posted 23 Jan 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 5
Country focus: France
Simon Lelic talks to Jean-François Ballay about the evolution of knowledge management in France.
Electricité de France (EDF), a state-owned utility firm and the largest electricity supplier in Europe, was among the earliest adopters of knowledge management in France. In 1992, Jean-Francois Ballay became the first KM project manager for the company. Since then, he has seen the number of KM practitioners employed by the company skyrocket. Ballay currently manages a community of around 700 knowledge managers who actively share lessons learnt and examples of good practice from KM projects taking place throughout the energy giant.
It was around 1990 that knowledge management first began to attract any attention in the country, says Ballay, although this came chiefly from organisations like EDF, CEA and Usinor. Throughout the rest of the decade, interest in KM spread gradually, with a number of the larger companies from the energy, telecommunications and aerospace sectors joining the list of early adopters. However, it was only towards the late 1990s that the discipline really began to make an impact, driven by the attention afforded the discipline by members of the IT community and the bigger consultancy firms.
In parallel with the experiences of many western-European countries, interest in knowledge management in France soared during the internet boom and the dawn of the so-called ‘new economy’. As elsewhere, this was prompted by advances in technology and the determination of software companies to brand their offerings as knowledge-based products. Ballay feels broad understanding of the limitations of a technological approach to KM has since advanced dramatically, however, although he believes most practitioners still need to develop a deeper comprehension of what knowledge management means in cultural terms.
Nevertheless, the principles and practices of knowledge management have now permeated French industry as a whole, and are demanding the input of workers from across the spectrum of business roles, including HR, IT, communications and general management. “KM is not limited to specific industries in France,” says Ballay. “On the contrary, economists now observe that knowledge is becoming more and more visible in all domains of the economy. It now forms the greatest part of GDP for occidental countries.” Even public-sector businesses are getting in on the act. Both EDF and Usinor were state owned when they first began experimenting with knowledge management and today publicly owned organisations from sectors as diverse as transport, aeronautics and telecommunications have established KM programmes.
The government itself has also demonstrated its awareness of the importance of knowledge and intellectual capital to the future of the French economy. For instance, the Commissariat Général du Plan, a government division for strategic planning, recently published a report entitled ‘La France dans l’économie du savoir’ (‘France in the knowledge economy’). According to Ballay, the report highlighted the pervasive influence of knowledge in every part of the French economy, extending beyond its traditional domains of education and the IT industry.
Ballay points to several cultural factors that may help to explain why KM has achieved the prevalence it has. The country as a whole has a strong reputation in the social sciences, for instance, while Ballay maintains managers in general have a high degree of conceptualism. Education levels in France are also comparatively high. These factors perhaps offset what Ballay describes as an underlying culture of secretism and individualism in French society, which he sees as the biggest cultural barrier to the continued influence of knowledge management.
Media coverage has no doubt also contributed to the growth of the discipline. There are numerous publications devoted to KM-related issues, and Ballay points to a general awareness as to the importance of knowledge to the economy as a whole. Internet-based forums abound (for instance, www.i-km.com and www.e-rh.org), and universities in Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Marseilles and Nice all now run courses in knowledge management.
Yet for all the progress KM practitioners in France have made over the past ten years, Ballay feels there is still some way to go. In particular, while companies and individual workers have accepted the importance of both expertise and learning in their everyday activities, relatively few explicitly understand the concept of the ‘knowledge worker’ and the value of everyday experience. This, he says, is the next step for knowledge management in France. Having come so far so fast, though, there is little reason to expect the progression of understanding in the country to suffer any immediate interruption.
1. A full case study exploring the role of knowledge management within Electricity de France will be published in next month’s edition of Knowledge Management
2. ‘La France dans l’économie du savoir’, Commissariat Général du Plan (Paris, November 2002)