posted 26 Oct 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 3
A stealthy approach to KM
The private sector has been implementing successful KM initiatives for years, but many organisations in the public sector have been slower to adopt the discipline. Niall Sinclair explains the reasons for public sector wariness by looking at the Canadian government’s take on KM, and suggests a non-threatening approach to introducing the discipline.
Today, governments around the world face many challenges. Not least of these is how to improve the quality of services while constraining costs, maintaining integrity and meeting the needs of their citizens. Governments are also keen to improve their image, both with citizens and with the media that endlessly scrutinises them.
Over the past decade the Canadian government has introduced many new initiatives in order to try and meet these issues head on. Most were aimed at improving the way the government works and were heralded with much fanfare. Most, however, have had little visible impact. In addition to this, the challenges have now grown because of changing demographics: the Public Service Commission of Canada reports that more than 50 per cent of Canadian government executives will be eligible for retirement by the year 2010.
KM: government’s best hope
Knowledge management has so far not been officially introduced into Canadian government. KM has not found an appropriate entry level within government departments and agencies, and despite some early adopters, it shows few signs of doing so in the near future. Yet, if examined closely, KM is probably the single best hope for successfully moving the monolith of government towards a new and improved business model, one that can better respond to challenges and demands posed by an online, computer-savvy generation.
The problem with governments
Governments are businesses modelled according to a reality that no longer exists: they are huge, stifled in layers of bureaucracy, glacial in their ability to change, and driven by policies and political correctness rather than intuition and innovation. Despite this, I have witnessed as much intelligence, originality, hard work and ownership of the issues in the public service as I ever saw in my time working in the private sector. With a wealth of innovative potential in government departments waiting to be unleashed, it is baffling that it is seemingly so difficult to make KM a success in government.
The primary impediment to success is that, with few exceptions, political leaders and senior managers want to mould the public sector into a single organisational entity – one that expects all departments and agencies to follow identical rules and utilise common business architectures. The rationale for this approach seems to be that if everyone operates in a singular and consolidated fashion, improved efficiency and better service levels will inevitably follow. Proponents of this approach argue that it has worked well in large, private-sector organisations such as Siemens, which has over 400,000 employees worldwide, and ask why it wouldn’t prove similarly successful in a Canadian public sector that has just 200,000 staff.
The attempt to create Canada Inc is well meaning, but doomed to fail. The structure of government does not lend itself well to this kind of unified existence: it is fragmented and disconnected with too many barriers to permit such a well ordered existence. To succeed with a more unified approach, governments would need to re-structure based on business-delivery efficiency – for example, one department dealing with one service-delivery process, as opposed to the multi-departmental approach we now employ. Some governments have been successful in partial re-organisations, usually in response to a new business requirement such as moving a service online. However, the majority of government services and programmes remain in a complicated state, with multiple jurisdictions attempting to manage multiple technology and information infrastructures in an efficient manner.
If governments really want KM to succeed, they have to begin by thinking small. Most importantly, they must become comfortable with individual control mechanisms instead of monolithic authority-based business processes.
The problem with KM
If someone asked you what the Canadian government’s most valuable asset was, what would your answer be? Some may suggest its buildings, others its land holdings. But strategically, the Canadian government’s most valuable asset is the intellectual capital of its public-service employees. In the past, the management of that knowledge has not been well understood or accurately valued. However, governments today are examining the possible use of KM as a means to help them work more efficiently and meet the challenges posed by the 21st century.
The average government department functions through strict adherence to policies, rules and hierarchy, which is a structure that suits KM implementation. KM flourishes when practitioners find a strong rationale for it, usually through identification and formation of communities of interest or practice, and then allow knowledge to be exchanged and used without too much regard for formal processes. KM holds significant promise as a way of working more effectively, but considerable obstacles must be overcome if it is ever to be implemented successfully in the public sector. Try to sell the concept of KM to senior managers and they’ll invariably tune out. Managers often see KM as too indirect and intangible and aren’t comfortable with its apparent lack of structure and visible ROI indicators. Despite this lack of endorsement, senior managers remain accountable for their organisations’ knowledge assets in much the same way as they are accountable for any other asset under their control.
The public sector needs to find ways to address the need to manage knowledge that are more appealing to management. Most of all, KM as a business discipline needs to be demystified and advocates need to find ways to show that the discipline is neither elitist nor impractical.
