Carla O’Dell & Cindy Hubert: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: May 21st, 2011 by bobmorris

Carla O'Dell

Carla O’Dell

Carla O’Dell is president of APQC and is considered one of the world’s leading experts in knowledge management (KM). In 1995 and under O’Dell’s direction, APQC launched its first KM best practices consortium study called Emerging Best Practices in Knowledge Management. Thirty-nine organizations sponsored the groundbreaking study. Since then, APQC has conducted over 25 consortium studies on topics related to KM, involving more than 300 participating organizations and producing the world’s largest body of actionable best practices in designing, implementing, and measuring KM.  APQC has led more than 150 custom KM projects. APQC was the first nonprofit organization to be awarded the Global Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise (MAKE) award, as well as the North America Award, a total of six times. 

Cindy Hubert

Cindy Hubert

Cindy Hubert is the executive director of APQC’s Delivery Services, which provides individualized and collaborative approaches to solve business problems and address strategic needs. Over the past 16 years, Hubert and her team have worked with more than 400 organizations to provide assessments, strategy development, project management, transfer of best practice design and implementation, and metric and best practices research engagements using APQC’s proven knowledge management methodologies. Hubert has played instrumental roles in the innovation, development, and implementation of APQC’s Levels of Knowledge Management Maturity™ and Knowledge Management Capability Assessment Tool.  These best practice frameworks are used by organizations across the world to guide, develop, and execute their KM strategies and approaches.* * *

Morris: Before discussing your book, The New Edge of Knowledge Management, a few general questions. First, for those who are unfamiliar with the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), tell us a little bit about the APQC’s mission and history in KM.

O’Dell: APQC is a member-based nonprofit founded by C. Jackson Grayson to help organizations improve productivity and quality. We are known as a global resource for benchmarks and best practices in finance, supply chain, HR and many other disciplines.  We are one of the world’s leading proponents and advisors in knowledge management (KM), communities of practice, measurement, using social media and other related disciplines.

Working with more than 750 organizations worldwide in all industries, APQC has spent more than 15 years studying what works—and what doesn’t—in the fast-moving arena called Knowledge Management (KM).

APQC is the leading source of trusted KM tools and information for both those just starting on their journey to KM excellence and those already advanced in their KM practices. Companies and governments use APQC’s KM implementation guides to quickly build an enterprise knowledge management strategy to span organizational silos, build a common way of working, and lead to more reuse of knowledge in new and innovative ways.

Morris: Why did you write this book?

O’Dell: Our first KM book, If Only We Knew What We Know, was published in 1998. A lot has changed since then. Many recent changes in the way we do business and communicate in general have exciting implications for KM. Even companies and governments with mature KM programs have adjusted their strategy for these game-changing trends.

  • The digital world has begun to reshape KM. Online social networking has shaken up traditional KM. Although new technologies always present new challenges, no KM function can ignore this opportunity. Enterprise 2.0 tools may be the best thing to happen to KM since the water cooler.
  • In their personal lives and on the job, employees have become digitally immersed. All ages of employees expect more engagement and access to information and want work processes that reflect the ease with which they communicate outside of work.
  • Smart phones and other mobile devices now allow us to communicate and share any place, any time, and with anyone. KM can take advantage of these always-on and always-on-you devices to make content available to employees at their most teachable moment.
  • A huge demographic is now leaving the work force. As baby boomers exit the playing field, their absence puts a greater need on incoming employees to get up to speed quickly.

These societal shifts have changed the power dynamics for how all organizations operate. An increasingly savvy work force is dictating how and when they need information, and organizations face tremendous opportunities to turn individual employees’ knowledge into organizational intellectual assets.

Employees need vivid, relevant examples and practical advice for everyday work. Executives need a tangible and substantial ROI. And organizations need to respond to the forces at work and create new approaches. In this new environment, KM is an absolutely necessary core business practice to face the competition. With it, employers can reasonably expect better knowledge-based decisions from their work force.

Morris: During the last decade, what has been the single most significant change in how knowledge is managed? What are its major implications? Please explain.

O’Dell: Organizations realize that you don’t “manage” knowledge, but you manage the processes that help knowledge flow.  Knowledge management professionals realize that a portfolio of approaches with supporting technologies is required opposed to “one way” to collect and disseminate knowledge.  For example, a community of practice can be foundational for other approaches, such as lessons learned, that allow knowledge to flow.  Communities also promote collaboration that can be enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, such as wikis and blogs, that also provide interaction and documentation of critical knowledge.

Organizations operate more virtually than they have in the past, which reduces the face-to-face opportunities that are such a rich environment for creating and responding to teachable moments.


Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. What knowledge about knowledge management must one possess to be an effective knowledge manager?

It is important that a knowledge management leader 1) understand the business of the organization and know what expertise and knowledge is important to impact the organization.  In addition, APQC has identified four roles and responsibilities that each required a level of skills and capabilities; a KM leader, a KM specialist, a Communications director/manager, and Business/IT analyst.

