posted 29 Feb 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 6
Your say: Linking internal functions with KM
The roles of knowledge management, internal communications and human resources are intrinsically linked, although many organisations fail to recognise the potential value these connections can make. Sandra Higgison speaks to Lindsay Gill, Peter Greenfield, Katie Macaulay and Michael Ridley about the relationships between these functions and how they should be managed.
The misconception that knowledge management should be solely aligned to and dominated by the IT department is finally beginning to fade. As the practice continues to demonstrate greater enterprise-wide benefits, we examine its relationship with other business units and functions. Arno Boersma, for example, discusses the value knowledge management can bring to marketing activities in his article on page 25. He finds that few companies consider the potential impact of KM programmes on their relationships with customers, even though they are the ultimate focal point for any organisation.
Indeed, the goal of aligning internal services has yet to be recognised, let alone met, by many organisations. Here we analyse how functions such as knowledge management, internal communications and human resources can, and should, operate hand in hand to meet business goals.
Similar to knowledge management, internal communications is a fairly young but growing discipline, and companies are unsure where it should sit. Findings from a recent survey by Watson Helsby, an executive-search firm, demonstrate that this function is predominantly located within the communications department, followed by HR and then marketing. However, as the nature of the role is cross-functional, its position within an organisation is not as important as the partnerships it creates with each business unit. “I’ve seen many companies struggle to position internal communications,” says Katie Macaulay, an independent consultant in this field. “The success of the team will depend on its relationship with each function and business line.” Peter Greenfield, online channels manager at Abbey, a provider of financial services, describes how they resolved this issue, “We use relationship managers for communications that work directly with the business’s production areas,” he says. “In this way communications has become an integral part of each area’s operations; communication on its own is of no use, there has to be an outcome or result that benefits the business.”
As the function evolves, internal communications has become party to board level strategy making. The general pace of change across industries has been a huge catalyst to the development of internal communications. “These are demanding times for most organisations,” says Macaulay. “They are up against new competitors, more sophisticated customers and stakeholders with greater levels of awareness, while in many industries, there is also increased pressure from government regulation and lobby groups. In this environment it is no good for the internal communications team to sit tight and just send out the monthly newsletter – it needs to understand the drivers of the business and act as executive advisors.”
Internal communications embodies a variety of roles and responsibilities that help organisations face these challenges and meet strategic goals, such as the success of knowledge-management initiatives. “In a nutshell, internal communications brings strategy to life,” says Macaulay. “You often need to translate management speak into plain English, and answer the age-old question from staff, what’s in it for me? It is also a tool to drive change, especially behavioural change. As companies try to crush the competition, they realise that they need to be hot houses for fresh talent and ideas. This requires a different kind of culture, one that embraces diversity, challenges and cross-business working.”
Many companies are realising that internal communications is a vital tool for facilitating such cultural shifts. As Michael Ridley, assistant director at the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Change and Knowledge Management Unit (CKMU), says, ‘facilitating’ is the key word here. “Since setting up our internal communications function we’ve had to work hard to get the model right and, in particular, to get the right degree of active engagement to achieve buy-in,” he says. “We have developed effective two-way communications by inviting and responding to feedback. Maybe the DTI is atypical, but in our culture, one-way broadcasts from the centre (informing rather than engaging; telling rather than listening) are ineffective when bringing about change.” The significance of this will resonate with every KM practitioner, as behaviour and culture changes present the biggest obstacles to the success of any programme.
Watson Helsby’s report identifies additional roles for internal communicators, such as employee branding, leadership communication, intranet development and knowledge sharing. This final element is of growing importance: “For some members of our sample, [knowledge sharing] is very much the focus of their role – trying to engineer a change from a ‘push’ to ‘pull’ communications culture, and developing the infrastructure to support this.” Lindsay Gill, communications manager in Shell’s global learning organisation, feels that internal communications has many definitions but few companies have a clear, overarching appreciation for the role. She breaks the function into four parts: management and employee alignment, marketing, stakeholder management and business development. “These can be collected under one term, ‘connectivity’, which relates to activities that reduce overlaps of work and disconnects of understanding,” she says.
New challenges are facing today’s organisations as the employee-employer relationship changes, external competition increases, and organisational flexibility becomes an essential business trait. Well-connected internal functions can be an effective guide through this minefield. However, despite the seemingly logical connections between these operations, it is rare to see a fully joined-up company. Internal communications continues to battle against the enduring stereotype that gives it responsibility over the corporate newsletter. Similarly, HR is often thought of as a purely administrative department that matches job profiles to skills sets, distributes benefits and conducts exit interviews. Larry Prusak highlights this lack of synergy in ‘The Knowledge’ on page 10, “For a function that should have been right up front with [knowledge management], it has resisted it,” he says. “I don’t know why this is, I can’t imagine what HR could do that could be more valuable.” Although most organisations have done little to bring these disciplines together, this situation is changing. Hierarchies are flattening to achieve smoother working practices, and some organisations, such as the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry, are placing the KM practice within HR.
