Synaptica talks with recognised knowledge management practitioner, Patrick Lambe from Straits Knowledge. Originally from the UK, Patrick is based in Singapore and Ireland. He is the author of Organising Knowledge and the co-author of The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook. He is currently President of the International Society for Knowledge Organization Singapore Chapter. Straits Knowledge are partners of Synaptica LLC.
Would you give me a quick overview of your involvement in taxonomy?
PL: Straits Knowledge started 16 years ago as an information and knowledge management consulting firm. We were working with a defence agency on a project to help them build a taxonomy in support of their knowledge management goals. As my background is in library science, I realised quickly that there was a big gap in the literature around how you build a taxonomy for knowledge management purposes.
Lots of information is available from an information or library science perspective, but not so much how taxonomy works from a knowledge management interpretation. With this in mind, I started work on my first book, Organizing Knowledge.
My work on the book is one example of a trend I have noticed more and more over the past decade. Taxonomists have had to increasingly become familiar with other disciplines in order to design for different contexts, as well as design for implementation. It’s very easy to design a taxonomy which is technically accurate but doesn’t work with real systems, real people and real content.
Tell us about your background?
PL: I trained as a professional librarian studying at University College London with a Masters in Librarianship and Information Studies. I worked in special and academic libraries for about nine years. Then I decided to take a break, leave the UK – and the English weather. I had friends in Singapore, so I moved there. Initially I taught English and from here moved into corporate training. I ran a corporate training centre, then joined the British Council setting up a business skills training centre. The courses were varied but our core offer was communication skills. We won a contract with the Singapore government providing a new programme of skills training for the knowledge economy. The training programme looked at problem solving, creativity, innovation team working and communication skills, negotiation – soft skills to become a more effective adaptable knowledge worker. Whilst I was developing this programme in the late 1990s, knowledge management had arrived in Asia from the United States. Inadvertently I had acquired the two fundamental areas of expertise lying behind knowledge management:
– How you organise knowledge for access and reuse: from information and library science.
– how you help people to acquire and use knowledge: from working in learning and training.
In 2001, I joined an eLearning start-up, which was interested in this intersection between knowledge management and learning. After the dot.com bust, the focus was more on eLearning so I left and at this time established Straits Knowledge with a colleague, Edgar Tan.
Would you give me a quick overview of your role and company?
PL: At Straits Knowledge there are four of us, three based in Singapore, and one in Kuala Lumpur. We work all over the world, but our projects normally fall into two types:
- Knowledge audits leading to a strategy, framework plan and roadmap for implementation. We may also be engaged to do follow up projects with the clients. If they need a knowledge and information sharing policy – we might help them do it. Or if they want tacit knowledge transfer programmes we can assist further.
- The other type of work we deliver is related to taxonomy development. This leverages the knowledge audit and the knowledge maps we develop. We will look at the key business activities across functional areas, and the resources that are required to make those business activities happen. We effectively have a current snapshot vocabulary which is structured around how the organisation does its work. This evidence forms the backbone of the taxonomy.
Can you describe your role and what do you enjoy the most?
PL: My work is completely project driven. For the past six months, I have been based in Ireland, north of Dublin working on a project here. Last year, I spent a lot of time in Malaysia as well as Singapore. With these two bases, if there are projects that pull me elsewhere it’s a relatively easy trip, and travel is not an issue.
I am President of the Singapore Chapter of the International Society for Knowledge Organization. This is an international organization, and we run regular monthly events in Singapore including virtual webinars. Synaptica was one of the founding members of the Singapore chapter.
Networking, partnerships and collaborations are very important to us. I met Dave Clarke initially in Singapore in 2006 when he was speaking at an event with Joseph Busch. I invited them both to give a talk for the KM society which I was involved with at the time. Dave and Maish Nichani from OlaSearch also work with us to co-organise conferences. These events are case study and practice oriented; expect minimum PowerPoint and maximum in-depth discussions. We have run the conference twice in Singapore, last year we ran it in Chennai, and we are considering a version in the UK in the future.
How long does a project take?
PL: It varies a lot depending on the scale of the project and what they want to do. If they want to look at KM strategy and design a roadmap as well as a taxonomy it can take between six months to a year. We had one client whose timeline was a year. The project ended up taking more than twice as long because their internal organization landscape kept shifting as the project progressed. In rapidly changing organisations you need to do a project quite fast otherwise you can find yourself working with a new group of people every few months. You can find yourself having to re-brief the new sponsors and teams involved and explain why the project is important for them.
