Originally published March 15, 2020

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This is the 54th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Mary Lee Kennedy is the Executive Director of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). ARL represents 124 institutional members drawn from libraries and archives in major public and private universities, federal government agencies, and large public institutions in Canada and the USA. ARL’s mission is to advance research, learning, and scholarly communication by fostering the open exchange of ideas and expertise, promoting equity and diversity, pursuing advocacy and public policy efforts, forging partnerships, and catalyzing collective efforts.

According to Mary Lee, she has had a “crazy and fabulous career focused on knowledge access, creation, sharing, and empowering people.“ She has lived in Canada, the US, and Mexico, and is bilingual in English and Spanish.

Mary Lee managed the Corporate Library Group at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) while I was leading DEC’s knowledge management program. At Microsoft, she led a global team in the design and implementation of knowledge and information strategies that served all Microsoft employees and supported internal pilots for enterprise products. Mary Lee developed Microsoft’s intranet portal and collaboration solution to connect employees with internal and external knowledge and information. She achieved significant advances in market analysis, competitive intelligence, research and product information management, and internal communications.


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  • Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Executive Director, 2018-Present
  • New York Public Library, Chief Library Officer, 2013–2016
  • Harvard University, Senior Associate Provost for the Harvard Library, 2011–2013
  • Harvard Business School, Executive Director, Knowledge and Library Services, 2004–2011
  • Microsoft Corporation, Director, Knowledge Network Group, 1998–2004
  • Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Corporate Library Group Manager, 1995–1998
  • Louisiana State University, Master of Library Science
  • University of Alberta, Bachelor of Arts in Social Psychology and Classics

Mary Lee is a recognized practitioner in the formulation and implementation of knowledge strategies that positively impact organizational performance. Her global experience includes collaborating with leading organizations in high-tech, research, manufacturing and academia. Mary Lee has successfully led knowledge and information projects in Canada, the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and China. Well-known in the profession, she is regularly sought out as a leading speaker in the field of knowledge management and information science.

As Director of the Knowledge Network Group for Microsoft, Mary Lee championed the development and implementation of global knowledge and information strategies with an unwavering focus on information excellence. Her achievements at Digital Equipment Corporation included improving global decision-making using innovative web-based information delivery, resulting in notable revenue gains and cost reductions across the company.

Mary Lee and her team have earned a number of awards, including the Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise Award, the Special Libraries Associations Center of Excellence in Technology Award, and the Innovation in Technology Award. She has served on several Information School advisory committees, and is also an editorial advisor and columnist for a number of respected publications. She has been published in CIO Magazine, Bloomberg News, Harvard Management Update, Information Week, Internet Library Trends, Library Journal, Online Magazine and PC Week.

First and foremost Mary Lee Kennedy is a practitioner focused on the formulation and implementation of information and knowledge strategies that create the greatest possible opportunity for organizational success. Her professional experience is primarily as a leader of innovative information and knowledge strategies in global organizations in high-technology, industrial research, advanced materials, energy and academia.

Mary Lee has significant international experience with teams located in Canada, the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and China. as director of the Knowledge Network Group for Microsoft Corporation, Mary Lee championed the development and implementation of global knowledge and information strategies, technologies and processes. This included critical contributions to the information worker product suite (Office, SharePoint, CMS) and to Search. Her achievements at Digital Equipment Corporation included improving global decision-making using innovative web-based information delivery, resulting in notable revenue gains and cost reductions across the company. Her breakthrough work in Mexico established a model for information services in Mexican universities.

Most recently Mary Lee is focused on enabling the creation, use and exchange of information and knowledge in research, course development and teaching at Harvard Business School, and in launching TKG Consulting LLC with two partners: Craig St. Clair and Deb Wallace. Her work at HBS is tied to her interest in leadership development, and understanding the changing nature of information use and knowledge exchange, particularly as it relates to organizations and decision-making.

TKG Consulting is a partnership that leverages the expertise of the members in designing, developing and assisting in the implementation of solutions in order to:

  1. Make sense of complex organizations and relationships
  2. Align organizations for knowledge creation, management and transfer
  3. Enable knowledge sharing, capture, and learning in person-to-person and group-to-group networks
  4. Design processes and systems that access and manage large amounts of content
  5. Design buildable technology solutions to support organizational capabilities.


