Knowledge management in practice - Charlene Tait

Interview with Charlene Tait, development director, Scottish Autism
Published in Case studies on 20 Jun 2012

In this short video, new Iriss Champion, Charlene Tait, describes the process of sharing knowledge to improve practice within Scottish Autism.

This forms part of the Iriss evidence informed practice case study series designed to help practitioners share their experiences of using different types of evidence to change the delivery of services.


Charlene Tait

I am Charlene Tait and I am Director of Development for Scottish Autism.  Scottish Autism is a large service provider for people with autism, we have services all across Scotland, we have a school, a residential school for pupils with autism, we have a number of day opportunities, respite and short break services and we support individuals in their own tenancies in a number of residential type settings.  As well as direct service delivery, our mission if you like, as an organisation is to enable people with autism throughout their life journey and an important part of that is to ensure that people have good information about autism that people have access to support and advice, and so we offer a helpline service where anyone who, professional, parent, individual on the spectrum can call us and ask a question, they can be pointed, you know signposted if you like to information.

Scottish Autism is a long established organisation, we have been service providers for over 40 years and in that time we have accumulated enormous amount of knowledge and understanding of people with autism, families who live with autism, the needs of professionals who are supporting people with autism, and what we are trying to do is recognise that that knowledge is relevant and important to a wider audience.  And as well as enhancing our own practice and our own understanding, it's really valuable and useful information for people in the wider autism community.

So one of the ambitions that we have is to develop a knowledge management strategy within our organisation where we recognise that knowledge is an asset and where we make much more use of the learning that we accumulate, the data that we accumulate, the insight that we accumulate, and use that to inform and enhance our own practice as well as that of other people.

Lisa Pattoni, Iriss

Okay, can you tell me a bit about the process you have gone through to try to enable all that useful knowledge?

Charlene Tait

Yes, we have gone through a fairly rigorous process I think in the last year, when I arrived in the organisation a Knowledge Management Group had already been formed and I think that that was the beginnings of the recognition that knowledge was a useful area to look at and really to break down our understanding of what do we mean when we talk about organisational knowledge and learning in the organisation.  So one of the first things that we set about doing was a knowledge audit across the organisation and that was really important because what we wanted to do was understand what our practitioners who are in day to day contact with people with autism, understood about their own knowledge, about how they use knowledge and how they perceived knowledge to be valued and used and developed in the organisation.  So we carried out a fairly extensive process really in that we had the sort of 3 pronged attack, if you like, not quite an attack but a 3 pronged approach where we ran a number of focus groups across the organisation, we plumped for, we found a sort of knowledge management tool if  you like and we adapted that to our own situation, because we are not a business environment and we are not an academic environment, although bits of that come in, you know obviously we have business processes and we support our staff in academic development and learning in development, but we are not strictly those disciplines, we are a kind of blend of everything.  So what we did was, we adapted this tool, the sort of focus if you like, the different focus areas that were in that tool for our own areas of focus in that tool for our own organisation, and so we set about having a series of focus groups across our different service areas, and that involved me really meeting with groups of staff, and in those groups we asked questions like, ‘how does knowledge flow around the organisation, who holds the knowledge in the organisation, is there a strategic approach to knowledge in the organisation, is there a strategic lead in organisation,’ we also asked who were the key people in the organisation.  We also asked things about the culture of the organisation, is it open, can you say I have an idea, can you take things forward, are you enabled to develop ideas and concepts, you know we asked about collaboration and communication across the organisation and generally had a good look at who we are, what we do, how we do it, and that was very, very revealing and we engaged with staff at all different levels, senior managers in the organisation, people who had been with the organisation for a long, long time.  Within Scottish Autism we are very fortunate that we have quite a significant number of long term staff, staff who have stayed with us for a number of years and the blend of that was very new staff was very interesting.  We also asked about conceptual things around autism, about whose work influenced our work, things about the language that you use around people with autism and the technical language of autism, so we had quite a thorough going over of the issues in the focus groups.  We then did a sort of asset survey if you like where we asked people to identify the tools, the knowledge tools so things that they used day to day that were either generated by them or by the organisation or resources that were freely, publicly available that they valued that were influential in their work, and we sort of asked people to dig about in their cupboards or think about the things that they used every day as what we would call knowledge assets, knowledge tools if you like.  And then the third thing that we did was our HR department was doing a staff survey, so we worked with them to include some knowledge questions in the annual staff survey and what that was about was giving people a chance to talk about their personal knowledge, because one of the things, the sort of intuitive things that when we embarked on this was we felt that the vast majority of knowledge resides in peoples heads and what where our mechanisms for unlocking that and leaving that as a legacy for the organisation if people did move on.  How did we ensure that the knowledge just didn't walk out the door with them and everybody around them was left starting again, and I think that's a challenge for a lot of organisations, there’s a bit of panic when a key individual has said ‘I am moving on’.  So there was this sort of three pronged approach of the focus groups, the asset audit if you like, and the individual knowledge questions.  So from that, that gave us quite an interesting picture of our organisation, we learned a lot about how people perceived their own knowledge and I think we are not unique in that we have, you know, very committed, very dedicated practitioners who perceive what they do as just doing their job and didn't see that what they did was, you know, actually evidence of having significant knowledge and understanding in the area, so there was a bit of kind of, the individuals kind of humility about their own role within the organisation came out, there was a bit about how we communicate or in some cases don’t communicate between ourselves when things have gone well and we have got good models of practice.  There was a thing about sometimes having access to resources, sometimes people had lots of access to resources but felt they didn't have time resources to look at things, and there were also issues of sort of perceptions of the need for maybe a more strategic steer around just the general principles if you like, of the organisation, and people were able to articulate then in the focus groups and live those kinds of things, but in terms of an overall strategy, people couldn’t really identify what that was coherently, and so that was one of the major things that we wanted to kind of address ... I mean in terms of knowledge, not the organisations aims and objectives, people obviously know what those are, but this kind of specific thing around knowledge and the use of knowledge, so it was quite a revealing process.

