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Personal knowledge management and consulting engineers

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By Pat Coleman

Best-selling author Seth Godin argues that the social contract between employers and their employees has changed (Godin, 2010). The new contract rewards talent, creativity and art more than it rewards obedience.

The old social contract was paternal. The concept of loyalty made sense then because employers took care of lifetime workers and work was more routine (Williams R. B., 2011). This social contract failed when “leaders started to confuse profits with purpose, taking the low road to short-term gains at the expense of employees, customers, and ultimately, investors.”

What these approaches miss, is that loyalty is still what drives financial success because knowledge and innovation flourish when there are established networks of mutually beneficial relationships within a company.

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Today’s social contract is a partnership. R. B. Williams argues in his article “Is Loyalty Dead?” that “employees expect to be treated fairly, to deliver professionally, and to have meaningful, challenging work. In return, employees owe the organization their willingness to participate in business growth, idea development, customer service and organizational transformation.”

This change in the social contract has had a deep impact on engineering consulting firms. Who they employ and what projects they have carried out, determines what new work they can win. What they earn depends on how many of their employees’ hours they can sell and for what price.

The challenge faced by consulting firms is how to match staffing levels to the demand for services. If the demand for services is cyclic, then firms may match the demand by adjusting staffing levels up and down. In a cost-sensitive market, firms may also try to maximize the hours that staff can be billed for. They may also pare back the staff that cannot be charged directly to the client but provide important administrative services.

This approach means knowledge workers now spend up to 41% of their time on low value tasks (Birkinshaw & Cohen, September 2013). This leaves little time for management and innovation and can cause staff to leave the firm, taking with them their knowledge and personal networks.

Many firms have reversed this trend by identifying and rewarding staff that invest their personal knowledge into their work. They learned that it is more cost-effective to maximize the time these staff spend doing high value tasks by delegating low value tasks to lower paid staff. When it is time to reduce staff because of market conditions, they retain their “linchpins” and cut their commodity workers.

This makes employees partners because they can flourish in profitable, well run and stable companies. They know they cannot be complacent because their satisfaction stems from doing creative and profitable work. This means the employee must be as adaptable as the employer to changes in the market if both are to succeed.

The employer cannot afford to retain staff whose skills do not keep pace with their salary. With the change in the social contract to a partnership, it is no longer solely the employer’s responsibility to create a career path. The employee must anticipate what is needed to compete and acquire this knowledge before it is required.

Personal Knowledge Management

Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a collection of processes that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledge in their daily activities. These are the processes by which we make sense of nformation, observations and ideas (Glasbeek, 2013). It is a “bottom up” approach to building knowledge in a company that developed in an economy where individual workers need to be responsible for their own growth and learning.

PKM is in contrast to knowledge management (KM) which is a “top down” corporate system. The two systems need to work in partnership so that both employee and employer earn a return when they invest their knowledge capital.

The risk with the end of single career and lifetime employment, is that some individuals will not share their knowledge if they feel their jobs are threatened. Unless an organization rewards knowledge sharing, their culture will be poisoned by passive knowledge hoarding, hindering an organization’s ability to compete.

David Shenk coined the phrase “data smog,” to refer to the idea that too much information can create a barrier in our lives (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014). This data smog is produced by the amount of information, the speed at which it comes to us from all directions, the need to make fast decisions, and the feeling of anxiety that we are making decisions without having all the information we need.

Today, a typical person processes over six times the information they did 20 years ago. Syndromes such as “technostress” and “attention deficit office behaviour,” are common in the workplace. Many workers describe their experience as being constantly “fire fighting.” They live in a permanent state of crisis, without any spare capacity, or margin of error. The danger is that in this environment no one has time or the inclination to acquire or share knowledge.

An equally dangerous outcome of information overload is decision paralysis. More uncertainty demands more knowledge, more knowledge increases complexity, more complexity demands more abstraction, more abstraction increases uncertainty (Gorman & Pauleen, 2011). The default position, unless altered by market forces, is to “just do what we did before.” This reduces what we do to a commodity and market forces ensure that there will always be someone somewhere who can do it cheaper.

To navigate through this smog, we need to acquire a new set of competencies to filter and vet information. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education defines information literacy as follows:

“Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information.’ It is also increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. Because of the escalating complexity of this environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choices in their academic studies, in the workplace and in their personal lives.

