture was very stuck on their ways of doing things, even if those ways were just not always working.
I found this myself recently, when I tried to standardize the way I and the copyright permissioning person receive required readings. I first have to check these readings to see if they’re available in our databases or on the Web. Then if things aren’t available through either means, I send it on to the person who handles copyright permissioning. We receive the required readings in all sorts of formats and often without much of the information we need to do our jobs. So I developed a spreadsheet that would help us to get the information we need and to easily keep track of where in the process the readings are. And we told them that we could do our jobs better and things wouldn’t fall through the cracks if they could use the spreadsheet. For the first few months, only two of the programs bothered to use the spreadsheet. This time around, I am going to refuse to work with any readings sent to me that aren’t entered into the spreadsheet template, so we’ll see what kind of a ruckus this will create. I just don’t know how to deal with this sort of antagonism towards any sort of change; even change that will improve things.
What this all really comes down to is knowledge management. How do you collect, manage, disseminate, and use the knowledge (processes, best practices, etc.) in your organization? Knowledge often lives in our heads and thus is much more difficult to manage than records (though that’s no easy task either). How do you get the old guard to share their knowledge with the new employees? How do you share best practices? How do you implement tools that allow people to share knowledge and disseminate news more easily? How do you get people to record how they do things so that the people who come after them won’t have such a tough learning curve? How do you get different departments within the same organization to communicate and share ideas so that they’re not constantly reinventing the wheel? I just found that every graduate program — all of which require APA format for student papers — has each created their own guide to APA. Things like this can be such a waste of effort. If these programs just communicated better, they would probably find that they could share a lot of the documentation and other things they created so that people aren’t constantly reinventing the wheel.
Clearly, though, the solution to these problems is not so simple as creating an Intranet or a wiki or whatever. There has to be a real change in culture or people won’t use the tools they are given. That’s really where the managers have to come in. Management style is so crucial to KM. The way you manage people will make them more or less likely to share what they know.
Knowledge management is something that I am increasingly interested in and concerned about. I see that our Systems Librarian is the only person who knows certain things and if he suddenly disappeared, no one would know how to do them. Heck, if I dropped off the face of the planet, I doubt anyone would be able to maintain or log-into the server I administer for the library. That’s crazy. This is why I’ve documented all of this stuff in a binder in my office. I’m not planning for my death, but I believe that it’s important to document this sort of knowledge, not only in case I forget it, but for whomever has my job in the future. It’s all about sustainability. But then again, if you’re the only person who knows how to do certain things, that can mean job security. So how do you break down that sort of attitude? How do you get people to share what they know when they have the attitude that sharing what they know makes them easily expendable to the organization?
I don’t really have any answers to these questions, but it’s something I am very interested in figuring out. Reading this case, from the blog Knowledge-at-work, at least makes me realize that we’re not the only ones struggling with these knowledge sharing issues. I think I need to start reading some books on KM. Any suggestions?