posted 21 Jun 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 9
Tom Young provides an overview of how is KM faring in the public sector, ahead of a series of regional case studies
Knowledge management (KM) began its life in the military and private sectors in the late 1990s and quickly developed a reputation as being a strong enabler for the development of an effective organisation. In the early 2000s, it took hold in the development sector, and since the mid 2000s, the private sector has taken an interest. In many ways, the private sector needs KM. The trend for reduced budgets and greater efficiencies calls for a way of developing and exchanging improved practices, and avoiding duplication of work through collaboration. The cuts in public spending will result in knowledge loss, as older public sector workers take early retirement, – unless KM can help stem the leak. The constant cycles of government and policy change require public sector bodies to become agile learning organisations. But how well is KM doing in the public sector?
There are many KM initiatives in the public sector, sometimes introducing one or more tools, and sometimes introducing a whole framework. Some are working very well but there are also many examples of stalled KM initiatives – what our Australian colleague calls ‘half-baked scones’. There is often a lot of activity, but there are relatively few public sector KM programmes that can be shown to have delivered measurable benefit in financial or effectiveness terms. And nowhere do we see public sector organisations with KM fully embedded the way it has been in Shell, Fluor, or Schlumberger.
Why is that? Is there something different about the public sector that makes KM difficult to deliver? Has the expectation been set too high? Are the staff less likely to embrace change? Is the technology infrastructure lagging behind that of the private sector? Given our span of clients from public and private sectors, we have a few ideas that we would like to share with you that will hopefully point you towards successful KM in the public sector. Let’s start with the issue of culture.
We all know that introducing KM is a culture change exercise, and that some organisations have environments that are more KM culture-friendly than others. We like to use the word OPEC as an acronym for the organisational cultural factors that support KM. The acronym stands for openness, performance focus, empowerment, and communication. When all these four factors are in place there is an environment in which KM thrives. When they are absent or only there to a minor extent, KM struggles. We have seen that irrespective of industry, location or size of organisation. Let?s look at how these four differ between public and private sector.
Openness is the first factor – openness to reviewing mistakes and errors as well as successes. This can be a struggle in the private sector, but many companies have worked hard at this, and staff feel they can be fully open about what did or didn’t happen and, in that the way, they learn from actual performance. In the public sector, however, this can also be a struggle. Public sector bodies are publicly funded, and the media seem to pounce on anything they could portray as a waste of public funds. So while a project manager in the private sector might say ‘this project could have gone better’, it’s less likely that you would encounter this type of behaviour in the public sector and especially in government, given the level of media scrutiny. We recently heard a story of a public sector body introducing a discussion forum, and looking for an opening question. Staff were encouraged to suggest what the question might be. However each proposed question was vetoed by senior staff as being ‘too radical’. Eventually the forum was withdrawn, before it became a ‘no discussion forum’. Of course, this is an extreme example. At the other end of the scale are organisations like GCHQ, where internal openness is extremely high. Hopefully with the era of open government, this barrier will reduce even further across government and the public sector in general.
Performance focus is also key to successful KM. We know there is a strong link between KM and performance, and KM is a key driver of continuous performance improvement. Performance is easy to measure in the private sector, and you can identify the people you need to learn from, from their reduced costs and increased profits. Performance measurement is much harder in the public sector. What are effective metrics and targets for a hospital, a police force, or government department? Without clear metrics, you can‘t determine which practices are best, and who needs to learn from whom. Staff in the public sector are just as committed to improving performance as those in the private sector, and the key to success is to find the simple metrics, which you can influence. We heard an excellent example from the NHS recently, where ward staff tracked the metric of how long it took to get a new patient installed into a ward bed, then used KM to radically reduce this time. Find the metrics, and KM will help deliver the improvement.
Empowerment can be developed in both public and private sectors, though in our experience we have seen the lowest levels of empowerment in one or two parts of the government sector. We have heard of reports being rewritten and reworked through several levels of hierarchy, which completely disempowers the staff. Why look for knowledge, when your manager may well override you? But empowerment and KM go hand-in-hand. Knowledge is empowering, and managers need to buy into the concept of greater empowerment for knowledge-enabled staff. Empowerment doesn’t mean that staff are free to go and do what they like, how they like, when they like. It is about defining boundaries and giving staff the ability to import learning from others and re-apply that learning as appropriate within the boundaries established by management. Set the boundaries too close and you will stifle innovation and learning.
Finally, communication. We are pleased to say that here there is little difference between the sectors, and communication can thrive in all settings. Perhaps that is the reason that many public sector KM initiatives start with the development of communities of practice, to promote peer-to-peer communication. Such initiatives have taken off like wildfire in some public sector organisations, and some of the cultural barriers are beginning to come down. People are seeing real, tangible benefits from sharing their knowledge with others. Communities of practice (CoPs) are an example of empowered communication, and will begin to address two of the other critical factors as well. As CoPs become supported by the other components of a KM framework, we will begin to see many more examples of real benefit – such as money saved, service improved, efficiencies increased. Already these stories are coming through. We heard a great example from a government department a few days ago, where knowledge re-used via a retrospect saved several weeks on a subsequent project. We look forward to more.
KM can and does work in the public sector, but there may be several cultural factors that mean that it needs to be introduced carefully, in a planned way, and with due attention to performance metrics. As our Australian colleague would say, ‘you need to make sure your scones are properly baked’!
In future articles we hope to examine the state of knowledge management in the public sector in different parts of the world. We will report on the status in other locations and see if KM is thriving there.
Tom Young is one of the founders of, and director at, Knoco. He can be contacted at