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Forming and Leading a Grassroots Knowledge Management Movement

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Forming and Leading a Grassroots Knowledge Management Movement

Jan 11, 2022   |  By
CKM Grad and Master CKM Candidate Tim Billbrough


I work for a major online- and campus-based university with about 5,000 full-time employees and 4,000 part-time faculty. When I began my KM journey, knowledge management within my company, where it existed, was disparate and siloed. It was also limited only to knowledge bases and other similar forms of information management on the DIKW pyramid and even then not managed well.

Because of this, it failed to leverage knowledge collaboratively across the company. By acting independently, we were perpetuating the multiple discovery phenomenon within the company, where individual departments and sometimes different teams within the department were all moving to the same goal in their own way, often duplicating work, making similar mistakes in different ways, and not moving forward as a united front.

This had repercussions and risks in that valuable knowledge was lost, through retirees, department transfers, and general attrition. Financial and process efficiency was impacted, through extended new hire training, recurring development training, repeated mistakes, and more.

Starting Out

I had been asked to lead a new team that focused on knowledge, the first full team dedicated to doing so within the University. At the time, I was also under the impression that knowledge management was nothing more than knowledge bases and document controls. After several months of just getting by, I began to search for training on knowledge management best practices and I stumbled upon the KMI CKM course and sent out inquires.

Initial discovery meetings with Eric Weidner and John Hovell were eye-opening, as my team and I never knew there was so much to KM beyond the knowledge base work we were doing. I was excited to learn more and got approval to host KMI for a private CKM course for my entire team in May of 2018. My team and I loved the training and I was impressed with the depth of Knowledge Management and could easily see how it would benefit the University. I didn’t know how to go about implementing these ideas, but I started to give it some thought while working on other projects.

A couple months later, in July of 2018, I had reason to call together the other individuals in the company who owned knowledge bases within the same CRM platform as mine. I wanted to make a change to the platform and needed their buy-in in order to get it approved.

I organized the meeting at a central location as we were coming from all across the city and we had an agreement within 5 minutes of the hour long meeting. The rest of the time, we chatted about our knowledge bases and the responsibilities thereof. I learned two things from that meeting: First, that mine was the only team in the room dedicated to knowledge, the others had it as a small part of their jobs, and secondly, that nobody in the room, other than me, had any understanding of knowledge management as a whole and what it could do beyond self-help articles. The group itself found the session useful and agreed when I proposed we make it a regular meeting. And so what was then known as the Knowledge Manager’s Council was born.

Building Consensus

We started by meeting quarterly in different locations on campus and in the office buildings the University rented around the city. I would coordinate schedules and often pick a topic for discussion, with a few slides and some research. Many of the topics were ones I had been exposed to in my CKM course. There was always room for open table discussion for the last half of the meeting and we addressed several issues about information ownership and styling in those sessions. We also identified others who had similar roles but not working on the same technology platform that we used. We invited them and several became regular members of the group.

Eventually, after over a year meetings, the knowledge base and platform discussions boiled away and the conversation finally started to turn towards what knowledge management as a field was. Other departments who did not have anyone working in KM had heard of us and had sent a person to one meeting or another to listen to the discussions and my presentations of what I had learned. Most would drift in and then out, without any real change to the group, but a few stayed.

In December of 2019, I proposed that we host another KMI CKM training on-site and that anyone who was interested and could find the budget for it could let me know. To my pleasant surprise, the idea was well received, and we had enough people and funding to schedule a second private CKM class.
Getting Educated.

In February 2020, we hosted our second private CKM course from KMI and instead of consisting of solely my team, we had representatives from several different departments within the University. The class was a hit with everyone who took it and this caused the inter- departmental discussion around KM to really take off.

I often sat in on the training in-between meetings and joined the group for lunch every day. I was interested in what people thought and where their ideas were going. I would ask participants for their ideas and opinions, and to my delight, there was a strong consensus that our company needed more KM and had a willingness to make it happen from the bottom up.

By lunch of the final day of training we had a small group of core believers who wanted to make the effort, and had the capacity, to begin real KM change within the University. There was also general agreement that our quarterly Knowledge Manager Council was really a CoP of sorts and we should formalize it and advertise for membership.

A Call To Action

A small group of participants in the Knowledge Manager’s Council and the CKM course decided to join me in the effort of bringing awareness and adoption of KM methodologies to the University at an inter-operable level. We decided to call ourselves the Knowledge Drivers and our first task was to change the Knowledge Manager’s Council into a true Knowledge Management Community of Practice.

