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Best of Their Knowledge

A KM system should meet the needs of the people, not simply the needs of an elite group.

Like a never-ending cloudburst, information rains down on every organisation day and night. The flood of messages, letters, reports, FYIs and promotional material never stops. It all used to arrive by post, phones and people, but now it also arrives through the fastest and most prolific means of information delivery ever invented: the Internet. Somehow we have to manage all this information and maximise its usefulness.

Knowledge management, or KM, is the Holy Grail. But how do you do it? What is the key? How have others done it? What went right for them and just as importantly what went wrong?

We have seen a number of approaches to knowledge management in the early days of electronic communication:

- Ignore it and hope it will sort itself out.

- Save everything and put it on the intranet.

- Ruthlessly cull and delete to reduce what has to be kept.

Now, vastly more sophisticated solutions have emerged that aim to do much more than just control information flow. They look to issues of content management, ease of access and packaging to ensure knowledge is available to all who require it.

Queensland MainRoads Department

Sean Fellows is senior adviser on information technology and telecommunication infrastructure at the Queensland Main Roads Department (QMRD) - a department with a culture built around the practical field of engineering. For an organisation employing so many technical specialists the culture comes as no surprise; what is less predictable is the way in which the QMRD went about the task of managing the body of knowledge contained in its ranks. It created a groundbreaking intranet called, appropriately enough, Main Roads Junction.

"The original idea for Main Roads Junction grew out of a 1997 strategic plan requirement to create an intranet capacity within QMRD," Fellows says.

Fellows joined the organisation a year later and in the course of consultations quickly discovered the real need was for a content management system. Discussions about how the information should be targeted and disseminated to staff prompted a decision to decentralise information management, rather than handling it from a central point like IT. This model would require staff to manage their own content, a somewhat radical idea in 1998 when most agencies where focusing on drawing all electronic communications functions together.

"This approach required a significant culture shift for an agency which had been accustomed to more centralised processes," Fellows says. "Getting the IT right was the easy bit. The real challenge was to change the culture at a human level.

"Achieving this took a lot of hard work. It required persuading people to shift their thinking and to take local responsibility for information that had been of corporate rather than individual concern. There was resistance from some areas, the problem of resources often being cited as a reason not to take on the additional responsibility of keeping the content accurate and current."

One of the operational rules of the Main Roads Junction intranet is that content is automatically removed from the intranet site if it is not re-approved within three months. This caused an initial problem when the first three-month deadline expired and a large volume of information vanished from the site. Since then behaviours and procedures have altered; these days most information is checked and renewed well within its "use-by" date. Fellows sees the three-month deadline as a useful discipline in that it reminds authors to keep their content up to date or else suffer a negative view of their professionalism. The three-month rule is a fail-safe applying to everything; however, content which is subject to frequent change or that is particularly important is subject to shorter re-approval deadlines.

"The process of educating staff and persuading people to work with the system took about six months," Fellows says.

It may not have been an easy process, but it does mean that unlike many similar agencies QMRD can justly claim that none of its information is more than three months out of date. Knowing this boosts the confidence of staff using Main Roads Junction and makes them more inclined both to use it and to rely on the information it contains. This is, according to Fellows, a practical way to increase the effectiveness of the intranet and to encourage a shift in culture. "Anyone with basic typing and Lotus Notes skills can author and update content on Main Roads Junction," he says.

This ease of access presents its own challenges, though. One consequence of having a range of people contributing to a single intranet site is the potential for alarming variations in style. Fellows' team managed this problem by creating comprehensive style guides for each area of the organisation. The style guides cover not only look and feel and navigation, but also provide detailed guidance on how content should be worded. Fellows says creating and implementing the style guides requires a significant commitment from everyone involved, but he thinks it is worth the effort.

Perhaps inevitably, individual business areas within Main Roads Junction tried to do things their own way, and needed persuading to take an organisation-wide approach. Now the approach has paid dividends by helping create a "publish once - deliver to many mediums" culture. Some of the content managed by individual areas appears on both the Main Roads Junction intranet and on the public Web site, without the need for specialist Public Affairs input. Fellows recognises creating the content and keeping it current is perhaps the most difficult task, but says once information has been created it should be possible to use it for everything from brochures and publications, to training and call centres.