Barriers to getting knowledge into practice

The main barriers are about peoples perceptions of what we are talking about when we talk about knowledge, the people I think often associate it with a kind of higher order thing, an intellectual pursuit, something that is kind of disconnected to things that you do every day, but when we started talking about it more in terms of what do you know about what you do, that made it more accessible. I think that the thing that I mentioned earlier about people just feeling it was their job and that it wasn’t that big of a deal and who was this woman who was asking all these questions and what was that really all about.  I think that was one of the barriers that there hasn’t been an organisational focus on that before and so people were kind of a bit, ‘why are we looking at this now,’ and so there’s been a lot of change in the organisation over a relatively short period of time and this seemed like maybe another change, so it was really important for us that we didn't approach the knowledge management strategy in an isolated way, but that it was joined up and connected to all the other strategic activity in the organisation.  A barrier for us is also we have over 850 staff, we are very widespread, although we tend to cluster around the central belt, our services are throughout Scotland and so we are very widespread, and a huge challenge is communicating the aims and objectives of what we were trying to do, communicate the outcomes of the audit and for people to see that it was relevant to their every day work.

What helped you succeed?

I think that being willing to go to those different areas and having the freedom within my role to do that was certainly a great support and I dedicated a large amount of my time to doing that in the first instance.  I also did quite a lot of research about what is knowledge management and what are we talking about and trying to get the kind of terminology right and we tussled around all these issues a lot, we formed a knowledge management forum which I think is really essential, there are representatives from all the different parts of our organisation on that knowledge forum and that's a big resource in a sense, and peoples time that we have dedicated to that, we meet every 6 to 8 weeks, we debate, we argue, we tussle it all out, you know what really are we talking about, what are we doing, and I think that that sort of natural process, what is it ... forming, storming, norming, performing, I think I can definitely say the knowledge management forum went through that, but it's worth holding onto that because that's the buy in where people feel this isn’t just being driven by an individual or a section of the organisation, that this is being driven forward by a forum that's representative of the whole organisation.  So time to prepare and really think through what you are going to do is really essential, good resources where you can help your own thinking, that was really important, it was also ... I suppose useful to me that I had a bit of an academic background and I could see a sort of methodology if you like to this which is quite important to be quite organised and quite systematic about it.  Not least because you are suddenly drowning in lots of information, you go from having no information to having lots of information very quickly, so good resources to help you sort that out are really, really important.  I think those are the main ones.

Lisa Pattoni

So you have had all that data?

Charlene Tait


Lisa Pattoni

Can you tell us a little bit about the outcomes then of your activities and what you did with all of the stuff once you got it?

