posted 22 Jul 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 10
Secure in the knowledge
At the beginning of the millennium, the Singapore Prison Service embarked on a programme that would allow it to more effectively utilise the knowledge and experience it had at its disposal in the pursuit of its mission to better serve offenders, staff and the wider community. Liuh Jiun Lew describes the SPS’s KM journey so far, reflecting on how the organisation overcame cultural resistance to change to become a more open and innovative enterprise.
The Singapore Prison Service (SPS) is a key partner in the criminal-justice system in Singapore. The organisation protects society by ensuring the safe custody and rehabilitation of offenders. This is achieved through the delivery of the following main services: the execution of court and executive orders; safe and secure custody; and, the provision of rehabilitation programmes.
The SPS does not operate in isolation, but is one of the ‘Home Team’ departments in the Ministry of Home Affairs. Together with the Singapore Police Force, Singapore Civil Defence Force, Central Narcotics Bureau, Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, Internal Security Department, Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises and Commercial and Industrial Security Corporation, the Home Team works in partnership with the community to make Singapore a safe and secure home for its citizens.
The organisation administers 14 institutions, holding in safe custody about 18,000 inmates. There are about 2,200 officers in the SPS, comprising 2,000 uniformed officers and 200 civilian staff. 75.3 per cent are male and 24.7 per cent female. About 60 per cent of staff have served with the organisation for more than five years. Close to 30 per cent of staff have tertiary education.
The SPS has started to redevelop the existing Changi Prison Complex (CPC) to make better use of the limited land and to construct purpose-built institutions that will be more cost effective and efficient to operate. The redeveloped CPC will have four clusters, each comprising five institutions. Each cluster will be self-sufficient, with inmate facilities co-located within the housing units. When fully completed in 2008, CPC will be able to hold in safe custody a total of 23,000 prisoners, roughly twice the combined capacity of all our existing prisons today.
Birth of a shared vision
For many years, SPS had focused on the safe and secure custody of offenders and had carried out this mission well. The prison system in Singapore is regarded as one of the safest and most secure in the world. Prisons and drug-rehabilitation centres are generally incident free and inmates are well disciplined.
In 1998, Mr Chua Chin Kiat took over as director of prisons. As a police officer, he had limited knowledge of how the prison system worked, but like many prison officers, he also believed that offenders could turn over a new leaf. He initiated a visioning process to re-focus on this aspect of prison care, without neglecting the secure custody of offenders. The process involved about half the prison staff, as well as partners and stakeholders, over a nine-month period.
In December 1999, the shared vision was unveiled: ‘We aspire to be captains in the lives of offenders committed to our custody. We will be instrumental in steering them towards being responsible citizens, with the help of their families and the community. We will thus build a secure and exemplary prison system.’
The mission statement was also revised to: ‘As a key partner in the criminal-justice system, we protect society through the safe custody and rehabilitation of offenders, co-operating in prevention and aftercare.’
Several key points were clearly articulated at the end of the process. SPS wanted to add value to society and offenders. To do so, the organisation had to do more in rehabilitating offenders. It was also not enough that discharged offenders were deterred; the organisation wanted them to be responsible citizens. It is the organisation’s firm belief that the long-term security of society is best achieved if offenders are rehabilitated and reintegrated into society as productive and responsible citizens. Various strategies were formulated in 2000 in order to help the SPS achieve these objectives.
The compelling case for KM
Many anchor projects and new initiatives were implemented to help the organisation realise its vision. These required considerable resources and manpower to roll out successfully. Prison officers had to cope with new demands, acquire new competencies and cope with change.
To ensure the successful implementation of these strategies, the organisation leveraged on technology, community resources and knowledge management. This helped the prison officers to do more with less.
The prison service in Singapore is a monopoly business. The professional knowledge of the organisation is highly specialised and unique. Managing offenders effectively and helping them turn over a new leaf are core business processes. Besides systems, procedures and standing orders, knowledge is often tacit and resides in the heads of experienced officers. The significant value behind this wealth of knowledge residing in the older and more experienced officers within the organisation is well recognised.
As these officers would be retiring in the years to come, it was imperative that systems were put in place to capture their knowledge and disseminate it to junior officers in a more effective manner, even as the organisation coped with tremendous levels of change. Many of the younger officers were interested in experimenting with new ideas. These ideas, coupled with the experiences and wisdom of older officers, could fuse and result in better ways of doing things in the future.
