Soft Eyes: An Outsider’s Approach to Knowledge Management

How can you implement a knowledge management plan for your office?Devotees of the great American television drama “The Wire” may be familiar with the term “soft eyes.” In the show, both a newly minted middle-school teacher and a recent arrival to the homicide unit, each feeling out of their depths, are told that they need “soft eyes” in order to look beyond their immediate situation and to see the bigger picture. A knowledge management specialist can bring soft eyes and a new perspective to an organization that is perhaps too caught up in day-to-day operations to see some of the holes in its knowledge management strategy.

Knowledge is Tribal

It is often said that an organization’s greatest assets are its employees. Perhaps less often said is that another great asset, one that is less-often realized or appreciated, is the collective knowledge inside of those employees’ heads. Sometimes referred to you by your Six-Sigma types as “tribal knowledge,” a workforce’s experience and know-how are often shared with one another, but less often documented and codified as part of the knowledge management process. As a result, organizations can sometimes suffer from a lack of cohesiveness: different arms of the organization are acting independently or in parallel, instead of in concert. And over time, companies face a huge liability as employees leave, either through attrition or just because they retire. When the individual leaves, that tribal knowledge leaves with him or her, and the company is either in a bind to find a way to retain that knowledge at the last minute or risk losing it forever. How many times have you been in the workplace and hear somebody say, “Oh, Jane used to do that”? Well Jane doesn’t work here anymore.

The Silo Effect

Your organization may have valuable knowledge and expertise that is trapped in “silos” because the software engineers don’t always talk to the techs in the field who may talk to the customer-service agents but who definitely don’t talk to the marketing communications people. It may be that absence of soft eyes that is preventing you from seeing that each tribe has a lesson for the other. Knowledge management consulting brings those soft eyes, asking questions that nobody ever thought to ask or maybe didn’t feel it was their place to ask. Why is this software being used? The version your company is using may be years out of date. Perhaps there is a better, cheaper, or in today’s open-source world, free software solution that outperforms your current one and that also makes it easier for employees to share, document, retain and use that tribal knowledge.

Picking the Right Knowledge Management Facilitator

Of course, this must be done tactfully. An outsider may have the ability to see things and ask questions that just don’t get asked, or to suggest that although something has been done this way because Jane used to do it that way it doesn’t mean Jane’s way is the only option for your organization. The outsider’s suggestions won’t go over well if they are made in an inconsiderate and condescending manner. But a professional, competent outsider, a good listener with soft eyes, can connect with all stakeholders and suggest knowledge management solutions that can help your company free knowledge from both tribes and silos.

Philip Tanfield has over a decade of experience working in all manner of print and digital media, including at alternative and community newspapers, consumer and trade magazines, and for a variety of online media outlets. In addition to his editorial background, he also has experience in web development, photography, video, event management, customer and client services, print production, and more. A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and graduate of Fordham University, he currently lives in Philadelphia and works for StyleMatters.

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