Monday, September 19, 2005

About the Author

In the beginning…

I was born and raised in Colombia. I learned English in high school and, in part, my father pushed me to have a British accent which I never caught quite right. I graduated in 1996 as a Systems Engineer from the School of Engineering, a great university down in Bogotá. I now realize I was not fully aware what the career name meant or encompassed at the time.
I had a quick stint at a research lab finishing my thesis project when I got a call to come and work in a giant fast food US company as their systems analyst. It went well until I finished school and they decided not to raise my pay check as promised. Soon after that, I left in protest not before making a study to show they needed three full time people for the IT department, not one part time freshman.
It was my first experience learning about what the corporate world was about. If it is not in writing you can pretend it was never said. But after sometime I met some former colleagues that told me I probably made the best decision as they recounted how the morale had gone down since then. After doubting about the decision now I felt it was the right one. That first job was in essence do-it-all kind of thing. I managed everything in Information Technology (IT). Network, computer support, email, point of sales systems, everything; I always had some taste for having a broad knowledge for technology and I was been given the chance to put it into practice. I did not know how important that would be later on.
Soon after, I was called for an opportunity to do some training courses as a consultant to an oil company -- a big one that is. I did not think too much about it, they pay was huge compared to what I was making. Months before I met a top executive at another oil company that ignited my desire to be in the oil business, so I already had my mind set into it. The project: A huge migration from Apple to PC and we were the ones training everyone in the office. I was about to witness my first large full scale IT project. That would not be very unique if I didn’t tell you the migration was for two thousand plus people in less than three months. That is an enormous undertaking for any size of company.
They trained us how to train users, and it definitely helped me tune up my presentation skills plus a little of British accent refinement. I remembered how the trainers crinched when I kept coming with “gonna” instead of going to. Now, what it really made the difference in this learning process was that they brought a professional camera guy to film us so that we could see how we looked. Some people felt they looked like clowns. In summary, it was a hard and eye opening experience. At the end, the project was a tremendous success. Soon after I was transferred to work as a support analyst and part time Webmaster. As I said, the Internet was all the rage, and the top job you could think about on an Internet environment was being a Webmaster. What I did not know was how hard it was to become one. You had to know five different programming languages, and all sorts of additional skills, as in the beginning, the Internet was a big piece of “something” putted together with duct tape (the five languages). That means a lot of things failed. So you had to be very technical, but at the same time had to know about design and building “beautiful” looking pages. It was odd to me but a great challenge.
The guy doing the Webmaster juggling decided to leave to Canada very soon, but I did not get the job; they brought someone else with lots of experience in Internet programming and had been a former webmaster himself, so I kept wishing to get the top spot and see what it was like. After a while I finally got the job, but I was starting to get interested in the ERP arena where salaries where all the rage and the technology looked great. Funny thing, I never got very far with it. Call it destiny or something, although I was named the “Focal Point guy” for all ERP matters at my company after a big presentation by an expert explaining the Millions of dollars earned implementing ERP – something that made me not very popular among my peers--- I was never sent to training, because they knew I would be “stolen” soon after by another consulting company to a big mammoth job somewhere else.
Meanwhile I had to deal with this tool for document management that looked pretty interesting but that I did not see much of a future in the webmaster area (How wrong I was). The tool was called Livelink. In the late 1990’s I went from webmaster into being the tech lead guy for a big time project implementing Knowledge management technology (the Livelink product I mentioned) to the entire organization. In that time, KM was unknown to many people including corporations as the Internet was all the rage and this particular oil company was arguably the leader in implementing best practices due to their operational liability issues. This was-is a big and large oil and exploration company down in South America. Figuring out who was to be the project manager posed a challenge at a time those projects were non-existent, so managers decided that the best option would be to select a “traditional” operations manager from the field as the PM for this knowledge project. We soon found out this would not be the best answer, as too many things looked out of whack. We did not know how big and complicated the project could be as well . Many observers and colleagues warned me left and right about this project and its dangers, but I felt compelled to keep trying anyway. The one thing I was asked from the PM in charge to do was to come out with a budget.
In our culture, we are kind of afraid about money matters, so it was unusual for the tech lead to come up with a 1.5 million dollar budget. Given the risks involved, I made big numbers to counter those risks. That probably saved us from a disaster. In other words, if you know you are going to fail, just make sure you fail BIG as they say in Texas, it does not make sense to fail small, as you will not learn much out of it. In summary, the project had three different project managers (definitely not recommended on any kind of project), and we were lucky to have a system in place at the end with the best technology around cause we were able to bypass a long biding process and do it quickly. The only person working full time in the project was me which today sounds really crazy. We struggled to figure out what was the path to follow, so a lot was trial and error, but let me tell you that this method is not for the faint of heart. It is by far the hardest way of learning and the most expensive. That project was probably the first in the world (1997) in size and scope dealing directly and specifically with KM with absolutely no expertise around (I think they scoured the world around for consultants) to guide us without any luck. They found none.