“Information literacy forms the basis for lifelong learning. It is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education. It enables learners to master content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning. An information literate individual is able to:

• Determine the extent of information needed.
• Access the needed information effectively and efficiently.
• Evaluate information and its sources critically.
• Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base.
• Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
• Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use      information ethically and legally.” (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014)

It is a dangerous mistake to confuse information with knowledge, and knowledge with wisdom.

Information is simply data. Once refined and processed, it becomes knowledge. With experience, humility and reflection, knowledge morphs into wisdom.

Knowledge is “a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information,” (Gorman & Pauleen, 2011). Personal knowledge only starts to become valuable to an individual and their employer when it results in a new skill, perspective or competency.

One characteristic of a wise person is their ability to reflect on what they know. This is essential if a person is to manage what they know (Gorman & Pauleen, 2011). Such a person is able to:

• Acknowledge the ambiguous, fragmented and contested nature of knowledge but does not prevent a determination of the understood “facts” of the matter.
• Acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives to any phenomenon, each with their own vocabularies, theories and frames.
• Understand as far as possible one’s own subject position individually and as a member of a community of practice, and that this will influence the perception of the object.

This type of wisdom cannot be obtained by sitting in an office with the door closed. It can only be obtained by seeking it. For this reason, a personal knowledge management strategy is built on five components:

1. A strategy to anticipate, explore, find, connect, learn and act when acquiring knowledge.
2. A plan to identify what has to be learned and to obtain this learning to remain relevant in the job market.
3. The development of strong communication and interpersonal skills to create productive networks with others.
4. The acquisition of skills to use technology to acquire, manage and share knowledge.
5. The ability to reflect and forecast where your limited resources need to be focused.

The social networking side of PKM is critical. It is important that an individual creates networks. It is only when we know people that we will be able to scan/reinvent and vet/filter what we learn. A person who sits in their office and reads about sludge dryers will never be as knowledgeable as someone who has commissioned or operated a dryer. Knowledge is just information unless it is grounded in experience.

We intuitively recognise this. Most of us would place more value on advice on parenting teenagers from someone with adult children than from someone whose children were still toddlers. It requires a critical thinker to discern reliability of an information source.

A critical thinker is able to: analyze cause and effect; classify and sequence; compare and contrast; infer; evaluate; observe; predict; and rationalize. A critical thinker must remain open-minded, well-informed, logical, and clarification-seeking. There is a critical balance between knowing and learning as one leads to asking the right question and the other to receiving the correct answer (MindTools, 2014).

The three things that keep a person on the right path to their knowledge goal are the people they know (relationships and networks), related information (information), and the tools/skills to manage their efforts (technology). For each goal, there will be a different balance between the three. However, all will play a role. James Dellow (Dellow, 2003) calls this the Personal Knowledge Mountain.

He argues that when a person climbs a mountain, they rely on their team members, their knowledge and their equipment. The value of this analogy is to remind us what is important. We build our personal knowledge in a community that should extend past the borders of our employer and reach those who will challenge our complacency. We use technology to grow the tendrils of our network and to manage all that we gather.

To fully understand the importance of staff assuming responsibility for their knowledge management, let us consider the key factors that measure the “smartness” of an organization. These are: awareness of external information; dissemination of knowledge internally; effective decision hierarchy; organizational focus; and continuous innovation (Cheong & Tsui, 2011).

An employee’s efforts to build their own personal knowledge can have a positive impact on each of these factors (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Impact of PKM on the employer.
Figure 1: Impact of PKM on the employer.

Employees gather information from external sources through their personal networks. This information can be used by their employer to better market to and serve clients. Individuals vet and package information into a form that can be fed more effectively through the organization via formal and informal networks.

When individuals understand what is at the core of their employer’s business, they can align their own information management to strengthen the company’s performance. When a company’s employees are continuously learning, this can create pockets of intense creativity and innovation within the organization that will enhance the company’s bottom line.

Engineering consultants are feeling pressure from three areas. Management consultants argue they are better planners and program managers; contractors argue they are better designers; and software companies argue they can automate the design process. The danger is that clients come to view the core of what is left as a commodity, one that can be executed cheaper and equally as well offshore.

To maintain their competitive edge, consultants must retain knowledge within their organization. Employers must reward and facilitate bottom-up knowledge management. They need to retain those who share knowledge and build the company’s agility and creativity. This will enable firms to be competitive in a market driven by both price and innovation.

Patrick Coleman, P.Eng., is with Black & Veatch. This article appeared in ES&E’s November/December 2014 issue.

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