posted 22 Jul 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 10
Country focus: Malaysia
Simon Lelic talks to Ming Yu Cheng about the evolution of knowledge management in Malaysia.
The first privately owned university in Malaysia, the Multimedia University (MMU) was established to support the country’s transformation into a knowledge-based economy. This has been Malaysia’s stated aim since the government announced its commitment to lead the country towards developed-nation status by 2020, a central element of the so-called Vision 2020 pledge outlined by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1991. As part of this process, MMU aims to help produce graduates who have developed a specialised level of knowledge and skill in the fields of multimedia and advanced technology. And as head of the Economics Unit at the school, Ming Yu Cheng is tasked with helping to make this vision a reality.
Since Vision 2020 was announced, says Cheng, the concept of the knowledge economy has been prominent across Malaysia. Knowledge management, however, really only began to make an impact at the turn of the century. In part, and as in so many developing countries, the concept was imported by larger, multinational firms, notably HP and KPMG. Since 2000, though, KM has achieved a higher profile. Cheng believes two events in particular were largely responsible for this: Infosoc Malaysia 2000, a major conference held in Sarawak, and the Second Global Knowledge Conference, held in Kuala Lumpur in the same year.
Recently, the number of firms experimenting with the disciplines that relate to knowledge management has grown, especially over the past two years. The big multinationals still lead the way, but a number of large corporations and utilities in the country are beginning to take their first steps down the KM road. And as Cheng says, even some SMEs are talking about KM, although relatively few are actively adapting the way they operate. KM is also creeping up the governmental agenda, affecting both the government’s vision for the country as a whole and the way ministerial departments operate on a day-to-day basis.
In fact, says Cheng, government agencies represent one of the sectors in which KM has thus far made the biggest impact; certainly KM strategies in public-sector bodies are well defined and relatively far advanced. In the private sector, many large firms now have dedicated knowledge managers, although most of these still cut fairly lonely figures. Cheng believes the telecoms industry, though, is the exception, pointing as she does to the tangible impact KM has had at Telekom Malaysia and the Multimedia Development Corporation.
The limited application of knowledge management in other sectors is perhaps down to a lack of understanding of what KM entails and its potential benefits, as Cheng suggests. Cost considerations no doubt also come into play. “It has been a widespread misconception that knowledge management is appropriate only for large corporations as it involves high set-up and maintenance costs,” she says. “There is also a belief that KM needs a special type of professional administrator, the likes of which are still lacking in Malaysia. Only multinational firms manage to hire experienced knowledge managers.”
From a social perspective, the KM movement in Malaysia has a number of things in its favour. First, Malaysians are necessarily becoming far more comfortable with information technology. Partially as a consequence of this, e-commerce is also taking off, and people are beginning to feel at home with many of the ways of working associated with knowledge management. The government is also playing a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of knowledge-based working, and its commitment to take Malaysia down a path similar to that forged by Singapore is paying dividends.
Media coverage is also considerable. The New Straits Times, Computimes, Malaysian Business and Bernama are among the publications that regularly devote column inches to the subject of knowledge management, and the English press has occasional articles on the topic. There is, though, a tendency to treat knowledge management as primarily an IT-based discipline, an approach that does not help in dispelling the confusion that still surrounds knowledge management in Malaysia. Prominent advertisements for out-of-the-box KM solutions no doubt carry some of the blame for the perpetuation of this myth.
In many ways, of course, companies in Malaysia have been aware of the principles of knowledge management for many years, although the majority either do not consciously recognise them or call them by another name. If the country is to achieve its goal of becoming a truly knowledge-based economy as part of its journey towards fulfilling Vision 2020, a more deliberate and defined approach towards KM is perhaps in order. The country as a whole may have been a relatively late starter in KM terms, but it now faces an excellent opportunity to secure its future and its place on the world economic stage.