The KM framework
Knowledge management was a completely new concept to the organisation in 2000. Management recognised the importance of developing capabilities to manage existing and new knowledge in an efficient manner. An experiential approach was taken to implementing KM. The KM team was encouraged to be adventurous in developing new ideas and experimenting with different initiatives.
The department adopted a simple framework, comprising of the three elements of people, processes and technology. ‘Knowledge’ is defined as the ideas, experiences and insights residing in officers within the organisation that are manifested in both explicit and tacit forms. ‘People’ form the pillar of our success, particularly those who display a great disposition towards learning and knowledge sharing. ‘Technology’ is the enabler that aids in the transfer and harnessing of knowledge. Finally, ‘processes’ are the workflow components that connect people to knowledge and knowledge to people.
The objectives of KM in Singapore’s prisons are three-pronged. The first objective is to facilitate innovation in the SPS. This involves the acquisition, evaluation and implementation of creative ideas from all sources. The second objective is to increase the productivity of staff. This is achieved through the capturing and sharing of good practices and other re-usable knowledge assets to shorten cycle times and minimise duplication in efforts. The third objective is to leverage on KM to achieve organisational learning in the department.
Several applications on our intranet serve to connect the people with the relevant interests and skills to promote learning and problem solving. It is a firm belief that sharing information, ideas and knowledge within an organisation promotes learning at all levels.
Figure 1 – the knowledge-management framework
The department started off the KM process by implementing simple and straightforward initiatives to bring the officers together to exchange ideas, share knowledge, and to challenge and expand mindsets. Officers generally work in teams and, therefore, face-to-face interactions were deemed to be most useful in ensuring that important information and knowledge was shared. These also help to build trust, commitment and teamwork. The organisation’s early efforts in KM were strongly influenced by the works of Davenport and Prusak in the book Working Knowledge, which promotes generative conversations and dialogue as a means of knowledge management: “In a knowledge-driven economy, talk is real work… In the new economy, conservations are the way knowledge workers discover that they know, share it with their colleagues and, in the process, create new knowledge for the organisation.”
The organisation has created environments that are conducive to these face-to-face encounters. In the past, very little attention had been paid to the environment for such encounters. The meeting rooms were like the prisons: functional but Spartan. Today, when face-to-face meetings are not possible, technology is leveraged to bring people together through the intranet and via e-mail.
The organisation’s initial assessment on its KM efforts was that the prevailing organisational culture was not conducive to the objectives it had set itself. Prison officers had a very strong mindset on security. They were conservative and not receptive to new ideas or external inputs. Not-invented-here syndrome was prevalent. Any new initiative had to be promulgated in a top-down fashion. This was due in part to the strong culture of command and control that exists in any uniformed organisation. The officers often looked upwards for direction and solutions rather than taking the initiative to try new things and suggest possible alternatives themselves. This stifled creativity and limited the potential level of productivity that could be achieved.
Concerted efforts have been put into changing the organisational culture. Through face-to-face forums such as retreats, roadshows and working-group discussions, prison officers offer their views and opinions. In many of these activities, fun is promoted as well as interactive discussions and dialogue. A discussion forum was set up on the intranet to solicit views and comments on various topics, ranging from operations to welfare and policies.
One significant step the department took was to actively engage junior officers in many of the forums. Previously, junior officers were excluded from such sessions. The senior officers would do the planning and the junior officers simply carried out what had been decided. The contributions of junior officers on such occasions have turned out to be very significant.
To further enhance the change culture within the department, ‘learning centres’ have been built. This represents a concerted effort to develop an open and anti-parochial environment, conducive to seeking and sharing new ideas regardless of their origin. ‘Coffee corners’ have also been started and officers are strongly encouraged to take time off work to drink coffee and interact with fellow colleagues informally. Initially, officers were apprehensive of the intent behind these and had to be forced to take time off to take a ‘break’ and go and ‘drink coffee’. However, the organisation’s efforts have paid off and it is now a norm for officers to meet and share knowledge and ideas in a relaxed and cosy environment, sipping a cup of coffee.
To generate more ‘face time’, breakfast meetings have also been instituted. These are informal gatherings without a set agenda in which any subject can be discussed. The main objective is to circulate information and build consensus on issues and exchange new ideas. They are particularly helpful in developing trust at management level. For the past four years, management has been having breakfast together once a week.
