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Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

Leadership and Management

Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

Many institutions struggle with the concept of knowledge management,

The group around the table had been meeting regularly for six months, tackling the issue of faculty overloads. At this institution, faculty who taught more than the default workload accumulated extra credits that they could use in subsequent semesters to reduce their teaching load. But, as resources declined and fewer full-time faculty were hired, the teaching schedule did not get reduced at the same rate, resulting in faculty accumulating overload but never having an opportunity to use it. Furthermore, as fewer staff positions were being refilled, faculty assumed administrative duties, and their reward was additional workload credits.

As academic leaders analyzed the faculty balances, seeing numbers that would theoretically enable a faculty member to take off a year or more, slight concern evolved into outright panic. Policies were in place to manage this, but clearly previous administrations had ignored those guidelines, creating the current situation. They pondered what would happen if every faculty member decided to use their overload at the same time. They wondered whether faculty had the misconception that somewhere in the provost’s office was an Overload ATM where faculty could cash in their credits, counting their money as they walked out the door for the last time and headed into retirement. Sadly, the sins of the past had created the problem of the present. And, as every good institution in higher education does when confronted with a problem, a task force was created.

Many institutions struggle with the concept of knowledge management, and the problem is not exclusive to the academy.

The group proposed initial research questions, collected and analyzed data, and then posed more involved questions with deeper meaning and greater consequence that repeated the cycle. Six months into the process, the chair of the task force, a long-standing faculty member, stepped back from this progression and came to a conclusion. He began the meeting with this simple yet profound proclamation: “We know what we know, and we know what we don’t know. Now we can go about solving this problem.”

Prophetically delivered in a tone that begged to have a John Williams score playing underneath, the room nodded in unison as if their heads were connected by some invisible string. But he was more than a master puppeteer that day; he had struck a chord that, in this era of data-informed decision making, still reverberates throughout our ivory towers.

Many institutions struggle with the concept of knowledge management, and the problem is not exclusive to the academy. A recent study revealed that Fortune 500 companies lose more than $30 billion a year by failing to share knowledge internally. This idea of knowledge management has been defined and redefined over the years; in fact, two researchers analyzed the myriad of definitions in an attempt to synthesize the results into one common meaning: “the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organization.” (Girard and Girard, 2015).

From a 25,000-foot perspective, the accreditation process offers schools an opportunity to elaborate on their major successes over a multi-year period, even documenting the paths taken to achieve those milestones. But often the compilation results in a report that finds its way to a physical shelf in a bookcase or even a virtual shelf on a website and is never opened again. The report might go so far as to detail all that the institution has learned about itself during the reporting period and in accomplishing its goals, but how is that information disseminated across the organizational chart? Is the view from the ground level any more enlightened looking up that same chart, or do we struggle on a seemingly redundant path to make a new wheel that is just as round as the old one? Perhaps the ultimate irony in higher education is that we are the quintessential learning organization, but we are in the business of promoting learning in others, not necessarily ourselves.

The benefits of knowledge management are many: it facilitates decision-making capabilities, enriches organizations by making learning routine, promotes efficiencies, and stimulates cultural change and innovation. Leveraged effectively, knowledge management could enhance the academic knowledge that results from teaching and learning efforts, the primary purpose of the enterprise. It also could enhance the organizational knowledge by improving the administrative infrastructure that supports it. From a practical perspective, the often-problematic issues of succession planning and leadership transition become easier when the successor does not have to “reinvent the wheel” or rely on the oral history of an institution to explain its current standing. Much of what we do and how we do it is often framed in the “we’ve always done it that way” model, lacking the documentation to outline “how” and the historical context to explain “why.” When I left my previous institution after 27 years, one colleague joked that he wished I had a USB port in the back of my head so they could plug in a flash drive and do a cranial data dump.

Yet for all of its benefits, knowledge management also brings its share of challenges: clear processes and procedures need to be established and vetted, a technology infrastructure needs to be in place, and management support and sponsorship must be evident. For knowledge management to grow and prosper, its organizational value, both short- and long-term, must be demonstrated so that the initiative is not viewed as another exercise that will end up on the same shelf as the last initiative. Ultimately, the success of knowledge management relies on how well our academic leaders manage the triangle of culture change: process, technology, and people.

As a postscript to the story, the group around the table learned more about faculty workload than they ever thought they would. They began with a strategic question before consulting or collecting data, and did not let preconceived ideas influence their questions, analysis, or decision making. They found that 80 percent of the workload was truly time in the classroom, so they focused on the smaller, administrative portion. As they peeled off the layers of the data onion, they found that the majority of the workload labelled “administrative” was actually academic in scope. Their interviews with top administrators resulted in a commitment to enforce existing policies and procedures that would contain and ultimately reduce the overload problem. Most importantly, their examination of historical data revealed faculty members who retired without a mention of their overload balance; evidence of a dedicated faculty whose priority was not credit counting but making a difference in their students’ lives.

The process resulted in three important outcomes: they knew what they knew, they knew what they didn’t know, and they solved the problem. And I know all of this because I was sitting at that same table and was grateful to share in that learning process. Now if I had only written it down…


Girard, J.P., & Girard, J.L. (2015). Defining knowledge management: Toward an applied compendium, Online Journal of Applied Knowledge Management. 3(1), 1-20.

Richard L. Riccardi is senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University. Contact him at rriccardi@rider.edu


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