posted 1 Nov 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 3
New towns, new knowledge
A UK House of Commons committee recently reported on the state of Britain’s New Towns, some fifty years on from the programme being launched. Geoff Smith finds some fascinating parallels and lessons to be learnt for the broader practice of knowledge management.
In search of perspective for KM
The concepts of knowledge management undoubtedly inspire and enthuse, but how can we blend this creative energy with a little more perspective? Given that so much in the field is new, there are few major achievements to learn from. I was fascinated to read a recent report in which the results of ‘grand designs’ in another field – that of UK town planning – were objectively reviewed. At first, there might seem to be little connection between the New Towns movement (which dates back more than 50 years) and KM (which has had a relatively high profile for less than 10 years), but on closer inspection there are some interesting parallels:
- Both present an image of a ‘better life’, one that is sufficiently attractive to draw people (voluntarily) into it. But does the reality live up to the hype?
- Both are intimately connected with economic, cultural and behavioural issues. Whatever is built has to work for real people in real jobs and create real value;
- Both require a sound basic infrastructure to be in place that is capable of flexible expansion into the future, whatever ‘transport mechanisms’ become dominant;
- Both are prone to ‘big project’ syndrome, where the vision of transformation is rapid and all encompassing, leading to unique problems as everything ages (and needs replacing) at the same time;
- Both have tried many new, untested technologies, only to find them rapidly overtaken by other developments: what looked strikingly modern suddenly seems terribly dated and is expensive to maintain.
In short, both fields are simultaneously abstract and practical, and in both cases economic success depends totally on meeting the needs of people. They also both represent an interesting illustration of the need to mix the local and the global: local accountability and relevance, but taking place in a global strategic framework that allows continuing development into the future. In what follows, examples from both fields are highlighted to illustrate these traits, and to give pause for thought – and learning.
Making a sustainable business case
Perhaps the first area of commonality between New Town and KM projects is the lack of sound economic basis for the investment. The first big push for building the New Towns was in the 1940s, where the aftermath of war made the paternalistic pursuit of apparently altruistic goals by the government acceptable. But in many cases the economics that worked in the boom years of the 50s and 60s no longer made sense as the industries that supported employment in these areas (and grew with them) declined dramatically from the 70s onwards and were not replaced by new enterprises. To what extent is the attachment to KM born out of similar idealism? How strong is the business case for your KM project, and is it broadly based enough to withstand changes in circumstances? Does it represent a fixed notion of what ‘useful’ knowledge is, or can it adapt to whatever new directions the business may take, taking into account its new knowledge requirements?
Buying KM technology is easy, but maintaining and supporting it can prove very expensive, particularly when the cost of acquiring and editing content is considered. KM has also seen hundreds of new products launched over the past five years – all promising to provide a comprehensive solution – but only a handful have survived. The New Towns report highlights the high cost of maintaining badly designed public areas, but also points the finger at experimental methods and materials as a major factor in turning the initial benefits into “expensive net liabilities”. There are good reasons why people don’t like to be first, and in the field of KM, early adoption of new technology rarely pays off. Putting solid process in place, supported by a minimal level of proven, robust and predictable technology, is far more likely to produce success.
A powerful warning against the big-bang approach to KM comes from the simple observation that, “If you build everything at the same time, particularly using experimental techniques, then everything is going to go wrong at the same time.” To put it more bluntly, “If you put a load of houses up at the same time, they’re gonna fall down at the same time.” Something to bear in mind when opting for that all-singing, all-dancing KM environment that your firm is going to be the first user of?
Another problem with the ongoing maintenance of the end products of large-scale KM projects is that the support infrastructure is frequently unable to cope. As stated in the New Towns report, “The successors to the cash-rich development corporations are cash-strapped local authorities.” Standard budgeting formulae don’t allow for ‘non-standard’ facilities, as one New Town council complained, pointing out how it now had to maintain 24km of dedicated ‘bus way’, which for some reason does not count as part of the public road system. Echoes again of KM-project handovers where the recipients are less than grateful? What starts as a grand design created by a well funded project initiative too often turns out not to have thought through the cost of upkeep, whether in terms of the people or content. And the newly responsible department may not even be aware of what the supposed benefits were, and so will prioritise accordingly...