While at the time we did not, and still do not have, a formal leadership hierarchy within the group, I took on the task of, and remain the, main coordinator for the Drivers and the CoP. I was able to get the word about our new community out through several projects I was attached to and, in early March 2020, we had our first KM CoP meeting, replacing the former Knowledge Manager’s Council. What was a group of about 10 individuals who had knowledge, primarily knowledge bases, as part of their job was replaced with about 25 people, many of the former Council included, who were interested in the discussion about Knowledge in general.

We started off the meeting with an exercise those of us who took the CKM course learned there: the constellation. We asked about our new members familiarity with KM as a practice and their interests. We explained what it was and how we wanted to bring it to the University and we did the constellation again to see who thought it would work for their team.

The first CoP meeting transformed the group from what was originally a council of 5 departments to a community with representatives of 9 workgroups across 7 departments. It was a small gain, but a success nonetheless.

Growing The Community

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic really hit the United States around this time and less than a week after our first CoP meeting, my entire company was sent to work from home as best we could. Now I found myself having to coordinate a new community as well as a new task- group, the Knowledge Drivers, in a remote-only setting. The answer that helped me be successful with both was something I had learned in my CKM course and participated in when the second course happened: The Knowledge Café.

By utilizing features of our remote meeting software, specifically the ability to host individual break-out rooms from a central meeting, I was able to devise a format to use for the CoP meetings that worked for everyone and replicated the Knowledge Café effect with only minimal adjustment for digital life. We would start out each meeting with a sharing presentation, as the community had indicated as a whole that this was one of the things they wanted to see more of. This is where someone from the community would volunteer to talk a bit about something KM related, either a project their team was working on, their team itself and its knowledge, or even an interesting topic that had little to do with a University project.

We would then have a section where the Drivers, usually myself, would report on the work we had been doing towards our goals and then we would finish off with a community exercise that changed for each meeting. Sometimes we would seek feedback on a specific topic or item, others we have a general discussion, using breakout rooms, around different topics, allowing for more sharing and faster transfer.

This approach proved to be very successful and now, nearly 20 months after our first meeting, word of mouth and our outreach has caused the CoP to grow to an invite list well over 120 people and a regular attendance of 40+, nearly 50, individuals. I have been asked, and have given, talks to other groups in the University on the Knowledge Café model and how it has helped drive community engagement in a world where nobody can enter the same room as the person they are meeting with. These groups included our HR department, Customer Experience, Communication and Marketing, and a few others.

Developing a Mission

While I was working on how to best coordinate and operate a community of practice in a de-centralized world, I was also trying to maintain interest and momentum in the new Knowledge Driver’s workgroup. I had a group of influential and excited individuals who wanted to bring true KM to the University in a standardized manner. My initial challenge was to get the group to agree to what that meant and how we would implement it.

In my opinion, the easiest place to start was to craft a business case. It would force us to look at these questions and have those discussions in a regulated manner. What quickly became apparent was that, while we could talk about the benefits of KM in general, we didn’t have, for lack of a better phrase, a monster to slay.

The solution I found was not something I learned in the CKM training or from KMI in general, though I would gladly see it added to the curriculum. I came across it in my own research. That was the anthropological theory of Multiple Discovery. While still a theory, with its own critics and supporters, the basics of it are commonly accepted: that many civilizations throughout history developed the same or very similar solutions to the same problems entirely independently. Essentially, every civilization invented the wheel on its own.

I was able to educate the remainder of the Knowledge Drivers on the Multiple Discovery Theory and we agreed that this was a dragon that we could slay with KM. Our University prides itself on innovation and being ahead of educational trends, but we could prove the existence of the MDT within the University itself, a barrier to innovation and then relate it to other motivating measures such as cost avoidance, impact of turnover and retirements, and time to proficiency of new hires.

Synchronizing Efforts

Now that we had a dragon to slay, which would help us with leadership buy-in, we wanted to know what other goals we could have. I suggested a process which we still use, and that is presenting to the KM CoP at those meetings and engaging the community in our work, so that it was a true grassroots movement, pushed forward by a dedicated few but with input from the interested many.

My first effort into this was a simple polling exercise of the CoP using a tool called Menti, which allows real-time anonymous polling by having members navigate to a website, enter a code, and answer the questions. The facilitator, in this case my training lead, could share the results on the screen for everyone to see. I had us start simple and asked the community “What are you looking to get out of this CoP?”. The answers formed a word cloud that proved invaluable to the drivers and what we wanted to do. With answers such as “Learn”, “Process”, “Best Practices”, and “Definitions”, the Drivers had our first few goals.

