posted 25 Jul 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 10
African philosophy ought to lend itself well to knowledge management – and the continent needs it to tackle a growing skills shortage.
By Ian Corbett
The concept of knowledge-centred leadership is not new to the African continent. Kings in ancient times realised the value of knowledge and experience, as symbolised in the ‘staff finial’ of the Sankofa Bird of
The message is simple: take care not to move forward without remembering where you have come from; remember the lessons of the past. It is, perhaps, one of the earliest acknowledgements of the importance of learning as an enabler to truly effective leadership.
In short, knowledge sharing is not a foreign concept to the people of
His words align with the much talked of African social ethic of ‘ubuntu’. Sadly, much of the depth of meaning is lost in translation – it means something like, ‘I am because we are’ or ‘a person is a person through other people’.
Such statements speak of the humanity with which people should relate to others; of inclusiveness and connectedness. Ubuntu is also linked to what some have described – sometimes pejoratively – as a near infinite capacity for the pursuit of consensus in African cultures. For centuries, African democracy has operated through a form of collective discussion known as an ‘indaba’, where everyone has an opportunity to speak and be heard, with the leader traditionally speaking last so that everyone can have their say.
Such traditions should provide powerful conceptual support to KM. Africa, as a continent, should have great potential in this area – a cultural competency. The flip-side is the danger that commitment to reaching consensus can easily be misinterpreted by people from more task-oriented Western cultures as an inability of leadership to make decisions. It can also be abused in many ways, especially where the quality and intent of leadership is questionable. Despite all this, KM still faces the same challenges in
As shown by
At a recent conference, a delegate from another emerging country pointed out that anyone can buy the same machine – it is how people learn to use it that is interesting and creates wealth. It seems appropriate, therefore, to take the advice indicated by the Sankofa Bird, to look back and ask ourselves what this might mean for KM in 21st century
Diversity and openness
In that simple statement lies the foundation for understanding what we would call today the ‘not-invented here’ syndrome (see IK, May 2006), arguably one of the biggest barriers to innovation and performance improvement that people with great ideas face.
Imagine how difficult winning acceptance for new ideas can be when you have to take account of the complex web of prejudices that exist, both consciously and subconsciously, within each and every one of us. Great ideas abound, but how many actually become breakthrough innovations? And how many are lost as a result of people’s inability to trust the judgement of people from other, unfamiliar cultural domains?
The South African Sunday Times newspaper recently wrote about how First National Bank (FNB) became the first to implement an innovative mobile-township banking scheme. It was the idea of Kabelo Monchusi, an imaginative guy working in banking who had one crucial advantage over his peers – his background in retailing let him see opportunity that other, more traditional, bankers could not.
Many managers turned down the idea before Kabelo found someone willing to support him. Would FNB have enjoyed success if this person-to-person connection had not been made? Probably not, but when you analyse what is happening from the KM perspective it is extremely exciting.
But people such as Kabelo Monchusi represent a different type of intermediary. Equipped with powerful language skills that very few people from Western cultures can match, they are cultural intermediaries who can span kingdoms of knowledge in different cultural domains, helping to develop new business ideas and opportunities.
As such, they represent one of the most powerful resources for first-mover advantage that organisations operating in emerging markets can posses – they are the pioneers of business innovation who spot opportunities and create thin threads connecting the different worlds in which they, and they alone, are currently equipped to operate effectively. The challenge is to recognise it, and to be prepared to act on their knowledge, which requires a delicate balance between assuring governance and creating freedom of enterprise.
The question of knowledge
The crucial question to ask at this point is, to what extent have organisations in
There is a well-known story about the Mercedes car which was given as a gift to President Mandela. Built in
Such examples challenge the widely held view that the value of using knowledge more effectively cannot be translated into tangible value. Virtually any activity you can think of is associated with a learning curve and the improved use of knowledge executing that activity will always deliver a benefit in terms of quality, quantity, cost and/or time. It suggests there is a tremendous latent potential that has yet to be properly tapped in
So, how seriously is KM on the agenda of organisations in
The turning point will come when KM is placed firmly on the boardroom agenda because it is regarded as a business imperative – real acknowledgement of its value and benefit is a crucial first step in achieving this.
Interestingly, in our KM consulting capacity we have noted an emerging trend globally for customers to ask for demonstrable use of KM as a qualifier, not only for winning new business, but to retain contracts. When this happens, it creates a sense of urgency and commitment to support action. Until then, people in lower managerial positions who see the benefit and try to change the way people work will continue to be seen as evangelists and, sadly at times, martyrs to their cause. It is not that they are wrong – it is a question of either timing or a lack of leadership vision and understanding.