Charlene Tait

Well we did have a lot of data and I suppose we didn't wait until we got to the end of the process to think about what the outcomes were, there were lots and lots of common themes that emerged as we were going around and that is gratifying and worrying in equal measure, but it gives you a good sense that you are on the right track, that your perceptions match what you are hearing and that there are commonalities, there aren’t any kind of rogue traders if you like who think its one thing and everybody else thinks its the other, so that in itself was quite reassuring.  But what we did in terms of outcomes, we looked for some longer term strategic developments and looked for some quick wins if you like and I get so tired of hearing that these days, everybody wants quick wins, but I think it was quite important that our staff recognised that I wasn’t just doing a paper exercise with them and that we as an organisation weren’t just paddling our feet in the water, we were in this, we were buying into this.  So one of the things that came out was that the staff really felt they needed more contact with each other across the organisation, we have got lots of staff doing similar work in different areas and who are probably meeting the same challenges, almost maybe cyclically if you like, and that they felt that they had not sufficient opportunity to know and understand that.  So one of the very early outcomes and one of the very first things that we did was decided that we are going to have a staff conference and that we, as an organisation are quite famed for our national conferences, but we took the decision not to go down that road this year and that what we would do was change that, that we would show a commitment to knowledge, management and knowledge sharing by having some very small external knowledge sharing events, but that we would have an internal staff conference that was populated entirely by our own staff, because normally we would bring in the big namer, the someone who knows, you know was well established.  But what we did was, we asked for a call for papers within the staff team on their practice and we got papers on communication, social networking, transition, support into housing, getting it right for every child, using formalised assessment, so what we had was a whole chunk of workshops that were going to be delivered by the staff, again this is where sort of collaboration across our different, you know sort of senior management team if you like, was important, the Director of Autism Services, the Director of Education at the school, really important that they were willing to commit the resources to that, to release people to fund that, we got total buy in also from HR, complete buy in that we were doing this. So we had an event where everyone got 20 minutes, except the CEO, he got 45 minutes because he was delivering the sort of overall business plan if you like, the Chair of our Board did a little bit of input in a sort of main stage setting, the CEO did, our Director of Education did around our autism quality measures, and we also as an organisation have bought into the Public Service Improvement Framework as our quality measure, and so the Quality Risk Manager just gave an overview of that.  And then we had a sort of model of speed dating if you like, where we ran all the workshops in the morning and then we run them again in the afternoon and everyone moved around, 20 minutes, in, out, and from that we got tremendous feedback from the staff about the value of that, and what we have done subsequently is, we have asked everyone who delivered a workshop, because the nature of our work, we can’t have everybody off the floor, you know we have people who are in our full time, you know services full time and who need members of staff with them full time, so what we have done now is, we have asked everyone who delivered a workshop to commit to delivering a minimum of two and a maximum of four times throughout the year, and we have got a lovely internal knowledge share calendar, which means people will continue to move around throughout the year and meet with each other and engage, leading up to our next conference which will be March, and then it will start all over again.  But what we also got from that conference was good feedback about the areas that people wanted to know more about, so this year rather than just say, ‘what are you doing, tell us what you are doing, throw in a paper’, we can ask for papers on very specific areas of work and so on.  So that was one of the big quick wins that we got, and that's all underway presently and it’s there, people have got the opportunity now, sometimes its just having a reason to go and visit another service and be there, and if its part of their CPD, then that's maybe seen as more legitimate.  So that was one of the quick wins, but what we have been able to do is really pull together our longer term strategy about what we feel the real outputs can be from this and we have got a number of those.  One is the development of communities of practice across our organisation, and we are underway with some work in that area, we have engaged the support of 3 academics who are very involved in communities of practice in an academic sense, but in a practice sense as well which is very important to us, so we are currently working with them to look at ways that we can use that model in our organisation.  We are looking at a sort of sub strategy if you like around publication, and that's very, very important because we hold a vast amount of knowledge, we generate a huge amount of resources and its that thing as seeing them as being valuable to other people, so we have already had two training packs commissioned by the British Institute of Learning Disabilities, packs that we would use to provide training for parents of children in the spectrum, and as I trawl through our hard knowledge assets and seeing okay there’s a nice something over there, we can do something with this, and really all these outputs should be connected because what we are hoping the Communities of Practice Initiative will do will enable people to generate materials, share materials more effectively and that itself will lead the whole process of developing the Communities of Practice will lead to publication as well about that process.

