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Knowledge Management as a driver of digital transformation in the age of remote work

August 18, 2020

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Jarret Cassaniti

Knowledge Management Advisor
Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs


Sara Teitelman

Co-Founder and Principal
Ideal State

Jarret Cassaniti, MPH MA (JC) is the Knowledge Management Advisor for USAID’s flagship social and behavior change project, Breakthrough ACTION led by Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. Sara Teitelman, MPH (ST) is Co-Founder and Principal of Ideal State and former Knowledge Management (KM) leader at Pact and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. The following is excerpted from three recent discussions regarding the renewed importance of knowledge management in our physically distant world.

JC:  Your 2017 blog post on what you referred to as “new school knowledge management” highlighted how knowledge management can serve as an agent of transformation, especially when it comes to treating people, not static resources, as an organization’s most valuable asset. For many organizations, COVID-19 has forced us to think differently about how reliant KM and learning are on the proper use of certain technologies. And we’re also reexamining how well that technology is working.

Three years later and during unprecedented changes in the world of work, how has your thinking changed? Or has it?

ST: I rolled out my first “social” intranet with open discussion forums and other social collaboration features in 2011. At that time, most leaders were terrified of letting everyone in the organization take part in open forums. The concept of Working Out Loud was very new. I had attended APQC’s KM conference the year before and saw a talk by the head of the US Army’s training unit. Soldiers in Afghanistan were facing new situations every day but had to wait years for manuals to be revised and approved. He banned PowerPoint and established mobile-accessible online forums for peer-to-peer, real-time knowledge exchange for soldiers in the field. Soldiers with deep expertise monitored threads to provide quality control or additional guidance when needed. I was blown away that the Army was so ahead of others in this regard.

It was a lightbulb moment for me. I was leading a KM initiative at Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and many of our staff were medical professionals working in health facilities and supporting ministries of health throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Things were changing so quickly on the ground regarding modes of treatment, guidelines, etc. I thought, we need to open the flood gates here and provide meaningful moderation rather than serve as a bottleneck or gatekeeper. The right information at the right time could save lives.

JC: And yet, opening the floodgates of information and going to more informal models of learning and exchange means people may miss something critical along the way. They may not be used to things coming at them so quickly.

A senior colleague of mine, Lisa, who works from her dining room table in Washington D.C., told me the technology platforms I’ve been promoting for the last two years are no longer academic to her, they are real. She no longer has opportunities for impromptu hallway discussions. And since she can no longer drop by someone’s office, she has a better sense of what staff who work remotely all the time experience. These people have always relied on digital tools to share and connect. Now Lisa appreciates the role technology can play.

ST:  Totally. And people are taking note of where that technology works well and doesn’t.

JC: Another colleague based in Nigeria, Bolade, told me mandatory remote working had robbed him of the time and space to process new information and turn it into action. He used to get inspired and make plans during his commute and on lunch breaks. At the same time, workloads and the pace of work have increased, partly due to being hyperconnected.

ST:  I think we’re all still learning about how digital tools can help us stay truly connected on a human level, and how they both enhance and complicate our work lives. These tools can’t replace face-to-face communication, but they will continue to play a bigger role.

JC: Our project, Breakthrough ACTION, has been experimenting with virtual whiteboards like Mural and Miro. Rocketbook beacons are another option. The beacons cater to people in the room while sending a high-quality picture of the brainstorming wall to a website every ten seconds.

But no tool is fail-proof; people still need to program and manage them.

ST:  Someone always needs to tend to the human side of technology. That’s not traditionally IT’s strength or focus, so new systems get rolled out, but the human side often goes unaddressed. KM practitioners can help bridge that gap.

JC:  When introducing new technology to the organization, people rarely say, “I can’t wait to use it.” It’s more often something like, “why do we have to use this?”

ST:  So true. A lot of what I’ve done in past KM roles and what we do now when helping our clients is in the realm of change management. And as a former public health practitioner, I like to ground our approaches in behavior change theory. I’m a big fan of Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations. Rogers says that people will always fall into different categories in terms of how eagerly or not they adopt new behaviors or innovations. So, as a change management practitioner, you must communicate and work with these different types of people in different ways.

JC:  An older staff member asked me recently if there was an age divide between those quickly adopting Slack and those who aren’t. But I haven’t seen that divide. It’s more about personality than age. Plenty of young people are still attached to email.

For me, the cognitive bias codex has been a useful tool to understand and to use to find solutions to issues regarding digital tools. In particular, I’ve noticed the planning fallacy when it comes to virtual meetings. And I’m guilty of this too. We think we can set up a large virtual meeting 10 minutes before it starts. Sunk costs also play a role when looking at adopting new platforms. It’s easy to say that we should continue with a sub-optimal platform since we’ve already invested so much time and effort into it.

My two-year-old daughter is great at dealing with change. She has very few fixed ideas about how things are supposed to be. We were all like that at some point in our lives and I think it’s a good time to try to tap into that part of ourselves again.

ST:  What I have seen is that some of the biggest naysayers can wind up being the biggest champions and advocates once they cross that threshold. I share that with a lot of new KM practitioners since it can be so hard at the beginning.

JC: For Breakthrough ACTION where we have 400 staff of varying tenure spread across 20 countries, it can take years for changes to be fully adopted. Lisa mentioned that behavioral psychologies, like hassle factors are also slowing down adoption.

ST:  Software companies are great at telling us, “this is so easy, anyone can do it.” But throwing any new technology over the transom without an intentional change process is a bad idea. Even if it is user friendly, the way a new technology is introduced into the organization is so important.

JC:  How do you keep your organization focused on using the tools you’ve thoughtfully selected and rolled out while also keeping an eye out for the next great thing? Lisa related this challenge to the fad of fast fashion: every season, there’s pressure to buy something new. But switching styles so often is wasteful, the old clothes still have life in them.

ST:  It used to be that years would go by before an organization would even consider revamping an enterprise system because of all the time and money spent on getting it up and running. Now everything is software-as-a-service, and you can just cancel your subscription and bring in something new. That’s where digital governance comes in. Organizations need a thoughtful set of processes around how they manage the ever-changing technology landscape.

JC:  And things are changing so fast, so we need to change with them. Lisa mentioned that in our new reality, “I don’t like doing it that way.” is no longer a valid excuse to stave off change. With COVID-19 and our remote working situations, change is mandatory.

ST:  The reason why most people resist change, especially when it comes to new technology at work is because we have had negative experiences in the past. There are so many examples of people rolling things out in the wrong way. And these are traumatic and disruptive experiences that people don’t easily forget.

When we begin working with an organization, we first assess their change history and change readiness. What has gone wrong in the past? What are people most concerned about this time around?

COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for us all to reflect on how we relate to change. And we see that even amid highly disruptive change, people find a way and life goes on. And a lot of good can result from that level of adaptability.

JC:  The current situation will propel people forward in ways that benefit the entire organization.

ST:  My two-year-old daughter is great at dealing with change. She has very few fixed ideas about how things are supposed to be. We were all like that at some point in our lives and I think it’s a good time to try to tap into that part of ourselves again.

Acknowledgement: A portion of this post was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of Breakthrough ACTION and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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