Pre-Dialogue Remarks

Sense-making or sensemaking (as some write it) appears to be one of those topics that “everyone” is talking about while there has obviously been a lot going on in some circles for decades. As a practitioner I have sought to understand the impact of sense-making in the context of reducing ambiguity, i.e., increasing the ability to take actions informed by it, that result in a greater degree of success than is possible without it. This last part is important — in practice there is an expectation that one has the ability to visibly demonstrate that with an explicitly defined and applied sense-making exercise the organization is in a more advantageous position or when not in a competitive situation, leads to new knowledge that is considered of value. Like so much in human behavior — a sense-making initiative can be perceived as a “no-brainer” or commonly expected behavior and I have also seen the opposite — where it is overwhelming or so foreign that the organization does not know what to do with it.

This set of introductory remarks focuses on the questions I have (more than answers) about formulating sense-making frameworks that adhere to the rigor of theoretical research and the relevance of empirical studies, that demonstrate tangible benefits (read individual and organizational value), and that might lead to an extended dialog based on our collective sense-making.

What is sense-making? I tend to use two academics’ definitions of sense-making. I have yet to read the work of Dervin (a critical piece) but have read about her work through others. The two academics I start from are:

1. Karl Weick appears to be the foundation upon which much work on sense-making is based or evolves from. He defines sense-making in the context of seven properties (taken directly from pages 461–463 of his book, Making Sense of the Organization):

  1. Social context, i.e., the actual, implied or imagined presence of others.
  2. Personal identity, i.e. ,a person’s sense of who he or she is in a given setting: what threats to this sense of self the setting contains: and what is available to enhance.
  3. Retrospect, i.e., the perceived world is actually a past world in the sense that things are visualized and seen before they are conceptualized.
  4. Salient clues, i.e., the resourcefulness with which people elaborate tiny indicators into full-blown stories, typically a self-fulfilling prophecy or application of the documentary method (he sees this as key to what sense-making is all about)
  5. Ongoing projects, i.e., sense-making is constrained by the speed with which events flow into the past and events become outdated.
  6. Plausibility, i.e., coherence, how events hang together.
  7. Enactment, i.e., action to gain some sense of what one is up against by asking questions, making declarations, through prototypes, through probes to see how something reacts.

He outlines a process that can be displayed in at least two ways:

  1. People concerned with identity in the social context of other actors engage in ongoing events from which they extract cues and make plausible sense retrospectively while enacting more or less order into the ongoing events.
  2. People enact a “recipe” “How can I know what I think or feel until I see what I say and do?”

Of interest to me as a practitioner is his statement that sense-making rarely occurs as a passive diagnosis but is usually an attempt to understand a developing situation in which the observer affects the trajectory of that development. As a practitioner this becomes critical in understanding which “tools” will best enable the observer to act with the highest chance of a positive outcome? Further questions much closer to my own area of expertise are centered on understanding the settings in which sense-making is enabled through the availability of information and knowledge networks; and more specifically what are the characteristics of those information and knowledge networks? (of course I think this is a very complex question)

Lastly, for this exercise, Weick distinguishes sense-making from decision-making (an important distinction). Sense-making is the frame within which decisions are made.

For Weick, it appears it all comes down to the individual’s ability to make sense. However, I have more to read so leave this open to discussion.

2. Chun Wei Choo has looked at sense-making in the context of his explorations on “knowing organizations.” He sees sense-making as part of three broad activities that are interrelated, and which are done well in “knowing organizations.” So rather than it being only an individual action, Chun Wei Choo’s work looks it in the context of what organizations and individuals do. The three broad interrelated activities are sense-making, knowledge-creating, and decision-making.

Sense-making is related to the management of ambiguity; knowledge-creating is related to the management of learning, and decision-making is related to the management of uncertainty. Each one of these form three points on the triangle (the apexes) and the gap between sensing and knowing, sensing and doing, and knowing and doing is addressed through other sets of activities. At the individual level, he distinguishes between sensing (noticing potentially important messages in the environment) and making sense (constructing meaning from what has been sensed) as critical to organizations today. His book, The Knowing Organization, presents a review of many studies on organizational sense making (March and Olsen, Starbuck and Milleken, Thomas, Clark and Gioia, and of course Weick and Dervin).

Choo discusses Dervin’s work (which is both theoretical and empirically based) as a model analyzing information seeking and use in terms of a triangle of “situation-gap-use” reflected in three questions:

  1. What in your situation is stopping you from moving forward?
  2. What questions or confusions do you have?
  3. What kind of help do you hope to get?