The usual government approach to any business transformation is to plan for large-scale programme changes and mandate them from the top. However, the way in which KM can best benefit organisations is counter-intuitive to this methodology. KM works without the need for structure and hierarchy; it succeeds because people want to participate, not because someone tells them they have to. This lack of visible structure seems to be a major impediment to those attempting to drive KM programmes in the public sector.
Given the number of obstacles that stand in the way of KM initiatives, it seems to me that the best hope for a successful outcome is to keep as low a corporate profile as possible. I call it ‘stealth KM’: the theory is to fly in under the radar, deliver the goods and get out before they know what hit them.
Stealth KM is all about pragmatism: KM must be practical or no-one will see either the value in it or the need to implement it. Rather than worry about winning the corporate KM war, focus on the battles and work with individuals and communities to help facilitate KM in your organisation. Expert communities are where KM is most likely to flourish, and the less profile it has at the senior-management table, at least in its early stages, the better hope it has of succeeding. A widely held belief is that you need an executive champion to succeed with a new business initiative. In the public sector, this belief is based on deeply embedded hierarchical thinking. In the case of KM, I don’t believe it holds true; anyone and everyone can become a champion for KM.
Stealth KM at a manageable pace
Currently, most organisations find themselves in a constant state of flux: change fatigue is a problem that must be factored into any KM strategy. Without some organisational stability, it is almost impossible to focus enough attention on how KM can help people work more efficiently and effectively. However, change cycles also hold great opportunity as they are an ideal time to demonstrate the benefits of KM and how it can help to maintain and improve service delivery.
Managing your stealth KM initiative: some crucial steps
Step one: set realistic expectations
The first fundamental step is to set realistic expectation levels. It is vital that everyone understands that KM is not a silver bullet; rather it is just another business-management discipline that can succeed or fail depending on how much attention it is given. The message is simple: KM is about making better decisions together.
Step two: ask and answer crucial questions
To successfully change organisational culture, employees must first be brought on side by making changes relevant to them personally. Three crucial questions must be addressed on behalf of employees if they are to be made comfortable with KM as a business-management tool: how is KM relevant to what I do? What specifically am I expected to do? What’s in it for me? If these questions cannot be answered adequately, you are not ready to engage your organisation in a conversation about the benefits of KM.
Business managers may be particularly sceptical about investing in KM and will invariably feel that time is too short and resources too scarce. They may believe that there is no appetite for radical change. And yet most managers will happily adapt to something they perceive will make them more successful.
Step three: adopt guiding principles
To keep things simple and help ensure that everyone can understand what KM is all about, adopt of a set of guiding principles. I call these principles the five Cs: corporate alignment; credible targets; clear language; communications; and consultation and collaboration:
- Corporate alignment: KM is no different from any other business venture – the key to success is alignment with business drivers and strategic goals;
- Credible targets: set an appropriate level of expectation around KM concepts to ensure buy-in from senior managers;
- Clear language: avoid jargon and find an appropriate language level that is clear and consistent. Those communicating KM strategies need to be well focused and target the areas where they will get the best reception and levels of attention;
- Communication: keep talking about KM. The average person needs to receive a message three times before it is fully understood. Current KM survey data highlights lack of communication as the single biggest reason for KM initiative failure. Culture can adapt, but not if it exists in a vacuum. Communication is key to ensuring that people and the culture they embody are ready and able to change. Focus on business mangers, expert communities such as project managers and senior change-leaders who have expressed a commitment to the concepts of KM;
- Consultation and collaboration: develop a model of consensual alignment and de-centralised implementation. To ensure the best chance for success, consult with your knowledge communities, provide tools and techniques and some oversight, and then let them become sharing, yet self-sustaining, entities.
Step four: find practical ways to move KM forwards
While major changes may need long analysis and planning cycles, you can still start to work on practical ways to move the KM yardstick forwards and lay the foundations for future growth. At Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), we conducted a KM maturity survey to assess the state of KM practices and skills, and to help highlight KM areas on which we needed to focus. A survey isn’t a necessity; it is often equally good just to talk to your stakeholders, but either way the upfront investment could save much wasted time and frustration later on.
Step five: develop enabling tools and processes
To facilitate the tasks of knowledge workers and expert communities, organisations need to develop some KM-enabling mechanisms. Tools such as collaborative software and CRM can give momentum to knowledge-based initiatives and enable knowledge workers to instill good KM practice into organisational business processes. Business units should be encouraged to evaluate business-delivery processes from a KM perspective. As with any other process variable, an understanding of how knowledge flows within processes is crucial to a proper appreciation of the need to manage knowledge. Embedding KM attributes into work processes lays a solid foundation for future KM evolution.