In addition, the department launched a book-review session, where officers would present to the senior management a book they had read. The intent was to encourage learning outside the boundaries of the department and apply this in an organisational context. The session also served as a platform in which junior officers could highlight any burning issues they felt senior management should be considering. To augment this, a direct e-mail channel to the director of prisons was also created so that everyone within the department can e-mail any ideas, comments and feedback directly to the director. Any e-mail to this channel is guaranteed a reply from the director and constructive ideas and feedback are immediately routed to action.
To further tap the vast potential of the officers within the department, an online intranet résumé system has also been developed. The system aims to capture information on past work experiences, major projects undertaken, special training, language skills etc. The résumé system is kept up to date by each individual and can be edited through the intranet. This is a particularly useful information system, especially when officers of unique capabilities and skills are required. For instance, when liaison officers are required for foreign guests, they are usually identified using the résumé system.
To demonstrate the desire and resolve in the organisation to be open and transparent, minutes of top-level senior-management and other important meetings are uploaded to the intranet to update all officers on the latest developments in the department. In adopting a more open and transparent culture, the officers within the organisation are exposed to management discussions and decisions, and are able to understand the rationale behind certain policies and their implications.
To facilitate discussions with foreign counterparts in the prison service, internet and video-conferencing discussions are also utilised. The Hong Kong Correctional Service has become one of our key strategic partners in this respect. Regular exchanges with the HK service are held to facilitate knowledge sharing, training and exchange of ideas. With the help of technology, the organisation is able to tap the knowledge base of key strategic partners and adopt any best practices initiated by other agencies.
In a bid to track work progress, the prisons department has launched an OnTime software programme. OnTime is an acronym for online tasks and initiative monitoring system. OnTime resides in the Lotus-based e-mail system. It is a project-management tool that is used to monitor the progress of key tasks and projects that are raised in various management meetings in the department. To senior management, it presents the spectrum of tasks and initiatives being put forth and tracks their progress systematically. In turn, officers are provided with information about ongoing projects and initiatives launched within the department, preparing them for what is to come in future and how the various initiatives will impact upon their work.
Progress so far and plans for the future
Over the years, the efforts and resources put into KM have benefited the organisation in numerous ways. The first steps taken were admittedly painful, as the department took measures to change the organisational culture into one that imbued organisational learning and an open mind to new and innovative ideas. From the initial days of ‘forcing’ people to go for coffee breaks and increasing face time at breakfast meetings in the prisons HQ, the whole department has evolved tremendously. Many of the initiatives that were launched at the HQ level have since filtered down to the ground units. Today, it is not uncommon to find coffee corners and learning centres in institutions of all sizes, and almost all have adopted the breakfast-meeting concept.
The journey to managing knowledge in the organisation has so far not been smooth sailing. In the change process, the department has set up several channels for feedback and sharing of information. Through these channels, the rationale behind the change process is communicated and feedback on areas of unhappiness or resistance collated.
Today, the officers in the department feel more involved and appreciated, especially the junior officers. Regardless of rank or gender, innovative and good suggestions are always taken into consideration. The organisational culture has also improved, judging from the results of a recent survey on organisational climate conducted by the department. The following points were among the key findings of the survey:
- Ninety-two per cent of staff indicated that their work gives them a sense of personal achievement, compared to 88 per cent in 2001;
- Ninety-four per cent of staff expressed a sense of happiness in being part of the department, compared with 90 per cent in 2001;
- Eight-eight per cent of the staff indicated that they intend to stay in the department compared to 82 per cent in 2001.
The department’s future plans in the area of KM involve consolidating and integrating the KM applications that are already in place in the prisons and the Home Team. For instance, chief knowledge officers are being appointed in every Home-Team agency to steer KM efforts in their respective organisations.
The Singapore Prison Service has come a long way since 1998. The organisation has sought to achieve in a few years what would take many enterprises decades. Of course, the journey ahead remains a difficult one, but the SPS will continue to be open in sharing new ideas, experimenting and learning from its employees. With such a culture in place, half the battle is already won as we strive towards building an even more secure and exemplary prison system.
1. Davenport, T. & Prusak, L., Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know (HBS, 2000)
Liuh Jiun Lew is a management executive at the Research and Planning Branch in the Singapore Prison Service. He can be contacted at email@example.com