Menu
Menu
Storing the Mind, Minding the Store

Storing the Mind, Minding the Store

Fully one-fifth of Australians have been retrenched in the last 10 years, yet those hyping the benefits of knowledge management assume workers will voluntarily disgorge their knowledge for the corporate good. Yea, sure. Why should we expect deeply insecure workers -- as most are -- to do anything, anything at all, which might make it easier for the boss to sack them? If knowledge management is about harnessing information and knowledge to empower the organisation, it must rely on the willingness of employees to share the knowledge in their heads and actively harvest external information to bring in-house. Yet in these uncertain times staff surely feel it's safer to concentrate their efforts on satisfying the people above them in the organisation than to look outwards and bring in new knowledge that could prove threatening. How can we expect people to share knowledge when an overarching sense of job insecurity encourages them to play the corporate game rather than actively seek external knowledge?That's the scenario devil's advocate Peter Hind, manager end user programs IDC Australia, outlined at CIO Informat in May to a panel of eminent Australian IT professionals with distinguished track records on the issue of knowledge management. The result was a lively and free-ranging discussion about the true value of knowledge management and the best approaches to achieving real knowledge sharing.

The panel included CSC CIO Jim Delooze, the former technology director of law firm Phillips Fox, which is at the forefront of Australian knowledge management efforts. Also present were Phillips Fox's precedent/knowledge manager Kim Sbarcea and well-known IT luminary Kate Behan, owner of an IT consultancy called Kerandan and the author of several books on IT. An appreciative and attentive audience joined in.

Is knowledge management a buzzword or something real? Hind asked. How can we achieve knowledge management when there's been a breakdown in the contract between employees and employers? In short, how can we get people to impart knowledge so they feel that they're doing something that's going to benefit their careers as well as help their organisation?The first thing to do was to stop using the term "knowledge management", Sbarcea replied. The term was an oxymoron. Mr Spock from Star Trek with his Vulcan mind melds achieves knowledge management. The rest of us should use the terms "knowledge sharing" or "experience transfer", she said. "Essentially, what you're talking about is transferring, tapping into, capturing and parsing the most outstanding and excellent operational practices of your company. It's all human experience."Sbarcea said she defined knowledge as just-in-time information that could be acted on, with the action turning the information into knowledge. Knowledge represented the operational best practice of the company based on the experience, the intuition, the judgement, the insight -- in short, "all the human stuff" -- of people.

But the idea behind knowledge management was one of people sharing knowledge, Hind remarked. What's in it for them? Why shouldn't they hoard their knowledge to make themselves indispensable to the organisation rather than share it and become vulnerable?"You have to attack the corporate culture," Sbarcea replied. Lawyers, she explained, are by nature adversarial, trained to argue and oppose. In Phillips Fox's case, attacking that culture required a total organisational change, with the emphasis on changing the incentives for people to contribute. The firm was experimenting with the notion of rewarding the entire litigation group for their contribution to knowledge management.

First get your definitions right, Behan said. "During the course of the day-long Informat conference the term knowledge management must have been used 35 times, in an entirely different context each time," Behan said. "We don't know what we're talking about when we use the term knowledge management.

Knowledge is a human capability, but we're not only preoccupied with technology but still treating knowledge as though it were data.

"We're confusing ourselves. You go to the board and try to sell it; good luck to you, because unless you are clear about it, the board is going to have a lot of trouble," she said.

Furthermore, "while IT people were secondary only to accountants in their anal retentiveness", Behan didn't entirely agree with the premise that nobody wanted to share. It was not that IT people were consciously anally retentive, she said, it's just that they often worked in little Dilbert-type cubicles and were rarely given opportunities to share.

"We really don't know what many of the IT people in our organisations know. We know what they are doing on the project teams they are on, but there is very little knowledge sharing. So to say that they don't want to share, I think we're jumping to a little bit of a conclusion," Behan said. "I think those generalisations are dangerous to our profession."Knowledge management did require a significant cultural change within an organisation, Delooze said, but if you had knowledge-based people who knew how to save, select and share knowledge, if you built the right IT infrastructure around that sharing, you could derive some real benefits. These were not only internal but also external, in cases where you shared information with your clients.

"The information or knowledge that you create has to operationally be captured, first and foremost," Delooze said. "You have to have this two-phased infrastructure to the delivery of knowledge. One is to operationally capture it. Document management systems have been doing this for 10 years. But then you have to have some area within your organisation, and that typically is now becoming the knowledge area within organisations."Within the legal area that meant people analysing precedents and deciding what made good precedent and what bad, or what was good knowledge as opposed to what was bad knowledge. The same thing was being applied in the technology area. The process involved infrastructure capture, then making a decision on the knowledge.

"Don't expect your knowledge management to just happen, because it won't," Delooze said. "You have to have yourself organised technologically; but you also have to have the flexibility of some people analysing that knowledge and publishing that knowledge, in an area that is going to be able to be accessed both internally and externally, and that works."Reward System"The issue is getting people to share, and then making clear to them that sharing won't, in fact, hinder their career prospects," one delegate remarked.

That meant changing the measures on which organisations rewarded their staff, so that the emphasis was not only on skills or accumulated knowledge, but on how useful that staff member was in a variety of roles, and how close he or she was to the business.

