Resist the backlash — knowledge management as important as ever

By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/11/2003

Earlier this year, the Ontario government released a strategic paper setting the parameters of a new knowledge management strategy for the public service.

The paper noted that while knowledge management (KM) has been much discussed in recent years, when it comes to KM — the use of technology to capture and share knowledge in a new economy that prizes knowledge above all else— there are few best practices and no definitive templates for success.

In fact, some KM experts say failures and disappointments in the pioneering attempts at organizational knowledge management have led to a backlash.

But the Ontario Public Service is determined to develop a systematic approach to develop and share knowledge and it appears to have learned from early mistakes. The paper, produced by the Office of the Corporate Chief Information Officer, identifies two key elements: information and people.

This has been one of the important lessons emerging from early attempts at knowledge management. Yes, technology is invaluable in capturing and managing information but the role people play is just as important.

One of the problems with the first attempts at knowledge management was that people equated it to a really great database, says Brian Guthrie, director of innovation and knowledge management at the Conference Board of Canada. Too many KM programs were nothing more than attempts to get employees to put everything they possibly could down on paper which was then input into a database. That was simply wrong, says Guthrie. “Knowledge is information in context. A database has information, but not information in context.” Context comes from people sharing knowledge. Of course, a good database is an integral part of any KM strategy, but it is more effective if used less to codify tacit knowledge and more to locate the right people within the network of knowledge sharers, he says.

After some poor results and disappointing KM initiatives, it is easy for some people to dismiss KM as just another dotcom catchphrase. But in the knowledge economy, good knowledge management is only going to become more important, says Guthrie.

Many organizations that tried KM initiatives have been disappointed by the results and that has led to a bit of a backlash, agrees Vince Molinaro, a senior consultant and organizational learning specialist with Toronto-based GSW consultants.

In part, it’s because much of the initial hype about KM was driven by software vendors and expectations were raised beyond reason. “A lot of this has nothing to do with technology,” he says.

Organizations underestimated what it took to manage knowledge effectively, says Molinaro.

Successful KM requires a fundamental change in the responsibilities and accountabilities of employees. In some cases, people are so busy they are reluctant to take the time to share information and in other cases, people or departments feel they own the knowledge and fear sharing it with others will make them less valuable or reduce their power within the organization.

HR has to be ready with systems and strategies to motivate knowledge sharing, encourage behaviour change and break old habits. KM goes beyond building a learning culture; HR should work toward creating a culture of collaboration, he says.

In the OPS, they have been working on improving knowledge management for a couple of years now.

“With a large number of people retiring in the next little while we don’t want to have to relearn all that stuff that we spent many years trying to figure out,” says Rose Langhout, manager of I&IT with the Ontario Management Board Secretariat.

“There are two kinds of knowledge,” she says. “There is the hard stuff that you can pick up and fling around the room but then there is the other stuff that isn’t written down and documented.”

The OPS calls this explicit and implicit knowledge; the former is documented, the latter resides mostly in people’s heads.

It is important to understand that data and explicit information becomes infinitely more valuable when people with experience apply it, says Langhout. The goal is capture that experience on how to apply it.

Langhout says they are currently looking at ways to change performance evaluations and learning planning so knowledge sharing becomes a rewardable behaviour. The learning plan should not just be about gaining knowledge but how to share that knowledge as well, she says.

They are also developing transition checklists for people either leaving a project or retiring altogether. These lists will capture the experience of the person leaving: Who are useful contacts? What are the practical tools?

And there has been talk of a mentoring program that would see people scheduled to retire take time to share their knowledge with younger workers.

Just like with any attempt at culture change, the vision for the KM transformation needs to be clearly articulated and it helps to get the leaders on side first, says Marcella Robitaille, who is about to retire from her role as director of HR and change management branch for the Office of the Corporate CIO.

One strategy was to bring together senior executives for face-to-face knowledge transfer sessions. There were retreats and monthly breakfasts to share strategy and learn about what other groups were working on. A year ago, front-line managers were added to the monthly meetings. “The full intention is knowledge transfer,” says Robitaille. “That is what my branch does, make sure there are as many opportunities for that as possible.”

In the early stages there was a bit of pushback mainly from senior executives, says Robitaille. Everyone is extremely busy and out of force of habit they resist new initiatives and monthly meetings that interfere with their core job. They need to be convinced it’s of value to them.

“If you are providing them with good solid information so they feel they got something from the session the grumbling goes away very quickly.”

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