posted 30 Sep 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 2
A knowledge-conscious curriculum
Managers are increasingly focused on leading employees towards a knowledge-sharing culture, but leaders must be truly knowledge-conscious if they are to affect transformational changes. Elizabeth Lank investigates effective educational options open to leaders who want to encourage staff to share knowledge to facilitate organisation-wide KM initiatives.
There is a growing awareness among knowledge professionals that the best way to create and sustain a knowledge-sharing organisation is to ensure that it is run by knowledge-conscious leaders. These leaders recognise that knowledge is a true business asset and factor this into all their decision-making processes. However, it is clear that many leaders still need encouragement and education in order to become truly knowledge conscious.
As with any capability development, a range of potential strategies exist. The organisational context, specific developmental needs and learning styles of individuals will dictate which choice is most appropriate. An increasing number of business-education programmes and modules focused on knowledge management are becoming accessible. Companies need to consider the actions they can take – either through internal management-development programmes or on the job – to enhance leaders’ ability to create effective collaborative organisations and to harness knowledge assets.
Knowledge-conscious leadership qualities
Some organisations are beginning to build the foundations for knowledge-conscious management by integrating knowledge-sharing skills and behaviour into their leadership-competency framework and assessing leaders against them. By reviewing the frameworks against which your own organisation’s leaders are judged – in terms of knowledge, skills and attitude – it is possible to assess whether there is enough emphasis on collaborative working and knowledge sharing. Below are some of the key leadership qualities that could be integrated into a competency framework. A knowledge-conscious leader should:
Identify the knowledge and information needs of workers and ensure staff are adequately trained to use the related tools and processes;
Be aware of the knowledge that is critical to achieving business goals;
Invest in capturing and sharing good practice;
Consider who the company can learn from before embarking on a new initiative;
Set team objectives, not just individual objectives;
Build positive, trusting relationships between people to facilitate effective communication;
Discourage knowledge hoarding;
Support involvement in cross-organisational knowledge-sharing communities and activities;
Offer feedback and thanks to those who share documents electronically;
Congratulate knowledge sharers and encourage collaboration;
Coach colleagues by sharing their own personal knowledge and experience;
Treat failure as an opportunity to learn rather than to blame;
Support and participate in learning processes, such as after-action reviews;
Assess whether the working environment facilitates cross-boundary communication.
If you identify a number of colleagues who score poorly against these criteria, it is time to consider a shift towards a more positive, knowledge-aware direction.
MBA programmes and executive-education programmes profess to cover the topics that are of greatest importance to a manager. For years topics such as managing strategy, managing money, managing people, managing physical assets, and developing and selling products and services have become customary in management education. However, managing knowledge was not seen as a valid part of the curriculum until recently and is still only recognised by a relatively small number of institutions.
The UK’s Open University (OU), one of the world leaders in distance learning, with 200,000 students in almost 40 countries, was one of the early pioneers in this area. The Open University Business School’s MBA programme is available part time and is thus accessible to working managers who are able to take it on without taking a career break. Professor Paul Quintas joined the OU Business School in 1994, bringing with him a strong interest in how organisations absorb and apply knowledge. Quintas had been involved in several European research projects that demonstrated how easily knowledge could be shared in an R&D enclave, but also looked at how difficult it could be for research team members to then translate the useful knowledge back into their own organisation. He was inspired by The New Production of Knowledge , which claims that knowledge gained from practice is just as valuable as traditional codified and formal knowledge.
In 1995, Quintas decided to consult some of his OU colleagues about developing an MBA module in this area. He set up an informal meeting to discuss the issue and was surprised to find 25 people from a range of disciplines across the university, including the dean of the business school at the time, in attendance. Quintas had clearly struck a chord. The group subsequently investigated available courses on the topic of managing knowledge and were unable to find a single dedicated course anywhere in the world. The group was heading into unchartered territory.
The Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute seconded someone to work with Quintas and course development, a rigorous and costly process, began. Because there were no comparison points, the course development involved a great deal of original thinking and decision making, employing the assistance of practitioners as well as academics. The key themes covered included:
- The nature of knowledge;
- Defining knowledge work;
- Knowledge creation, sharing, combination and application;
- Knowledge as a strategic resource;
- Collaborative technologies;
- Communication processes, including cross-cultural communication;
- Intellectual capital and intangible assets;
- Intellectual-property rights;
- Organisational learning.
At the end of the six-month module, the final assignment set for the OU MBA students was to define a knowledge strategy for their own organisation.
Having developed the course, Quintas and his team faced their next challenge. They now had to find tutors to support the module in all countries in which the OU operated. The team eventually identified 80 tutors and realised that, in order to teach the course successfully, they would all have to learn together. Practising what they were preaching, Quintas and the team set up a community of practice encompassing OU knowledge-management tutors who even now continue to share ideas and experience using electronic and physical methods.