But for some reason the top guy up there believed that I was responsible of the problems the project was having. That did not make me feel too good, so I decided to start looking for something else rather than waiting for the hammer to fall on my head. I was sure warned about it. It looked typical management stupidity where you start looking for the scapegoat (Shoot the messenger syndrome) instead of looking at how the project is structured. Luckily for me, my boss and managers from the consulting company where absolutely clear that instead of guilty I was brave enough for dealing with a crazy project like that. In the end it was straightened out by a very competent project manager—the third in a row. My first big lesson in project management: Make sure you know what you are doing, if not, bring the experts or don’t try it unless you are ready to fail.
Implementing the technology was exciting, new ways of dealing with information, figuring out how to best organize, capture, retrieve data, create workflow processes, etc. The number of things involved was growing and growing big in complexity. We were learning about the importance of interfaces, the users aspect of it, and how delicate was to migrate information from one side to another. There were unseen hidden links between groups of people that proved difficult to deal with without prior research. But again, I learned from the technical perspective as well as the business side.
After that, I’ve got an offer to come to the United States from a big tobacco company. I was very excited, and as always happen, the excitement transformed into frustration, the 2000 year US election proved to be a bump in the road for the papers that were delayed so much that the project I was called to join, dried out. After some calls, I landed a job as project manager for a big financial conglomerate. I had to move to a hotel and start working the next Monday morning in a different country, different culture, and make sure I produced results by the end of the week in a project with “again” unbelievable goals. Not recommended for the faint of heart . It stroked me the way their goals were set. They wanted to go “paperless” in less than four-five months. That is something bordering with craziness (first making the attempt) but I needed the job, and did not think too much about it. I have to say it was again very rough, as the project was already underway, I was coming in the middle of it replacing another PM, and they expected results probably in an hour, thinking that there was a proven method (Shall I say magic formula) of how to implement paperless projects in a snap. Today we know you can't possibly go paperless unless is a brand new company with a different leadership and mentality. For older companies you will always have a mix of paper and digital information.
Ok, so the reason the previous manager was removed, was because he did not agree on the way they wanted to move their information to this new technology. And he was probably right. But I had to do it anyway, so we went ahead and moved all files and folders into the system in less than a month. We did it, but with a lot of errors, because the tools used were not designed for that kind of massive uploading and there was no planning what so ever. Next, I found my self with another challenge; spitting out a fully detailed project plan with no lead time. I had no idea about how to come up with it because you cannot possibly foresee a plan without knowing where you are, their current state of matters, where you are going, and a team of people. In other words, you have to be there since day one as project manager to be able to figure out why, what, how, when, etc to do it and plan it right, but I did it anyway. I can think back now and tell you how crazy everything was. I do not know if heads rolled from the client stand point, but being a consultant kept you in a somewhat safe spot, at least in my case. Luckily they knew that just bringing in a new project manager and doing the same thing would not cut it; another hard lesson in the pocket but very valuable. I was sure learning the hard way how NOT to do Knowledge Management from customers and companies shooting up in the air. That was probably the time I started asking my self why they were doing it like that, and began to step back. I guess that is the way we learn about new things. We fail and fail until we learn a new way that works better.
After a couple of other small jobs 9/11 came and we got a (Sadly) 3 month vacation as everything and I mean every single project was shutdown. When I’ve got the offer for interview in New York later that year, everybody in my family had the terror look saying to me “Are you sure you want to go there?”, I thought to myself that probably the best place to be after 9/11 was precisely in NY, and there could not be any other safer place on earth.
In NY I was offered a two year contract, so we decided to move from our temporal residence in Maryland. The challenge: learning the inner working of a non-profit organization and fixing-guiding them through the tough KM waters. My first impression was that the pace and ways of working coming from the “outside” world were quite different to how the non-profit world behaves. Everything moved a lot more slowly. It was hard at the beginning but I adjusted and figured out the way you could move around and get things done. The technology was fixed, and the users where retrained with a different approach. It proved successful in the number of users using the technology, but at the expense of time. Still, many of the factors affecting KM applied here. It took a long time, as I was the only resource doing everything. I soon learned the value and power of having policies and procedures in place when there are none. Meanwhile I delivered a seminar on KM and in retrospective I realize how messy it must have sounded, but still today, I get people to my seminars that want to know what KM is all about.
It has been 10 years now, so let’s look at the lessons from the past and how I looked back to try finding a clear picture of what is wrong with KM and the definitions behind. Here are the lessons I’ve learned so far.

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