"We originally approached the challenge of building a knowledge management system by developing our own software tools and processes. This was partly because when we started, the range of intranet building tools was limited, and partly because that is the way the QMRD did things. We achieved a lot by going our own way, but now we look to the increasing range ‘off-the-shelf' tools to create our knowledge management system."

Like many others grappling with the new world of electronic knowledge management Fellows' team has had to develop a new system and culture based on a far from complete knowledge base. However, Fellows says the team's greatest achievement was also its greatest challenge: that of transforming a centralised model of knowledge management to one where information is now "owned" by those who create it, by individuals and work groups.

South Australian Department

of Human Services

Iolanda Principe is the director of knowledge management at the South Australian Department of Human Services. Unlike Fellows with his engineers, Principe is faced with a diverse range of staff spread over many geographical locations, dictating a somewhat different approach. Principe agrees that information should be made available to all Department of Health (DHS) staff to maximise the benefit to the agency as whole, but has arrived at this conclusion by a different process.

Four years ago three separate agencies did the work of DHS before they merged to form one large organisation. The DHS knowledge management program grew out of a perceived requirement to integrate the three former agencies, each of which had its own structure, management and culture.

"The South Australian DHS ‘super department' now has 30,000 employees at 700 locations," Principe says, "many of whom work in the field and away from regular contact with head office. We know how useful the mass of information held by head office could be to field workers, but persuading the very wide range of staff to become involved is proving a challenge." With such a widely dispersed staff, it is not hard to see the potential efficiency of using electronic communication - at least in theory. But as Principe has found, turning that theoretical possibility into effective use is not easy.

Fortunately Principe's background is in what she calls the "soft end" of IT, by which she means the human aspects of communication rather than the technology. She says that one thing she has learned about knowledge management is that "one size does not fit all". Rather what is required is a painstaking process of consulting, analysing and packaging sections of the array of information held by the DHS. The information must be tailored to suit the needs of specific staff and functions.

Intranets have come a long way from simply mimicking the public Internet site, she says, or of being a dumping ground for information nobody really knows what to do with. Originally a number of organisations put a lot of work into their intranets - and found to their dismay that nobody used them. For this reason some mangers have come to undervalue the usefulness of a good intranet site.

But not Principe; she sees a multitude of benefits helping to boost the morale of the DHS at all levels of the organisation. "A good intranet is a valuable team-bonding agent that can engender a wonderful sense of achievement across an entire department," she says. "The secret is to make the system meet the needs of the staff and not the other way around."

This is particularly important when some staff are still adjusting to becoming part of a single, very large organisation. The process of widespread consultation not only helps create the right knowledge management solutions, it also assists in the vital process of creating and building a new organisational culture. One of Principe's main objectives is to encourage staff to develop a sense of ownership and to work interactively with "their" intranet.

Putting People First

The experience of both KM systems makes clear that the key to effective KM is to put IT expertise on an equal footing with research into the way an organisation's members actually use information. Both the Queensland Main Roads Department and the South Australian Department of Human Services have worked hard on creating a sense of staff ownership of their intranets. The challenge for the future, particularly for Principe, is to encourage the uptake of intranet use, particularly by staff such as field workers who may be suspicious of the new medium and who may not have sought information online in the past.

The importance of the people approach is reflected in the growing expertise and number of in-house and consulting professionals in the area. Led by pioneers like Principe and Fellows, addressing the cultural challenges generated by the increasing sophistication of electronic knowledge management will be a significant growth area in the next few years.vPutting Neurons Before ElectronsEarly last year the 2001 Technology in Government Committee presented awards to organisations judged to have got knowledge management right.

In 2001 Gold Awards went to both the Queensland Main Roads Department for its Main Roads Junction and to South Australia's Department of Human Services for the development of intranets to manage organisational knowledge.

The National Technology in Government Conference showcased agencies from around Australia that have discovered the real meaning of knowledge management and service efficiencies. The awards cater to federal, state and local governments plus statutory authorities. They recognise areas of government that have improved productivity and are providing better service with the aid of technology. They also reinforce the aims of government, and focus people on the goals of the organisation. They generate positive publicity and clearly highlight what can be achieved.

The Fifteenth National Technology in Government Conference (March 19-20) addresses how government agencies are synchronising processes and coordinating service delivery. The full program is at http://www.nte.com.au/

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