Convergence Conversation: Unpacking Knowledge Management with Dr. Annie Green
Dr. Annie Green’s journey to becoming an expert in digital transformation and knowledge management has had many twists and turns. She excelled in mathematics in high school, and a love for biology drove her to pursue it as a major toward becoming a doctor. To help put herself through college, she got a job at a medical college that had her using a machine (like a polygraph) to measure the bifurcation of hypertension in the hind arteries in rodents. She was so good at it that the grad student she supported finished his research earlier than expected. That success opened the door to her working with a Sequential Multiple Analyzer Computer (SMAC), which included mixing chemicals, testing, and analyzing blood specimens for a medical laboratory and neonatal unit of a hospital.
It was about this time that Annie realized that becoming a doctor was not in the cards. Exposure to the wonder of computers took her in the direction of computer systems and she took a job for a legal company, where she helped them set up their information transmission system. Annie’s experiences gave her an appreciation of the intelligence within a computer and her passion drove her to get a master’s degree in systems engineering and Artificial Intelligence, followed by earning her doctorate in engineering management with a concentration in knowledge management and intangible asset valuation. At George Washington University she was a graduate of the first knowledge management doctoral program.
In this Convergence Conversation, Annie and I discuss the important aspects of successful digital transformation, including intelligence, systems engineering, process engineering, data and information, and people.
People and Knowledge Management
Deb: Your experiences are a convergence of different perspectives. Where does the human perspective come in?
Annie: When you deal with artificial intelligence and knowledge management systems, every single different perspective counts, because we’re emulating man through digital representation.
When I first got into knowledge management systems, I took the position that operations run an organization. Operations consist of processes, which means that process engineering is key at the beginning of a digital transformation. Many leaders who I worked with early in my career would assure me that they knew what really matters in their organization. My feedback to them was that they were putting the cart before the horse. How could they manage what they did not yet know? They had not engineered knowledge, so how were they going to manage it?
Over time I began to realize the difference between process and knowledge. Process runs the operations of the organization. Knowledge is what people gain from operations so they can improve on it. Knowledge is what is shared with people. The dynamics of the input, output, people, and technology all need to be known so you can make the right decisions around how to improve your organization. Process uses knowledge to improve the competencies of people and the structure of the organization so that it is as efficient and effective as possible. It also helps identify innovations. Knowledge is above or wrapped around the organization. It is a separate process, fed from all the other processes within the organization. Knowledge is a people process.
Deb: What about the knowledge that’s inside individual people within an organization? Each person has inherent experiences and unique knowledge they have gained outside the organization. How is that useful inside an organization?
Annie: That’s part of the dynamics. Most organizations look at their employees as liabilities because they pay them, rather than looking at them as assets because of their contributions. Knowledge within individuals is an intangible asset that must be captured. It is important to somehow represent employees in a way that is valuable to the organization. That value might come from their personality, experience, or education. In any case, you must consider what the organization needs first. Then you ask what you need to know about each person, and then you can identify who has the right assets and begin to utilize them throughout the organization.
The process is knowledge management. Locating experts within a company is a good example. You may have people within the organization that have knowledge, experience, or credentials that may not be known but that can be of value to the organization. Losing one of these highly qualified people creates risk for the organization. Or it might create unnecessary costs because the company hires or contracts someone with the needed knowledge, now knowing that is already exists in-house.
Knowledge Management Technology
Deb: What’s one of the biggest things that businesses are missing when it comes to advanced technology implementation?
Annie: What I believe they are missing is knowledge, specifically, about the technology itself. It is an oxymoron. For some reason, many people do not feel they need to go back and refresh their skills or knowledge. Technology is changing rapidly. People need to keep up. This does not exclude leaders like CEOs. It is just like how doctors must refresh their skills and knowledge continually, taking certain tests or getting certified for specific procedures. Doctors understand a lot of the new procedures, tests, etc., within their discipline and their need to keep up with these changes. It is no different for business leaders. A lot of executives do not understand the technical terms or technical language necessary to develop a digital twin of their enterprise. They hire contractors because they believe they are experts and provide them the proper guidance or information to make decisions. How can you trust someone when you do not know what it is you’re looking for or understand what is necessary to effect the change within your organization?
Holding Knowledge and Managing Knowledge
Deb: Many of today’s leaders grew up believing they are supposed to know everything, without having to relearn or refresh. Obviously, that’s untrue. How do we get around this mental hurdle to help them to gain useful new knowledge?
Annie: I ponder this question quite a bit. It’s an uphill battle. If you’re unaware of what you need to be learning or unaware of what someone is telling you, you might succumb to certain influences that take you down a wrong path. I’m not certain how we fill this gap. It’s not going to be filled by bringing in the younger generation, which knows the technology but doesn’t have the experience to understand things that fall outside of normal organizational boundaries. It is a hard problem with potentially severe consequences if leaders aren’t willing to step out of their comfort zones to do what they need to do. I am concerned about our businesses because of this.
One way to gain knowledge is by supplementing existing capabilities. But before you do, you must make certain that you have selected the right person for the job. Many times, the person who comes in has the skills and experience but isn’t given the guidance, scope of requirements, or context of what is needed from executives. When this happens, the contractors have no other choice but to be driven down the path they know instead of implementing a solution for the unique organization. This gap places the leaders and support/development staff at a disadvantage.
We’ve got a human problem. And we’ve got a knowledge problem. I think those in the senior level ranks need to realize that they’re not going to be punished because they need to go back and gain or refresh certain skills. I don’t think that they should be sent back to get a degree because they lack a certain knowledge area. What I do think works is going to universities that have continuing studies or certificates that build on what you already have. You don’t have to spend ten years getting another degree. Sometimes even two weeks to go somewhere so you can gain a clearer understanding of technology will fill the gap. Once you have this understanding, a leader is better qualified and positioned to be able to talk to contractors about what they are really looking for from technology. If a leader does not have tentacles within and beyond their enterprise, it will be difficult to guide a digital transformation.
