posted 1 Dec 2010 in Volume 14 Issue 3
Tough times ahead?
Peter Griffiths reports on topics discussed at
Public sector knowledge and information management has some good stories to tell – but right now its main concerns are about politics and finance. Delegates at
One of the most urgent is the perennial problem of capturing knowledge from people leaving the organisation. With almost half a million workers due to leave the public sector by 2014-15 under the plans contained in SR2010, this is going to be an urgent problem given the likely age and experience profile of those leavers. Presenters and delegates alike had some new ideas: some relatively simple changes, such as ensuring that all document files and e-mails are copied from the leavers’ PCs before the hard disks were reformatted for an incoming user or for resale; and some more complex revisions like amending induction routines so that shortly after joining, new staff members search the electronic document and records management system (EDRMS) to retrieve the records created by their predecessor. Finding solutions like these becomes all the more important when organisations relocate. If existing staff choose not to move there is rarely any kind of handover. In a case study we heard how, in order to address this problem, one organisation had used a combination of a new EDRMS, tailored job handover reports and recordings of knowledge transfer interviews alongside ‘standard’ KM activities, such as communities of practice (CoPs) and drop-in KM sessions. Handover processes proved to be just one example of the cultural issues that KM professionals are dealing with in the public sector – one delegate noted that managing culture change can be as important an issue in many cases as managing (or sharing) knowledge itself.
Senior leaders whose bodies are destined for abolition or merger are expressing similar concerns – for example Douglas Sinclair, who as chairman of Consumer Focus Scotland reacted to the recent announcement that Consumer Focus would merge with Citizens Advice by saying “What matters now is that the transfer happens in a way that works for consumers’ interests. The expertise and knowledge that has helped us to fight for consumers must not be lost.”
So what if senior public sector managers cut KM activities through lack of understanding or despite obvious evidence of their value? Measures of return on investment (ROI) can quite easily be found – for example from journal articles or on the web – and so can formulae that quantify savings in time and storage costs and savings from improved efficiency. KIM professionals should calculate the figures to support their arguments for the benefit of their work, which will answer the critics on grounds of cost (the bean counters, in other words), but delegates were reminded to measure impact and outcomes to demonstrate the value of KM. There were even some helpful worked examples!
The big society
The conference also pondered what effect the ‘big society’ might have on the way that shared services are delivered. Would the emphasis now change to delivery of a broader range of services within a smaller geographical area, rather than having similar services delivered across a wide area by a large shared service organisation? A case study from the NHS uncovered many angles – governance issues like the need to co-ordinate multiple sources of funding, and management issues such as dealing with service level agreements and matrix staff management. Organisations need to think not just about technology but about people, helping to develop a culture of trust and sharing, and building enthusiasm for rather than fear of the new systems.
There was an update from the local government improvement and development community, which included a warts-and-all assessment of progress with CoPs, which balanced the savings and benefits that can be achieved against problems such as keeping users involved once initial enthusiasm starts to fade (“batteries not included”, as the speaker put it).
The trouble with tacit
The distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge continued to be perplexing. Delegates were challenged to consider whether the act of capturing tacit knowledge changes it into something different that is no longer tacit – which suggests that tacit knowledge may in fact be impossible to manage. So while there are many examples of ways in which we bring people together within our organisations and encourage them to share knowledge (speakers described a number of successful incentive schemes and awards) it remained open to debate whether the various hubs, wikis and SharePoint solutions held any items that represented the tacit knowledge at large in the organisation. Someone asked whether you can ‘over-digitise’ – whether in the effort to create a digital snapshot you could fail to capture the vibrancy and essence of a knowledge-sharing conversation.
What conclusions did delegates reach? Some emphasised lessons that have been long highlighted by the KM community , such as the need to identify senior supporters and champions within the organisation, the value of quick wins to demonstrate the value of KM initiatives, and how much more effective it is to beg, steal or borrow successful ideas rather than struggling to reinvent the wheel. All these are still relevant and reap dividends.
Head in the cloud
But there were some new elements too: the importance of the cloud (and the government’s variant, the g-Cloud) as the carrier and facilitator of many future KM services, and the potential for KM professionals to help others within our organisations to understand the rapid changes that are taking place. Speakers frequently mentioned the importance of communication and the appropriate use of language. That could be by avoiding technical language, which scares users: you can encourage knowledge sharing better by starting a conversation with ‘What are you doing at the moment?’ rather than pitching with something that comes over as ‘I’m the organisation’s KM expert, and I’m here to solve all your knowledge problems’. Or it might be to emphasise that whether your organisation’s decision makers describe their current problem as being about business intelligence, performance management or customer insight, the solution may be the same – the words, not the actions, are different. One conclusion was that it is often better just to get on and deliver improvements, and explain later that this had been achieved using KM.
The issue of finance
And then it was back to the political and financial angles that affect KM in the public sector. Sometimes knowledge is lost for political reasons: after each recent change of government information has disappeared from departmental websites because it no longer reflects policy. The ongoing cull of government websites, which will inevitably accelerate with the announced closure of many quangos, will also delete knowledge and information from the public domain even though it has historical relevance and value.
Finance is an ongoing issue. There was agreement on the importance of demonstrating value for money. Delegates and speakers recommended using the tools to hand to develop KM solutions rather than bidding for new, expensive and possibly inappropriate software and systems. Contractual issues can arise where long term IT contracts are in place and the supplier prefers a different solution that may not be appropriate for the requirement or the organisation – Sir Philip Green’s recent efficiency review highlighted this point but has been widely dismissed for its failure to understand the public sector context.
We talked about working with other teams such as HR, and with the users themselves, to embed good KM behaviours in the organisation’s culture (and decided not to worry too much whether the other players called it KM). We talked about using publicly available tools such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Yammer rather than paying large sums to develop less-well-featured corporate versions. We noted that privacy and security factors might make using some of these into a bad idea, even though some of these services are aimed squarely at the corporate market with security features to match. Some people noted that while using social media helped them to manage the pressure to network when they were short of time, this was less of a good idea when other organisations were using social media profiles to identify their marketing prospects. And we discussed how to keep talking to the business and building awareness of the value of KM in hard times.
Two speakers looked at new areas for KM specialists, information security compliance and horizon scanning. One reminded delegates about the legal requirement to keep personal data secure and private, and showed how KM specialists could apply their professional skills to information security. They could also contribute to managing shared and outsourced services, and to the government agenda for co-operative ICT and the g-Cloud. The other speaker explained horizon scanning, which combines expert predictions with analysis of actual events to produce forecasts and future timelines that allow effective change management, where he described an interesting potential role for KM professionals.
After each day’s presentations, the delegates took the opportunity to discuss what they had heard and to identify key learning in addition to what the speakers had said, and the points that emerged in questions. They pointed to the need to keep things simple; to potential difficulties selling the KM ‘brand’ when seeking senior leaders as sponsors – and the corresponding need to get staff engagement from the shop floor upwards with a knowledge sharing culture. They restated the need to quantify ‘crunchy’ benefits from what knowledge managers do. Delegates pointed out that if the cuts are severe then the remaining people will need KM more than ever in order to deal with the resulting pressures. At the same time it will be vital to record the knowledge of departing staff, or even to continue to engage them by setting up alumni networks and other CoPs to which they can go on contributing. Last but not least, delegates thought it was important that we look for good practice and case studies not just in our world of KM but we should talk to decision makers and non-specialist staff to identify, share and recognise their good KM behaviours. Which means, I guess, that we need to get out more…
Peter Griffiths is an independent information specialist at the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Services. He can be contacted at email@example.com