By Suzannah.Brecknell

14 Jul 2010

Though the skills have existed for years, knowledge and information management has only recently coalesced as a profession. Suzannah Brecknell talks to KIM head Oliver Morley about the data revolution being driven by IT 

Some people may think that ‘knowledge and information manager’ is just a fancy word for librarian. For these people, it may be a surprise to learn that the head of the government’s knowledge and information management (KIM) profession resides not among dark and dusty archives, but in an airy, glass-walled office in the decidedly modern National Archives building. Like the British Library on the other side of London, this building welcomes visitors into a bright, high-ceilinged atrium that seems to embody the idea of knowledge as enlightenment.

The light flooding into Morley’s (pictured above) office – and, indeed, the rest of the National Archives, of which he is acting chief executive – seems very fitting as we discuss one of the main challenges for the profession: responding to the coalition’s transparency agenda. This, according to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, is all about letting light into the corridors of power.

Morley sees this as an “exciting challenge”, as the profession will need to ask not only what transparency means for knowledge and information managers, but also the implications “for departments more generally, around business process and the way they work to deliver transparency”.

One of the first questions will be cost. “Transparency has a conspicuous cost, particularly if departments or organisations aren’t ready: it takes a reasonable amount [of resource] to make sure that data is available in the right kind of format, that material is regularly updated and so on,” Morley says. KIM is traditionally seen as a back office function where savings can be made, he continues, so there will be a challenge in balancing the needs of efficiency and transparency.

Where exactly that balance lies will depend on the final destination and speed of the transparency agenda, says Morley; but there is another, longer-term result of the transparency drive for KIMs. “The profession needs to be able to explain to ‘the business’ how best to build transparency into their everyday process,” he explains. “So when a contract is first created and you know it’s going to be significant, for example, the awareness that the contract is going to be made public should be made clear at the contracting stage. KIM professionals can really help with explaining how to build that kind of process.”

Who are these KIM professionals? Well, not just librarians. The KIM profession incorporates many roles, from FoI teams to information risk managers. Broadly, KIM is about making sure information is being handled safely and appropriately, and that departments are making best use of it. What does that mean in practice?

“In the final analysis, it means that if you ask someone in the department: ‘Can you get the information you need to do your job?’ they answer: ‘Yes’,” says Morley. Examples of good information management, he adds, include permanent secretaries being able to sleep soundly knowing information in their department is secure; effective transfer of knowledge when someone leaves the department; efficient handling of FoI requests and good information-sharing; and collaboration between policy teams.

There are no exact figures on the membership of the KIM profession. Morley believes it is between 3,000 and 4,000, but the number of people with an interest in using information effectively is much larger than this: policy and legal professionals have an obvious interest in getting good quality information when they need it, for example.

In part, this lack of data is because the profession is fairly new: its governing body, the Knowledge Council, was created in 2007. As Morley points out, though, this was really only the formal linking of groups which had been providing information services for years. The council is chaired by Andrew Stott, deputy chief information officer for government, and is made up of senior KIM professionals from across government, plus representatives of the Chief Information Officers’ Council and the Chief Technology Officers’ Council.

The presence of CIO and CTOs within the Knowledge Council points to the other main trend which has transformed the KIM profession in the last decade or so: the digitisation of information and its management. Morley says, however, that the time for focusing on technology per se has passed. The profession is now focused on process and culture: on raising the profile of digital records – “creating a culture in government where digital records are seen as something that we are all responsible for managing” – and “trying to get the best out of information within the context of whatever technology the department has at that time”.

Given the broad nature of the profession, there is no single route into it, nor are there universally required qualifications. As a result of this disparate nature, one of the key challenges for the profession’s leadership has been to work out the core capabilities to which a knowledge and information manager should aspire. The KIM professional skills framework was published in June last year and focuses on users, business, compliance and process needs. Morley says it is broadly about understanding IT, departmental and business processes and legal and regulatory frameworks.

The National Archives (NA) provides some courses for the profession – for example, in archiving – but departments themselves also provide KIM training, and Morley is full of praise for their work: “We’ve seen some really impressive pieces of departmental training over the past year or so, and the exciting thing about it is that there is really good sharing around that training.”

Encouraging greater collaboration around information and its management is a key goal for the profession. The Knowledge Council is one high-level way in which this can be achieved, and Morley believes the current “tough cost environment” may be a driver for some “real collaboration and shared services”.

There are already some shared services in the field, such as the training work and a common platform provided by the NA for digital continuity – “making sure that the digital record is going to be looked after for a long time into the future” – which will be available for departments to buy from late 2010. But there is certainly scope for more shared services, says Morley, especially in research – and this could be one of the ways in which KIM could contribute to the efficiency agenda as well as the transparency drive.

Given the broad nature of the profession, touching on so many areas of departments’ work, Morley argues that KIM plays a fundamental role in governance. And as the drive for more open, accountable government marches on, this relatively small and traditionally back office profession may well become an even more important support for departments as they emerge blinking into the bright light of the transparency age.

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