posted 27 Jan 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 5
Country Focus: South Africa
Sandra Higgison talks to Judi Sandrock, manager of knowledge management at Kumba Resources, about the evolution of knowledge management in South Africa.
‘Knowledge management’ has been part of South Africa’s business vocabulary since the late 1990s, yet even though the first chief knowledge officers were being appointed and journals were publishing exploratory papers on the subject, few organisations picked up KM principles at this time. Judi Sandrock, manager of knowledge management at Kumba Resources, a company focused on commodities such as iron ore, coal, base metals and heavy minerals, has worked with the discipline since 1998 and has been involved in KM projects with industrial manufacturers, mining groups, and a pulp and paper company. She discusses the slowly-but-surely approach that has characterised South Africa’s adoption of knowledge management to date, the benefits KM is bringing and the challenges the country faces if it is to achieve widespread and long-term results.
While KM in many developed countries is regularly accused of being little more than a faddish concept hyped up over the years through a technology and media frenzy, its development in South Africa has been somewhat calmer. “South Africans can sometimes have a wait-and-see approach, which has been advantageous as companies launching early projects could learn from the successes and failures of their international counterparts,” says Sandrock.
“In addition, South African companies are not known for undertaking initiatives for the sake of doing so; companies have had to fully understand KM and be able to justify their actions.” Early adopters here were MTN, a cellular network company, and Sasol, a chemicals and fuels manufacturer, which were closely followed by pulp-and-paper manufacturer Sappi and brewery SABMiller. Although, as Sandrock notes, knowledge-management processes could be identified in these companies, these initiatives and processes may not have been labelled or recognised as knowledge management
at this time.
Until 2000, the term ‘knowledge management’ was relatively unknown in South Africa. The country’s business schools and academic sector have been instrumental in promoting the KM concept and raising levels of understanding by including knowledge management in their courses and curricula. “Although the KM industry has developed fairly organically in South Africa, after Y2K there were a number of IT vendors who thought KM would be their next meal ticket,” says Sandrock. “Thankfully this did not last long as companies paid heed to the lessons learnt abroad that stressed technology’s role as an enabler for KM, and that culture, people and process were key.” Sandrock sees South Africa as being well down the Gartner Hype Cycle curve as it has passed the KM boom of the late 1990s. “There’s a keener realisation now of the value corporate KM initiatives can bring,” she says. “It does, however, remain much more of an issue for large organisations, both public and private, than one for the small or medium-sized enterprise.”
The industries leading the way with KM in South Africa are also the country’s largest and strongest. High levels of interest and take-up have been demonstrated in the industrial and commodities sectors where, according to Sandrock, companies have been looking for an intangible differentiator such as knowledge management for some time. The largest KM players in terms of size of IT spend come from the financial-services sector. These firms have produced a number of KM programmes, which, as Sandrock says, they keep close to their chests for competitive reasons. The fast-paced telecommunications and technology firms have also been very active in KM over recent years.
The public sector has not failed to recognise the importance of knowledge management and is making significant steps to incorporate it into its own practices while extolling its virtues to the business community as a whole. The Foresight study carried out in 1999 under the leadership of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology consists of 15 reports, one of which is on information and communications technology. It lists ten strategic technology nodes – an innovative process, methodology or base product that facilitates the development of a family of productions or solutions to fulfil a set of market needs – and KM was one.
As Sandrock says, government departments have shown great interest in knowledge management and their hard work is bearing fruit. For example, the Department of Communications recently established a Knowledge Management Development section tasked with promoting KM among all knowledge-society stakeholders in the country and region. It is responsible for initiating and co-ordinating a national KM debate, and increasing awareness of KM principals; promoting awareness within government and implementing projects at all levels; and monitoring international trends, developments and opportunities. The government is also offering more irrefutable evidence of its support and belief in knowledge management by dedicating real investment towards it. A recent government announcement promises to double its investment in science and technology and achieve a national R&D expenditure target of at least one per cent of GDP by 2005. The strategy is linked to a study conducted by the Knowledge Management Research Programme within the Human Sciences
Today, in both the public and private sectors, Sandrock observes that the KM evolution in South Africa is still in the growth/pre-maturity phase, but that initiatives are now more closely aligned to business strategy than in the past. The ‘war on talent’ has helped to raise the focus on knowledge-worker value and retention. “Corporate governance has also been a major issue here,” says Sandrock. “The King II Report – South Africa’s equivalent to Sarbanes-Oxley – has spurred many companies to invest in document-management projects, which have been an excellent platform for explicit knowledge sharing.” Although much is being undertaken, there is still room for
considerable improvement. “We need to develop greater KM capabilities and skills to enable people and organisations to better leverage KM,” she says. “There is also great potential to integrate knowledge-management, business-intelligence and competitive-intelligence systems, process and practices.”
Cultural challenges are inherent to any KM programme, but South African organisations must also face issues that are historically unique to the country. “For over four decades South Africans lived in a society divided on racial lines,” says Sandrock. “These laws disappeared in 1990 with the end to apartheid, but the unfamiliarity between the races can still hinder open knowledge sharing within an organisation.” Recent research into this area has found some interesting conclusions. Finestone Nicozaan, a Master’s student in knowledge management at the University of Pretoria has investigated the challenges facing knowledge practitioners in a multi-cultural, South African corporate environment. Although she acknowledges that companies have been afraid to recognise cultural differences because of major sensitivity in this area, the results have shown that corporate culture often becomes a great equaliser of individual cultures. Nicozaan believes that knowledge practitioners must create a co-operative knowledge-sharing environment within which South Africa’s diverse culturescan interact, learn from each other and innovate.
Deonie Botha, lecturer in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria finds that through globalisation, Western and Eastern multinational organisations have relocated to South Africa. These organisations, however, cannot simply apply their existing knowledge-management practices here, as employees in South African companies have an ‘Africanised’ view on how KM should manifest itself. She recommends an integrated framework based on a combination of the Western, Eastern and African national cultures to enhance and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of knowledge-management practices on a global scale. Sandrock remains positive that these challenges will be overcome. “Our culture has always been tenacious and entrepreneurial, and people are keen to learn,” she says. “South Africans have embraced globalisation and there is little arrogance about learning from others in the world.”
South Africa has already made substantial progress with knowledge management and, as it is able to take advantage of the lessons learnt in more developed countries, Sandrock believes that the success rate of initiatives is already relatively high. “KM here will be a largely internal company initiative, developing into day-to-day management science and business processes,” she says. Awareness of the value of KM and the importance of an organisation’s intangible assets is growing consistently. And as Sandrock says, although there is still some way to go before it simply becomes part of the way companies work, executives are learning that the future winners may not be the biggest, but the smartest.
Factfile: South Africa
Country: South Africa
Area: 1,219,912 sq km
Av. annual growth in real GDP: 3% (2002 est.)
Structure of employment:
Business schools offering KM programmes:
University of Stellenbosch Business School
University of South Africa (UNISA)
University of Pretoria
University of Cape Town
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Rand Afrikaans University
University of Witwatersrand
Department of Communications
The Department of Communications has established a Knowledge Management Development section. The department is tasked with promoting KM among all knowledge society stakeholders in the country and region.
Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC)
This research programme was established in March 2002 and will conduct research and develop strategies in three main areas:
– Government and the knowledge economy
– National System of Innovation studies
– HSRC as an innovative research organisation