The effectiveness of current learning and the use of knowledge within South African organisations varies widely depending on the organisational maturity and perspective that leadership takes on KM. As in the rest of the world when it was first put on the agenda, there has been a tendency to look to IT for a quick, easy and often costly solution.
Despite the inclusion of KM at a number of the top business schools, the level of awareness and understanding of KM (that is to say, knowledge-centred leadership) remains relatively low. More specifically, there is an inadequate appreciation of the crucial fact that technology is only an enabler. The importance of relationships between people and having the right processes in place to meet organisational needs are either completely lost in these instances or underestimated and undervalued.
In South Africa, this is a great pity given the strong oral tradition of story-telling, for example, and the culturally-embedded willingness of people to share and help one another as these are foundational aspects for KM, represented by a carefully balanced mix of people, process and technology to succeed. Based on personal experience from witnessing the ‘pull’ that develops once organisations begin to use processes such as ‘peer assists’ and ‘retrospects’ with culturally diverse teams, there is little doubt that KM may prove to be a cultural competency in Africa in the same way that it might be regarded to be so in Scandinavia.
Given the clear potential to improve performance and the urgent need to do so, the obvious question is, why aren’t more organisations in
This is a symptom of the impact that Mervyn King, a South African expert on governance, calls “weapons of mass distraction”, a term he uses to describe the proliferation of legislative and regulatory demands that are being imposed on corporate
It is true that embedding knowledge management processes effectively takes time, effort and resources. It also comes down to how disciplined an organisation and its management really is and how rigorously processes are applied.
Some of our industries, by virtue of the environment in which they operate, have to be rigorous in their application of procedures – safety and environmental management demand it. Some organisations in the petro-chemical and mining sectors have made significant progress, but they represent a small percentage of the total.
What is the real issue preventing greater progress through KM in
This is a crucial comment with far-reaching implications for KM, which is perhaps uniquely equipped to deliver a potential solution – people create organisational capability and it is, ultimately, people who sustain competitive advantage. Organisations that take a holistic approach to the way in which they use and apply knowledge, in essence, are already taking rigorous steps to underpin and assure the quality of their processes.
By the very nature of the way in which high-quality facilitation of KM processes work, and the way in which effective communities of practice operate, for example, they not only focus unequivocally on the sustainable delivery of business performance, they are driven by the desire to see it improve continuously.
KM, when it is implemented and executed effectively, should change the very nature of the way in which people work, raising quality. The exciting thing is that unlike control-based governance practices, KM also catalyses organisational enterprise – as we have seen through the example of FNB.
Walking for the first time
KM is still in its infancy in
IK is grateful to Tracy Gilpin of the Gold of Africa Museum in Cape Town for permission to use the photograph of the Sankofa Bird.
Dr Ian Corbett is a director at KM consultancy Knoco, South Africa and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
How post-apartheid South Africa is moving forward
In the late 1980’s Joseph Jaworski, who led oil giant Shell’s scenario-planning team, identified two potential scenarios for the developing world. One painted a bleak picture of strife and conflict that would tear communities apart.
The other pointed to a vibrant future in which the developing world would not only flourish, but could even grow to challenge the dominance of the developed world. In the 1980s, the latter seemed inconceivable, but today the South African economy is surging. At the same time, critics suggest this growth has been driven by a credit boom, supported by the lowest interest rates the country has ever enjoyed.
Also lurking in the background, of course, is HIV/AIDS. So far, this has had minimal impact on the economy. But potential investors from overseas are still cautious. The London Stock Exchange, for example, which handles an increasing number of listings from South African companies, asks that prospective companies should provide details about how they will deal with the potentially adverse effects of HIV/AIDS on their organisation.
Listen more carefully and a more complex message emerges. Business in the
The cause? Over and above the damage caused by extensive bush fires, an apparent reduction in maintenance standards at Koeberg nuclear power plant north of
Fast growth has placed a big strain on the nation’s infrastructure – and the manpower required to support it. State-owned Transnet, which runs the gas pipeline network, ports and rail freight, will spend R40bn over the next five to ten years to upgrade the freight capacity of the country’s rail infrastructure.
But CEO Maria Ramos conceded that the organisation does not have the necessary project-management experience to manage projects on this scale. The solution? Skilled ex-staff are being coaxed out of retirement to help. Could there be an alternative, more sustainable solution to this challenge?
The private sector has challenges of its own. The booming oil price has also pushed up inflation and is starting to squeeze profit margins.