Delooze agreed, saying that at CSC part of the new personal appraisal system was a reward for knowledge and for the release of that knowledge into the knowledge management system. "Part of your performance appraisal is about how have you have got rid of some of the knowledge that you have created," Delooze said. "Where is it stored? Have you published it? Is it information that can be used by everybody in the organisation?"So yes, you can reward people; but you can reward them through their personal appraisal system or your own personal appraisal system internally within your organisation. We've now instituted that. And people warm to that, because they feel valued, because they are being rewarded for the information that they are giving."Building a climate of trust was crucial to an organisation's ability to encourage knowledge sharing, one delegate remarked. For seven years he had worked with police nationally, in a climate where police tended not to share information and where this reluctance to share could put serious limits on investigations. When his team researched the reasons behind police officers' reluctance to share they found police would not share information with people they didn't know, but were more comfortable doing so with people they did know.

"If you look at the literature on this, trust is a very important factor in getting individuals to share information; and within trust there is the issue of understanding and appreciation of the value system of the individuals involved," the delegate remarked. "If they've got similar values, they tend to bond and share information and other factors wherever they can see mutual benefit in sharing information."It was only when you got police officers to meet and talk, when they could "eyeball" each other and have non-verbal interaction between them, that you could bridge the gap.

But knowledge sharing wasn't always a good thing, the delegate remarked.

Knowledge sharing which wasn't managed could be quite unproductive and in fact destructive of the organisation. Consider the misuse of e-mail that goes on within organisations, and the amount of time which is lost with people reading things they don't need to read or shouldn't read.

Ah, but most e-mails weren't knowledge, Behan replied, so that wasn't really an issue in knowledge sharing. On the other hand, there was important information in some e-mails which wasn't to be found anywhere else.

"And there is a real problem now that what could become important, valuable corporate knowledge" staff store unread in their in-trays. Or they could read them but not know what to do with the e-mails after that. "So there is a whole range of types of information," Behan said.

"I think the organisations that seem to have been successful in knowledge management sit down and ask: 'What are the types of knowledge that we have here? Is it local knowledge? Is it global knowledge? Is it generally applicable knowledge? Is it unique knowledge to a particular circumstance?'"To try and do knowledge management across an entire organisation is a bit like the grand plan a few years ago of the corporate data model. Who has got a corporate data model that covers every element of the organisation? Some of you probably started but then stopped and said: 'Let's focus on the important stuff.' And knowledge management is a bit the same."The important thing, according to Behan, was to determine the knowledge the company could leverage and look at ways to share that. At the same time, it was wrong to suggest that all data became information and all information became knowledge.

"Some information has got the potential to be valuable knowledge," Behan said, "and that's where you can put your dollars, and your effort, and if necessary, your cultural change to get the sharing in place. But you can't say it's all the same." True, said CSC's Delooze, but the important thing was to recognise that you had to operationally capture that knowledge -- you couldn't just expect employees to publish their knowledge willingly.

"Staff coming out of Excel or Microsoft Word documents should be forced to save important documents somewhere, probably in a central place that anybody [in the company] could access. Then people in a separate area could adjudge that knowledge to be good knowledge and decide whether it was going to be published for everybody's use.

"But you must operationally capture that knowledge. It can be financial knowledge, it can be document knowledge, it can be people knowledge, but it has to be captured operationally," Delooze said.

Accessing and indexing were also important from a technology perspective. The organisation needed a very good search/indexing-type tool across the data, so that staff could locate it quickly, according to Delooze. "I've experienced some knowledge management systems where it's really hard to find that knowledge, if you want to actually get in there and try and search for it. So you need somebody who understands the knowledge and then indexes it using a good knowledge tool, and there's a few of them around."Sbarcea said Phillips Fox was now building a knowledge portal -- a customised interface designed to overcome many of the problems with sharing that people experienced.

"Jim [Delooze] was saying yes, you've got your document management system capture of all your information; and then it's a separate decision about whether it is knowledge," Sbarcea said. "Well, we're now bringing that back to the people who created it in the first place. We're not saying it's IT, we're not saying it's the knowledge sharing department, we're actually setting up communities of practice.

"Take one bunch of people, our litigators. They're actually sitting in meetings now and trawling through stuff and identifying. We've got a lawyer in there who is responsible for filtering and sitting down with that group; they're defining what they count as being knowledge. Every single interface is being customised and it's one way of getting around some of these issues of sharing."Years of ExperienceIt's been said that at any one time 50 per cent of the workforce is in either the first or in the last year of their employment, although those people in the last year might not know it. "How do you capture the tacit information these people have in their heads, based on the years of experience they might have accumulated?" one delegate asked.

According to Delooze, you design bonus and reward systems to encourage staff to release the knowledge that's in their heads and stashed away in bottom drawers.

But you also had to recognise that there was both explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge, Behan added. Explicit knowledge was what was held in the database.

Tacit knowledge embraced all those things we knew, but couldn't explain.

"We used to have people called supervisors in companies; we used to have people called apprentices who learnt from master craftsman; sometimes in some companies we used to have mentors. We actually used to learn quite a lot from those middle management people, who used to know but had stopped doing, but could help other people learn," Behan said.

"So what we've done in getting rid of a lot of these "unproductive layers", according to some accounting convention, is we've actually got rid of a heck of a lot of knowledgeable people.

"Young graduates are full of explicit stuff. Who is teaching them to actually apply the tacit knowledge that the experienced people used to know?"

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about CSC AustraliaIDC AustraliaImpartIT PeopleMicrosoftPhillips FoxPhillips Fox

Show Comments

Market Place

Computerworld
ARN
Techworld
CMO