Density, quality and take-up
A key factor in the decline in New Towns is that their original low-density designs made it difficult to sustain affordable public transport. With the withdrawal of subsidies, many shopping centres became virtual no-go areas. And, of course, as soon as an area starts to decline, word gets around and people are even less inclined to move there. Many of the early New Town designs were not built to accommodate the levels of car use we see now, and as public transport declined so did use of the town centres. For later designs, the car rather than people became the centre of thinking, but this in turn transformed town centres into unwelcoming, isolated fortresses that remained equally unattractive. Both extremes exacerbated the cycle of decline.
The parallels to KM are very relevant, in that they warn against putting all our eggs into one basket – a new portal or search engine or intranet will not of itself provide a complete solution to all the knowledge needs around the organisation. And none of these solutions will prosper if attention is not paid to content, and to the changing needs of communities. For instance, a large corporate intranet that I am familiar with proudly offered millions of pages of content, the majority of which were two or three years out of date. Low-density information provision soon falls short of expectations. An intranet that is difficult to navigate will never become widely used. Worse still, a series of unconnected intranets leads to an unsustainable support workload – in parallel with the problems caused by strict segregation of transport, industry, housing and leisure in many New Towns. Overcoming content segregation, for example by centring presentation around the role and interests of the individual (personal, professional and process aspects) rather than the organisation, has proved a good way to draw people into using some of the most successful corporate intranets.
On the other hand, thoughtful structuring on its own is not enough. In one case that I can recall, a specialised sales portal, created by a consulting group to serve the needs of a new sales team, was intensely popular for a few months. The high density of information was just what the new starters needed. But this community soon outgrew what the portal could provide, and usage declined dramatically. In this example, the lack of an evolutionary strategy killed off what had initially been a promising and popular KM initiative. In contrast, a service owned and supported by a sales unit in a large telecoms provider became the information destination of choice for many users, even those outside the sponsoring sales unit. The difference was in the level of content maintenance and the extent to which the sophistication of the site grew in line with the demands of its audience. In other words, both the content and evolutionary issues had been anticipated.
In general, ‘build it and they will come’ does not work for KM initiatives, but there are a few well proven exceptions – much like the out-of-town shopping centres blamed by the New Towns report for destroying the high street. The large, dedicated centre that is easy to get to, offers a pleasant environment with a wide range of choices under one roof makes the preferred choice of shopping destination obvious. In the real world, we have to anticipate this.
Local communities, local accountability, overall strategy
Recently the focus of KM has tended to move from enterprise-wide programmes to more localised initiatives that directly relate to communities. The reasons are simple and compelling: communities represent the place where needs are directly expressed and value-generating results are created and can be measured. They also represent the environment in which knowledge-sharing cultures can be built effectively, since the powerful drivers of peer approval and self-interest can come into play.
These ideas are reflected in the New Towns report. When large central bodies own the resources (such as land and finance) and they are not accountable (or even listening), the result is inconsistent development, which fails to serve local needs. Which is not to say that an overall strategy is not needed: it is the fragmentation of ownership of land that is identified as the major problem in taking New Town regeneration plans forward on a consistent basis. Fragmentation of KM initiatives, with no clear ownership, responsibility for maintenance or funding, is not the same thing as empowering communities to decide what suits their needs.
Central sponsorship of KM initiatives, allowing synergies between local projects and communities to develop to the point where they become self-funding strikes the right balance and allows a scalable, organic approach to develop. A large telecoms group has found that a group strategy of community-oriented KM coaching, backed up by a consistent, centrally sponsored (and funded) technical infrastructure, has revitalised its progress in exploiting knowledge and enhancing collaboration. This ‘pump-priming’ approach is far more sustainable in today’s economic environment, encouraging quick wins and word-of-mouth enthusiasm to generate new KM projects, the results of which individual business units then own into the future.
As well as failing to maximise growth and synergy, a piecemeal approach to KM can also prove expensive, particularly when it comes to acquiring content. For example, information providers are very happy to sell the same content separately to subsidiaries of a business, when a global agreement would prove much cheaper. Ask your accounts-payable team how many times it has been invoiced separately by the same information provider. One professional-services group saved £5m per year once it realised what was going on. The same group also found that a policy of getting business units to own the costs of their own KM professionals (content managers, researchers and librarians) and charging back the external costs of these services kept minds focused on the delivery of real value and on the idea that knowledge resources are an essential part of doing business.