Cases Where Sense-Making Makes Sense

So what are some of the 21st century problems in my field of expertise (information and knowledge management, organizational learning) where I see a place for increased focus on sense-making (which I am using as “sensing” and “making sense” given that as a practitioner if we don’t make sense no one is going to do anything with it necessarily)?

Healthcare Delivery

A while ago I did a study on the use of IT and the practices of information and knowledge sharing in clinician decision-making. It was an exploratory study that highlighted an incredible trained and innate capability of the clinicians to sense their way through patient care and at the same time being accountable to significant levels of rules (organizational, professional, industry) in every patient engagement.

As an extremely complex environment (complex not complicated given the ecosystem in today’s healthcare industry and the very nature of human beings) it seems to me that this arena is one of those high stakes environments where a studied approach to sense-making is occurring. Like other high stakes environments the visible difference has the potential to be significant. Are there better sensing and sense-making behaviors and methods for high stakes environments? How do roles, organizational structures, information and knowledge sharing practices contribute? Has a distinction been made between high stakes environments and other environments?

For instance studies in high-stakes environments such as nuclear energy, financial services, healthcare patient diagnosis and treatment, and the defense industry have looked at the basic principles of knowledge management and much work has looked at them with the distinction of high stakes — what have they taught us that we can use/or refute the work of sense-making (just to be clear — I personally don’t think sense-making is equal to knowledge management — but I do think effective knowledge creation and information use is dependent on sensing and making sense).

I also don’t want to leave the impression that high stakes equals greater degrees of complexity but I wonder if this is so? If it is — what does this mean for sensing and sense-making? If it isn’t — what does it mean?

Knowledge Creation and Learning

At Harvard Business School we are embedding our work into the core processes of the school — research and course development, teaching, and lifelong learning. Our work is really one that looks at individuals as they create sensing and sense-making capabilities, and at the organization whose very essence is about knowledge creation, our interest being in understanding and enriching the relationship between knowledge creation and sense-making.

We have much to do, but the role of sense-making (if it is not passive observation but rather action based by individuals) is key in contributing to the capability of individuals to act within a given situation, and the organizations capability to create a knowledge creating environment. By extension then I wonder what has been learnt in other knowledge creating organizations about sensing and making sense and whether there are learnings to leverage in both the creation of individual capabilities and in the creation of organizational capabilities.

Within the fluid nature of today’s global world, what are the cultural factors that distinguish different capabilities in sensing and sense-making? Are they significant? If so, how? If not, why? A little further out in the questioning is the distinction between innovation and knowledge creation. Logically it would appear to me that sensing will impact knowledge creation which would then impact innovation — innovation being the final product or service (at least in the business world innovation usually has a commercial connotation. I might have a novel thought or create a novel method but it is only innovative once it is acted upon in some commercial sense).

Information Work

On a very broad level sensing and making sense has been significantly impacted (in my novice perspective) by the Internet and the ubiquitous availability of information through many, many devices (the phone, the laptop, the Blackberry, the mobile phone, now even digital call-outs with text-messaging in coffee houses, on planes, in cars, etc.).

While this is something that I think flows under the two topics I mentioned above, with the ever changing situation in which we find ourselves today and the increased awareness of (and sometimes lack of awareness of) what is happening at any given point in time, what happens to the human capability to sense and make sense?

When I was at Microsoft we were doing some very interesting work around multitasking and communication patterns. There is some interesting work being discussed on continuous partial attention (see see link to blog by Linda Stone below. It is different than multi-tasking. At the broadest level there is a significant difference and perhaps one that will impact how we sense and make sense and how organizations enable sensing and making sense. Dave Snowden has an interesting blog exchange on Sept. 30, 2006 with Verna Allee on sensemaking and the essence of it in terms of the ability to see patterns — he and Verna Allee indicate that the key qualifier in pattern extraction is whether it is something that unskilled people can learn, comprehend and even replicate with just few hours of learning. Is this something to consider with peer networks in continuous partial attention environments and what does pattern extraction shift do to the ability of individuals and organizations to act over an extended period of time?

So, there are lots of questions. For me it’s a beginning. Feel free to respond to any part or all of it. I’m looking to engage us in the discussion of actual practice that demonstrates a proof point in the work of the theorists or that counters it — and I am interested in the theoretical side that might help to understand what is observed in practice — as well as specifically looking at practices that related to the three topic areas above. I’m looking forward to our discussions.