I worked with the other Drivers and we were able to incorporate these into our business case and put together a roadmap and timeline for our efforts. We divided this timeline into 4+ phases with the first four being defined, that truly reflects the community grassroots movement my efforts have turned into. In July of 2021 we entered the third phased after nearly 18 months of work laying foundations, getting leadership buy-in, and growing the community and its voice. Presenting To Leadership

With the work of the Knowledge Drivers aligned with the needs and wishes of the Knowledge Management Community of Practice, I wanted to address a pressing issue that had come up in several CoP discussions: what did senior leadership at the University think of us doing this?

In the early weeks of 2021, I rallied the other Drivers and we began putting together a presentation that we have come to lovingly call “The Roadshow” that explained the history of the Knowledge Drivers and KM CoP, explained what our goals and desires were, why KM was important and different aspects of our business case, and showed off our timeline.

In May of 2021, we presented to our first group of leaders, the Chief Information Officer and her direct reports. The presentation was given by a group of four of the Drivers, myself included, where we went through the slides and fielded questions from the group. The presentation was a great success with unanimous praise of the grassroots nature and mission. In the following months we presented to other senior leaders such as the Chief Experience Officer and her staff, and the Chief Product Officer and his.

From these presentations we received unanimous buy-in for the movement and its efforts. As the main face of the group and its chief coordinator, I have personally received invitations to three enterprise-level projects that had given no thought to KM as an advisor on how it could be built into the process. This has had the direct result of both the Project Management Office and the President’s Office becoming a key stakeholder and partner to the KM CoP and the Knowledge Drivers and our efforts.

We are still holding The Roadshow, the next group we are scheduling with as of November 2021 is our Executive Vice President of Human Resources and her staff. I have also given a progress report to the KM CoP about these meetings and their reception, which has had a direct impact on attendance and engagement. It seems with the knowledge that senior leadership will not be shutting the effort down, more people are willing to participate.

Looking Back, Facing Forward

While all this work has been going on, we have had other KM successes as a group. In September 2021, I was asked to meet with leaders in our HR and Communications departments who were told about Organizational Network Analyses by a member of the KM CoP after I gave a presentation on it in August of 2021. Knowledge Management has become something of a buzz-word among leadership since we began our Roadshow and I have been asked to consult with other departments, such as Product Strategy, Academics, and the Library, on standing up their own KM initiatives within their department and aligning them with the whole.

One of my team members, who is herself working on her doctorate in KM and who joined my team in early 2020, has begun standing up a University-wide Knowledge Retention program in conjunction with HR. It is early in its pilot phase, but feedback so far has been tremendously positive. She is a graduate of the CKM program herself and I will let the details of the effort be her own MCKM article.

Looking forward, the Knowledge Drivers, in cooperation with the KM community within the University, is already deep into phase 3 of our roadmap, where we have identified and mapped the current state of KM in the university. Our next step is to analyze this map and see what we can start standardizing, looking for both elephant and squirrel sized projects, and really, finally, drive home the work we have all been striving toward, in my case, for over three years. Conclusion

When I took the CKM course in 2018, I was the only person in the University with Knowledge in my title. To the University, Knowledge was limited to knowledge bases and other forms of information and document management. Now, in November 2021, I am one of three individuals with a title for knowledge and Knowledge itself means so much more.

The three of us, all of us Knowledge Drivers, have joined together to make an informal workgroup we call Knowledge Operations with the goal of working as one team across departments. There is promise of more groups joining us in the coming months.

When I first began my KM journey, knowledge management within my company was disparate and siloed. That was four years ago. With consistent effort and a lot of politicking, I have managed to create and lead a grassroots Knowledge Management movement within the company that has taken on a life of its own. It crosses 9 major departments and members of over 30 workgroups. It has caused KM to become a source of excitement and discussion. While we still have a long way to go to be a true Knowledge Age institution, the foundations have been placed and they were placed by a community of people whose interest and drive made it happen. I am proud of this work and submit this account, as well as the accompanying documentation, as my application for the Master Certified Knowledge Manager certification.


About the Author

Tim Billbrough is Senior Knowledge Enablement Manager at Southern New Hampshire University.  He is a CKM Grad (2018) and in-between his busy schedule plans to earn his Master CKM Certification in 2022.



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