Moves to create links and build formal relationships between operations are still in their infancy. Macaulay can see the potential value here but says that KM and internal communications, for example, rarely come together. “Both have an interest in ensuring timely and relevant information is communicated in the most engaging way possible,” says Macaulay. “Each has a lot to learn from the other in doing this, but they often sit in different parts of the organisation and rarely meet.” At Abbey, knowledge management began as an independent project and is now part of HR. The division considers KM as part of everybody’s personal development and is responsible for the ‘people’ knowledge, promotes the value of knowledge as an asset and integrates it into daily processes. Greenfield, on the other hand, is responsible for ‘company’ knowledge – the reference side of communications, such as policy and procedure, and information that can be audited and traced.
The DTI recognises the importance of integrated internal services and has also placed knowledge-management within the HR function. The CKMU works on issues related to change and reports to the Human Resources and Change Management Directorate. Part of Ridley’s role is to improve relations between internal services. “The core of our knowledge strategy is around driving knowledge acquisition and improving the way we manage overlapping interests between knowledge, information, HR and internal communications,” he says. “We refer to this latter goal as ‘managing convergence’, ensuring that we work in partnership with other units around the DTI, on both strategic and operational levels.” Ridley believes that the DTI is similar to most organisations as there is always a need to build better links between different internal service providers, whether it is HR, IT, knowledge management, facilities or finance. “Joined-up internal service delivery is a Holy Grail for us and is difficult to achieve,” he says. “As each provider is focused on delivering its objectives, the extra resources needed to think about how they could work more closely with other functions is thin on the ground.”
Internal communications plays a key role in linking functions and improving knowledge-sharing practices. “Internal communications facilitates connectivity,” says Gill. “Communications managers have the perfect opportunity to identify knowledge sharing and connectivity needs; we can position and raise awareness to projects, solutions, systems and information; and we understand that it takes time and energy to connect and be connected.” As she says, knowledge-sharing practices are critical levers in today’s data-frenzied world.
From an HR perspective, Ridley also believes that one of KM’s greatest benefits is its ability to make connections. He refers to a DTI project that is trying to get the best value out of people from industry that work with the DTI on short-term secondments. “These ‘secondees’ bring an enormous and potentially useful pool of experience and knowledge from the outside world, which might be of wider interest outside of their ‘host’ division,” he says. “The issue is how to make these connections. Often the best way is through informal mechanisms, such as using the DTI’s skills-and-experience directory and building personal networks within the department.”
From an internal communications viewpoint, Greenfield believes KM adds an invaluable user perspective to his work. “A greater understanding of the reasons and basis for communications leads to better understanding and retention of information,” he says. “The main challenge here is getting buy-in from users. They will often guard knowledge if they cannot see the value of sharing it.” Greenfield predicts that this whole area will evolve around the user. “There seems to be some consolidation of communications, HR and training issues, and knowledge management seems to be the catalyst,” he says. However, according to Gill, one of the biggest challenges here is that many companies have yet to realise that there is a problem. “There is an acceptance that the overlaps and disconnects that exist are just a way of life, when actually they prevent companies from realising the value they work so hard to build,” she says. “Unless your company is willing and open to change, it’s not worth pursuing. This is a learning and business-improvement proposition, and we are right at the start of it.”
To date, few companies have grasped the potential benefits that linking knowledge management, internal communications and human resources brings. Knowledge management, for example, can help internal communications achieve its objectives of maintaining a well-informed organisation and driving change. Vice versa, internal communications can deliver the shifts in behaviour needed if KM programmes are to succeed. On a strategic level, successfully connecting internal operations will help push these areas onto the leadership agenda and, more importantly, create flexible and fluid organisations that can respond to increased competition, and new customer and employee demands. But until organisations recognise that current disconnected working practices need not be a way of life, these sources of value will remain untapped.
1. The Rise of the Internal Communicator (Watson Helsby)
Lindsay Gill is communications manager in Shell’s global learning organisation. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Greenfield is online channels manager at Abbey. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Katie Macaulay is an internal communications consultant. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Ridley is assistant director at the DTI’s Change and Knowledge Management Unit. He can be contacted at email@example.com