The evolution of knowledge management: lessons learned

It's been a while since we've talked about knowledge management (KM) - and there have been two recent comments on the last posting, so let's revisit the topic.

We've had the opportunity a couple of times in the last few months to talk about KM to different outside audiences. In September, I had the chance to talk with some library and information science students at the University of Denver about KM, and specifically KM at Sun. Then, at the end of October, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a site visit from APQC, along with Terry McKenzie and Peter Reiser, to talk about Sun and social networking and expertise location - yet another opportunity to essentially talk about KM.

A common theme between these two presentations has been the lessons learned - probably more accurately, the lessons we keep re-learning. Here are some of the thoughts we shared with them:

We, as information professionals, need to continue to think differently and flexibly about information management, knowledge management, expertise - and what we bring to the conversation. What do we bring to the conversation? A couple of things:

  • A broad, 'big picture' perspective. We bring this perspective in two ways. Since we provide information resources and consulting across the entire organization, we are able to have a 'pulse' on the company. Because we get requests from all over Sun, we have a sense of what the company is thinking and what the important initiatives are at any given point. The way this ties into expertise location and knowledge sharing is that we have the ability to connect individuals or groups in the company who are working on similar initiatives. The individuals or groups might not have known that others in the company were working on similar issues, and we are often able to bring them together for more productive and complete work.

    The other broad perspective we bring is from the information industry as a whole. Because we're keeping track of what's going on in the information industry outside of Sun, we can bring those trends to bear within the company where appropriate. Because we often have the opportunity to benchmark with information professionals in other organizations, we can make sure we're staying on top of things in relation to other top companies in the world.

  • The ability to identify and locate key authoritative content. This is a reason why many folks within Sun turn to us when they need authoritative and business-critical content. Sure, it's easy enough to do a Google search to find information. Often, you can find the information you need that's 'good enough'. But what if you need the REALLY good stuff? The stuff you simply can't find on the open web? What if you don't know if the information you've found is authoritative? That's where we come in. If we have it, we'll get it to you. If you don't know what the 'good stuff' is, we can help identify it for you. (In fact, for a while we used the phrase 'we've got the good stuff' in our internal presentations.)

What are our other lessons learned?

Start small and move forward from there. As I specifically told the student group at DU, the word 'pilot' is your friend. Pilots are relatively benign. If a pilot fails, it's just that - a pilot that failed. It's not a failed project, it's not a smudge on your reputation - in fact, you get a gold star almost any way you look at it, because you're trying out new things! Good for you!

In doing pilots and 'starting small', it's important, if possible, to work with existing pain points and needs. There is so much opportunity in working with existing pain points, for a number of reasons. One, usually almost anything you can do is better than what currently exists. Two, when people are in pain, they are much more willing to be flexible, try new solutions and buy into your solution. Three, if you solve it, even a little bit - well, you're a hero again, and you have the opportunity to add that win to your portfolio of wins, and to potentially have a new group advocating for you in the company as well. How can you stand being so good?

Partnering and connecting – in every sense – is essential for success. Because KM is so bound up with social networking and 2.0 tools today, KM projects are inherently social in nature. They need people and groups to interact. What you're building is essentially a social system, based around information. So, it's important to build your connections and to get buy-in.

The recent Sun author chats in Second Life are a great example of this. We work with the SMI Press authors, the SMI press team and others to create these very popular events. There is no way we could do this effectively on our own. It is our partnerships that allow these events to be effective and valuable.

Additionally, because KM solutions will have some piece of technology associated with them, the IT department - or at least people who have IT skills - really become important colleagues and partners. Foster these connections - a good IT person on your side, as you likely know, is a wonderful thing.

Last, continue to experiment with new tools and stay on top of technology trends – this whole space is still evolving quickly. Emphasis here is on trends. That means, thankfully, you don't have to feel compelled to check out every single new tool and beta version of the latest social networking software that comes out. Do, however, keep an eye and an ear out for what the latest buzz is, and pay particular attention to those things that continue to come to your attention. To use an older example, at one point we kept hearing about Twitter. Several different colleagues, internally and externally to Sun, were mentioning it, and we'd seen it discussed on a couple of aliases. Well, we figured that maybe it was time to check it out, to see what it was all about, and to start thinking about how we might be able to use it. The result: the birth of our libraryresearch Twitter.  

To wrap up, here's an incident that really struck me lately about how far Sun has come in its evolution and use of social networking and 2.0 tools. I was talking with someone in a government setting recently about social networking tools and showing them some of the Sun tools available on the open web. We logged on to All of a sudden, he jumped up for a closer look and got really excited about it. He was pointing to the 'Popular Blogs' section of, the part that tells you which blogs have the most number of hits for the day.

I'm paraphrasing badly, but he said something along the lines of 'that's your expertise! Those are your go-to people in the organization!'

I looked at it more closely and I realized he was right. I remember when Jonathan's blog was regularly and reliably the number one blog. Nowadays, he's typically in the top five, but he's no longer consistently number one. Instead, Jim Grisanzio, Simon Phipps, Bryan Cantrill and Geertjan Wielenga are often holding the top spots, along with many other Sun experts.

His excitement gave me a renewed appreciation for - a tool that had previously felt old to me, but suddenly felt new and really exciting. In fact, it suddenly felt like a tool that had added value, because it has some history to it. Though it's a relatively 'new' tool, it has become firmly embedded in Sun's culture. At least over 4000 Sun bloggers feel that way.

I also felt a renewed appreciation for Sun's commitment to social networking tools. It's interesting to reflect on the evolution of the use of these tools in Sun, from blogs to wikis to the use of Facebook for Sun groups, to leading edge tools like SunSpace and Sun Learning eXchange. Sun has always been a leading-edge adopter in many ways, and its adoption of social networking tools is no exception.

Where will the future take us? What are the next steps? Stay tuned...

Scott Brown, Sr. Information Specialist


Very insightful post, with lots of good ideas and feedback about your efforts. I love how Sun deals with IM, and the efforts Sun undertakes when it comes to access to books, magazines, newspapers etc.

I believe the next big evolution, already underway, is the big wave of the previously "unconnected" people to hit the social media waves. Personally I have never seen so many friends join Facebook and LinkedIn. This will change the way we work and interact even more profoundly.

And I am pleased I work at a company that recognises this power of us. I am also advocating this where I can, check this presentation on SLX that I have given twice now:

Cheers, Marc

Posted by Marc Dierens on November 12, 2008 at 04:23 AM PST #

Marc, thanks for your post and the pointer to the presentation on SLX. Good stuff! My experience has been the same as yours - I'm much more connected with old friends, classmates (past and present), and colleagues than I've ever been before. I'm sure there's much more to come :)

Posted by Scott Brown on November 12, 2008 at 05:19 AM PST #

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