posted 10 Oct 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 3
Country focus: ItalyThis month Simon Lelic talks to Michele Coletti and discusses the impact knowledge management has had in Italy
According to ISTAT, the Italian national institute of statistics, 94 per cent of all companies operating in Italy employ between one and ten workers, while firms with at least 100 employees make up a tiny 0.3 per cent of businesses. As Michele Coletti, a management consultant at Milan-based Innovation Consulting, says, the role knowledge management plays in this environment naturally differs somewhat from that experienced in other major industrialised economies.
While KM initiatives in the multinational corporations are unlikely to vary dramatically from those seen in the same companies operating in the US, Britain, Germany and so on, Coletti points to a number of factors that affect how the dominant smaller businesses regard the likes of KM. First, he says, in comparison to other developed countries, there is a low level of expenditure on IT and new technologies (a figure he puts at around 0.2 per cent of turnover per firm). Second, ownership, with regard to specific tasks, roles and responsibilities, is usually very clear in smaller firms. A high proportion of Italian companies also work in traditional manufacturing sectors, often as a component of a larger network of businesses. As such, the focus and needs of each firm are, he says, relatively limited, which in turn restricts the range and depth of decisions open to them regarding investment decisions.
Coletti believes these considerations make big investments in knowledge management unlikely, particularly when it comes to IT and intranet-based solutions. They may also explain why KM has had a relatively limited impact so far in the country. As Coletti says, there are a number of articles and books on the subject available in the vernacular, but most reiterate or build upon the work of acknowledged international pioneers of the discipline. And although the larger, multinational consultancies do offer services centred round knowledge management, Coletti notes a distinct absence of the hype or even discussion about KM that is so evident in Britain and the US.
A pervading confusion about the real meaning of knowledge management is probably at least partially to blame. Coletti, for instance, knows of one consultant who once led an important knowledge management project for the EC but now sells himself as a consultant in CRM. Coletti himself admits to resorting to more “down-to-earth” language, to the point of “trivialising” the concepts surrounding knowledge management, in an attempt to get some clients to understand and buy-in to the basic principles. The danger, of course, is that KM will disappear before it is fully understood or appreciated for its potential value.
This is by no means inevitable, however, and Coletti believes the shape of the Italian economy does leave scope for a greater uptake of KM practices. For instance, the CEO of a Euro40m firm specialising in designing and assembling paper production facilities recently came to Coletti’s company explaining his need for a knowledge management solution. Admittedly, the CEO did not express his firm’s problem in these terms and the initiative the company did eventually implement fell a long way short of being a comprehensive KM programme, but a new organisational structure was agreed in which the role of CKO was introduced.
Another firm Coletti has had contact with – Frigomeccanica, located in the so-called ‘food valley’ near Parma – has developed a system that enables remote diagnostics and training initiatives. Based on real-time data transfer and the use of webcams, Coletti believes the work the firm has undertaken echoes that done by BP with its more widely renowned knowledge management programme. “Although this company may be at the vanguard of KM in Italy, it is very unlikely it is totally alone,” says Coletti.
Indeed, Coletti feels many entrepreneurs are aware of the need to address the problems KM seeks to overcome, particularly in those industries where products are complex and markets more global. Likewise, in an economy so dominated by affiliations of smaller firms, it is likely that chambers of commerce and trade associations will begin to take the lead in working towards the more efficient transfer of information and knowledge between businesses, as Coletti says. Already several academic institutions have begun work in the field of KM, notably the Politecnico di Milano and the Universita Ca’ Forscari, Venice.
“The typical Italian tendency towards individualism and scepticism can be beaten,” says Coletti, “but it may be quite a lengthy process. In my opinion, the best chance for knowledge management to succeed will be with newly established companies, especially those related to new technologies as their corporate culture is likely to be more coherently allied to the KM framework.” And as Coletti points out, management consultants have the opportunity to play a significant role in this process by promoting the participation of individual firms in collective initiatives. The result could well be the development of a more efficient and effective economic structure for all concerned.
Michele Coletti is a management consultant for Innovation Consulting. He can be contacted via: www.smartup.it