Links (reading you might want to do some time)

In 1996, the Digital Equipment Corporation’s Corporate Library Group (CLG) piloted a web-based information solution on Digital’s Intranet: The WebLibrary. The value proposition? Provide consistent, reliable, authoritative external content, and content expertise for effective decision making and timely transference and application of knowledge — anytime, anywhere. The pilot focused on proving that the Web and Web-technology could be an effective information delivery vehicle. The pilot was targeted at 1,500 key library users in the technical and business community within Digital Equipment Corporation. Within less than four months, we had more than 4,000 desktop users clamoring for more.

The CLG had brand identity on the Intranet via the WebLibrary, but we knew successful achievement of our value proposition required much more than the implementation of some technology. What occurred throughout 1996 and continues today is the establishment of a new way of doing our work — creating the building blocks for knowledge management. The focus of our work is on evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, qualifying, and delivering externally created content. As a worldwide group of 43 information professionals, this is achieved by applying our expertise in strategic areas of the corporation. Our work is driven by partnerships with targeted businesses, information programs that cross organizational boundaries, and alliances with complementary corporate groups. What underlies all of our work is the need to ensure the information and knowledge we impart is trustworthy and can be applied, shared, and reused.

Making the Value Proposition a Reality

In Thomas Davenport’s work, Some Principles of Knowledge Management, he discusses each of the following principles:

  1. Knowledge management is expensive.
  2. Effective management of knowledge requires hybrid solutions of people and technology.
  3. Knowledge management is highly political.
  4. Knowledge management requires knowledge managers.
  5. Knowledge management benefits more from maps than from models, more from markets than from hierarchies.
  6. Sharing and using knowledge are often unnatural acts.
  7. Knowledge management means improving knowledge work processes.
  8. Knowledge access is only the beginning.
  9. Knowledge management never ends.
  10. Knowledge management requires a knowledge contract.

These principles address many of the issues the Corporate Library Group (CLG) grappled with and have ultimately solved in staking a claim on Digital’s Intranet as authoritative conveyors and managers of information and knowledge. What follows is an explanation of how we have set the foundation for our work.

Understanding Our Role in Knowledge Management

The CLG is not charged with managing Digital Equipment Corporation’s knowledge. We are charged with managing the external content and providing credible content expertise. We do ensure the corporation has the external information it needs to run its businesses, and more importantly, we do ensure information is business driven, can be tied to business impact, and ultimately affects the outcome of a decision. In other words, it is applied information. We are not responsible for managing Digital’s intellectual capital, but we play a fundamental role in the growth of intellectual capital. We are leading by example, and we have earned a respected reputation for reliable, consistent, trustworthy content that is applied and used to create and build knowledge.

Our Web-based solution, the WebLibrary, is composed of the elements discussed below. These elements demonstrate how Davenport’s principles apply to our work. I have chosen to discuss a few key parts of each element to exemplify the principles. Of course, all of the principles are part of the solution, and many may occur in more than one element.


The foundation of our work is a group of information professionals. We are trained and skilled in secondary research and analysis, the assessment and analysis of information needs, information mapping, the evaluation and application of content sources, appraising the usefulness of content delivery and management models, optimizing the use of the Internet and the intranet, and proprietary content navigation and indexing tools. We are involved in Web authoring and Web publishing, as well as managing images, artifacts, and internally creating content through our archival capabilities.

The principle demonstrated here is:

  • Knowledge management requires knowledge managers.


In 1996, we decided it was impossible to succeed by trying to be all things to all people. We concluded we would be most valuable to the corporation by focusing our efforts on the strategic areas outlined by senior management. We targeted subsets of the strategic areas where we knew we could succeed in applying a proactive information service, with desktop products that would not only be accepted by our targeted business partners within Digital, but could even be jointly developed. We looked for champions and opportunities for demonstrable success stories.

The focus of our partnership work is on providing proactive, pre-preemptive, information and knowledge solutions that would be impossible through the traditional service model of the reference function. We do have a reference function and it is still a significant part of our service portfolio, but it is no longer the only service we provide. The partnership focuses on joint-ownership of the content and therefore the results occurring from its use and implementation. It circumvents the questions of ownership and sharing by centering the work and work process on achieving specific goals.

Partnerships are based on quarterly deliverables that are defined and agreed to by both the business partner and the information partner (CLG). Success is defined by the business partner and includes both quantifiable and qualifiable metrics. Success is focused on business impact, dollars or time saved, key learnings, competitive positioning, creation of market advantage, etc. Success is not related back to the process or to any arbitrary transactional measurement. In fact, if the information does not create some kind of advantage or key learning that leads to an increased knowledge base, it is considered to be outside the boundaries of success. Ideally, the work is expected to provide a result that would have been impossible without the level of work available through the partnership.