I was working with an organization developing scorecards and they asked me to assess them. After spending some time with what they were doing I went to the leaders and explained that the organization’s data was not coming from any system within the organization. And what data they had was being arbitrarily placed into spreadsheets. They were aware of this. There was no reason why the data wasn’t tied to systems except they didn’t know it needed to be.
Knowledge management ties to operations. Measures need to be established. Value areas must be defined. Data must be captured and rolled up for executives to have a scorecard that is functional against the organization. Many leaders still don’t understand this concept.
System of Systems Thinking in the Organization
Deb: How important is understanding the system of systems thinking within an organization?
Annie: The organization is complex, especially when considering that data represents an organization. Everything that is needed to be known must be digitally transformed and represented within the digital twin of the organization. Data must be accurate, mapped, and interdependencies identified to understand if things are going well or wrong within the organization. Think about our bodies when something isn’t right. The doctor starts by checking our vitals first to tell us what is happening with the major biological systems within the body. Then the doctor proceeds to drill down and check other important subsystems. In the same way, the organization needs to identify the vital components first. How do they do this? They need the ability to filter back down into the different data sets and individual components to trace the problem to its source. This process is complex, and systems thinking is required.
The Risks and Upsides of Technology
Deb: What is your thought about the ethics of technology?
Annie: I truly believe technology can improve us. But I think where we fail is we don’t insert it properly into the way we work. We don’t look at what is the responsibility of the computer and the responsibility of the individual. This consideration takes us right back to the importance of system and process thinking. If we decompose the way we work, it is easy to see the areas that best fit automation, as well as the areas that are best served by people. For some reason, people will listen to a computer and say that the computer is right, even though they don’t know the algorithms that have been designed or developed for them to follow. We don’t just need to augment. We need to train.
People are fearful of losing their jobs. The problem is not necessarily them losing their jobs, it’s that they are being displaced. People need supplemental skills so that they can transfer over into other areas of importance. A perfect example of this is secretaries and administrative people. They were wonderful. They did what they were trained to do. When computers came about, these positions were eliminated but many of the tasks they did were still of importance, just digitally represented. They used to maintain paper documents in folders in file cabinets, and with computers, the file cabinets became directories, the folders became digital folders within the directories and the paper documents became digital files.
The digital transformation of the filing system still required the knowledge of the secretary/administrative expert, who (by the way) could have contributed to the knowledge about who had access to the files — the security that should have been included in the digital representation of the filing system. Administrative personnel needed new skills to know how to set up those folders and how to put data into digital folders for use by people. Instead, they were replaced by technical administrators. The ethical approach is to recognize the contributions of the existing employees and systematically identify where the new value-added capability will emerge and train versus replace. This is just a single use case of ethics, there are so many more to be cognizant about.
Deb: You stated concern about the future of business. What are your concerns?
Annie: My concern is for their digital transformations. They need to represent their organizations using technology. And I’m not sure that they have the skills or the ability to do that. A lot of organizations are hiring data scientists to develop algorithms. But what happens is the data scientists aren’t familiar with the industry or the business and how it actually operates, and the organization ends up being misrepresented. Leaders need to step away from egos to realize that they need new skills and learning to make sure they incorporate technology into their organizations in a meaningful way. It was Albert Einstein who said you must first learn the rules of the game and then you must play the game better than anyone else. We are learning a model of the world where the rules of the game are unknown — this is where the problem lies. Many organizations haven’t changed processes in 15 or more years. Incorporating technology that represents the past is not going to help them be successful in the future. Leaders need to understand there is a new game emerging and they need to be a part of defining it, not just trying to play it.
One person can’t do it all. You need to structure your strategic team in a way that makes sure the specific areas within the organization are covered. Those areas should be aligned with the vital components of the organization. For example, you might have a chief human capital officer to oversee employees/staff. This chief human capital officer should be equipped with technology to answer questions — like why are valuable people leaving the organization. It’s the same consideration as if I’m sinking a lot of money into technology but performance is not improving. The chief technical officer, who oversees technology, should be equipped with technology to help strategic leaders understand why, so they can fix the problem.
Deb: What’s your greatest hope for the future?
Annie: My greatest hope is that we build cognition into an organization. That it extends from the internal to the external so we can have visibility into what we’re doing and the impact we’re making. I hope that we can know the rules of the knowledge game and when they’re being broken. I hope that we know things are fair and distributed evenly and that we’re leveraging the growth of people, as opposed to holding them back or not allowing them to bring all of their capabilities forward. I would like to see people educated about the potential of AI to support them so they understand the shifting dynamics and can move into the next position without losing their job and having to start over again. Leaders can help people understand how technology is going to change their jobs. They can explain to people, “you are still going to do this, but now we’re going to shift over and you’re going to be doing it this way.”
I want to see computers augment us — not supersede us. I do not want to see them being used in ways that we don’t need them. They are here to enable us. If that means that they can think faster than us, then let them think faster and provide information. But people are the ultimate decision-makers. I know many people are fearful of computers. I’m not fearful of technology. I’m fearful of the morality of man.
Annie reminds us that organizations put so much energy into managing the organization and optimizing for return that the real power for innovation, creativity, and growth gets lost. Success requires human energy. Yet this incredible source of difference and growth is often deprioritized through myopic views of the purpose of business, understanding new forms of work, and the models required to perform. If we can build and keep a human-focused counterbalance, adopting advanced technology like AI, machine learning, and automation will center people, not marginalize them.