posted 22 Jul 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 10
Your say: Knowledge management in Asia
Levels of KM adoption differ enormously throughout Asia, but there is no question that knowledge management is rapidly gaining ground in countries right across the continent. Simon Lelic talks to KM practitioners in Hong Kong, India, Japan and Singapore, and explores how knowledge management has evolved so far, and what the future holds for KM in the region.
A single article – even a single issue of a magazine – cannot hope to cover the intricacies of the development of knowledge management in such a vast, diverse area as the Asian continent. It is possible, though, to provide an overview of how the discipline has evolved in those areas of Asia in which it has so far had the biggest impact: specifically, Japan, the world’s second largest economy; Hong Kong, still the economic engine of the most populous country in the world; Singapore, a nation that has set international standards in terms of government adoption of KM-based principles; and, India, home to a billion people and a country that is starting to realise its massive economic potential on the world stage, particularly in the field of information technology. Again, this list is by no means definitive (South Korea and Taiwan, for instance, both have similarly well established KM communities, while KM is also making waves in Malaysia, as this month’s country-focus column demonstrates), but the countries it does contain offer adequate material for a number of observations about how KM has impacted upon economic activities in Asia thus far. Firms from these areas also dominate the most recent Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises (Make) in Asia study, with those from Japan scooping the highest number of accolades.
In fact, Japan has long been at the forefront of the KM movement, even in a global context. As Hideo Yamazaki, senior researcher for Tokyo-based Nomura Research, suggests, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s groundbreaking book The Knowledge Creating Company triggered a knowledge-management boom in both the US and Europe soon after it was published in 1995. In fact, Yamazaki maintains that executives in these parts of the world responded to the ideas contained in the book even before their Japanese peers did. He cites 1998 as the year knowledge management really began to make an impact in Japan, the same time that the Knowledge Management Society of Japan was founded. Asahi Breweries, IBM Japan and pharmaceutical firm Ezai were among the earliest adopters, says Yamazaki, while more recently Toyota, Sony and Honda have established a position at the forefront of KM development and implementation. And an increasing number of firms from various economic sectors are turning to knowledge management in recognition that the talent and innovative capabilities of their employees will be crucial resources in the struggle to escape the economic malaise that continues to grip Japan.
Elsewhere, 1998 seems to have been a similar tipping point. Waltraut Ritter, president of the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society, believes the Asian economic crisis of 1997 forced firms across the region to review their organisational and business strategies. “After 1997, many companies had to change their business processes, and corporate-governance practices were critically analysed,” she says. Trevor Lui, senior consultant at the Hong Kong Productivity Council, agrees, claiming that the events of 1997 represented something of a wake-up call to Hong Kong’s economic community in particular. “After 1997, the bubble burst and there was no more easy money to be made,” he says. “The public started to take a more serious look at knowledge management and the benefits it could bring. Frankly, until that point, Hong Kong was ten years behind in the development of KM.” No doubt these events played a similar role in Singapore, as it was around the same time that the country’s government really began to latch on to the idea that Singapore would develop into the world’s leading knowledge economy. After 1998, KM-based principles were visible at the highest level of government policy, and the KM community began to flourish as a result. In 1999, for example, Suliman Hawamdeh, now a professor at the University of Oklahoma, set up a KM interest group that would eventually grow into the Information and Knowledge Management Society, an organisation that now has over 300 members.
In India, worldwide economic uncertainty also fostered the growth of the KM community, but here other factors played a critical role too, as J.K. Suresh, principal knowledge manager at Infosys Technologies, points out. “An important factor in enabling the emergence of knowledge management has been the gradual liberalisation of the Indian economy, underway for the past 13 years or so,” he says. “In the decades before this, a regime of strict governmental controls, licensing and quotas had constrained the Indian industry in its search for excellence, market share and international presence. It is the widening exposure to markets and competition worldwide – also promoted through the growing integration with the global economy – that has encouraged Indian industry to focus on deriving superior operational efficiencies and encouraging organisational innovation, two important objectives that knowledge management serves.” As this process of liberalisation gathered momentum, a number of Indian firms were well placed to take advantage of KM-based working practices. Suresh’s own Infosys was certainly one of these, as was Tata Steel, a firm whose KM journey is detailed further in the article ‘Forging ahead with KM’, which begins on page 21. Today, these two firms are perhaps the most widely recognised for their formal KM efforts (both are previous finalists in the MAKE Asia awards, for instance), although knowledge management has since made significant inroads into the IT, manufacturing, pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors in India as well.
