posted 16 Apr 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 7
A wealth of knowledge
Realising the value of KM in the public sector
Publicly-owned enterprises have traditionally lagged behind the commercial sector when it comes to keeping up with the latest developments in management thinking, and the field of knowledge management offers few exceptions. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from Inxight Software, Netegrity, the Society for Public Information Networks, TFPL and Triastar, and assesses the impact of knowledge management in the public sector.
The demand for modernised, more effective service delivery by public sector organisations has prompted a re-evaluation of the way they operate. For a long time, many have been guilty not only of allowing themselves to be hamstrung by overly bureaucratic, costly ways of working, but also of succumbing to an outmoded ‘knowledge is power’ mentality. As a result, it is hardly surprising that, in comparison to enterprises operating in the private sector, public sector bodies are so often derided as being inefficient and backward. Of course, the criticism they receive is often both unfair and misplaced, but because public sector organisations are also so directly accountable to the public as a whole, their failings become all the more visible. Thankfully, though, the situation is changing, to the point now where a number of public agencies have learnt a thing or two about knowledge management that even their privately-owned peers could benefit from taking note of.
In the US, for example, as Jeff Coon, portal product specialist at Netegrity, points out, defence and healthcare agencies were among the first public sector bodies to recognise the value of knowledge management. In particular, says Coon, KM efforts have focused on creating large repositories of well organised, ‘taxonomised’ information, which in turn have evolved into critical assets for sectors so reliant on research and development. In the UK, the government has expressed its commitment to fostering a knowledge-driven economy and has established several high profile initiatives geared towards this goal, including UK Online (for further information, see Tim Anderson’s article, ‘The EDS t%lkit: A potlatch approach to knowledge sharing’). As Russell Prince-Wright, vice president of European operations for Inxight Software, says: “This has provided a lead and a direction for government departments at all levels to take a serious look at what advantages the implementation of a knowledge sharing enterprise can bring.” Prince-Wright points to Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s economic development agency, as an example of a public sector body that has succeeded in establishing a reputation for itself as one of the UK’s leading knowledge-driven organisations.
KM has therefore clearly made an impact already in the public sector, although it is still very much early days, as Dave Thompson, information officer at the Society for Public Information Networks, suggests. “Local government [in the UK] has barely addressed KM, and within the National Health Service I am not convinced that much has happened – as yet – beyond creating new job titles,” he says. “The latter is also true for a range of statutory agencies, including agencies such as police authorities and development agencies.” Michael Cousins, managing director of Triastar, agrees, arguing that knowledge still isn’t being managed well in the public sector, and that many of the questions being asked in an attempt to resolve this problem are focused in the wrong direction. He points, for instance, to police authorities in the UK measuring absenteeism as a basis for comparing performance, rather than concentrating on the issues affecting job satisfaction among employees. There is a consensus, though, that things are steadily improving, and Thompson believes that we are on the cusp of change, with authorities positioning themselves for improved ways of working in the future.
The majority of public sector organisations will have to act quickly, though, if they are to catch up with leading private enterprises. While the commercial imperative on privately-owned companies to improve efficiency has, as Cousins says, necessitated action on their part, public sector bodies are under no such pressure. Rather, the monopoly in which many such agencies operate has helped to mask their failings. As Prince-Wright puts it: “The lead [taken by commercial sector organisations] has primarily been due to intense competition in global marketplaces, competition for scarce skilled workers and the need for organisations to adapt to a constantly changing commercial environment. The public sector has not previously been faced with such pressures.” In addition, recognition as to the value of knowledge management has coincided with a massive drive to improve public sector organisations in all areas of their operations, at least in the UK. “Worthy as KM may be,” says Thompson, “to succeed it requires commitment and championing at the highest levels, and there are just too many worthy causes demanding attention at the moment.”
