posted 29 Feb 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 6
Country focus: Brazil
Sandra Higgison talks to Rodolpho Arruda, organisational knowledge manager at SSA Global, about the evolution of knowledge management in Brazil.
For a country vibrant with colour, music and passion, famed for its football legends, outlandish carnival costumes and impenetrable virgin jungle, what greater contrast could there be than to refocus this picture onto the development of management disciplines and methodologies in Brazil? Rodolpho Arruda’s enthusiasm for knowledge management is clear as he talks about the role it plays within his country and the opportunities that lie ahead. Arruda first encountered knowledge management in 1997 through his work on an intranet-portal project for a computer software company. Today, his involvement with the discipline remains strong as he teaches KM practices at a local business school and is organisational knowledge manager at SSA Global, a provider of enterprise-resource-planning solutions, where he holds responsibility for all KM initiatives in Latin America. He describes the challenges KM has faced during its evolution in Brazil and pinpoints the value generated as more companies launch their own initiatives.
Brazil’s knowledge-management story began in the mid-’90s when North American consulting firms present in the region launched their global KM programmes. As the practice grew, the professionals involved in these projects felt they needed a more solid theoretical base, which led to the emergence of a strong KM movement in local universities and subsequent research in the field. Arruda recalls the first knowledge-management book, published domestically by Brazilian author José Claudio Terra in 2000, Gestão do Conhecimento: O Grande Desafio Empresarial. “It represented an important milestone in Brazil’s KM history because it was based on a deep field of research among 500 companies from different industries,” he says. “It also offered supporting theories and introduced our academic community to authors such as Nonaka and Takeuchi, Davenport and Prusak, which encouraged new research and opened up new avenues of work to small consulting firms specialising in the subject.”
Arruda says 2001 was an even better year for KM in the region as it witnessed the first national KM congress and the foundation of the Brazilian Society for Knowledge Management (SBGC). Since its launch, the society has been very active in KM’s development there. It has promoted events and helped both academic and professionals create a common vision about how this new approach would help companies prosper. Indeed, one of the research projects it is currently pursuing with a partner organisation aims to deliver statistics on the size of the KM industry, which has not been investigated to date.
To examine KM’s growth rate in Brazil, Arruda uses the supply/demand model as a starting point. “There has been a tremendous effort, although somewhat isolated, by small consulting firms developing knowledge-management products and services,” he says. “However, KM is not at the core of these small businesses, it is an extension of their product lines.” Arruda shows how software vendors specialising in groupware and collaboration suites now offer KM support tools, and how companies focused on HR and human-capital management now provide consulting on storytelling, communities of practice and centres of excellence. “However, only a small number of these visionary consulting firms survived the first KM wave of projects,” he says. “The rest had to return to their old markets and product lines.”
Similarly, the demand side has made considerable progress. “Another marker in KM’s history was when middle managers in large organisations learnt of the benefits knowledge management could bring and started a surge of small departmental projects,” says Arruda. “Since its arrival in Brazil, KM has been well accepted in large companies, not because of their abundant resources, but because middle management believed it to be a modern and interesting business practice.” The media is also helping to raise KM’s profile. “We hear about successful KM implementations at both large and small companies in the private sector, although most businesses still don’t see what the benefits are,” he says. Eighty per cent of large firms view KM as a fundamental strategic practice and claim it appears on their agendas for the next 12 months, although this segment only represents about four per cent of the Brazilian market.
Unlike the more developed knowledge economies and nations, Arruda says that the Brazilian government has shown no interest in facilitating or fomenting the introduction of KM practices to companies in any sector. Again, due to the lack of data on KM’s development in Brazil, it is difficult to identify which industries have been leading the way, although, ironically, the public sector has good examples of KM in practice. “The government itself has worked on KM projects within its agencies,” he says. “One example is research institution Embrapa. The organisation employs over 8,000 employees, a high percentage of which are researchers that share know-how among themselves.”