The KM core group ideally acts as project managers for the implementation of a KM strategy and provides continuity along the way.

The KM core group’s responsibilities evolve as the KM program matures. This may involve:

  • securing executive endorsement and sponsorship;
  • setting the budget and determining the resources necessary to support the KM infrastructure;
  • fleshing out the KM business case and adhering to strategic direction based on organizational needs;
  • designing and implementing roll-out plans;
  • promoting common working standards and collaboration process standards using cross-functional input;
  • defining common terminology and classification systems;
  • creating common processes for knowledge documentation, categorization, and access;
  • coordinating IT support and applications;
  • enabling all KM approaches;
  • recommending communication, training, rewards, and other issues affecting cultural acceptance of a KM approach;
  • identifying and coordinating additional staff as needed, as well as specifying roles, measures, and training;
  • providing methodologies including measurement support and reporting;
  • creating a forum for surfacing, addressing, and solving shared KM issues and needs; and
  • defining technology to make knowledge reusable.

Morris: When companies contact APQC seeking assistance, which seem to be the most urgent needs that are identified?

O’Dell: The most urgent needs people have with KM are that they were “assigned” to “do” knowledge management (yesterday) and need a strategy and roadmap “today.”    The urgency usually comes from something that is happening in the business, such as a business model change, people leaving due to retirement (knowledge retention), entering new markets, repeating the same mistakes – again and again – causing customer dissatisfaction or rework, or not knowing (CONK – THE COST OF NOT KNOWING) that something has already been completed, learned, or innovated in another part of the business.

Once the urgency is realized, then identifying the simplest way to “get started” and “see results” quickly becomes paramount.  APQC provides additional support through services and implementation guides with frameworks and best practices for that no-nonsense, full-proof, quick start.  Don’t reinvent the wheel in KM.

Morris: Which specific resources does APQC offer in response to those needs?

O’Dell: In addition to APQC’s membership that provides best practice content and data in KM, APQC offers a full suite of Advisory Services in knowledge management, all of which can be tailored to fit your organization’s KM goals and needs. APQC can help you and your organization to:

• develop and assess your knowledge management strategy;

• create an actionable KM road map aligned to business problems and opportunities;

• design, build, and sustain communities of practice and networks;

• build meaningful measures to evaluate your KM program ;

• design and embed effective approaches for lessons learned and the transfer of best practices into the business work flow; and

• embed KM in your process improvement and innovation programs.

Morris: I congratulate you both on The New Edge in Knowledge. I think it is an immensely valuable contribution to both knowledge management and knowledge leadership. Please provide a few examples of how specifically the material in the book can help to improve quality and increase productivity.

O’Dell: The best way to have an impact on business results from knowledge is to have knowledge available at the “teachable moment.” The term teachable moment refers to a time when an individual is most receptive to learning something (Encarta 2009). Think of teachable moments as windows of opportunity to provide knowledge assets to an employee when he/she needs it and is most receptive. Better decisions and more productive actions result.

KM was born to address the teachable moment.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The New Edge in Knowledge, please explain what KM strategy and business case are and what is involved when formulating them.

Hubert: Having a clear sense of strengths, gaps, and opportunities for improving your business is the precursor to creating a strategy and business case for KM.  The value proposition for knowledge flow will drive your strategic objectives. Common objectives include:

  • Bringing new hires up to speed more quickly
  • Capturing valuable knowledge as employees leave
  • Capturing project lessons learned for reuse
  • Preventing the loss of technical knowledge
  • Expanding innovative capabilities
  • Building a knowledge-sharing culture
  • Accelerating the rate of learning for all employees
  • Providing inexperienced employees access to more experienced employees

You then focus on effectively delineating resources to establish/improve your KM capabilities in terms of people, processes, and technology.

In terms of people, your strategy should specify expectations for the KM program to communicate, promote, and educate employees about the KM approach. It should lay out the centralized infrastructure that will support all KM approaches. And it should specify expectations for the KM program to engage, recognize, and reward those who lead and participate in KM activities. This is an often neglected but extremely critical element of your KM strategy.

In terms of processes, your strategy should provide criteria for selecting KM approaches to manage high-value tacit knowledge. Using KM approaches that are inherently rewarding to participants is the objective. And the strategy should specify indicators and measures of success for KM approaches, tools, and projects in order to align with overall strategic goals.

In terms of technology, your strategy should provide guidance for a common set of IT tools to support KM approaches and activities. Creating processes that identify, collect, categorize, and refresh content using a common taxonomy across your organization serves as a foundation for the knowledge flow processes required. And the strategy should specify expectations for the KM program to help employees find information, find people, and answer questions.

By addressing all of these factors in your KM strategy, you have the necessary components for a strong business case.

Morris: What are the most common approaches to KM? How best to decide which is most appropriate for the given organization?

