Supporting the KM Environment—The Roles, Responsibilities, and Rights of Information Professionals

By Sue Henczel

 

Sue Henczel is the Training, Cataloguing and Consortia Manager for CAVAL Collaborative Solutions, an academic library cooperative in Melbourne, Australia.

 

As I have conducted workshops across Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the United States over the past few years, it has become increasingly evident to me that while some information professionals have successfully embraced change and moved forward, many others are struggling to find their place in the knowledge management (KM) environments that have emerged within their organizations. Many of those who are struggling have years of expertise, while others are relatively new to the profession. Regardless of their tenure, many individuals have seen their roles and responsibilities downgraded because they were not perceived as contributing directly to the KM initiatives. Some of our readings tell us that we have to develop new skill sets to remain relevant, while others tell us that we need a new mindset to move into our 21st century roles. I hope this article, which incorporates my own thoughts and ideas and those of colleagues and workshop participants, will encourage constructive discussion of the roles, responsibilities, and rights of information professionals in this era of knowledge management.

 

How KM Has Changed Our World

 

Let us begin by looking at what KM is and how it has changed our roles within our organizations. Knowledge management is a management philosophy comprising elements of a number of disciplines, including human resources management, organizational learning, information management, and information technology (IT) (Standards Australia, 2003). The amalgamation of these elements into what many consider a “new” discipline has raised numerous issues, including those of ownership, resourcing, competencies, roles, and responsibilities. Many organizations have embraced KM with a clean sweep - new management, new funding and resourcing, and new objectives - often ignoring the relationships between what they believe they need and what they already have.

 

Many organizations that have embraced KM already have well-established information management processes, yet they have often sidelined or overlooked those processes when new KM initiatives have been introduced. This situation has had a significant impact on the success of the initiatives. Where a KM process is established without being underpinned by good information management, the knowledge that is created or reused may be substandard or inaccurate, as may be based on irrelevant, inaccurate, outdated, or unauthoritative information.

 

Information professionals are trained to manage information and to provide the most relevant and up-to-date information to their client base. They are also trained to ensure that information products and services are aligned with the achievement of organizational objectives. These are critical processes in ensuring that information users have the “best” information available so that the knowledge generated is “good and valid” and meets organizational requirements. This tells us that our skills and knowledge are still relevant and valuable, yet KM initiatives and environments are being established and nurtured without a clearly defined role for information professionals.

 

There are obviously a number of possible futures for us. In his latest book Beyond Degrees, Guy St. Clair introduces us to Knowledge Services, which he defines as the amalgamation of information management, knowledge management, and organizational learning. St. Clair presents Knowledge Services as a new profession that underpins the 21st century, knowledge-focused, learning organization. I recommend this book, as it presents a clearly articulated view of one possible future.

 

TFPL, a consulting firm in the UK, provide a framework for a different future in their research into the skills required in the knowledge economy. The resultant Knowledge Skills Map depicts skills sets covering strategic and business skills, management skills, intellectual and learning skills, communication and interpersonal skills, information management skills, and information technology skills. They also provide core competencies for knowledge cultures.

 

In addition to the KM books that relate to our profession, we must begin the read (or at least be aware of) the KM books that our managers and decision-makers are reading. This is where they get many of the ideas that will shape our futures.

 

 

Some Thoughts about KM and the KM Environment

 

Knowledge management is seen as a means of achieving organizational goals. It consists of the systematic processes that are put into place to identify, create, capture, share, and leverage the knowledge that is needed for an organization to succeed. Putting it simply, KM aims to (1) determine what knowledge an organization needs to be successful; (2) capture and store explicit knowledge until required for reuse; and (3) manage and exploit the tacit knowledge that resides within people.

 

KM initiatives use four primary processes to achieve these aims:

1.       identification/discovery

2.       creation/acquisition

3.       capture/storage/codification/retrieval

4.       sharing/transfer/flow

 

The KM environment is holistic, with all processes and programs having an organizational focus rather than a section/department/business unit focus, and incorporating the external environment in which the organization operates. It is also open and visible - knowing what everyone does and why (where they fit in the organization and what they contribute). The KM environment is a sharing culture, value based and people focused, motivated and committed, proactive, resourced and supported, and technology enabled.

 

 

So Where Do Information Professionals Fit?

 

When working in a knowledge environment, the information professional has three primary roles and responsibilities:

1.       to provide information products and services that continually and consistently match the requirements of the organization;

2.       to educate information users to ensure that they can access and use the information products and services effectively to maximize the quality and consistency of organizational knowledge; and

3.       to facilitate the sharing and transfer of knowledge.

 

Each of the four primary KM processes is underpinned or supported by tasks/activities that require the skill and knowledge of an information professional.