Evaluating the result
A particularly striking fact from the report is the extent to which many of the New Towns have failed to attract anywhere near the target population – in some cases falling short by more than 50 per cent. Here, again, we see an example from which KM can learn: people can and will vote with their feet. KM systems, more than other type of business system, are voluntary, in that people cannot truly be compelled to contribute to them or to use their contents. Even though there may be transactions taking place, consider who is actually participating in them and for what purpose?
The New Towns report concludes, “It is very surprising that the New Towns ‘experiment’ has never been evaluated. An evaluation is urgently required that identifies both good practice and mistakes before any major new settlements are considered.” It is clear from the evidence of successful KM projects (eg, the efforts of the team at BP or Buckman Labs) that building continual feedback and evaluation into KM projects from the outset is the best way to ensure their ongoing business relevance and economic justification. This allows fine tuning both in response to changes in the surrounding environment and to the learning that inevitably happens in such a complex undertaking. The broad infrastructural framework (as with the road layout and structural plans of a New Town) can remain the same, but the way the detail is filled in needs to be adaptable as economic and social needs change.
Evolution, not revolution
It would be wrong to give the impression that the New Towns report is all doom and gloom. Few of the towns studied are uniformly poor quality. It is where things have been taken to extremes (eg, in using new, unproven building materials, selling off assets piecemeal or creating large open landscaped areas) that most problems have arisen. Evolution rather than revolution would seem to be the most appropriate strategy both in town planning and KM, but we must always be prepared to think the unthinkable. For example, the explosion in car use versus the precipitous decline in the utilisation of public transport has both caused problems and created opportunities: in KM we could see the huge growth in network bandwidth (and the decline in relative cost) as a transport system we are not yet fully exploiting.
Where developments benefited from the general prosperity of an area (for instance in the south-east of England) again the New Towns have done relatively well. The warning for KM is not to become dependant on business being good to survive, because KM then lines itself up as the first thing to be cut in a downturn. KM needs to consistently demonstrate that it is delivering value, and to become even more valuable when times are difficult and budgets are being cut.
In summary, the lessons learnt from the planning of the UK’s New Towns offers valuable insights into how we should form successful strategies for KM so that people and businesses are involved and engaged. We have to want to be part of the new landscape: the economics have to be right (and sustainable), and living and working with the result has to be better than the alternative. At the heart of both fields is an aspiration to improve the quality of work and life. And people will always have the last word on that.
Geoff Smith is client service director at Getronics UK Ltd. He can be contacted at email@example.com
1. House of Commons Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, The New Towns: Their Problems and Future (Nineteenth Report of Session 2001-2, published 27 July 2002, The Stationery Office Limited)
2. Cowley, J., ‘Down town’, The Guardian (August 1 2002)
Textbox 1: The New Towns report
The report, entitled The New Towns: Their Problems and Future and compiled by the House of Commons Transport, Local Government and the Regions committee, looks at the major developments from 1946 onwards, although acknowledging that the roots of the idea for New Towns go back a century to the ‘Garden city’ movement. It identifies a number of problems and makes several recommendations for changes in government policy before any major new investments are approved:
- The report highlights that central government has taken the focus off New Towns: they have been largely left to ‘fend for themselves’ just as they are coming up to a point where major renewal is needed;
- A patchwork of asset ownership has been created that makes it extremely difficult for local authorities to follow a coherent strategic plan to develop the New Towns into the future;
- What were originally liabilities offset by income-generating assets (eg, large, open, landscaped areas requiring maintenance versus central shopping areas) are no longer in balance, with outdated facilities proving unpopular;
- Low-density developments, with segregation between housing, industry, shopping and leisure, has left public-transport networks unsustainable, leading to increased car use, which in turn highlights failings in town designs;
- The green, open spaces, once seen as reflecting a semi-rural idyll, also paradoxically lead to feelings of insecurity, with people feeling that footpaths and so on are unsafe for pedestrians;
- ‘Innovative’ designs, prefabricated construction methods and non-traditional building materials have led to many dwellings and other facilities facing the end of their useful lives, in some cases only 30 years after they were built;
- The problem of renewal is exacerbated by the scale of simultaneous degeneration of large areas that were developed at the same time. In many cases, mixed private-public ownership makes management even more difficult;
- The population profile has moved from being heavily skewed towards first-generation young families to being dominated by elderly dependents, placing a strain on social and medical services.