KM Has an Image Problem

April 27, 2016

Knowledge management has an image problem. Nobody really knows what KM is, and it’s very easy to devalue. Companies that provide KM software need to market themselves via use cases (a technique that identifies the business goals to be accomplished by a software system) in order to make the light bulb go on for prospective customers. Individual practitioners need to do something similar.

“I’m an audiobook narrator.” That’s what I now say when people ask me what I do for a living. After many years as a knowledge manager and researcher, I’ve reinvented myself as both a writer and an audiobook narrator – the latter is something I’d always dreamed of doing. Whenever I tell people what I do, they get all excited, saying, “Oh, I LOVE audiobooks!” or “Do you have to read everything in one take?” or “Do you play all the characters? Is it like acting?” The point is, there’s lots of engagement, whereas when I used to say I was a knowledge manager, eyes would glaze over, there would be a polite “oh, okay” before the subject was changed, and occasionally a slightly derisive “yeah, right, as if knowledge can be managed!”

What’s the point?

What you actually do is not necessarily reflected by your title, especially if the role is complex. Think about answering the “what do you do?” question with an impact statement instead. We all know about the dreaded “elevator speech” in which we have one minute to capture someone’s attention. What would you say that reflects the impact of your work in knowledge management?

It could be something such as “I capture, organize and share all the information that our scientists need in order to develop lifesaving pharmaceuticals,” or “I lead a team that prepares our consultants to understand prospective clients’ strengths and weaknesses, and the threats and opportunities they face,” or even “I lead a function that aggregates all the firm’s critical financial, practice and competitive intelligence information, and delivers personalized views of it to attorney desktops.” All these examples bring it on home to people far more than “I’m a knowledge manager” could ever do – because people know what they mean. Nobody wants to look stupid because they don’t know what KM is, and I’ve found that few people will ask.

Help me to help you …

People are much more likely to understand the value of an activity if they can see its impact – they need you to help them understand why what you do as a knowledge manager is important and relevant.

If you meet your company’s CEO in the elevator and introduce yourself, she is much more likely to remember you based on an impact statement rather than because of your title. When I worked for a nonprofit, the new CEO met with all of us on her first day, around the board table. Each person introduced him/herself, and gave their title per her request. Our CEO prided herself on her memory, and she then went around the table confirming what she had heard from each person. I was the Global Director of Knowledge Management – and the only person whose name and title she couldn’t remember.

Maybe I should have said that I narrate historical fiction, murder mysteries, and books about political intrigue. Hmmm. Those actually happen to be relevant to my nonprofit experience!

Sarah Nichols

Sarah Nichols

Sarah L. Nichols is an experienced knowledge manager with expertise developed in a variety of professional services and nonprofit organizations. She is skilled in research, enterprise social networking applications, marketing of library and knowledge management services, contract negotiation and vendor relationship management. Now, as a writer, editor and principal of her own consulting practice, Sotto Voce Communications, Sarah writes about issues facing librarians, knowledge managers and other information professionals.

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