Dr. Know

by Christopher Dewolf

We can put a man on the moon—we just can’t remember how. Kimiz Dalkir is using knowledge management to stem the tide of corporate amnesia.

“I like to use NASA examples,” says Kimiz Dalkir, professor in McGill’s School of Information Studies, as we sit in her office in the basement of the McLennan Library Building. She has good reason: recently, the American space agency admitted that the gaps in its organizational memory are so large, it no longer knows how to send a manned mission to the moon—or even where to find the original recordings of the 1969 lunar landing. NASA’s trouble is just one example of the corporate amnesia that threatens to overtake the world’s leading corporations and institutions as downsizing, outsourcing and mass baby boomer retirement make them, so to speak, more forgetful than ever.

Dalkir, an expert on knowledge management (KM), is on the front lines of the fight to save that collective knowledge. She started her academic career at McGill, earning a BSc in genetics and an MBA in management information systems and management science. She then worked for several years as a research scientist studying population modelling, artificial intelligence and cognitive science—a seemingly diverse range of interests that she unites under the rubric “knowledge modelling.” Five years ago, she joined the School of Information Studies. “McGill was a pioneer in the teaching of knowledge management at the graduate level,” she says. “The school, in fact the whole field, is totally morphing. It’s changing so much.”

That change has been prompted in large part by an explosive growth of information and knowledge, both documented (e.g., content encapsulated in the form of books) and intangible (e.g., know-how stored in people’s heads). In the past, Dalkir explains, the focus was on containers of knowledge, which were neatly organized and easy to access: records management, document management, file management. “The good old days really were the good old days,” she quips. Now, with billions of e-mails sent each day, a decline in

face-to-face communication and—thanks to early retirement and outsourcing—an increasingly shallow pool of experience, knowledge has become scattered and elusive. Without an effective way to manage it, organizations risk repeating mistakes and forgetting how to do things. The resulting losses cost large corporations billions of dollars.

To demonstrate an effective form of KM, Dalkir pulls out a worn volume of Aesop’s fables and opens it to a story about a donkey who teams up with a lion to capture prey, only to have the lion take all of it in the end. The lesson: might makes right. “Fables were created to teach,” says Dalkir. “It’s a paragraph long, and at the end of it is the moral, which is the lesson learned. These were ancient oral traditions of transmitting knowledge.” Knowledge management encourages the creation of organizational fables that

explain what worked, what didn’t and why—and building an internal infrastructure to make this valuable knowledge accessible to all the organization’s members.

Since coming to McGill, Dalkir has worked with a number of prominent organizations. After 9/11, she helped implement KM principles at the CRTI-IRTC, Canada’s equivalent to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security. “Before September 11, all of the pieces of intelligence were there, but nobody could connect the dots,” says Dalkir. In response, Canada decided to “connect the nodes together” by improving communication between different anti-terrorism and intelligence groups. Now, instead of working within a vertical “silo structure,” in which information and knowledge is trapped within the hierarchy of a single organization, knowledge is better shared; increased collaboration between members of the CRTI community prevents previous mishaps, such as different groups obliviously duplicating each other’s work, from recurring. “We’re doing action research, which is essentially on-site but not removed,” says Dalkir. “We change things as we’re doing our research, improve things as we go along.”

For her current project, Dalkir is analyzing organizational memory systems in Canadian organizations, in both the private and public sectors, to better understand how knowledge is being shared among current staff—and how it is being preserved for future generations of knowledge workers. “We are helping to create memory stewards or custodians,” she says, “enabling organizations to learn, remember and continuously improve the way they do things.”

This research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Department of National Defence, the Centre francophone d’informatisation des organisations, Industry Canada, Heritage Canada and a Royal Bank Teaching Innovation Award.