posted 25 Sep 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 2
Country focus: Singapore
Simon Lelic talks to Praba Nair, director of KM services, and Evan Cheah, senior consultant, both from NCS Pte Ltd, a subsidiary of the Singapore Telecommunications Group, about the evolution of KM in Singapore.
National Computer Systems (NCS) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Singapore Telecommunications Group. The firm has forged a position for itself at the forefront of IT service provision in Singapore, having conducted over a thousand technology-based projects among public and private sector companies in the past 20 years. Praba Nair, director of KM services for the firm, and Evan Cheah, a senior consultant within NCS, maintain that the company was among the earliest adopters of knowledge management in the country. When it began exploring the principles embodied by the discipline in 1998, few organisations had any real understanding of what KM was, or of how important the concept of a ‘knowledge economy’ would eventually become in Singapore.
“KM only started making an impact in Singapore towards the latter half of 2000,” says Nair. Since then, however, interest in the discipline has soared, particularly in the wake of the first in the KM Asia series of combined exhibitions and conferences in July 2001 (www.kmasia.com), which attracted well over 1,000 visitors. And while KM has yet to make any real impact among smaller businesses, a significant number of governmental bodies and larger organisations – primarily, says Nair, consultancies, research companies and law firms – have embraced knowledge-based working practices and established dedicated knowledge management divisions. Notable among these are the Ministry of Defence, the National Library Board, Jurong Town Corporation, the National Youth Council and the Civil Service College.
Initially, says Cheah, knowledge management was regarded as a technology-related discipline, largely because it was usually the IT departments in those organisations that had determined to explore KM that championed the emerging initiatives. More recently, there has been a growing interest in the deployment of corporate portals as a KM tool. As Cheah points out, though, knowledge management projects still tend to focus on operational activities, for instance the documentation of work processes and capturing lessons learnt following individual projects. Only a few companies have taken their KM programmes to the next level and focused more on the cultural issues that sit at the heart of the contemporary understanding of current-generation knowledge management.
In part, says Nair, this is because the economic downturn has forced private sector firms to cut back on their expenditure, particularly in those areas of the business that do not generate immediate, palpable returns. “KM activities that focus on operational processes come across fewer barriers, as users see a direct benefit of such projects,” he says. “However, KM activities that focus on the people issues face more resistance, as tangible outcomes are more difficult to identify.”
Nair believes that this situation may begin to change, however, particularly as more US and Europe-based multi-nationals begin to transfer established knowledge-focused working practices to their operations in Singapore. Moreover, the Singapore government has done a great deal to promote the concept of a knowledge economy in the country. As Cheah says, the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore has even set aside grants for government agencies to explore the practical benefits of KM, and many public-sector bodies continue to set the pace in terms of knowledge management implementation.
Indeed, Cheah expects the Singapore government’s commitment to the KM cause to continue to drive momentum, particularly in the public sector, over the next few years. As he says, the government will have an important role to play, for while Singapore has an immensely hard working, ethical and committed workforce, with the added advantage of having strong lateral collaborative networks, the country as a whole has yet to work out how to harness its true potential. “Many organisations espouse knowledge creation, sharing, learning and innovation, but in reality cultural barriers to KM govern their actual individual and organisational behaviour,” he says. “Employees typically do not see knowledge creation/sharing as part of their job.”
The growing number of conferences and exhibitions dedicated to knowledge management should make the government’s job easier, and the discipline is already receiving substantial coverage in the business press. In fact, there is no doubt that, having come so far so quickly, the country is on its way to developing a truly competitive knowledge-based economy. Yet if Singapore is to regain its status as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, both public and private-sector organisations need to recognise that knowledge management is about more than just implementing an IT system. As Nair says, the failure of businesses to become more innovative in the services and products they deliver is a cause for real concern, particularly when so many continue to embark on KM initiatives without really understanding how the discipline is going to add value to their operations.