We are looking at our knowledge management activities to impact on our internal policy development around autism practice and what is good and what’s effective, and also to help us to engage more effectively in terms of external policy development, national policy development, because it gives us a good basis, more of an evidence base to promote a particular ideology or methodology than other, if we are able to draw on our own practice as a sort of evidence base and say well, you know, these are the principles really that are important when you work with people with autism, so it helps us engage in that national debate a bit more.  The whole internal, external communications thing is huge, I mentioned we have been doing these sort of mini knowledge share events and that's part of, I suppose changing the culture a little bit so that people see their work as valid and valuable and something that the external autism community and those interested in autism in the community really want to hear.  So again our external knowledge share events are all delivered by our own staff, you know we are not at this stage bringing in specific well known expertise, we are using our home grown expertise to populate those.  We also want to engage, give our practitioners access to those established, experienced, either academics or field professionals, and so we are looking at a sort of academic/expert engagement strategy where through Communities of Practice, the publication development, all of that, we identify areas where we really want to work with specific individuals and invite them into our organisation for short term pieces of work around an individual or maybe around a service where there’s an issue, or maybe just something that we want to develop.  So that's kind of ongoing as well.  And another key area for us is research and we have got a number of thoughts around that, we want to enable and facilitate research, so we have been much more open about, for example on our website there’s a space where young researchers, students, novices can post stuff about their projects they are doing for their MSC or their PHD, and we want to talk to them once they are done and hear what they have found out and see if it is of any use to us, so we allow them to .. they have to fulfil quite a strict, I have to say, criteria before we post it up, so make sure they have got ethical approval and all of that, but that's all standard in anybody in an academic environment, we should have that and we would expect it, so we are kind of encouraging people to use us if you like to attract attention to their own research.  We are trying to encourage more research minded approaches to practice in our own organisation through the process of gathering up the information that we have, we are also hoping to engage some research expertise with our organisation so that we can provide learning and development for our staff around evaluation, data collection, data analysis, structuring a project if you want to look at something and then examine it, and I think that's really important that right from the start line, we are thinking about the end line, the finish line if you like, where we say, well okay not only are we going to enable and support, promote a good outcome for this individual, we are going to have a learning outcome from this that's a product if you like, whether its a presentation at a conference or an academic paper or a ...  more likely for us a paper in a practice kind of journal.  So we are trying to promote all that, and again the sort of joining the dots, that we are trying to encourage more presence at conferences, delivering more papers based on practical work, and that's building and that's happening, we have had a number this year and we are aiming at more European and International conferences for the coming year.

Lessons Learned

I think we have learned and are still learning an enormous amount and I think that the key thing for me was about making assumptions that we have got this excellent practice, that we have got these excellent services, we enable excellent outcomes for people with autism, but that you can do so much more with that, that you can add value to that, so my key learning has been to sort of feel the fear and do it anyway, you know there’s a lot of persuading and influencing involved in it in terms of romancing the staff into seeing that this is a worthwhile process.  I think that I have learned as well that its really worth doing your groundwork, I could have walked into the organisation, locked my office door, produced a lovely piece of paper and said ‘there’s our knowledge management strategy’, but I think the main learning point has been that it has to be alive, people have to buy into it, that's the way we are going to encourage people to say, ‘do you know what, I think we could do something with this piece of work here, I think we could develop that’, or have people ... now I am getting emails from people saying, ‘is this the kind of thing you are interested in’ and really ‘is this what you are wanting from us’ ... To keep up the engagement with people we have been sending out all staff emails, monthly updates for people to stick on their ... they are not quite monthly if I am honest, but updates for people to stick on their staff notice boards.  I am in the middle of a tour of the services just to update them on the strategy, where we are at, things that are happening.  I also think that delivering the quick wins, that that's important, that people instantly see something changing as a result of what you are doing.  In terms of tips for people, I think it’s about being very open about what you are doing, allowing people to say what it is they feel and not challenging it in those focus groups.  You will hear things that your perception of your organisation will be very different from another person in the organisation, and its not that its not true, its just their different perception, and there’s a wee bit of kind of getting over yourself in it and not thinking, you know not expecting to go out there to hear its all wonderful, but be ready to hear the warts and all, because in my experience they weren’t that dramatic, you know there were things that you probably expected to hear and I think its very validating for people just to acknowledge them and accept them and not try to have an argument with them about them, just say ‘right okay, lets note that down and move onto the next thing.’  I think the timing is important as well, you know that people are not in a period where they think, oh I have got enough to do and here you are waltzing in, so it was very much about me trying to fit in with their schedule of events, you know there was no 3 line whip of, you know, everyone must appear here at 10 o’clock on Monday morning, I was kind of like, ‘well when are you having meetings, I will come along,’ so if you are the person leading it and doing it, you have to be ready to be flexible.  But I think the main things are the quick wins, the communication, open, be open to what you are going to hear, and don’t be defensive about it, and to really adapt your tools. One of the things that I found when I started looking at ‘what kind of things could I ask people’, the language was very business driven, it would not fit well with the culture of our organisation, so I had to think a lot about, well how would I get to that information but ask it in a different way, and so its very much thinking about who your audience is, and feedback, feedback all the time, I mean what we did was we pulled together ... for the staff conference, all the feedback and we put that in a document and sent that to everybody and put it as a document on all the staff notice boards so people could see the evaluation, it was very transparent, so you know, I am being held accountable for the structure of next years, why would I have something on, I don’t know, medication, when everybody has asked for something on communication, so its very much about a measure of accountability in terms of that whole process.  So I think its just about having a structure, don’t make it up as you go along because you need room for flexibility but you have to have the whole process start to finish in mind before you start.