posted 31 Jan 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 5
Case study: Department of Treasury and Finance, Victoria
From theory to practice
Capturing tacit knowledge as part of a broader KM strategy can be challenging, but videoing key sessions can help.
By Linda Page
That initiative is now quite mature and the tools and techniques have become well embedded, thanks in no small part to the support of the state’s leadership from the very top down. Furthermore, much has been learnt in the process.
‘One size does not fit all’ is an all-too-frequent piece of advice passed down to knowledge managers – but it is true. KM can be very complex depending on the needs of an organisation. So, this complexity needs to be broken down into categories in order to differentiate between the IT tools that can support KM (but are no substitute for it), information management and KM behaviours when considering a KM strategy.
Also frequently stressed – but true – is the need for support from senior executives, from the CEO down to more junior executives. Working with them from an early stage can provide a very clear picture of how KM can help an organisation improve.
An essential ingredient is for senior executives themselves to have a good understanding of KM – what it can and cannot facilitate – so that their expectations of what the programme will deliver remain reasonable. But they must also know enough to understand the time it can take to implement and embed a successful programme. It has to be a long-term commitment from the organisation.
Quick wins early on are essential to gain the interest of staff, particularly business leaders. However, the programmes that have the greatest impact and provide longer-term benefit require long-term time frames – and therefore patience.
If you are starting a KM programme you must first conduct a knowledge audit across the organisation to identify staff requirements (see Inside Knowledge, December 2006/January 2007). Having a list of possible activities is only part of it. From your list of possibilities, there may only be one or two behaviours that you need to address together with the IT tools that will support the organisation’s information-management needs. Just do it. Re-assess the KM climate often. As the organisation changes and grows, its KM needs will also change.
Be patient – ‘implementing’ KM behaviours involves a major change-management exercise. To be successful you need to ensure that the approach is soft, well-planned and takes into consideration other competing priorities. Therefore, make your approach fun, be consistent, reward positive endeavour and recognise effort – and keep on going.
Have KM theories lost practical meaning?
Thinking comes before doing… Take Nike’s famous advertising slogan ‘Just Do It!’. There had to be thought behind that call to action. This thought encompasses the business perspective. While not being privy to the brief that was given to the advertising team responsible for that long-running slogan, it is obvious that their perspective included a motivation to attract customers to the brand. The marketing campaign was very clever because it linked the potential need for customers to buy their products, by presenting a challenge in customers’ minds, and the ‘what’s in it for me?’ drive. Think about it!
From customers’ perspective, imagine them cruising along through life when suddenly they see the commercial. Fit, athletic people are running, jumping and skipping. They are fit and healthy. The models in the advertisement are wearing this particular brand of sports gear, naturally. The commercial appeals to viewers’ (potential customers’) desire for long-lasting health, eagerness to win or to be successful, their sense of achievement and their desire to look good (vanity) when they are doing all of these physical things.
This example demonstrates how valuable it can be to think carefully about ideas and the best way to apply them – not to mention marketing them. However, the process can be more difficult than it sounds. There are people who are good at coming up with ideas, but cannot implement them. Conversely, there are people who can implement an idea, but would not have come up with it in a million years – and there are people who can do both. These people will help an organisation transform the theory into practice, if you can identify them.
Etienne Wenger, the famous educational theorist behind Communities of Practice (CoPs), visited
A practical KM programme always requires some KM theory to guide it. However, it is important that theorists understand that their theories are also there to be challenged. By this I mean that you have to try them out and challenge them even as you put them into practice. If the theoretical outcome doesn’t match the actual outcome then the challenge is to model or reshape the theory to fit your requirements.
In the next section of this article I will demonstrate how a particular theory on knowledge capture has been challenged and how the outcome was most successful. Certain theories will work in some organisations and not in others. Sometimes you need to be prepared for a theory to fail in practice.
An example of this could be the theory of designing an online ‘ideas bank’ for your organisation. In theory, this type of tool provides an accessible space for staff to register innovative or money-saving ideas that could benefit other staff in the organisation and, ultimately, the organisation itself.
The ideas may help to trigger further opportunities to create good policies. Depending on the line of business of your organisation, the ideas can be around problem-solving techniques, production solutions, staff needs or an innovative approach to a new product, just to name a few. Once an idea is registered, it needs to be acknowledged, categorised and, where possible, taken to the business to assess its viability for implementation.
A tool like this can have an interactive component that enables other staff to make comments about the ideas and to vote on them. Problems with this theory start to arise as the capability of the organisation to implement the theory is challenged. Constant monitoring is required by someone in the organisation and that someone may require help if they are unable to provide feedback on an idea, or to move the idea along the chain of command.
All of a sudden the ideas bank can start to become more of a burden than an asset. I have seen ideas banks successfully implemented in some organisations, but the success is often short lived. The theory behind this KM idea is sound, but the practicality often falls short.
Creating and capturing meaningful experience with KM
“One of the obvious ways of unlocking ‘tacit’ knowledge from your staff is to set up communities of practice where the members openly discuss and pour forth the knowledge they have in their heads,” according to doctor John Henry, an associate professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Victoria State’s Deakin University.
