posted 27 Jan 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 5
The knowledge: Hubert Saint-Onge
Making organisations more successful in the face of emerging marketplace challenges is the charge taken up by Hubert Saint-Onge. By focusing on organisational learning techniques, he is keen to stress the links between collaborative working, capability building and strategy making. He talks to Sandra Higgison about the role of communities of practice in today’s knowledge-driven economy.
Just as the names Steve Denning and Dave Snowden are synonymous with storytelling, Hubert Saint-Onge, co-author of Leveraging Communities of Practice for Strategic Advantage and principal of the Saintonge Alliance, is instantly recognised alongside the likes of Etienne Wenger and Richard McDermott as one of the leading authorities on communities of practice (CoPs) and organisational learning. His work within companies such as Shell, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) and Clarica have given Saint-Onge an acute insight into how communities of practice have developed from a fledgling concept into a powerful vehicle for fostering knowledge sharing and collaborative working. However, despite the positive results generated by many companies, Saint-Onge is aware that CoPs are suffering under the weight of their own popularity as companies push ahead with initiatives without fully understanding the supporting principles. By describing his work in the field, the confusion and misconceptions that are marring the concept and the overall importance of productive collaboration to the knowledge economy, Saint-Onge describes the long-term impact he believes CoPs can bring to all organisations.
His involvement with knowledge management began around 12 years ago in his role as head of the CIBC’s leadership centre. With a $20m budget, Saint-Onge had to justify the investment in the centre and became immersed in the question of intellectual capital. “I was soon convinced that knowledge was the tool that could meaningfully grow an organisation’s intangible assets,” he says. “My work gradually moved from understanding intangible assets into how to make best use of them through the application of knowledge principles and processes.” One of the major influences that shaped his thinking on the intellectual-capital proposition at this time was Leif Edvinsson, then at Skandia. His subsequent work with Liam Fahey, adjunct professor of strategic management at Babson College in the US, also helped form his ideas around KM. In addition, Charles Armstrong, CEO of engineering and manufacturing firm Armstrong Limited, gave Saint-Onge the opportunity to get to the bones of the subject. “There’s a lot of talk and fluff around KM, but Armstrong is in an industry where there’s no room for fluff,” he says. “We’ve worked together to refine the application of this thinking within a very competitive environment.”
Today, Saint-Onge’s work revolves around a number of areas that relate to his principle thoughts on the role knowledge plays in an organisation. “I’m most proud of work where I have been able to link strategy making to capability building through the exchange of knowledge,” he says. “I believe that knowledge is all about building and developing capabilities within an organisation and that these capabilities must be linked to strategy making.” Essentially, Saint-Onge’s work focuses on taking organisations and making them more successful despite the emerging challenges in the marketplace. “So many companies are falling down the precipice because they do not understand the new challenges of a knowledge-driven environment,” he says. “Knowledge has to be placed at the service of the organisation and must create a robust foundation for the company’s future.”
Although there is much activity around knowledge, Saint-Onge believes few companies have a coherent long-term plan for building, capturing and exchanging knowledge, and integrating it into the way they work. “We know that knowledge management is a multi-year proposition, but few organisations are taking a building-block approach to a long-term, integrated strategy,” he says. Another focus area for Saint-Onge today is the relationship between knowledge and learning. “Learning is about transforming information into knowledge and inserting it into the practice of the individual or organisation,” he says. “Once there is a well implemented knowledge strategy in place it becomes the main engine of learning.” Saint-Onge is also applying knowledge practices to companies going through mergers and acquisitions. “This is a time when most of these principles go out of the window,” he says. “The objective here is to preserve the success of the merger and enhance it by building in smarter ways of recognising the knowledge links of the organisations.”
Such long-term knowledge-management strategies face the inherent challenge of changing the mindset of the organisation to accept and embrace new practices. Saint-Onge’s appointment as the first executive in residence at the University of Waterloo is an example of the current need to encourage and develop a new breed of entrepreneurs well versed in the principles behind knowledge work. The newly created Centre for Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology is dedicated to helping students who feel compelled to become entrepreneurs. “We have developed a way of identifying which students are driven to build their own businesses and we equip them with the know-how to do so successfully,” he says. The programme is based around knowledge principles and includes its own communities of practice, which the students have embraced wholeheartedly.
