Sunday, July 31, 2011

Signs of KM Maturation

More than three years ago (May 2008), I joined the Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  As a contractor rather than a civil servant, I was (and still am) working with a Task Order and slowly getting to assimilate how on-site contractors are supposed to work.  I had worked on Government contracts before, but in a very different context and not on-site.  At first, I thought I was responsible for expanding the reach of the center's KM practices so that it wasn't an ad hoc affair but a set of KM practices embedded into the projects' life-cycle.  Ideally, projects would complete a set of KM activities on a regular basis just like they go through key reviews and reach critical milestones.  It would be part of what they do.  In a perfect world, they would be doing it because they see value in it rather than because it's a requirement.  A lot of groundwork had already been laid by the Chief Knowledge Officer, so it made sense and at the time, it didn't look overly ambitious. I was naive.  The most important thing I have learned over the past three years is establishing a KM program takes time, even when you have a dedicated staff.  KM staff need to be resilient, persistent, and willing to constantly engage in small experiments to refine and adapt their approach, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, and avoid the traps of KM.

If everything works well, as of October, I will finally get to work more directly with the projects to embed some KM practices in their life-cycle.  This is happening now not just as the result of a fortuitous coincidence of budget issues, but made possible by the fact that in the intervening years, our office has worked very hard to make KM practices work in a critical strategic area of the project organization.  Having demonstrated a successful approach in one small, yet critical office, we are offered an entry into the big guys' world, the mission projects.

When KM is funded as an overhead function, KM is at risk of de-funding.  When the project office is willing to pay not just for an annual KM event but a full time KM position, you know you're doing something right.  I'm not sure this is an indicator that features prominently in KM maturation models. Is it possible that the source of funding is a better indication of success than the overall size of a KM office? I feel that I have just been given this opportunity and I don't want to miss the boat. 
Of course, a lot could go wrong between now and October.  It is still very much a contractor position, therefore subject to a lot of budget uncertainty in the medium to long term.  If this opportunity moves forward as planned (I'm optimistic about it), there are no guarantees that we will succeed. There are no guarantees that what we did with that one small office can be a blueprint for other efforts, yet we have learned a lot with that effort and with three years under my belt in the organization, I am now much better equipped to assess the environment and admit that it is ambitious.

Working directly with the projects, rather than being perceived as a separate office, is an important step forward.  It has a lot to do with ownership of the KM activities.  When KM is something that the KM office does, it is typically an overhead, disposable activity.  When KM is embedded in projects, it becomes part of what they do, a way of doing work.
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