It is Singapore, though, that continues to lead the way in terms of public-sector and government adoption. According to Praba Nair, director of NCS’s Institute for Insights and Innovation in Singapore, “The Singaporean government has been emphasising the importance of advancing towards a knowledge economy since the mid-1990s. This has prompted certain government ministries and agencies to make KM a key agenda to pursue.” Today, Nair continues, knowledge management is at the core of government tasks, inseparable from strategy, planning, consultation and implementation, and both Nair and Hawamdeh agree that public-sector agencies remain well ahead of organisations in the private-sector both in implementing KM and in understanding its nuances and subtleties. In contrast, Yamazaki feels the Japanese government continues to lag behind; those public-sector bodies that have implemented KM are doing so independently, he says. A similar situation exists in India, according to Suresh, with KM only very slowly creeping up the government’s list of priorities. The special administrative region (SAR) government in Hong Kong is perhaps slightly further along, although Ritter believes a degree of confusion still exists as to the difference between KM and e-government. That said, and as Lui points out, since the region’s chief executive stressed the importance of transforming the SAR into a knowledge-based economy in a policy address in 2000, a number of task forces, training sessions and think tanks on KM have been set up by government bodies.
As in other regions of the world, however, a gradual increase in the prominence of knowledge management as a set of managerial disciplines has prompted a corresponding level of growth in the size of the industry that offers solutions and services in the area. In Singapore and Japan, for instance, there are myriad consulting firms and software vendors active in the KM space; as Yamazaki puts it, “so many chiefs, but few Indians” – the latter being potential customers. In India, too, a country now famous for its dynamic computer-software industry, there are plenty of KM tools and services on offer. “There are a good number of vendors that provide standard or customised solutions for use by corporations, both small and large,” says Suresh. “Many consultancy companies that specialise in KM have emerged of late, providing solutions to different industries in the region.” Perhaps surprisingly, this industry seems less well developed in Hong Kong, a region long famous in the west for its love affair with techno wizardry. “The large consulting companies are represented in Hong Kong, although most of them don’t offer KM advisory services to their clients, but rather use KM for internal purposes,” says Ritter. “There are also only a few specialised application vendors in the region.” Possibly, as Lui suggests, this is because the Chinese mentality precludes an unquestioning acceptance of westernised KM models, which the IT-heavy approach arguably represents.
Indeed, the idea that KM equates to information technology is steadily being eroded in the region. In Singapore, as Hawamdeh says, “Cultural issues are dominating discussions today. When KM started, many people thought of it as another technology or consultancy hype. Since then, with more awareness and a better understanding of KM, people have started to realise the real issues that the discipline involves.” Likewise, in Japan, says Yamazaki, an early focus on building knowledge databases and on intellectual-capital indexing has given way to an emphasis on the value of communities of practice, while in Hong Kong the past four years or so have brought a steady rise in awareness as to the cultural aspects of knowledge management. “The emergence of China as an economic power puts enormous pressure on organisations in Hong Kong to differentiate, to focus on intangible assets such as institutional capital, rule of law, infrastructure, and also on the greatest advantage that Hong Kong has in the whole of Asia: free access to information, the very basis for the development of knowledge-focused organisations,” says Ritter. Even in India, where IT has such a prominent role in the economy, significant attention is being given to how to identify the optimal balance between people measures, systems, processes and technology components in KM implementations, as Suresh says. “Recently, the emphasis on collaboration also seems to have acquired impetus,” he continues. “The creation and nurturing of discussion forums, special interest groups and communities, and so on in many organisations is indicative of this.”
The overriding consensus seems to be that the knowledge-management community in Asia can only move in one direction from here. In a region affected at least as much as any other by the global economic decline, and where so many countries have the potential to transform their numerical advantage in terms of population into a competitive one on the world market, the perceived value of human capital is only likely to increase. In countries such as Singapore, the government is ably demonstrating just how important a role ruling bodies can play in hastening this process, and countries around the world, not just in Asia, are taking note. Even the commonplace observation that Asian communication and management traditions are less conducive to knowledge sharing seems ill-founded, for what may appear to be a weakness from one angle quite often seems like a strength from another. India, for instance, has for thousands of years been a multi-cultural, polyglot and polytheist society, with a penchant for tolerance of ambiguity and community-based, collaborative sharing of knowledge. The pursuit and acquisition of knowledge has always been considered among the most valuable and valid objectives of all human endeavour; as Suresh says, the Sanskrit phrase ‘na hi gnanena sacristan’, meaning ‘there is nothing equal to knowledge’ still welcomes you in hundreds of educational institutions across India. It is precisely this type of attitude towards learning, culture and innovation that will allow Asian companies to mount a sustained challenge to the economic hegemony of western businesses in the not very distant future.
Suliman Hawamdeh is a professor at the University of Oklahoma. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trevor Lui is senior consultant at the Hong Kong Productivity Council. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Praba Nair is director of the Institute for Insights and Innovation at NCS. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Waltraut Ritter is president of the Hong Kong Knowledge Management Society. She can be contacted at email@example.com
J.K. Suresh is principal knowledge manager at Infosys Technologies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hideo Yamazaki is senior researcher at Nomura Research. He can be contacted at email@example.com