This is certainly good advice, and advice that we have fully supported in our organisation of 500+ staff within the Department of Treasury and Finance in
However, the issue of how to capture the tacit knowledge that flows during CoP gatherings has yet to be addressed. If we reflect on the practical functioning of CoPs, the notion of shoving a tape recorder in the middle of the table and asking everyone to speak up so that their words can be recorded by the microphone, or having a video camera capturing their every word, move, grunt, scratch and guffaw seems counter-productive to capturing tacit knowledge flow.
Recently, a discussion that our KM unit was having was heading towards a stalemate and it was important that we continued to think laterally and creatively. We called upon our de Bono training techniques (based upon the 'thinking' techniques of Dr Edward de Bono, of course) to try and start generating ideas again.
When analysing our business behaviours (which meant we also needed to look at our culture) several opportunities became obvious to us concerning how, when and why, together with who and what, we could do. It was decided that inundating CoPs with high-tech recording equipment was not ‘the way to go’. But from such little ideas, big ones grow.
One of the big issues in the knowledge-management arena is how to capture tacit knowledge from staff, particularly those individuals in an organisation who have exceptional experience, foresight and know-how about the business and more. What happens when these people leave the organisation and take their knowledge with them? If we look at how these people share their knowledge it becomes obvious to us that they talk, they mentor, they give presentations and they attend meetings where they provide advice, and opinions because they are highly regarded – and sought after.
By looking into the practices of current staff, such as key employees presenting to other staff who wish to attend, the Secretary of State’s Quarterly All-Staff Address, and the Economic and Financial Policy
Briefing Sessions, we came up with the concept of videotaping as many of these major presentations as were deemed appropriate (some presentations or briefing sessions are based around work in progress and therefore deemed to be unsuitable to film until the work is completed). Another idea was to tap into the know-how of longer-serving staff who would soon be considering retirement or moving on and taking with them their highly valuable ‘tacit’ knowledge.
It is impossible for the human brain to absorb and remember everything that a presenter shares at a forum, meeting or presentation. Each person present at these events will take away different pieces of information. I call this information the ‘what they need to know now’ information.
At the most, it equates to about one-tenth of all the information presented. So how do we capture this tacit knowledge? It is important to note here that tacit knowledge is very different from the knowledge that we write on paper or in books because it has the human element to it. It involves not just the expressed intentions, but gut feelings the presenter has about their subject and the insights that are more easily expressed verbally – colloquially, even – because they are being recalled spontaneously from the mind of the presenter. So it is also the way they express tacit knowledge.
It may help to digress a little to illustrate this point.
How good is it to be able to look back at footage of a speech made by, for example, the CEO of your organisation? Let us say it was from five years ago the day that he announced the company’s grand, new strategic plan and how this plan and its implementation was going to happen.
An opportunity exists in this scenario to create future access to a past event. Here we are considering tacit knowledge in different formats. Alternatively, what about when you sat in front of your television at the end of the year and watched one of those many summaries of the biggest news events that shaped the year that has just gone by? While past events are not technically ‘tacit’ knowledge when they are captured and re-visited, the viewer’s mind is nevertheless transported back in time and can recall their ‘tacit’ knowledge of what was happening then. Some may argue that this is simply ‘memory recall’. Regardless, looking back brings forward the ‘tacit’ knowledge that your mind stored away for a later time.
Strategic videoing of key presentations and forums, and creating other opportunities to film, became the obvious solution to us for this issue. For example, having anecdotal interviews with key staff who worked closely with departing staff to discuss what legacy would be left behind, or what specific advice they would want to impart to new staff in the organisation.
Vision and passion
We had the great misfortune of losing our leader, Ian Little, the Secretary of the Department of Treasury and Finance in
Only days before his death, he had made the time to join us on a filming session that was to be an address to the staff of our strategic-management division, which was to be shown at the Quarterly Forum. He agreed to be filmed because, he said, he would not able to attend in person. It is quite disconcerting to realise how uncanny those words were and, afterwards, the reason why we were making the tape.
While Ian’s message was directed at the Strategic Management Division, there were also messages that were directly relevant to all the staff throughout the organisation. These messages are still relevant today, even though we have a new leader. He spoke from his heart and he expressed to us his inner thoughts and feelings about specific issues – his ‘tacit knowledge.’
The videos that are produced are viewed by many staff in our organisation as an ideal opportunity to hear from colleagues that they may not get the opportunity to speak to face-to-face. Our graduates view the relevant videos that relate to the work they will be undertaking when they start their term with us. The videos are used for training purposes, communications and for assisting staff who are making live presentations and wish to refer to past forum presentations.
These are just some of the ways in which the videos are used. This programme has been so successful that another department has asked us to support them with the video concept (for more information on this subject you can contact the author directly via the e-mail address below).
When undertaking a KM programme you need to be clear about your business needs regarding KM. Apply the theories and tools in a practical manner suitable to your organisation’s environment. Get in there and just do it! But be patient with the results.
You must also be prepared to look at the financial and non-financial rewards and appreciate that when measuring KM some results are intangible and always will be. Finally, ensure that you acknowledge and reward the efforts of the staff who take part in the KM activities and remember that when your staff don’t realise that they are actually ‘doing KM’ your programme has reached a level of maturity that is ready to embed in your organisation.
Linda Page is project director, knowledge management, in the strategic management division of the Department of Treasury and Finance in the Australian state of
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Treasury and Finance or the Victorian Government.