The OU MBA module, ‘Managing knowledge’, was launched in November 1999, more than three years after the original idea was proposed. To date, more than 3,600 MBA students have elected to take the module. “We encourage our MBA students to maintain a healthy scepticism about some of the so-called KM approaches they may encounter,” says Quintas. “Insisting on things being written down and put into databases is not always the most effective knowledge-transfer process. We want to anchor what we teach in practice not theory and encourage people to develop knowledge processes that work for their organisations and the people within them.”
The ‘Managing knowledge’ module continues to evolve and Quintas is finding that many of the ideas from the module are emerging in other disciplines. “Everything human beings do has a knowledge angle,” he says. Since the OU’s pioneering work, many MBA programmes have added modules on knowledge management, with a small number of institutions even experimenting with MSC degrees specialising in KM.
Senior managers often find it problematic to take time out to study for an MBA. In these cases, executive programmes are a good option. Paul Verdin, chair in strategy and organisation at Solvay Business School in Brussels and visiting professor at Insead, believes that the knowledge perspective is a crucial element of any strategic perspective on business. “Conceptually, the strategic nature of knowledge has been recognised for a long time, ever since the resource and competence-based view of strategy emerged over a decade ago. However, management has paid very little attention to KM processes,” explains Verdin. KM is becoming an integrated aspect of any course on strategic management but Verdin is wary: “I don’t like the KM label – it positions this as some separate domain whereas this is simply a perspective that can be applied to all aspects of strategic management.”
Through his research on internationalisation strategies , Verdin has discovered that global organisations are not making the most of the opportunities available to them. “Many such strategies are built on sand and few of the synergies or economies of scale occur as planned,” he says. “If more attention was paid to knowledge sharing on a global scale, including the very practical details of making it happen, then companies that expand globally would see some very real bottom-line benefits.”
By their design, many executive programmes create an environment where ideas can be shared and connections made across all sorts of organisational boundaries. Verdin sees the main challenge as building openness to learning into the day-to-day life of managers and the organisations they lead. Raising awareness and understanding of knowledge issues in established senior-executive programmes will result in real action being taken when executive-programme attendees return to the workplace. For an increasing number of executive-education providers, from Solvay to Insead, to London Business School and the UK government cabinet office’s top management programme, knowledge is firmly established as a strategic resource that managers must be educated in.
Business-school programmes can be useful for blending academic input with practitioner experience. If you wish to stay focused on the real experience of other companies, joining a consortium of companies looking at a specific issue can be a powerful learning experience.
In the KM field, one of the most well established consortium programmes is Henley Management College’s knowledge-management forum, now in its fifth year. Edward Truch, director of the knowledge-management research institute and founder of the Henley KM forum, explains that the forum membership is made up of over 30 large organisations, from both the private and public sector. Although the forum was initially designed for those championing knowledge causes within organisations, Truch decided to develop a new format for meetings that would help KM professionals include senior colleagues from other job functions in forum events. The events were redesigned to include several people from each organisation and themed so as to attract line managers from specific functions; for instance, a special event on knowledge challenges in project-based organisations. In Truch’s experience, line managers who attended such sessions were likely to subsequently change their perception of knowledge-related challenges. “Many were converted in the space of a day and initiated KM programmes when they returned to work,” he says.
Following his work with the HR forum and research for his book Knowledge Orientation of Organisations , Truch points out that there has been a shift in emphasis over the past few years. In the original survey used to set up the KM forum, measuring the value of knowledge was an area of little interest to potential participants, whereas discussing change management and cultural change was high on the agenda. However, Truch now observes that interest in being able to value intellectual capital has increased.
Tremendous learning benefits can be gleaned from joining a consortium of companies in order to learn about knowledge-management challenges and share war stories – whether this involvement is in the form of a specific time-bound programme or an ongoing series of workshops and events. Encouraging knowledge professionals to share their experiences with line-management colleagues can be an even more effective strategy.
In-house management-development programmes
The opportunity to influence the management-education curriculum can often be found much closer to home. Most organisations have some form of management-development programme occurring on a regular basis. Programmes can be targeted at different management groups for various purposes, so this is a potential channel through which to reach a wide breadth of an organisation’s leadership group.