The lessons from the commercial sector are nevertheless there to be learnt, and may serve to help public sector agencies overcome what Angus Codd, head of KnowledgeRecruit at TFPL, calls their “risk-adverse nature”. Certainly a realisation as to the benefits they could see from implementing a knowledge management programme should encourage them to move quickly to catch up. Gartner Group estimates an up to 30 per cent bottom line differential for enterprises that proactively manage their intellectual assets over those that do not, and as Prince-Wright says, public sector organisations have so far largely fallen into the ‘do not’ bracket. Yet knowledge management promises massive returns for public sector bodies, not least, as Codd says, the ability to properly leverage the considerable assets at their disposal, a greater understanding of the needs of the people they serve and, ultimately, significantly improved service delivery. The UK’s Department of Trade and Industry has, for example, and as Prince-Wright suggests, noted faster and better informed decision making, improved customer service, increased productivity, higher levels of innovation and greater structural flexibility since adopting a knowledge management programme.
Such returns do not necessarily come easily, however, and the public sector faces a host of problems most organisations operating in the private sector never have to contend with, at least to the same extent. Whereas, as Prince-Wright points out, commercial enterprises are used to focusing on specific markets, public sector organisations have a huge customer base with myriad different needs. To make matters worse, that customer base is used to the high standard of service offered by many private companies, and demands and expects the same from public sector bodies. Just as challenging are issues of funding and political support, as Cousins and Coon suggest. While echoing the difficulties faced by KM practitioners working in a commercial environment, intense competition for budgets, fierce departmental rivalries, painfully slow decision-making processes and a huge pressure to make every penny count all combine to make the job that much harder in the public sector. Finally, and as Prince-Wright says, public sector organisations often lag behind their commercial peers in terms of the knowledge they have of change management issues, process re-engineering and information technology, all of which are issues central to the success of any knowledge management programme.
The key to overcoming these difficulties, according to Thompson, is for governments to demonstrate a sense of leadership, providing both support and recognition for knowledge management initiatives. To this end, both Thompson and Codd emphasise the value of individual pilot projects, each tackling different areas relating to KM and at the same time raising awareness of knowledge management issues and demonstrating what can be achieved. And by clarifying the returns on investment KM programmes can expect to realise, Coon believes budgeting issues can also be addressed. “Since various KM implementations and proof-of-concepts have been in deployment for years, I believe it should become easier for these implementations to be analysed,” he says. “Their benefits and drawbacks will also become more closely scrutinised and, for those examining their own needs, should help to accurately assess the benefits of adopting KM strategies.”
In terms of the actual implementation of a knowledge management initiative, Prince-Wright recommends adopting a three-pronged strategy that focuses on, first, developing a strong knowledge sharing culture within the organisation; second, securing the commitment of senior management; and, finally, implementing an effective IT infrastructure to support the process. Not surprisingly, the issue of technology is one that has generated a great deal of interest, yet Prince-Wright stresses that it should not be seen as a cure-all, regardless of how far behind the public sector may find itself on the knowledge management path. That said, many public sector agencies are realising the benefits of implementing systems that fit into a broader KM strategy, and Cousins points to the experiences of West Lothian Council and Stirling Council in Scotland, and the Audit Commission and Devon County Council in England as evidence of this. As Prince-Wright says: “Technology within a KM strategy can provide the means for people to organise, store, navigate, analyse and access explicit knowledge, thus producing value by increasing accessibility, reducing the time and effort of users, and facilitating better interaction with citizens, customers, suppliers, partners and colleagues.” Ultimately, though, and as Thompson points out, many public sector organisations still have a great deal or work to do in developing a defined knowledge management strategy and, until they do, any talk about technology should be regarded as premature.
With notable exceptions, it seems clear that public sector organisations are still struggling to come to terms with knowledge management, both in theoretical and in practical terms. The majority obviously have a great deal of work to do if they are to realise the true value of the wealth of knowledge at their disposal, particularly bearing in mind the number of unique obstacles they must overcome if their KM implementations are to be successful. It nevertheless looks as though things are beginning to change, and public sector bodies can at least take heart that there is a mass of experience for them to draw on from their commercial peers. As Prince-Wright says, however, one thing is certain: change is essential if publicly-owned organisations are to remain relevant to the people they serve, and to continue delivering the services we demand, now and in the future.
This month’s participants:
Angus Codd is head of KnowledgeRecruit at TFPL. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Coon is a portal product specialist at Netegrity. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Michael Cousins is managing director of Triastar. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Russell Prince-Wright is vice president of European operations at Inxight Software. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Dave Thompson is information officer at the Society for Public Information Networks. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org