Know your stuffKnowledge management is key for organisational effectiveness in the public sector
The increasingly technological nature of society has fostered innovation and made information available at our fingertips. It has revolutionised communication and the spread of information where innovations like the internet have made information available at the click of a mouse. This accessibility demands that the information be used in a meaningful and organised manner. In this context, knowledge management—the sharing of information for organisational effectiveness—has become more important than ever, especially in the public sector.
Knowledge is power
Simply understood, knowledge is the information evaluated and organised in the human mind so that it can be used purposefully. Before the 1980s, knowledge was power. In a fiercely competitive environment following the waves of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation, knowledge management gradually emerged as the new paradigm of thinking in management to unleash a competitive edge. Information is one of the most important assets for any organisation. But it will have value only if we know where to find it, what to do with it and integrate it into a system that is accessible by all. Unfortunately, very few are able to harness this asset in a meaningful way, and even fewer organisations are able to optimise the use of this important asset.
Explicit knowledge is generally coded in documents whereas implicit knowledge lies in the mind of the individuals. The willingness to share tacit knowledge is influenced to a large extent by the managerial approaches to identify, capture and integrate that knowledge. These approaches include reward and punishment systems and organisational procedures for assessment of individual performance. The effective implementation of these approaches can contribute to wider sharing of tacit knowledge within the organisation.
In 1995, Leonard-Barton’s book Wellsprings of Knowledge–Building and Sustaining Sources of Innovation was published by the Harvard Business School. In the book, Leonard-Barton documented her case study of Chaparral Steel, a company which had an effective knowledge management strategy in place since the mid-1970s. Similarly, the World Bank too began to implement the idea of a knowledge bank. It strived for the systematic management of process by which knowledge is identified, created, gathered, shared and applied.
While the first generation of knowledge management approaches focused on technology and information, the second generation of knowledge management approaches focused more on people, culture and knowledge lifecycle processes. The latter consisted of knowledge creation and capture, knowledge sharing and enrichment, information storage and retrieval, and knowledge dissemination. Such approaches include repository of knowledge, communities of practice, continuous learning and acquiring business intelligence. More specifically, they can be achieved through the document management system; enterprise portal; knowledge map and skills management; information database and lessons learned system; collaboration tool; and communities of practice.
One of the best approaches to knowledge management is that of communities of practice. Understood correctly, communities of practice are not just web sites, databases and sets of best practices, although these constitute the means by which the members interact. Rather, a community of practice consists of members exchanging knowledge, and in the process, they build relationships and develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment. To some extent, a community of practice also helps develop a homogeneous vision and common approach to solving problems, attaining a desired objective, or designing a product. The members of a community have their individual official and unofficial roles, they create reputations for themselves, and they acquire status and spheres of influence as they actively participate.
The communities of practice within a company or a public institution can hold informal lunch time seminars, conduct formal training sessions, facilitate web repository, capture experiences of retiring practitioners in multimedia, sponsor conferences with outside speakers, develop links with outside content sources and develop websites with relevant training materials online, video conferencing and online interviews through Skype.
The major problems that occur in knowledge management include, inter alia, companies ignoring people and cultural issues. In an environment where an individual’s knowledge is valued and rewarded, establishing a culture that recognises tacit knowledge and encourages employees to share it is critical. The need to sell the knowledge management concept to employees shouldn’t be underestimated; after all, in many cases, employees are being asked to surrender their knowledge and experience—the very traits that make them valuable as individuals. One way companies motivate employees to participate in knowledge management is by creating an incentive programme. However, then there’s the danger that employees will participate solely to earn incentives, without regard to the quality or relevance of the information they contribute. The best knowledge management efforts are as transparent to employees’ workflow as possible. Ideally, participation in knowledge management should be its own reward.
It is not a technology-based concept. Companies or organisations that implement a centralised database system, electronic message board, web portal or any other collaborative tool in the hope that they’ve established a knowledge management programme are wasting both their time and money. While technology can support it, it’s not the starting point. It is better to implement knowledge management decisions based on who (people), what (knowledge) and why (business objectives), and save the how (technology) for last.
Need for change
Nepali public sector governance is replete with inefficiency, loose talk culture and intrigues or tricks. Nepotism, sycophancy and political or bureaucratic influence for personal interests are normal abnormalities. Weak state capacity has hindered the effectiveness of regulation and facilitation of the private sector. Corporate sectors also lack efficiency, economy and innovation, and try to circumvent laws and taxes rather than strive for competitiveness. Both sectors need a change of culture, recognising human factor and brain power as key driving forces of enhancing competitiveness and innovation.
Wagle is a foreign service officer, Government of Nepal