By introducing the concepts behind knowledge sharing and CoPs at an academic level, Saint-Onge hopes his work will help banish some of the misguided thinking that is permeating the use of communities. Confusion still exists over what a community of practice actually is. “There’s a sense that CoPs are like some form of social club that just emerge by themselves and, as such, will be valuable and successful,” he says. “A number of people have said that you should leave them to grow of their own volition and I really think that is misguided. We need to understand the self-governed qualities that are essential for communities to succeed while being strategic and rigorous with them.”
The confusion between virtual teams and communities of practice is the issue here, he says. Saint-Onge regularly hears managers say that they want to create a CoP when what they actually want is a virtual team. “CoPs are based around the development of their members’ capabilities and the knowledge that relates to their part of the organisation,” says Saint-Onge. “They should not be given specific, concrete tasks or decision-making responsibilities that belong in the more structured and hierarchical domain of the organisation.” A community allows people to learn and enhance their capabilities by collaborating, answering each other’s questions and helping with the challenges they encounter, he continues. Once a community is given mandated tasks, it will require managerial oversight and will be eaten up by the organisation.
Indeed, organisations themselves can inadvertently kill off good knowledge initiatives by trying to measure their value as they would any other ROI-generating business venture or profit centre. As Saint-Onge points out, managers have been trained to view the organisation through the prism of the spreadsheet and assess communities of practice and collaboration in the same way. “I am by no means against efforts to impact, assess and evaluate knowledge,” he says. “What I am saying is that to make the support of a knowledge strategy conditional upon an exact ROI measurement within a firm is close to thoughtless.” Alongside this statement, he insists that, even though it may sound contradictory, it is essential to be accountable and assess the results of each aspect of a knowledge strategy. “Knowledge initiatives should not be based upon whether they can be measured or not, but on how they will build the organisation’s capabilities to meet the challenges of its market, perform better and respond to its customers’ needs,” he says. “If we can get managers to step away from the spreadsheet and realise that the precursor to performance is capability then we will be a little way ahead.”
Saint-Onge is conscious that these misconceptions and obstacles are discrediting the value of communities, and that organisations do not understand the success factors. He describes four elements that, if incorporated effectively, will steer an organisation’s initiative in the right direction. “It is most important to understand CoPs as self-governed entities,” he says. “They must be managed through the dispersed leadership of their own members that is rigorous and based on protocols and charters, but must not be subject to external management.” The second factor is the need for good leadership from within the community, to be supported by skilful facilitation. “For most large and important communities, the investment in a skilful facilitator is an important element of success as it gives attention to the processes behind the communities,” he says. Strategic alignment is the third consideration. Saint-Onge emphasises how organisations must recognise the strategic importance of capability building and hence communities themselves.
Even though he has been criticised for the importance he places on technology, Saint-Onge maintains that communities need an effective and seamless IT platform to succeed. Technology’s role, he argues, is to integrate communities of practice into the overall knowledge strategy by giving them access to the organisation’s knowledge repository and allowing the organisation to capture the knowledge objects the communities generate. Technology also aids collaboration. “The nature of work these days does not allow us to function as communities on a face-to-face and synchronous basis,” he says. The scope for collaboration is narrow if people are separated by geography or are too busy to participate in a synchronous way. Technology can deliver a full range of collaboration approaches that transcend the challenges of time and geography. Although, as Saint-Onge admits, “I find technology is absolutely necessary and totally insufficient.”
Alongside the many obstacles and opportunities here, Saint-Onge also identifies challenges for the future of organisations as a whole and the critical role knowledge management plays. He still comes across organisations that focus on tangible assets as the key elements of value creation and have yet to understand that they have to start moving faster as intangible assets respond to speed. Organisations need to realign what they’re doing so they don’t miss the market. “We are still in the process of grasping the principles under which intangible assets respond well,” he says. “What’s keeping us back is pressure from management to perform on a short-term basis, which doesn’t allow for the flexibility to rethink existing mental models.” This is where KM can add incredible value. “Knowledge management is the ideal vehicle for transforming the organisation into a faster-moving entity, that is inherently capability creating and intimately tied to the market and customer reality it serves,” he says. KM’s place in the future is secure according to Saint-Onge, and although it still has huge cycles to go through, knowledge work will be essential to the success of all organisations.
1. Saint-Onge, H. & Wallace, D., Leveraging Communities of Practice for Strategic Advantage (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002)