 

Knowledge identification/discovery

Defines what knowledge the organization needs for business success and identifies what it has and doesn’t have (as well as what it has that it doesn’t need)

Needs assessment

 

Information audit

 

Knowledge audit

Knowledge creation/acquisition

Determines where valuable knowledge is being created within the organization (and by whom, which process, etc.), and defines what the organization needs to acquire from external sources

Select, source, and acquire external resources

 

Source and evaluate external information

 

Identify and evaluate internal information

 

Facilitate communities of practice

 

Design and develop information products

 

Package information

 

Negotiate contracts and licenses

Knowledge capture/storage /codification/retrieval

Supports the capture, storage, and codification of valuable knowledge for effective retrieval

Develop thesauri/ taxonomies

 

Index and abstract

 

Code

 

Catalogue/classify/ metadata

 

Ensure effective and efficient access and delivery

 

Train in access and retrieval

 

Communicate delivery options

 

Knowledge sharing/transfer /flow

 

Develops a sharing culture so that knowledge is transferred efficiently to where it is needed

Map information/ knowledge

 

Facilitate communities of practice

 

We can successfully undertake many of these processes or activities using our existing skills and knowledge. Continuing education (CE) courses can help us with those that were not covered by our LIS programs.

 

We are well trained to manage explicit knowledge that is documented in reports, records, databases, and so forth, but explicit knowledge has no value to an organization until a person uses it. To create new knowledge and to effectively reuse captured and stored knowledge requires an explicit-tacit (or a tacit-tacit) interaction. Consequently, storing explicit knowledge is only a part of the KM process - it must be stored in such a way that it can be accessed and used by the right person, at the right time, in the right context before it has business value. Information professionals can become facilitators of this process by -

          facilitating the access and retrieval process by creating indexes, taxonomies, thesauri, and abstracts; applying metadata and otherwise cataloguing and classifying the documents;

          Educating information users in efficient and effective retrieval practices;

          Ensuring that any required external information is acquired;

          Maintaining a liaison with IT professionals to match access and delivery options with user preferences; and

          Maintaining a liaison with human resource/training professionals regarding information and computer literacy skills and training.

 

KM acknowledges that the knowledge that exists within an organization’s employees is its key to success; therefore the first of two major changes in our roles as information professionals is a shift from a technical/process focus to a more people-orientated focus. The emphasis is not only on the processes that enable information to be provided and used effectively, but on the personal attributes necessary to take on the required facilitation and communication roles.

 

The second major change is a shift from the traditional concept of providing a service to being part of the organization’s core business. We continue to become highly skilled at information access and delivery, but we lack the overall knowledge of the organization and its operations to participate actively in planning and decision-making (Abell and Oxbrow, 2001). This is particularly evident where information professionals have taken on a diverse range of new responsibilities without dropping the activities that no longer add business value.

 

We need to examine our new responsibilities and evaluate where our competencies place us. We then need to determine what actions are necessary to enable us to move forward. It is likely that those actions will include a mixture of skill/knowledge-based and personal development programs, as selecting CE programs that are purely skill or knowledge focused alone will not enable us to become key players if we do not have the requisite personal attributes of motivation, confidence, and assertiveness.

 

Competencies comprise skills, knowledge, and personal attributes. These components must be present in the right balance for a person to be competent at a specific task, so it is important to understand what the components of a competency are in order to evaluate whether we have them or need to acquire them. To select CE and personal development programs, we must also identify the components of the competencies that we wish to acquire or improve. We can then rate ourselves in order to prioritize our individual learning requirements.

 

Breaking down the competencies into their components gives us the lists of skills, knowledge, and personal attributes that comprise the competencies. One of the critical issues here is that often a skill can be learned but cannot be applied effectively without the requisite personal attributes. For example, communication is a skill, and the processes can be learned. To be effective communicators we must have the confidence, motivation, and self-assurance to apply the learning. Consequently, “communication” is listed as a skill, whereas “effective communication” can be listed as a personal attribute. A further example is the skill of negotiation. Once again, we can learn the processes, but without the necessary personal attributes such as effective communication, motivation, open-mindedness, flexibility we are unlikely to negotiate well.

 

Below are some examples of the skills, knowledge, and personal attributes that workshop participants have applied to the KM competencies. These are not definitive lists, but examples of the how the lists of skills, knowledge, and personal attributes can be developed from the competencies.

