Managing Assets : Knowledge management – It’s all about people

Today’s business world has undergone significant change – the ubiquity of technology has all but eliminated sustainable competitive advantage and has broken down geographic boundaries to create globally agile workforce.
The resources that have sustained and differentiated businesses for the past 20 years are now readily available to all. The one inimitable asset that can now set organisations apart is knowledge and how they manage it.
And it is people, with their complex mix of skills, experience and natural talent, that are an organisation’s most valuable asset, says knowledge management (KM) expert Sally Jansen van Vuuren. But people move on.
“The real value in people is to be gained by diffusing and embedding that knowledge across the organisation, creating businesses that are all but impervious to staff turnover. savvy business leader focuses on maximising the benefit of their staff’s know-how, know-who and know-what,” says Jansen van Vuuren who also sits on the management committee of the New Zealand Knowledge Management Network.
So what is knowledge management? Has any term ever meant so many different things to so many different people? The term was coined in 1995 driven by the advent of the knowledge economy and has since become an important success factor for organisations.
“Knowledge management is more than just simple business tool,” says Jansen van Vuuren. “It recognises knowledge as an organisation’s most strategic asset and represents move away from traditional silo-based approaches to working.
“Effective knowledge practitioners need to be very skilled organisational architects, able to connect the individual pieces of the business to help improve effectiveness, build capabilities and flexibility, enhance organisational learning and improve decision making.”
However, in practice, knowledge management has traversed rocky road, she says. Early initiatives focused heavily on technology but did not deliver what had been promised. While technology is the most efficient way of managing information, for example documents, records, emails and so on, leveraging tacit knowledge requires much stronger focus on the cultural and behavioural aspects of an organisation. “You can’t make people share, but you can encourage sharing behaviours by providing the opportunities and conditions for this to occur,” explains Jansen van Vuuren.
Traditionally, return on investment has been problem for knowledge management – how will this impact the bottom line? Jansen van Vuuren says instead of asking this, organisations should be asking how can they justify not implementing knowledge management?
“Poor knowledge practices significantly increase risk by reducing the ability to collaborate, inhibiting organisational learning and innovation and impacting on productivity; all of which have an impact on the bottom line. Can any business afford these costs?”
Overseas knowledge management has been embraced by public and private sector organisations. In New Zealand the picture is slightly different. Although 2004 survey identified knowledge as key concern for New Zealand businesses, organisations have been slower to incorporate knowledge practices into their everyday operations.
This is changing, says Jansen van Vuuren. In New Zealand, the Reserve Bank and Treasury were early knowledge management adopters. Driven by risk arising from increased staff departures, and drawing from small worldwide resource pool, the Reserve Bank recognised that they needed to act quickly. The result has been decade-long commitment to knowledge management that continues today.
Similarly, Crown Law has recently introduced knowledge management into the organisation (see box story below).

Crown Law
Sally Jansen van Vuuren led Crown Law’s adoption of knowledge management prior to taking up her current position as leader of the Knowledge Management Practice with Intergen.
“We’re only as good as the knowledge we have and we need to maximise advantage from that to provide the best service we can for our clients,” says Diana Pryde, practice manager, Crown Law.
A growth in staff numbers, technology changes, and relocation that saw staff distributed over multiple floors, were significant factors in Crown Law’s adoption of knowledge management.
These changes, and the requirement to comply with the Public Records Act (2005), had introduced an increased level of complexity and dependence on information and knowledge management practices and processes within the organisation and with external stakeholders.
Faced with the need to adopt long-term strategic approach, and respond to day-to-day business issues, Crown Law undertook an extensive knowledge audit to better understand information and knowledge practices across the organisation. In particular, social network analysis allowed the organisation to identify knowledge flows within the organisation. “The audit identified that there were some 90-plus projects under consideration, without full regard being paid to big-picture strategy of how the organisation’s businesses could be streamlined, or how greater collaboration across business areas could achieve far greater business value from the investment,” says Pryde Pryde.
Crown Law’s investment in knowledge management has resulted in sophisticated roadmap of initiatives to improve client service delivery and organisational performance. Pryde says, “We now have an agreed pathway that values synergies between people, and places great value on collaboration, mentoring, retaining knowledge and listening to people.” Pryde believes this way of thinking has allowed Crown Law to address its business needs in more strategic manner.

Social Network Analysis
Social Network Analysis (SNA) is powerful tool that shows how work really gets done in organisations. It can be used to identify information and knowledge flows, identify bottlenecks and overloads, in-house experts and innovators.
SNA gathers data from staff via customised questionnaires. This is then analysed using specialist software based on complex mathematical theory. The outputs are simple maps that visually depict the networks across the organisation, and quantitative metrics that measure range of characteristics including the overall connectedness of the organisation. The more connected individuals are, the faster knowledge flows across the organisation.

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