Step six: publicise successes
This last step is the one that has to be taken with the most discretion. If you feel you have support for KM in your organisation, or you are asked by senior managers to brief them on it, go for it. However, beware of the impulse to tell senior mangers about every KM plan and initiative as you may be setting yourself up for some unwanted scrutiny. Success is always a welcome subject at the senior table, so ration yourself to those opportunities where you can publicise good news, rather than those where you are asking senior management for something, usually financial backing or approval. The latter issues should be raised at the business-manager level, as these are the people who can actually engage and support your KM initiatives in a practical way.
Lessons from the frontline
Finally, here are some lessons learnt – a few of them the hard way – after a number of years deploying KM in major government organisations.
Lesson 1: definition wars
Find out what your organisation’s real KM requirement is and define it in those terms. For example, in my current department we describe KM as “a discipline and organisational strategy for ensuring that corporate knowledge is identified, captured, created, shared and used to improve and maintain the services that we deliver to our clients.” To some, this definition may seem bland or overly generic, but it is also non-threatening and states principles that few would disagree with. The truth is that everyone perceives KM in their own way, and will likely have various definitions for it, and a differing understanding of what it means. The easiest and quickest way to avoid potential conflicts is to try to avoid defining KM whenever possible. Instead, move people on to more important and interesting topics and start to build a true understanding of what KM means to people in your own organisation. A rule of thumb that can usually be applied: if anyone in your organisation, even someone who has never heard of KM, understands the definition and how it applies to your business, it should work.
Lesson 2: surveys aren’t sexy
KM surveys can often seem to be a logical way to proceed; after all we need to know what an organisation’s capability and capacity is for facilitating KM initiatives. However, if not properly positioned, KM surveys are likely to do more harm than good. It is human nature that we don’t like to be told we’re not doing something well, or indeed that we’re not doing it at all. There are also serious concerns about survey fatigue. Too many surveys that demand time and attention quickly cause employees to become indifferent. And just because you think surveys are a good idea, doesn’t mean that everyone else will recognise their value. Undertake plenty of marketing before you start any survey, and make sure the survey is easy to understand, simple to respond to and delivers a clear sense of what it is trying to achieve.
Having said that, I have absolutely no doubt about the power of well focused metrics; they have a clear and concise dimension to them that appeals to most senior managers. Explain at length about how poorly integrated feedback systems are being embedded, and you will likely get a roomful of yawns. Tell senior managers that the maturity of knowledge processes in their organisation rates a one on a scale of one to five and everyone understands instantly.
Lesson 3: think small, act big – perception, not deception
Think small in terms of keeping a sense of proportion when it comes to any initial KM planning. Remember the initial focus is on something practical, something that can be successful. Implement a single KM initiative successfully first before trying to sell KM to too broad an audience. The size of the initiative is immaterial; eventually no-one will remember how big or small it was, only that it was a success. Successful initiatives create positive perceptions of KM. Look for KM champions from within the organisation who can act as publicists for any successes. After all, no-one has more credibility than those who have experienced beneficial results first hand.
If you have a KM failure, try not to dwell on it, or to broadcast it. Find out quickly why the initiative failed, be honest about your role and apply the lessons learnt next time you embark on a KM project. This isn’t deception, rather pragmatism and good business management.
A winning strategy
The crucial KM issue from a management perspective is how we can use knowledge to better equip employees so that they are able to deliver services more effectively and efficiently. If we can’t identify practical ways to tie KM to that desired outcome, it will never advance as a business discipline. Only when we have shown tangible evidence of the enabling capabilities of KM can we hope to get a meaningful dialogue underway between business units and the KM community. This doesn’t mean that KM initiatives can’t begin before the dialogue is underway, but it is important to be realistic about what you can achieve without it.
Under-the-radar (or stealth) KM works well in most organisations, and perhaps this is where it is destined to find its best organisational fit: enabling better ways to work more efficiently and meet tough organisational challenges through stealth.
A winning strategy for any KM initiative needs to address many different organisational requirements – fiscal, cultural and operational – and yet it also needs to have the virtue of simplicity. Any KM strategy must set realistic, attainable goals and should resonate well with organisational audiences at any level. If people understand what you are trying to do, and can see clear benefits to participation, your KM initiative stands a far greater chance of succeeding.
Niall Sinclair is managing partner of the Canadian Institute of KM. He can be contacted at email@example.com