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The Rule of 151: How to Move Knowledge Management and Business Intelligence from Margin to Mainstream

Originally published February 16, 2010

Impatient with modest traction in the public sector, knowledge management (KM) and business intelligence (BI) advocates say “better marketing and PR” are at the top of their wish lists. But marketing doesn’t work without a clearly defined offering, so knowledge management and business intelligence are at an immediate disadvantage. Ask any five government officials how they might benefit from these business tools, and you’ll get five different answers – or a blank stare.

If you’re a KM or BI champion looking for ways to boost your discipline’s visibility, take a cue from the communication masters: politicians. Campaign platforms are based on three principles: clarity, consistency and frequency. Every stump speech, every sound bite, every public conversation is rigorously “on message,” and yours should be too.

There’s usually a flabby communication strategy behind any really good idea that doesn’t quite get off the ground. KM and BI evangelists often focus so intently on the business case that they fizzle out on the “hearts and minds” part; namely, communicating with key constituents before, during and after the launch.

And which are the key constituencies for knowledge management and business intelligence? In the government, you must address at least the principal users of the tools, the funders of your initiative and those who will benefit from it.

The weakness in communications strategy for these disciplines isn’t surprising. It’s easy to dismiss the value of a marketing plan for what many consider a cut-and-dried business initiative. But a clear, consistent message, repeated hundreds of times (yes, hundreds) opens eyes, changes minds and sells ideas. If you’re charged with introducing knowledge management or business intelligence into your organization, that’s what you need. Here’s how it works.

Principle #1: Clarity

Human brains grasp concrete information 30% faster than abstractions. We’re wired to reject complexity. When you talk or write about your BI or KM initiative, be ruthless about weeding out vague benefits (“knowledge sharing promotes increased productivity”) and meaningless generalities (“BI will significantly improve the input quality crucial to key decisions and ultimately enhance our competitive stance”). Strip it down to something along the lines of “We’ll make better decisions and act on them faster.” It’s tangible, easier to grasp and easier to remember.

It is also important to provide concrete examples whenever possible. Show, if you can, how the decision to implement the latest rule on seat belt usage could have been made faster by using a collaboration portal for comments.

Clarity and simplicity go hand in hand. Skip technical jargon unless you’re talking to subject matter experts. Articulate your BI or KM value proposition in plain English, and remember that the words quality, value and service have lost all meaning. If you can quantify these hopelessly overused abstractions, great. If not, avoid them altogether.

Focus wards off confusion. Identify three tangible KM or BI benefits that resonate with your audience and repeat them over and over. Don’t drill down unless you’re asked: the only people interested in the myriad details are already on your side.

Principle #2: Consistency

Consistency is tough to maintain with any group effort because somebody’s always got a better idea. When an idea or a campaign meets apathy or resistance, the immediate impulse is to try something different. Don’t do it.

There’s no perfect message, no perfect product, and no perfect solution, so don’t burn cycles trying to find one. Make informed decisions and stick to them. You’ll lose ground and credibility every time you shift gears. (Politicians, once again, are a case in point.)

Principle #3: Frequency

When you consider how many commercial messages bombard us every day (estimates range from 600 to 13,000), it’s not surprising how little we absorb. A memo from the CEO isn’t enough to build support for business intelligence, knowledge management, or recycling in the lunchroom. Constant repetition from a variety of sources, both spontaneous and carefully strategized – meetings, memos, word of mouth – is the only way to do it, and this brings us to the Rule of 151.

Scientific? Maybe not, but the Rule of 151 goes something like this. The first 50 times you talk about the business advantages of BI, nobody seems to hear you. The second 50 times you explain it, they don’t understand. And the third 50 times, they just don’t believe it.

Persist beyond this point, however, and you see progress. Colleagues, peers and bosses hear what you’re saying. They understand it, and more importantly, they repeat it. Fueled by word-of-mouth, even the most offbeat notions can evolve into conventional wisdom. Marketers call it branding, politicians call it campaigning, cynics call it brainwashing. Call it whatever you like: repetition works.

Keep in mind also that in the Federal government you must “sell” your initiative every time you submit a budget request or present a program for OMB or other approval. Your communication strategy has to both precede and be embedded in all of these submissions in one way or another. This may also force you to develop non-traditional avenues of attack depending on the context of the submission.

Shortly after Michael McCurry, Clinton administration press secretary, left the White House, a writer for the Harvard Business Review asked what McCurry says when people ask him how to become better communicators. “Know what you’re trying to say and say it precisely and simply,” McCurry answered. “And be committed to telling the story over and over again. You have to persevere.”

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


  • Ms. Chris ColemanMs. Chris Coleman
    Chris is executive vice president of marketing for Yakabod, a Frederick, MD, software company specializing in secure knowledge sharing systems.  Over the past 20 years she has launched and promoted more than 200 technology companies and products worldwide. Prior to joining Yakabod, she was founder and CEO of an Atlanta-based ad agency, then joined the executive team that turned a dot-com bomb into one of the fastest-growing Internet security services in the world. Chris is the author of two books: The Green Banana Papers and Winning the Technology Talent War. A graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle, she is a member of the National Speakers Association and serves on the board of directors for the Georgia Justice Project. She may be contacted at ccoleman@yakabod.com.

Recent articles by Dr. Ramon Barquin, Ms. Chris Coleman



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