Hubert: There will always be new applications, new approaches, and new pitches in the KM arena. But we can’t let you forget the foundational KM approaches with proven track records. KM is an established discipline because of the significant results brought by long-standing approaches. By using proven practices, you reduce your risks and accelerate your implementation. Take advantage of the lessons learned by early adopters, use implementation guides based on best practices, and use their successes as proof in your own business case.

First and foremost, your KM approach should be designed to support the knowledge that you want to flow.  IF the knowledge is highly tacit, you will want to create a people oriented approach like networks or communities of practice so people can exchange ideas to share and learn to create additional value – for them and the organization.

By far, communities of practice are still KM’s killer application. This approach most comprehensively addresses the raison d’être of KM: connecting employees to get answers at a teachable moment, collecting content important to a community of employees, retaining content when employees leave the community, and keeping content fresh by capturing ongoing dialogue. Consider communities to be boundary-spanning units responsible for finding and sharing best practices, stewarding knowledge, and helping employees work better. Communities are important because they nurture and harness the raw material of this millennium—knowledge—in the service of your organization.

With the rise of social computing and the Internet (see response below), you can now combine the proven and foundational KM approaches that focus on the business, relationships, and collaboration with new tools and capabilities.

Morris: How can social computing help an organization?

O’Dell: Social computing promises to democratize relationships and content and the dialectic between authoritative content and prevailing perspectives (i.e., what author James Surowiecki author calls the “wisdom of crowds”). Employees are now determining subject matter expertise and identifying experts by who they go to for help and whose content they read or rate highly. And the digital capability to connect employees is blurring the concepts of collaboration and communities of practice. As a result, KM is increasingly focused on connecting employees and less so on collecting and managing content. (This ability to connect employees can also lead to more and better content.)

Most importantly, 2.0 tools have the potential to address many of the problems that have bedeviled KM applications over the years. Social computing provides the opportunity to:

  • Link employees with similar interests and knowledge, including experts and friends
  • Decrease the time required to publish content
  • Increase the number of publishers and consumers of knowledge within organizations
  • Access user-driven content, which means that organizations are less dependent on content managers to generate knowledge (although such managers are still needed to repackage and repurpose content for other uses)
  • Reduce the need for complex taxonomy structures
  • Elevate relevant and useful content and sources based on feedback
  • Reduce the barriers to entry (because many Web 2.0 tools are open source, inexpensive, and simple to deploy and use)
  • Give employees more control over the tools, how they are used, and the content they provide
  • Offer knowledge-sharing technologies that are more fun to use than enterprise applications

Like most people, we are not as interested in the software as we are in how people can use it to share, collaborate, and make their work more efficient. When people talk about Facebook, they don’t talk about the software; they talk about what they are doing with their family and friends. This is how employees ought to consider social computing tools at work.

Morris: Please explain the statement, “The Holy Grail of KM measurement is to tie participation to outcomes.” Please explain.

Hubert: The more employees participate in KM activities, share and use information, and adopt practices, the more you can correlate KM activities with organizational outcomes. Time and again, we have seen just that.  When you can calculate the value of an employee participating in knowledge sharing and transfer activities, senior leaders realize the importance of knowledge contributions to impacting business outcomes.

Morris: How best to embed KM in the flow of work?

O’Dell: We stumbled across the idea of above and in the work flow with regard to KM in a 2007 post to the Transparent Office blog by Michael Idinopulos, referring to the difficulty of getting people to use wikis (2007). We think it offers a useful framework for being conscious of the kind of KM program you design. Our version is this: enabling employees to do their work more easily—by collaborating and capturing and sharing knowledge without an additional burden or interruption on their part—is doing KM in the work flow. Asking employees to stop their work process to move to another mode to reflect, capture, or share is doing KM above the work flow.

Working above the flow isn’t always bad. Even creating a KM strategy is above the work flow of the core lines of business. But working above the flow can be resource-intensive. And if you want employees to step out of their work to support the flow of knowledge, then you will need to explain why and ensure there is an intrinsic or extrinsic pay-off.

The trick is to balance above and in the work flow. For example, responding to the teachable moment by definition is in the work flow; but it is still necessary to create the content or access to the content and people, which is an activity above the work flow. That takes resources and is money well spent.

The themes of the teachable moment and above/in the work flow weave their way throughout the book to keep our awareness focused on the needs of employees and the implications of the KM programs we design.

Morris: Those who read this brilliant book will appreciate the fact that, at the conclusion of Chapters 1-11, you and Cindy Hubert provide an “Implementation Resources” section that explains how to obtain addition information about the material covered in the given chapter, accompanied by APQC’s custom advising services and more than 1,000 articles focused on KM. Here’s my question: How can APQC afford to make so much valuable material available at no cost?

O’Dell: It is APQC’s mission to share the principles and best practices we learn from our projects. We know that by sharing, organizations will get better. We practice what we preach. It has never hurt our business model to share what we know: it only strengthens our credibility as an expert resource.  We have so much tacit knowledge and experience we could never get into a book that we know we can help people even more once they have read the book.

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