 

Knowledge Identification/Discovery

Defines what knowledge the organization needs for business success and identifies what it has and doesn’t have (as well as what it has that it doesn’t need)

Information Professional Contributions

Skills

Knowledge

Personal Attributes

Needs assessment

 

Information audit

 

Knowledge audit

Audit/Survey

 

Analysis

 

Evaluation

 

Planning

 

Decision-making

 

Prioritization

 

Negotiation

 

Project management

 

Communication

 

Team development and management

 

Facilitation

Of the organization

-Political

-Cultural

-Social

-Economic/Financial

-Technical

-Structure

 

External Environment

 

Industry

 

Social networks

 

 

Confident

 

Effective communicator

 

Self-starter

 

Collaborative

 

Flexible

 

Open-minded

 

Able to learn

 

Inquisitive

 

 

 

Knowledge Creation/Acquisition

Determines where valuable knowledge is being created within the organization (and by whom, which process, etc.), and define what needs to be acquired from external sources

Information Professional Contributions

Skills

Knowledge

Personal Attributes

Select, source, and acquire external resources

 

Evaluate resources

 

Identify and rate internal information

 

Facilitate communities of practice

 

Design and develop information products

 

Package information

 

Negotiate contracts and licenses

 

Information/knowledge maps

Selection

 

Acquisitions

 

Evaluation (content, vendor, format, delivery, etc.)

 

Communication

 

User profiling

 

Negotiation (with users, vendors, management)

 

Financial management

 

Mapping

 

Training/instruction

Of the organization

-Political

-Cultural

-Social

-Economic/Financial

-Technical

-Structure

External Environment

 

Information seeking behavior

 

User behaviors and preferences

 

Legislation

 

Content

 

Industry

 

Learning styles

Effective communicator

 

Self-starter

 

Collaborative

 

Flexible

 

Open-minded

 

Able to learn

 

Inquisitive

 

Proactive

 

Risk-taker

 

Confident

 

Knowledge Capture/Storage/Codification/Retrieval

Supports the capture, storage, and codification of valuable knowledge for effective retrieval.

Information Professional Contributions

Skills

Knowledge

Personal Attributes

Develop thesauri/ taxonomies

 

Index and abstract

 

Code

 

Catalogue/classify/ metadata

 

Ensure effective and efficient access and delivery

 

Train in access and retrieval

 

Communicate delivery options

Thesauri/taxonomy development

 

Indexing

 

Abstracting

 

Coding

 

Cataloguing and classification

 

Metadata application

 

Training/instruction

 

Communication

 

Negotiation

 

Facilitation

 

Search and retrieval

 

Information organization

 

User behaviors and preferences

 

Technical infrastructure

 

Learning styles

 

Effective communication

 

Confident

 

Collaborative

 

Open-minded

 

Knowledge Sharing/Transfer/Flows

Develops a sharing culture so that knowledge is transferred efficiently to where it is needed

Information Professional Contributions

Skills

Knowledge

Personal Attributes

Map information/ knowledge flows

 

Facilitate communities of practice

 

Facilitate information/knowledge sharing

Mapping

 

Analysis

 

Communication

 

Training/instructional

 

Team development and management

 

Facilitation

 

Of the organization

-Political

-Cultural

-Social

-Economic/Financial

-Technical

-Structure

External Environment

 

Industry

 

Social networks

 

User behaviors and preferences

Effective communicator

 

Self-starter

 

Collaborative

 

Flexible

 

Open-minded

 

Inquisitive

 

Proactive

 

Risk-taker

 

Confident

 

Professional associations and educators must develop comprehensive and cohesive CE programs enable information professionals to meet the needs of the KM environments in which they work. Information professionals must evaluate their individual levels of competence and develop structured plans for their own professional and personal development.

 

Information professionals have roles and responsibilities as well as rights in the KM environments in which they work. The following roles, responsibilities, and rights do not comprise a definitive list but are examples suggested by workshop participants:

 

Roles

          To provide the information management component of KM.

          To provide information products and services that support KM initiatives.

          To support the information management (IM) components of the KM processes.

 

Responsibilities

          To ensure that KM is supported by good IM.

          To have a clear understanding of our role in the KM processes and the significance of our contribution to the KM achievements.

          To work in collaboration with other KM individuals and teams, not in competition with them.

          To have confidence in our ability and to apply skills and knowledge assertively.

 

Rights

          To be acknowledged as key players in KM initiatives and significant contributors to KM achievements.

          To have professional LIS and CE programs that meet the evolving needs of information professionals and their organizations.

 

I hope that this article will serve as a starting point for thought, and discussion, action that will lead to an easier and clearer path for information professionals to follow.

 

I am happy to receive comments and feedback at sueh@caval.edu.au .

 

 

References

 

Abell, Angela, and Nigel Oxbrow (2001). Competing with Knowledge. London: Library Association.

 

St. Clair, Guy (2002). Beyond Degrees: Professional Learning for Knowledge Services. Munich: K.G. Saur.

 

Standards Australia (2001). Knowledge Management: A Framework for Succeeding in the Knowledge Era. HB275-2001. Sydney: Standards Australia.

 

Standards Australia (2003). Knowledge Management: Interim Australian Standard AS 5037(int)-2003. Sydney: Standards Australia.

 

TFPL (2000). KM Skills Map. London: TFPL.

 

This article was first published in Information Outlook Vol.8 No.1, January 2004.