There are common elements between partnerships, such as the construction and maintenance of a Web-based pathfinder, the inclusion of electronic content specific to the partnership, tailored views of news, market research, technical information, and the assignment of content and research experts for project work, in-depth research, and other possible deliverables. Each partnership may also have unique deliverables such as market data books, tailored newsletters, and industry reviews. The information and knowledge imparted in a partner- ship increases the relevancy of the work we do, its application in the strategic area, and ultimately the creation of new information and knowledge. It is the combination of the marvels of the Web-technologies and our expertise and partnerships that lead to knowledge as defined in the context of a business’s success.

The principles demonstrated here are:

  • Effective management of knowledge requires hybrid solutions of people and technology.
  • Knowledge management is highly political.
  • Sharing and using knowledge are often unnatural acts.
  • Knowledge Management requires a knowledge contract.


We created three information programs to address cross-organizational information needs, to propose and leverage content solutions, and to ensure cost-effective content selection and implementation. The programs are the Market Research and Competitive Information Program, the Technical Information Program, and the Strategic Information Program. The overarching goal of all the programs is to ensure Digital has the information it needs to be competitive.

The emphasis in 1997 has been on the assessment of the corporation’s technical information needs. The CLG spearheaded a worldwide needs assessment study of a representative sample of the technical community. Based on the results of the study — covering content forms, delivery vehicles, key subject areas, training, and expertise — the CLG has recommended a set of actions that will be implemented by the CLG, or reported out to other corporate groups who own a complementary process.

The benefit to the corporation will be an increased awareness of technical information, the use and creation of information and knowledge, and ultimately, ideally, an increase in intellectual capital, and technological innovation that will translate into competitive advantage. Real money will need to be spent to achieve this — it will not be a small amount of money. However, it will be well-spent. If our future work is anywhere as effective as it has been in the Market Research and Competitive Information Program, the cost savings will be significant.

The WebLibrary will be the delivery vehicle for the information and knowledge. The expertise to carry out the work, to validate its continuing relevancy and content options, will be critical to its ultimate success. Ultimate success will mean increased credibility with the technical community and improved knowledge transfer and application as a result of our work.

The principles demonstrated here are:

  • Knowledge management is expensive.
  • Knowledge management means improving knowledge work processes.


It is not news that the Web provides an interactive delivery model that can become an online community. The WebLibrary is no exception. Although the interactive possibilities of the WebLibrary are yet to be developed, it has become a very popular space on the intranet. Our user-base and our inclusion in other Web-based solutions inside the corporation have increased by leaps and bounds over the year. In our pilot, we had 4,000 users. Over the past quarter, we had almost 900,000 user sessions — twice as many as in the previous quarter.

Information access and retrieval technology is very dynamic. We focus on ensuring reliability and relevancy. Our work is searchable, browsable, and can be profiled via agent technology. Next steps include team rooms, or forums, the evaluation of Web-casting technology, and the implementation and management of knowledge-based indices. The beauty of these technologies is they allow the content and value-added work to be leveraged, shared, and applied as needed, be developed, within the context required by the end-user.

The principle demonstrated here is:

  • Knowledge management benefits more from maps than from models, more from markets than from hierarchies.

What Happens Next?

There are two additional principles not highlighted above that will keep us all busy for a long, long time:

  • Knowledge access is only the beginning.
  • Knowledge management never ends.


  1. Workshop 1: Tying Information & Knowledge Together: Successful Strategies
  2. Session D103: Setting Context: Personas, Archetypes, and Organizational Engagement — Understanding User Requirements for the Enterprise Information Portal
  3. Intranet Professional’s Intranet Resources: CyberTour
  • 2003
  1. Preconference Workshop 2: Intranet Professionals Academy
  2. Session D301: Inside the Microsoft Intranet: Partnerships Across the Enterprise with Mark Davies
  • 2005
  1. Session B303: Sharing Critical Knowledge: Healthcare Lessons
  2. Session E102: Governance Do’s and Don’ts
  3. Session F101: Implementing New Technologies — Lessons on Adoption from the Field — with Deb Wallace
  • CM-1: Planning for & Evaluating CMSes — How to Get Started
  • KM-2: Collaboration and Knowledge Management Best Practices



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Written by

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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