Knowledge insider… a Q&A with Sarah Jennings

sarah jenningsWelcome to the second of our blog series in the run up to our Conference, looking at how we invest in knowledge, this time with Sarah Jennings, Director of Digital and Community Engagement at CapacityGrid. She’s responsible for the Knowledge Hub, an online space for cross-sector collaboration focused on sharing good practice, ideas generation and supporting public sector transformation.

Sarah, what led you to a role promoting and improving knowledge development?  

I started my working career as a specialist librarian. Whilst working at the Royal Society an internal opportunity came up to manage the websites. This was digital in its infancy before the term existed, first generation activity in digital! However it seemed obvious that knowledge and information sharing would be key components.

After that I moved into the education sector, managing the online work at the previous incarnation of SSAT (The Schools Network) when it had responsibility for delivery of the specialist schools and academies remits for government. We specialised in providing support and training in teaching and learning; curriculum; networking and leadership development. This is where I first started to see the real benefits of technology as an enabler for peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge, case studies and best practice across networks of teachers.

Following a spell in regional government, I moved to the Local Government Association. Here I was responsible for the digital estate, including developing our communities of practice. However, people and sectors were still siloed and not sharing to best effect. So the launch of its successor, the Knowledge Hub, was an attempt to tackle this through building networks of people that weren’t necessarily around a theme and made use of emerging social media tools and techniques. I didn’t set off to do this and don’t really see myself as a knowledge manager. I’m more a convener of people. I enjoy connecting people up, facilitating conversations and getting people working together to improve things. I like herding cats; and seem to be quite good at it!

What do you think the main benefits of developing your knowledge are?

Keeping up to date with what is going on, the areas I work in, the sector I work in – I’m the sort of person who likes to devour knowledge.

I enjoy building my own network. I’m always surprised how often I look up someone I met or worked with a while ago and we do something amazing. In most areas I see myself as having a broad-based knowledge, rather than depth, however I do consider I have a reasonable knowledge where digital is concerned, having lived and breathed it for nearly 15 years in one form or another.

I think being multi-disciplinary in today’s world is a useful thing. Jobs are very different now. It’s incredible to think that developments in the last 100 years mean that some process driven professional roles have and will continue to disappear and be replaced by machines. Being multi-disciplinary is the key; a broad knowledge and skill-set means you can work across different roles within the workforce and provide more flexibility to organisational structures.

When people are talking to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Often, it’s “there is so much”: how do they navigate it? How do they find it? How do they know whether it’s any good? Even in Knowledge Hub, people need support and help finding what they need and this is the role of our community managers

I take advantage of my information management background, to help them to move through it, navigate. To do this well I have to recognise that everyone’s different – human nature, learning styles and decision making processes. I have to ensure Knowledge Hub caters for this diversity, whether people want formal learning with docs or forums for collaboration.

Big Data is often raised as an issue, knowledge about it, what to do with it and how to use it. Again, there’s too much and how do we know what’s worth using either for evidence or to predict future services?

But the biggest issue people face is “who are the experts?” How do you know who they are and who do you trust? The benefit of collaboration is it’s good for getting a range of information, opinions and expertise and experts, emerge from this process.

What are the hard to spot mistakes when it comes to developing your knowledge, which you really need to avoid?

Social media: your view of the world can be limited by the people you are following. Try not to (always) follow like-minded people because you get a narrow vision and view of the world. It’s important to step out of your area, look at the way people are doing things elsewhere.

Decision making: if I’m making a decision around digital, for example, I tend to talk to other digital people. Again, this can reinforce a stereotype and provide a narrow view.  It’s important to go beyond that, step outside your comfort zone, seek alternative views and break out of the silo. More often than not, we think about how we do something and not always the impact. With Knowledge Hub we are trying to introduce serendipity, introducing people to new groups and opportunities they may not have thought of, or come across, to enable this broadening to happen.

You need to be open minded, like a 360 review; get feedback, challenge your own assumptions. Everyone needs to take a break from the norm and look around them, see if what you are doing has already been tried and tested elsewhere, and you learn from.

This reflective approach is growing and it’s partly because the gender balance is improving, especially in digital, which is challenging the status quo and needs different (perhaps more?) skills. There are different ways of doing things, the best ‘managers’ out there are employing a whole range of different techniques. It’s no longer seen to be passive to have a mentoring approach, admit you don’t have all the answers and seeking help from others – even at the top!

Cass Business School, carried out research with retiring leaders from the baby boom era, asking them what they thought the next generation of leadership would need to look like. The majority said an emotional intelligence approach would be key.

Knowledge is fine but as a concept is no use unless you do something with it. We need to recognise talent and early on. Ideas and innovation can come from anywhere within an organisation. We simply need to know how to unlock it.

How do you think people will be doing evidence, research and knowledge development in 5 years’ time?

Data – It’s at the centre of everything; we are struggling with so much data, is it relevant, how do we use it?

There seems to be a couple of schools of thought on this, do we use it to learn lessons from the past or to predict what the needs are, more demand management? I think it’s a mix of both.  In terms of politics, services and understanding the world around us, this will become easier, the more data and information becomes available and we learn how to interpret it. Things like the “Internet of Things” are both exciting and daunting. To properly take advantage of these opportunities, we will need to get better at how we use data.

Skills – we will need to be cross disciplinary; able to pick up things; be collaborative; have people skills; ask the right questions; do creative analysis; then to question and assimilate what we learn. It’s not one person it’s a team, as it needs more than one person to innovate and take ideas to delivery.

As an individual you can be both specialist and cross disciplinary. It makes you valuable as a resource asset. People with specialist knowledge and the ability to look across multiple areas, will be the ones who succeed going forward, together with sufficient emotional intelligence to exhibit different decision making and leadership styles suited to the circumstance.

If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ about research, evidence and knowledge you would recommend, what would you include and why?

Collaboration – understanding where the places are to go to, the experts and knowledge – people who don’t share will be left behind.

  • Remember to ask the awkward questions
  • Don’t confine where you go for answers

Looking at those people who are getting at the forefront of research, they are doing this now.

For my own expert knowledge:

The GDS especially for implementing good standards and principles, because they’ve invested time, money and effort and there’s no point in reinventing the wheel. For example design principles; website usability; transactions; or user journeys. Their development code is all shared on GitHub, and it’s now being taken up by other countries. Mike Bracken spoke at Innovate2014 about reusing services on a global level, the whole market out there gathering info and feedback on code and improving it. We are at a crossroads, for example the public sector is starting to dictate how a service works, changing the relationship and dynamics between suppliers and buyers to one based on demand, flexibility and co-creation.

Knowledge should be about improvement, where producers respond to demand and how a service needs to be delivered to most effect. The Social Value Act has had an effect on this. The opening up of public assets means IPR is being challenged and how people get recompensed for supplying a service. At the centre of supply and demand there is still knowledge.  We just need to think differently about the wrapper and commercial model.


If you would like to hear Sarah speak about her work and how social approaches can help in knowledge sharing, sign up to our free conference in December here.

You can also read a Q&A with Clive Grace, Local Government Knowledge Navigator.

4 thoughts on “Knowledge insider… a Q&A with Sarah Jennings

  1. Pingback: Knowledge Insider: Creating new cultures and successfully using evidence in planning, with Waheed Nazir, Birmingham City Council | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  2. Pingback: Knowledge insider…. a Q & A with Jonathan Breckon | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  3. Pingback: Knowledge insider… a Q & A with Tim Allen | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  4. Pingback: Knowledge insider… a Q&A with Kim Ryley | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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