The culture of Brazilian organisations has also had positive and negative effects on the adoption of knowledge-management practices. Arruda believes that the minds of senior-level managers do not extend beyond the short term. “They focus on the emergency situations caused by drastic changes in market rules, which are influenced by political matters, the fluctuation of the US dollar and a dependence on external capital,” he says. “This model does not leave much room for initiatives that could generate effective, long-term results.” Arruda suggests that this short-term attitude explains the prosperity of the small software-development companies that relate the implementation of their IT tools to the overall success of knowledge-management initiatives. “This is a mistake from a conceptual point of view, although it is well accepted by the cultural model in force here,” he says. This situation leaves the development of long-term KM perspectives to middle managers that believe in the qualitative and quantitative returns it can bring to their departments.
As most of the research into KM has been conducted outside of Latin America, Arruda sees a lack of congruence with the cultural issues faced in different regions. “A superficial analysis shows that the American culture is open to the adoption of technical tools to aid KM,” he says. “In contrast, Latin cultures have always been adverse to such tools. People prefer to use other means for promoting collaboration and the transfer of know-how.” Even though Arruda understands that Latin workers are more inclined to participate in knowledge exchanges that involve personal contact, he also knows that they feel threatened as soon as the organisation shows some interest in formalising the processes for capturing and disseminating know-how. Moreover, initiatives suffer because organisations fail to effectively communicate the benefits of knowledge management to the entire workforce. “If a large part of the workforce finds the concepts difficult to understand, KM initiatives will be discredited and, ultimately, discontinued,” says Arruda.
Brazil’s recent economic difficulties have accentuated these cultural traits and made it difficult for executives to adopt anything but short-term mindsets, which cuts KM a difficult path when compared to other countries. As Arruda says, “knowledge management developed faster inside academia, which has generated an imbalance between the theoretical questions posed by academics and the practical issues that need to be addressed for KM to succeed in the business world.” Attempts to bring the concepts from academia into the corporate environment are under way. In contrast to Brazil, Arruda observes that US firms have always been concerned with strategic questions and have a long-term mindset. “The comparative maturity of US executives is a real issue because they understand KM’s strategic role and the implementation of tools that measure knowledge accumulation and know-how,” he says. “Due to economic constraints, the adoption of best-in-breed KM tools in Brazil was not considered by organisations.” In contrast, Brazil and Japan share similar cultural traits in terms of collaboration within the working environment. Organisations in both countries tend to be open to socialisation processes, whereas other cultures are more likely to build barriers against these.
Despite the cultural and economic obstacles, Arruda holds high hopes for the future of knowledge management in Brazil. “With the stabilisation of the economy through decreases in inflation and interest rates, as well as greater moves towards globalisation, Brazilian executives will be forced into maturing quickly and adopting modern management models that deliver long-term and sustainable competitive advantage, and enhance innovation,” he says. “Such a change in context will increase the demand for enterprise-wide KM projects.” Arruda predicts the creation of management positions that focus on maintaining organisational know-how and learning processes. Consulting companies already involved with KM will grow, they will make this subject their core business, and will start developing software for small companies that are interested in the concepts but cannot afford the solutions on the market. The opportunities for development within academic circles are also good. Groups concentrated in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Santa Catarina are the main bodies responsible for defining industry standards as well as cultivating theoretical knowledge. Overall, the opportunities for KM in Brazil are vast. If organisations grasp them with the same energy that characterises the country as a whole, knowledge-management practices here will soon be world class.
Knowledge-management resources in Brazil
- Sociedad Brasileira de Gestão do Conhecimento – Brazilian Society for Knowledge Management
- Centro de Referência em Inteligência Empresarial (Crie) - Centre for Business Intelligence
- Servicio de Apoio às Micro e Pequenas Empresas de São Paulo (Sebrae-SP) – Support Services for Small Companies in São Paulo
- Competitive Knowledge List
- Informal Informática
- TerraForum Consultores
- Soft Consultoria
- Universidade de São Paulo
- Fundação Getulio Vargas
- Pontifícia Universidade Católica De São Paulo
- Pontifícia Universidade Católica De Paraná
- Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro/Crie
- Universidade Católica Brasília
- Sebrae in São Paulo
Area: 8,511,965 sq km
Av. annual growth in real GDP:
1.5% (2002 est.)
Structure of employment:
1.Terra, J. C., Gestão do Conhecimento: O Grande Desafio Empresarial (Negócio Editora, 2000)