posted 22 Jul 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 10
Five minutes with… Northamptonshire Police
Jacquie Bran, project manager with the Knowledge Management, talks to Graham Cheeseman, e-services manager at Northamptonshire Police, about his experiences implementing a knowledge-management programme in a dynamic and demanding environment.
When and why did you first consider incorporating knowledge management? Did you initiate a pilot project to test its potential?
Knowledge management, or rather an improvement in knowledge management, was identified as a way of enhancing the organisation’s ability to provide an efficient and cost-effective service back in 1999. I was asked to help explore the potential of the concept from an operational perspective, and to make it happen.
We did not undertake a pilot per se. An organisation such as a police force has far too many departments and disciplines to allow a pilot in any one of them have any real meaning to the whole. I maintain that we have practised knowledge management since the beginning of time; it is nothing new or revolutionary. The introduction of IT into the process has merely given us an opportunity to improve and speed up the way we do it.
What have you done to encourage and promote knowledge sharing in such a diverse environment and what barriers have you faced as a result?
We have facilitated the exchange of information and experience by providing a new vehicle to allow it to happen, namely the intranet, with a little help from e-mail. The concept of information exchange is deeply rooted in police culture, but only in clearly defined areas such as criminal intelligence and performance. The exchange of more generic everyday knowledge and experience gained in various operational scenarios is proving to be far more difficult.
The service as a whole has taken giant leaps forward in trying to reduce the blame environment in which we live, but this still remains a big barrier to the sharing of what approaches do not work as well as those that do. Similarly, as competition forms a large part of selection and promotion procedures, resource allocation and, more recently, performance-enhanced pay, this was always going to be a sizeable barrier to overcome.
Northamptonshire Police has acknowledged the need to promote and encourage the sharing of knowledge and experience, and I believe it will form a part of all selection and promotion procedures in the future, once the new internal-communications structure is fully bedded in and accepted.
How did you progress to implementing an infrastructure to support KM and what changes were necessary to ensure its success?
In common with many organisations there was, and still is, a desire among senior management to achieve improved knowledge management, and the vehicles for KM were relatively easy to implement, the intranet and e-mail being the main enablers. These new facilities caused the whole organisation to review the way it worked. This did not happen overnight, and in many ways is still an ongoing process. We encouraged the use of IT communications by making it easy and quick, and ensured that mission-critical information only became available electronically. This had the advantage of ensuring that the information available was up to date and readily accessible. In addition to these steps, we introduced a social element by adding notice boards and classified advertisements to our intranet. It was a way of getting people used to the new way of communicating.
What was the reaction of your workforce to changing working practices?
The reaction was generally positive, but these things take time, and some people are more open to change than others. People do not alter the way they work until they are comfortable with, and can see the benefit of, the alternatives. It is far better to encourage its use and allow people to change at their own pace than to force the issue through management edict.
E-mail took far longer to catch on than I expected, even though we have had e-mail in the force for over two years. Despite publishing guidance and etiquette in its use, there are still people who are not confident or comfortable using e-mail. I still get printed copies of e-mails through the internal post.
When changing working practices, the steps you take need to be small and measured. Too many new initiatives introduced too quickly produces confusion and resistance. I think we made that mistake, and we are still paying the price.
Has knowledge management enabled you to improve your electronic service delivery and join-up your information and knowledge services across departments and channels of communication?
Yes, but it is an evolutionary process. As people become more familiar with new ways of working, and less reluctant to cross departmental frontiers in their search for answers, things will improve even more. I think knowledge management is more a philosophy than an actual system. It is a collection of systems and interactions, both IT and cultural. The vital ingredient is people and how they use the system, not the specification of the system itself, although that is important too.
How have you packaged knowledge management to encourage staff acceptance of new working practices and what lessons did you learn about making KM relevant to end-users?
With the best will in the world, I think the whole concept has been confused and unnecessarily complicated by IT vendors and academics to the point where people are unsure what it means, let alone how it can be achieved. Some people in the KM field have re-badged existing IT systems as knowledge management, when really they are components of KM, not standalone products.
My working definition of KM is, ‘A system or a collection of systems that enables staff to make quality decisions using up-to-date, relevant information and experience gained by others.’ We tried to make it relevant by ensuring that people with experience in the field were responsible for initial design and delivery. Then we made sure that the end user had a real and active input into system evolution. We tried to avoid KM jargon and buzz words, as we found these got in the way of our goals, and turned people off.
The lessons? I think the main ones were not to overestimate the IT skills of operational staff (these take time and commitment to acquire), to provide a sufficient level of in-house IT training, the need to avoid being led by technology on some issues, the need for really good communication between IT departments and operational personnel, and the fact that you cannot buy ‘knowledge management’ in a box.
What challenges exist that are specific to your field of work in relation to knowledge management and what would your ideal knowledge-management solution have the capacity to achieve?
In our field, many of the really important decisions are made not by managers or senior staff, but by officers on the ground that are often operating in adverse conditions. For information to be of any use, it must be delivered to the right people, at the right time, in the right format. My vision is to achieve that and to ensure that whatever system we end up with remains operationally focused and easy to use. As I have previously stated, the whole object of the exercise is to provide the best possible information in order to enable officers to make the best possible decisions, 24/7.
What are the other main lessons you have learnt?
As a relatively small force, Northamptonshire Police has achieved an extraordinary amount in a very short time and with limited resources. I think the main reason for this is the excellent leadership and support of our chief officers and senior management (particularly Frank Whitley, our deputy chief constable), a well motivated and supportive IT department and the willingness of the vast majority of our staff, both police officers and support staff, in allowing knowledge management to become far more than just a concept.
Graham Cheeseman will be presenting at Ark Group’s second annual ‘Knowledge Management for the Public Sector’ event, to be held in London from 22-24 September 2003. For more information or to register your attendance, visit www.kmpublicsector.com or call Jacquie Bran on +44 (0)20 8785 5908.