How important is it to work in collaboration with others?
PL: This is very specialized work, which is challenging for the teams on the ground to implement and show good results. It’s rare to find a single person who has all the skills needed. It is challenging for the organizations to apply and develop their taxonomy within their IT systems. They often underestimate the complexity of getting it done. You need to team with partners who can tune into what’s needed very quickly, and can get a handle on how their systems work, and how to work with those systems’ limitations and strengths. Plus, you need to be able to withstand shocks and shudders in the organizational landscape as well as understand the complexity of large organizations where one size will not fit all.
It is essential to have a good rapport with colleagues. We need to have common ground in how we approach things and solve problems. Without this, any stresses within the project may disrupt the team’s ability to perform. Therefore, we tend to work with people who we are familiar with. It makes it easier to set mutual expectations and adjust when circumstances change. We need partners who share our values, and work for good outcomes for the client rather than just for money. Reputation matters, particularly in a specialised field like taxonomy and knowledge management.
PL: I always use the main KMWorld and Taxonomy Bootcamp events in the USA as an indicator of change. Those conferences have been going for 12 years or more, starting initially in San Diego and now Washington, D.C. If you look at Taxonomy Bootcamp, the core group of speakers now is quite consistent with the cluster of people at the beginning. This represents a stable body of knowledge and experience. They move around, they form their own companies, they join others, they do consultancies and they work in collaboration. There’s a stability there, and a growing body of knowledge and experience that is being shared.
I also believe the quality of the work is improving. In the early days, the big consulting firms were major leaders in the field with rather generic, templated practices. Now we see they will often bring in the leaders in the field like Joseph Busch to ensure quality of service. Similarly, the technology companies are focusing more on their tech development side and work with quality consultants rather than trying to use only their own internal people. This means overall the consistency and quality of provision has improved over the years. It isn’t as much of a “wild west” as it was in the early days.
Our clients’ needs have also evolved, and awareness has improved. I am very optimistic although every now and then I will spot a weak project brief and I’m reminded we still have a way to go. You can always tell from the project brief when the client knows what they want and what they are doing. The fact that there is a strong growing group of practitioners is a good barometer of the sector, and you can see this at industry events. I think it’s slow progress, but it’s progress.
You must have worked on some unusual projects?
Early in our life as a company, we worked with one client who had acquired a content document management system and the supplier had promised they would not need a taxonomy. The search engine would “understand” all the content for them. They discovered this was not the case and there was little budget or time left to resolve the shortfall. Due to the nature of their business there were also security issues around the content itself. We were asked to teach them how to develop a taxonomy, then validate the work without seeing the actual content. We took it on. We were young and brave and foolish in those days. If this type of project came along in the future I am pretty sure we wouldn’t take it on. I hope that they acquired some skills. We did training programmes and reviewed sample taxonomies that they developed. But we have no way of knowing if it had any effective results.
What advice to others developing knowledge management projects?
PL: Don’t do it if you are overly optimistic about quick results. It always makes me think of those old movies when someone goes up into the mountains in search of a wise guru. The wise master will tell you to carry wood, set a difficult but unrelated task which takes 5 or 10 years. Sometimes KM and taxonomy work is a bit like that.
Seriously. You have to be really clear about what you are doing and why you are doing it before you do it. You need to understand the wood carrying bit, the mechanics, the dirt, the grime and the realities of the environment you are implementing into. It’s too easy to have an idealised, abstract view but if you’re not actually in the guts of the organization and familiar with it – it’s very hard to do something effective. Make sure you have very good grounding, and the skills and capabilities. Don’t be too ambitious. You will need knowledge of the organization or access to the knowledge of the organisation to be able to complete it. You also need to know the people who are deeply embedded there. Understand the operations, the problems that need to be solved and the business value to be gained. You have to have access to people who do have this understanding, if you don’t have access to this yourself.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for your sector and industry for the future?
PL: For both knowledge management and taxonomy sectors, we are still being led by the technology. This creates dramatic shifts in the way organizations run their processes, and the way organizations use the competences and skills of their people. Then KM becomes a matter of helping them catch up with the discontinuities they have created. This is a challenge that has always been with us. The more you get experienced in this field, the more you realise you need to know more about the technologies, about the processes, about governance, about skills acquisition within the organization. We need to move from this rather reactive mode to becoming more proactive as a sector.
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