Nick Van Heck is a founding partner of the Executive Learning Partnership, a company that designs and implements custom-made executive-development programmes for multinational companies. He and his colleagues have been building modules on knowledge management and best-practice sharing into their customised programmes for a number of years. “Most of the time it wasn’t the client explicitly requesting knowledge management as an element of the programme. We suggested it when we believed a better understanding of KM would improve a specific initiative,” says Van Heck. “Once we suggested KM, our clients were always keen to include it. The topic was received with great enthusiasm.” A management-development programme can simply seek to raise awareness or can be designed to initiate and support real action in the workplace. According to Van Heck, “Improved awareness and understanding is the minimum level to achieve. It is very important to cut through the hype about knowledge management and have a practical orientation to make it real.”
In-house management-development programmes can build knowledge-conscious leaders in a further sense. These programmes are generally designed to bring managers from across the company together to work on common issues and share ideas and experiences. They often involve projects on cross-company business issues and, as such, are a powerful knowledge-sharing device. Participants can see the value of knowledge-sharing by experiencing it first hand and may take a more collaborative approach to solving business issues when they return to the workplace. The network of relationships established in management-development programmes that often involve a number of days away and plenty of impromptu conversations in bars and restaurants encourage communication channels that tend to remain open well after the programme ends.
Conferences and workshops
There are a wide range of publicly available conferences and workshops on knowledge-management topics. These are generally attended by the converts: people whose roles already include aspects that relate to knowledge and information sharing. However, the approach adopted by the Henley KM forum may be worth considering, namely bringing one or two colleagues along whose knowledge-consciousness needs to be raised. Picking out events where other organisations are sharing their specific knowledge and experience, perhaps even those where your company’s competitors will be in attendance, may help motivate your own colleagues to take a more strategic perspective on knowledge.
Books and articles
Each individual has a preferred learning style and not everyone chooses to learn by reading. However, a wealth of articles and books on knowledge issues have appeared over the past few years, providing an excellent opportunity to pick and choose material that would best influence colleagues and allow them to take the subject seriously. Sending a dynamic article as pre-reading before a meeting or a management workshop can be a helpful addition to your influencing toolkit.
Leif Edvinsson, one of the best known KM pioneers, advocates an even more dramatic step. He suggests that knowledge professionals should seek to publish their own articles about the knowledge challenges faced by their organisation. He claims that, once published externally, the internal champion’s credibility is enhanced and the person can then practise what Edvinsson calls “boomerang marketing” – namely cementing a stronger business proposal by sending ideas out of the organisation and then letting an external audience return them with a stamp of approval.
Many well known business publications frequently publish relevant KM articles. It is interesting to note that the current editor of the Harvard Business Review, Tom Stewart, wrote a number of the seminal articles and books on the topic of intellectual capital before his appointment as editor.
Learning by doing is undoubtedly one of the most effective methods of education. Engaging senior colleagues in pilot projects to demonstrate the business value of knowledge sharing is an influential way to both educate workers and achieve a real result for the business. The challenge often lies in convincing sceptical managers to commit to participating in a pilot project. However, this is not an impossible task. As long as you arm yourself with a good understanding of the manager’s business issues, you can propose an informed discussion about how more effective knowledge processes could deliver a better, cheaper or faster result. This conversation is usually one that managers in particular are prepared to have. If you are offering help and resources to do some of the work required in addition to this, it becomes an offer that is hard to refuse. When a successful outcome is achieved, the manager in question is likely to become an ally and a convert; after all, seeing is believing.
Knowledge is a strategic resource for every organisation. As we develop a greater understanding of how to get most value from knowledge, it is clear that KM is not simply the issue of technology, processes and people it was often defined as being in the early days. It is very much an issue of leadership. Knowledge professionals are leaders in their own right but cannot make the required transformational changes alone. Engaging others by ensuring that all of your organisation’s leaders are knowledge-conscious is a task that is often overlooked by knowledge-management initiatives. By investigating and adopting a range of management-development actions, you can achieve a more sustainable outcome.
Kathryn Protopapadakis, head of knowledge management at IT-services provider Fujitsu Services, shares her thoughts on this matter. “My role is very much a change agent and catalyst. I don’t have a big team working for me and therefore the more I can spread awareness of knowledge issues among my management colleagues, the bigger my virtual team gets,” she says. “Seeing this as an educational process and using all means available to increase awareness should be an important aspect of any knowledge strategy.” In a field that faces many challenges with regard to quantifiable measures, every knowledge professional should add a new quantifiable measure to their plans and ask themselves how many knowledge-conscious colleagues they have helped to create.
1. Gibbons, M. et al., The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Society (Sage Publications, 1994)
2. Verdin, P. & Van Heck, N., From Local Champions to Global Masters: A Strategic Perspective on Managing Internationalisation (Palgrave, 2001)
3. Truch, E., Knowledge Orientation of Organisations (Ashgate, 2003)
Elizabeth Lank is an independent specialist in collaborative working and organisational learning. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org