As a Knowledge Management (KM) Solutions Manager, I am often asked what I do and how I arrived where I am today. Like many of my generation, I fell into information technology (IT) accidentally. Particularly on the IT support-side, people suddenly found themselves in this new role simply because nothing came before. It wasn’t until people with no background in technology were told to use computers to do their customary work and were expected to somehow know how to do so that new support roles began to emerge, roles for trainers, documentation writers, service desk analysts, interface designers, and all around IT geeks. Remember, this was in a time long before Google and YouTube videos were around to help interested people quickly learn how to perform discrete tasks.
I believe IT people fall into two groups. The first group is the IT machine-people; these are the engineers, programmers, network geeks, and many others who relish the mechanics and general geekiness found in machines. We really need these people, but often they are reserved and prefer talking to other people – especially end-users – only if and when necessary. If they could or would articulate it, they might say something like this, “Please don’t make me explain this to a user; we don’t even speak the same language.”
And, this is where the second group of IT people comes into play. The second group, which includes me, is the IT people-people. We are those who now fill the new roles that sprang up in the late 1990s and early 2000s as people in all work environments were permitted and then encouraged to interact directly with computers to do their job.
I remember seeing the first IBM PC on the floor of the large insurance company where I worked, standing out there all alone, and wondering, “What would you do with that thing?” No one knew. We had to figure it out. At about the same time that machine rolled in, I happened to be looking for a change from the training I had been doing on the sales side of the business and the company sought someone who knew that side of the business but could learn about computers. So, for the next three years, I travelled around the country talking to the salespeople about how they could use computers to help automate much of their manual work and become more efficient. Of course, the salespeople were receptive because greater efficiency means more productive, which means more money in their world.
After this program was introduced, the company next needed a system for tracking and managing support calls from the field and – voila – the first help desk was born. In those days, most of the calls had nothing to with things not working; rather, the calls came from people looking for ideas on how to better manage and use the information they were generating.
I next became an entrepreneur and entered the completely different real estate development and construction project management industry. We too bought a computer and printer, as well as a new miracle technology – the facsimile, or fax, machine. Again, we had to figure out how to incorporate all of these new gadgets into doing business. In this interlude, I needed to teach myself how to use the programs we bought to run our business, including the likes of WordPerfect, Lotus 1.2.3 and Quicken. We weren’t learning the programs to become proficient in the programs. Instead we were trying to learn how to use them to solve real business problems and manage our growing business. This taught me the most valuable lesson that I have carried throughout my IT career: IT people in support roles need to focus on how people work and the specific tasks they need to accomplish. I also learned to quickly identify the most tedious tasks in people’s work and ask, “Is there a better way to do that?”
Fast forward several years and I found myself developing classroom training for federal government agencies in Washington, DC, which led to working with law firms in training, help desk support, and overall problem-solving for impatient and frustrated lawyers whose primary complaint was, “I just want to practice law; I don’t want to have to become a rocket scientist to use this computer.” There, I learned a very simple lesson that I have applied ever since: find out what the person wants to accomplish, ask questions, and listen.
By asking questions and listening closely to the answers, you learn the business that you support. You simply cannot be effective in technology support if you do not understand the business the people you support are immersed in every day. Fortunately, this is precisely where IT people-people shine. We like communicating with our end-users, we like solving real business problems, and we like discovering new ways to perform tasks. And in the practice of law, the observation made earlier about working in sales rings equally true: more efficient means more productive, which means more money.
So 1000 or so words into this post, you may have noticed that KM hasn’t reappeared since the first paragraph. Where and how does KM come back into the story? Many years of approaching IT support from the perspective of analyzing and understanding how people work to help them solve real business problems made for a natural and seamless transition into KM. When the large firm I was working in combined with another large firm, team and role realignment opened the opportunity for me to move from IT into KM – another field that hadn’t existed and sprang into prominence at some point while I was out there in the working world minding my own and other people’s business.
In KM, the same rules apply. Doing your job well requires focusing on and getting to really know the business, what it does, how it makes money, and what its goals and visions for growth and sustainability are. You need to know how all of this translates into the needs of the people doing the actual work. And, you need to remember that these people generally have no background in either IT or KM and likely have no interest in necessarily learning much about either. They simply want to get their work done well. Once you know and understand this and find out what their current problem or need is, you can identify better ways to accomplish the task at hand and explain the benefits of doing the task differently. When approached this way, IT support and KM make their end-users happy and productive. And, they will return to us again and again with more tasks that need to be done in a better way.