Nathalie de Preux is a recent graduate of McGill’s School of Information Studies (SIS) Master’s program. We invited Nathalie back to her alma mater to talk about her journey into the world of Knowledge Management at Bombardier Aerospace. She shared her memories and ideas over the familiar cheese nachos at Thomson House, the popular meeting place for graduate students.
Nathalie, when was the first time you heard about Knowledge Management (KM)? What compelled you to learn more about the field?
It was during my work as a Communication Specialist for Research & Development at Nestle. One of my duties there was to work with the Knowledge Management Officer, drafting success stories for a storytelling initiative he was leading. This is where I discovered the concept of KM and realized how important it was for a company to be able to learn from past experiences. A couple of months later, I decided to go back to school to do a Master’s degree. I took a ‘competencies test’ to find out what would be the most appropriate program for me. The test results pointed me to Information Studies. I had no idea what this was! But when I looked up what kind of subjects were taught in this degree, I realized it was exactly the kind of program I had been looking for, especially the Knowledge Management stream. After my interview with the program’s Director, Professor Dalkir, I realized that KM was a perfect fit for me given my previous professional experience in Communications and Community Management. I realize that I had actually been involved in KM initiatives before, but under different names. For example, I managed one of the Global Agenda Councils for the World Economic Forum. Now, after having studied KM, I realized that these councils were Communities of Practice or Knowledge Networks.
You completed your Master’s in 2014 and are now working for Bombardier Aerospace. How aware are Bombardier employees about KM? Do you get questions like “what is KM” often?
When I first started, I used to talk about KM as if everyone knew what it was, and I would use terms we learned in the program. But the longer you are in the field, the less you will use the KM jargon. You have to translate the methodologies you learned into concrete examples of how KM is applied to your colleagues’ reality. Now, when I explain what I do in the company, I say that I manage communities of experts that gather together to identify the knowledge and know-how needed to work more efficiently and learn from previous experiences. It makes more sense that way. In this sense, every time we explain what we do, we will explain it in different terms according to our audience, and the good thing is that we get better at it every time! As Prof. Dalkir says, the real test is to try to explain what KM is to your parents or even to your grandparents. I actually did try to explain it to my grandfather, who is a doctor. He actually understood me immediately because he himself was part of a medical community of practice. Unfortunately, you will never be able to explain KM with just one word or even a simple phrase. It’s not as easy as saying “I’m a lawyer” or “I’m a doctor”. I find that the best way to explain KM to someone is to first ask that person what they do and then give them a concrete example of how KM would be applied in their profession or area of expertise.
As a KM advisor, do you have to separate yourself from Bombardier’s Knowledge Networks? Or do you consider yourself an active member of those communities?
I would say a bit of both. On one hand, you have to be aware that you’re not an expert in their field and that this is ok, since you are bringing a different set of skills to the table. What you do need, however, is to understand their vocabulary. It reminds me of my work as a translator. If I had to translate a text from macroeconomics, I had to read documents on the subject. It’s the same with Knowledge Networks. Even though you’re not one of the subject matter experts, you still need to immerse yourself in their jargon and reality to understand and follow their conversations. So, to answer your question, you definitely are part of the Knowledge Network, but in a different role than the rest of the community.
Do you find it challenging to navigate the organizational culture?
Yes, the toughest part of our job is to make people understand that KM is a way of working more efficiently, rather than a series of additional tasks; it has to be engrained in their daily work. Vice Presidents, Directors and other members of the upper management all understand the benefits of KM in theory. However, when it comes to implementing it, it becomes harder to secure time and resources, and even more challenging: to make employees change old habits. You need to show them that what seems like an additional effort at the beginning, can significantly reduce the time they will spend looking for information later. Another example is finding the right time to capture knowledge and know-how. It may seem like the worst timing to ask employees to capture knowledge right when they are under pressure to get an airplane certified. However, this is actually the best time to capture lessons learned, to avoid repeating the same mistakes when certifying the next airplane, or keep the practices that had good results. You have to constantly create awareness that KM is a great investment is for the company in the long run.
What kind of skills does it take you to succeed as a KM Advisor at Bombardier?
First of all, you need to persevere and really believe in what you are saying. Don’t get discouraged if people are skeptic at first. You have to be well prepared with supporting examples and good arguments. Presentation skills are essential in KM. Networking and people’s skills are also crucial because you need to establish good working relationships with a lot of people. You need to be a very good communicator because a big part of your role is to help people express the knowledge they have in their minds.
Does your role require you to have a good understanding of the technologies Bombardier is producing or the industries it operates in?
Yes, it requires me to have a certain level of knowledge in terms of vocabulary and general understanding of how an airplane is built, as well as a general knowledge of the aerospace industry. I followed an introductory course given to new aerospace engineers to familiarize myself with the some of these concepts. I was not expected to understand all the material covered, since I am not an aerospace engineer, just to get a general idea. What is really important, however, and this is true for a KM practitioner in any industry, is to understand the way people work and their strategies. In this sense, KM specialists are a bit like management consultants: they need to understand the business without necessarily being an expert in the field.
Do you think KM is the luxury only affordable to large companies like Bombardier?
From a short term economic standpoint having a team of KM specialists could be perceived as a luxury. However, without a proper KM strategy in place, processes can’t be improved, and lessons won’t be learned in a systematic and efficient way, regardless of the size of a company. Some articles I read recently clearly explained how even start-ups should think about their KM strategy from very early stages. I would say it is more an investment than a luxury. KM saves time and resources to a company in the long run. There is also that whole side of competency development, where thanks to KM, training programs in the company are tailored to the real needs of its employees and targets the most important knowledge gaps according to organizational goals.
I often hear that KM is a time-consuming and travel-intensive profession that requires certain sacrifices in terms of personal life. Do you think it is true? Or is it just a rumour?
Like any interesting job, it can be time-consuming at times, but it is up to each person to manage their time properly. A KM consultant, like consultants from any profession, might travel a lot more and work crazy hours. However, if you work in the KM department of a specific company, then your working hours are quite acceptable.
Do you have any advice, best practice, or maybe a lesson learned to share with the graduating students looking forward to making their way in the KM world?
My main advice would be: don’t doubt yourself and don’t hesitate to start your first experience in KM even If you’ve never done it before. We are better trained than we realize with everything we learn in the program. The best way to go about this is to create a proposal of the services you can offer, send it to targeted contacts, and eventually you’ll get a good job. You’d be surprised. Companies and organizations need people to manage their information and knowledge resources. So there are lots of opportunities. The difference with other professions is that you have to create those opportunities yourself. For example, target a specific company and tell them what you can do for them, ask if they are available for an interview. Another way is to get any job you can get in the company that you want to work for and start working on KM tasks as you go, eventually creating a new job description… Just go for it, be upfront, and be proactive. Say, “I can do this!”
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