When Can You Trust a Knowledge Manager?

If its a tough job being a knowledge manager, it’s an even tougher job to trust them with your organisation’s culture and infrastructure. A survey we conducted last year for iKMS found that most knowledge managers are teleported into their jobs from somewhere else, have very little prior knowledge or expertise in KM, get precious little training and development, and move on to something else within a year or two.

Of course, they could be appointed into that role because of some skill or competency they bring from somewhere else, so this state of affairs is not necessarily a disaster (and we know lots of good teleported knowledge managers) but it does impose incredible strains on these people as they struggle to get to grips with their responsibilities, new frameworks and approaches, and the complex political demands of a KM initiative.

Absolutely the most dangerous knowledge managers are the confident ones in their second KM jobs with a “success” under their belt. They are dangerous because they have typically been appointed on the back of their prior success, and they very often believe that this success represents the correct formula for KM implementation and it bears repeating. Again and again. It doesn’t of course, except by sheer random chance.

KM needs are highly context-sensitive, and even apparently similar organisations respond differently and function differently under the surface similarity. Business needs almost always differ. So while you can repeat the use of guiding frameworks and techniques across different organisations, the content of your implementation will be repeated at your peril. Danger signals here are the use of the phrase “When I was at… we…”. If you hear that from your knowledge managers, sack them. Immediately.

You can start to trust your knowledge managers when they are into their third or more role, when they have sat with a KM implementation for three or more years, and when they have several failures to talk about in a reflective way. Ie they are not burned out or depressed or too afraid to try anything but they are evidently observant, reflective, and ask lots of questions about what goes on in your organisation. And they experiment. When you talk to these knowledge managers about their past job roles, you will be struck by the diversity of their experience and the approaches they have taken, and the things they want to try. They are hungry to continue learning.

Then there are the “naturals”. These are the rare beasts who have a way of tuning into an organisation and reading it at the functional, political and cultural levels almost intuitively. These are the people who seem confident and inspire confidence but work hard at sustaining that confidence with results. So even if it’s only their first or second KM role, they have somehow already got those hard earned habits of their more battle-scarred seniors – they are watchful, reflective, questioning, they make a genuine effort to understand, and they manage risk while not being afraid of failure or discouraged by slow progress.

How do you know if someone is potentially a “natural”? One good sign is that the ratio of questions to answers is always greater than 1; another is they are pragmatic – they naturally zoom into the business goals, and don’t get overly distracted by the KM theory, fancy language or a neurotic preoccupation with “correct” process.


6 Comments so far

Kelvin Quee

Thanks for this enlightening post.

I guess the most troubling aspect about the “naturals” is that they do not seem to “know enough” KM and ask too many “stupid questions”.

“Naturals” are people who will assess the organisation in all the important aspects by asking many questions. They will then pick out the most effective tools from their cookie jug of solutions, nevermind the tool names, and label them in the most intuitive way.

How do we convince managers and participants that “Naturals” (those whom seem to know the least) are actually those who can most effectively implement KM?

Posted on October 20, 2008 at 01:22 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I think the naturals I know have a way of getting the confidence of their colleagues, largely because they clearly understand the business need, they attend carefully to results and work hard until they get them, and they probably already have a generally trustworthy reputation. This makes up for a relative lack of technical KM knowledge or experience, but they do tend to pick it up quickly.

Posted on October 20, 2008 at 08:55 PM | Comment permalink

Yigal Chamish

Insightful post, Patrick.
recall that I was chosen and nominated to be the knowledge manager of my division at The Israeli Telecom Corp, back in 1999, being there for almost 20 years in different rolls across the organization. Fortunately, very soon I realize that being the Knowledge manager does mean that I am managing the division knowledge, yet facilitating the Knowledge management processes, initiate, and nurture them.
I think this understanding helped us all a lot to maintain this tough job.
later, I initiated the Israeli Knowledge Managers’ Forum for that purpose: to help other just-nominated Knowledge managers to enter their position as safe as possible.

Posted on October 20, 2008 at 10:25 PM | Comment permalink


Fred Brooks devoted an entire chapter to this topic as he experienced it in leading the IBM 360 team (Chapter 2 of “The Mythical Man-Month”, entitled “The Second System Effect").

His summary is “The general tendency is to over-design the second system” (p. 55).

Posted on October 21, 2008 at 04:23 AM | Comment permalink

This is a timely post for me, Patrick!

I’m starting my first job which is formally titled a “Knowledge Manager” next week and yes, I am being teleported in from elsewhere.

For my job interview, I made it clear that I wouldn’t be able to make meaningful improvements until I had been on the inside for a while (minimum of a few months) and could get a good understanding of how the organisation ‘ticks’.

We shall see if I am given that luxury of time, though.

Posted on October 21, 2008 at 07:01 AM | Comment permalink


Hmm! Excellent post, Patrick! Gave me some food for thought...I think one of the easiest ways to avoid falling into the ‘ past success’ pit is to start by spending some exclusive time on understanding the (new) business scenario and simply meeting up with the men and women who matter (in the KM context) and asking open-ended questions. Using a toolkit that has a well categorized set of questions, the answers to which may lead to what’s important for the organization, would be a nice starting point.

Existing processes and tools (relevant to KM initiatives) can pose a major challenge to Knowledge Managers (and the organization subjected to them) who like to rely on their past solutions...!

Posted on October 22, 2008 at 05:48 PM | Comment permalink

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