Building a roadmap for KM

Building a roadmap for KM

Jane Williamson proves KM is no nova phenomenon

By Siobhan Chapman

It is not an uncommon view amongst senior executives that knowledge management (KM) is a nova phenomenon, that is, just the latest in a stream of management fads that shined for a brief moment, only to sink into obscurity, slipping forever beneath the corporate radar. Despite this dim image of KM, there are a few visionaries that have built a case for KM in their industry and are now beacons guiding other KM specialists into the shore.

Jane Williamson, principal advisor for strategic planning at Queensland Department of Main Roads is one such visionary that fostered a culture of KM beneath the cynical eyes of senior management in the public sector. She shared the tales of this journey with Image & Data Manager.

Ms Williamson was initially employed by the Department of Main Roads (DMR) to develop capabilities in scenario planning and external scanning Ð collecting and analysing information for strategy development. As part of her new role, Ms Willamson was asked to collect and monitor information by people across the Department to identify the key drivers of change Ð a task she likened to tealeaf reading, “but with the whole pot of leaves in every cup”.

Her unit suggested she develop a database to share information, however Ms Williamson thought there was a better way and asked the IT people for help. “They said ‘How about knowledge management?’ Unfortunately they didn’t mention that this was a concept that had been lingering around and had no management support,” she said.

DMR is responsible for the provision and maintenance of the state-controlled road network which comprises the major traffic-carrying arterials throughout Queensland. The department already had 4,000 databases, an intranet and enough change programs to “sink a ship”, according to Ms Williamson. In addition, DMR manages more than 4,000 full-time employees in 42 sites, spread over more than 14 districts across the state, and has an annual budget of approximately $1,000 million. In this climate, she needed to make a case for a project that “touches” everything and made everyone speak the same language.Her first step was to get supporters. She had to overcome an attitude that saw KM and strategic planning as the enemy.

”My unit is seen as the enemy by the rest of the organisation,” she said. “Those of us at the lower levels felt like mushrooms. To do our job as organisational strategy and policy we needed to understand how everything links, but instead we were fed what our senior management wanted us to do.”

Ms Williamson emailed “anyone who might possibly have an interest in KM” and invited them to a meeting.

”Have you ever thought that you have been just a bit too clever by half? Well early on I thought I had overstepped the mark enough that I was probably going to get fired. For my initial meeting I had invited lots of people I didn’t know and whose positions on the hierarchy I wasn’t aware of. One was the new director general. The next day my executive director called me into his office. He told me that sending an email directly to people at DG level was not done. I should have gone through the six intervening levels first. What he did not know and I was able to tell him was that the DG had replied to my email and asked to be kept in the loop on what happened,” she said. She was discouraged at every turn. She was told several times by “eminent” people within DMR that KM would never get up as a policy.

”They said not to take it personally but DMR was just too old fashioned,” she said.


DMR is a strongly relational culture, according to Ms Williamson. Most of its senior managers had been with the Department for more than 30 years. Some had even been to secondary school and university together. This group of senior managers, burnt by earlier forays and expensive consulting fees into information management, saw KM as the latest “fad” in management streams.

”KM was seen as another of those ideas that would cost lots of consultancy money and really have no tangible results. Unfortunately they had already had lots of expensive consultants work on information management that most people could see no improvement from and this to them looked really similar,” she said. “My initial comments were seen as uninformed as I had never worked as a project engineer. It was all about “smelling the hot asphalt in the morning.”

In order to encourage trust in the concept of KM, Ms Willamson needed allies. She developed an alliance with Road Systems and Engineering department within DMR, a group who develop technical manuals and specifications. The group needed Ms Williamson to illustrate to senior management that they were mission critical and so avoid being downsized while she needed their contacts and history in the department. The two formed an alliance to benefit both parties.

By this stage certain people from across all the business groups were involved in the KM discussions. Jane started to develop a plan of how KM would develop and had partly mapped all the KM-type activities across the department.

”Ideas were running hot and people were going off to do things themselves. Pilot projects were being initiated. KM was in that dubious space where it had no formal approval, but everyone was ‘doing things’ so it was growing at the grass roots level.”

One such little project to spin out of this stage was the launch of an audio CD. DMR realised that, with so many managers spread over districts spending time travelling on the road, an audio CD containing the latest corporate issues could be an ideal way to transfer information.

”However, all this [was happening] without any direction on where we wanted to go as an organisation and how KM could help us get there. We were suffering from classic ‘fad’ syndrome and anytime now the consultants would sink in their fangs!” she said. “The trouble was that this had all grown out of a good idea. The only solution was to either kill it off or rein it into some shape. Who should be in charge? Was this under information technology? Was it strategy or learning? Was it organisational development or technical knowledge? We were rapidly approaching a circle.”

At this point, knowledge management as a term had become adopted by some of the other business units. It was at this stage that KM was endorsed by senior management. KM became the first jointly chaired and shared project balanced across organisational boundaries, and went from a project below the radar to one of the top 20 in the department.

Today DMR has three major KM activities underway driven by the users of the systems. “It is a case of seeing that KM must be made part of what we do, not imposed from IT as a central point. There is still a role for a central control to co-ordinate and keep the activities aligned but not as the base of power.”

In fact, KM was so successful in DMR that Ms Williamson and her team formed a group for all the government agencies in the state. Ms Williamson leads the bimonthly “whole of government” forum, where agency representatives from state government agencies discuss what they are doing in KM network with others on the same KM road.

Now, as the wheels keep turning, KM has gained momentum which can’t be stopped. KM ideas have seeped into how people do business and develop systems. “No-one can put them back into the box,” said Ms Williamson, who has steered the KM vehicle onto the road, but for DMR it is a continuing journey.

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