By: Yadira Y. Caro
If you are looking to know more about the field of Knowledge Management, you may often hear the name of Nick Milton. His book The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook (co-authored with Patrick Lambe), is a comprehensive guide for anyone who wants to launch an initiative or lead a program to help their organization make use of their collective knowledge for competitive advantage. He also has been blogging about KM, almost daily, since 2009.
As opposed to many others in this field, his background is not in IT. Milton is a geologist, who completed his Masters on Natural Sciences and then his PhD in Geology. Almost two decades ago, Nick and various colleagues from multinational gas company BP, launched Knoco Ltd, a management and training company focused on KM, where he is now Director and Vice President.
In this interview, Nick shared the story about this transition, discusses some of the misconceptions about KM and gives valuable resources for people in any industry.
Why did you choose Knowledge Management as a career?
I made the change to KM while working at BP. Previously I had been a geologist (which is quite a knowledge-based subject) but moved to a role in BP Norway which was called “Quality Manager;” supporting the quality of geological work. It became obvious that the quality of work was directly impacted by access to knowledge, and we build a local KM framework which was one of the first of its kind. Then when the BP central KM team was created in the late 1990s I was invited to join, which is when I formally left Geology behind as a career and moved full time into KM; initially with BP but for the last 20 years as an independent consultant. My KM career has now lasted longer than my geology career did.
There are many definitions of KM. What is your definition of KM?
My favorite definition, which is also the definition in the ISO KM standard (ISO 30401) is that KM is Management with a focus on knowledge. So its not “the management of knowledge” but “knowledge-focused management”. This at first reading seems almost a tautology, but it is really quite profound. KM is how you would manage, if you wanted to deliver the value inherent in knowledge. Then of course you have to define “knowledge”, which is where I (and the ISO standard) follow Peter Senge in saying that Knowledge is the ability to make correct decisions and take effective actions.
KM is Management with a focus on knowledge. So its not “the management of knowledge” but “knowledge-focused management”.Nick Milton
Is there any misconception you commonly see regarding KM?
There are oh so many of these! For example: KM is a subset of Information Management; KM is information management (or content management) rebadged; KM can be solved by buying software; KM is an end in itself; KM means documenting all your knowledge; build a good KM system, and people will magically populate it. The first 2 are very common, and many times the first discussion I have with a potential client is whether they want KM at all, or whether they will be better served by improved IM or data management. The third has plagued the industry from the start – the idea that software will solve all your KM problems. Software is part of the solution, but software alone is nowhere near enough.
What significant evolution have you seen in the industry in the past decade?
In some ways the industry has not evolved at all. If you look at some of the lists of “greatest KM pitfalls” written 20 years ago, all of those pitfalls still affect KM today. However there are certainly some developments: the creation of an entire discipline for Knowledge Centered Support (KCS). This is a KM approach applied to customer support knowledge bases, which is very powerful and robust.
An increased understanding of, and set of models for, Lesson Management. These address what happens to Lessons after they have been identified, and before they become Lessons Learned. This work is best developed in the emergency services and military.
A plethora of software tools which we did not have 20 years ago. In-house wikis for example. Unfortunately the KM software space is dominated by SharePoint, which is an IM tool rather than a KM tool. At last, an international standard for KM, which should help avoid many of the misconceptions listed above.
You write multiple articles on KM. How do you select the topics for your blog?
I have been blogging for over 10 years now, with a new blog post each weekday, so have written over 2500 posts at www.nickmilton.com. I get inspiration in many ways: from articles I read online and in the press. I have a daily Google Alert for the term “knowledge management” and this often brings me new ideas. Also from questions people (and clients) ask me. When I present a training course, I often fill a whole page of blog post ideas just from the questions I get asked.
I often up cycle previous blog posts, but only if they are at least 5 years old and therefore in need of modernizing. If I get really stuck I open a random PowerPoint, choose a random slide, and write a blog post about that slide
What are key skills or training a person in the KM field should have?
The core skills are people skills. KM is “all about people,” and KMers need to be People people first and foremost. If I were given a KM team, I would train all of them in facilitation skills, and change management skills. The team would than need other skillsets within it: someone with IT skills, someone with IM or library skills, someone with communication skills, and then a whole bunch of people skilled in the business of the organization (lawyers in a law firm, engineers in a construction firm, geologists in an oil company). You don’t need everyone to have all these skills, but you need someone in the team to cover each skillset.
Based on your experience with multiple customers, is there an industry that really “gets” KM?
The ones that “get” KM are the ones which cannot afford to fail – where failure is serious, costly, or endangers life – and therefore where the value of learning and of knowledge is obvious. Therefore you see KM very well developed in the military (as you know from your own experience, Yadira), the emergency services, aviation, Oil and Gas, and (to a lesser extent) construction.
Then there are the big consulting firms, whose only product is knowledge, and who compete on knowledge. Companies such as McKinsey are leading the way with KM. There are probably more KM roles in legal firms than there are in other industries, but legal KM is an unusual variant which has more in common with content management than other variants do. And the development sector also has embraced KM, partly because knowledge has higher relative value in a cash-poor industry.
You’ve mentioned new technology (i.e. Artificial Intelligence) will not eliminate KM. Do you see any major changes in the field?
AI will not eliminate KM but it may eliminate some drudgery for knowledge workers. I think better search will always help – semantic search, natural language search, intelligent search. Also AI will help in uncovering patterns and insights from huge databases, which intelligent people can then turn into knowledge. These will be the power tools for the knowledge worker, helping them to work faster and smarter. But no matter what the toolset may be, its only 1/4 of the solution. We also need the roles and accountabilities, the KM processes, and the KM governance suite if our KM frameworks are to be complete.
AI will not eliminate KM but it may eliminate some drudgery for knowledge workers.
Is there a particular project in your career you are most proud of? Why?
I loved the work we did with Mars in the early 2000s. It was simple stuff, but it made an impressive impact to the business. Also some of the work we did with De Beers at the same time. I really enjoyed working with Nancy Dixon at Huawei, in China. This was a chance to try western style KM and adapt it to Chinese business, and again it succeeded beyond expectations. Also I am really enjoying the work I am doing now with the European Space Agency. Again just good standard KM, but in such an exciting setting.
What three resources (podcasts, books, websites) you recommend which have helped you in your career?
I will go for books: Davenport and Prusak Working Knowledge, Nancy Dixon Common Knowledge, Hansen Collaboration, Wenger and Synder Cultivating Communities of Practice. Also if I can include my own book, written with Patrick Lambe, The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook. Nothing helps you understand a field more than writing a book about it. You don’t realize what you know, until you try to put it into print!
Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview?