Nurturing and retaining knowledge is key to efficient business for now and the future. Stephanie Sparrow looks at how companies are making the most of information
The global gathering of HR professionals breathed a sigh of relief when one of their major headaches came out in the open last week.
At the Human Resources World Conference in Paris, IBM HR president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Frederico Castellanos came clean about two of the key problems facing HR professionals: the pressures of rapid change and the need to get to grips with knowledge management.
“In terms of finding the right people, anything goes – it is a real fight, especially with new skills that are at the leading edge of technology,” he said. “The problem is that skills you need today you don’t necessarily need tomorrow and the disturbing thing is that I have no idea what I will I need in 10 years from now.”
His statement clarifies what many knew was on its way, that the issue of knowledge management is firmly in the HR arena and the profession had better get to grips with managing this invisible, yet invaluable asset fast.
Another call to arms came at the end of last month when management development institute Roffey Park published research on Developing a Knowledge Creating Culture (Personnel Today, 30 May). Report author Christina Evans says, “HR has an influential role to play in ensuring that the organisation identifies and develops the intellectual capital needed to meet the business objectives.”
But she admits, “The pace of change within organisations today is making it difficult to keep abreast of existing knowledge, let alone identify what knowledge will be needed in the future.”
Many organisations have no idea what they know now or what they need to know for the future while being simultaneously swamped by too much information (which is distinctly different from “knowledge”). Separate research, featured in KPMG Consulting’s latest report on knowledge management shows that 65 per cent of the blue chip firms and multinationals surveyed were suffering from information overload and 62 per cent did not have enough time to share knowledge effectively.
The potential for information overload has increased because technological advances mean that it is easier to circulate information. These leaps forward have been accompanied by IT professionals gaining an increased influence.
Roffey Park’s Evans is blunt. “HR has come under a lot of criticism as it is perceived as not necessarily taking a proactive stance in the area of knowledge management. In many organisations it is business teams or IT teams that have taken the lead.”
The problem is compounded by the pace of change. Back at KPMG, principal consultant in Knowledge Management Practice, John Howells identifies the pressures. “The increasing globalisation of companies, along with the geographical spread, new working practices such as homeworking and new technology means that companies need to structure their approach to knowledge management,” he says. In other words, there are too many opportunities for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing.
But before the HR profession collectively hangs its head in total despair positive examples of people management professionals making a difference are beginning to emerge.
At ICL, Elizabeth Lank was picked from a management development role by the incoming CEO Keith Todd, nearly four years ago, to work as programme director, mobilising knowledge. “I am a catalyst not a function,” she says. “I persuade ICL’s leaders to do things.”
Lank has been successful in getting a handle on knowledge management in a fast-moving, global business with 21,000 employees because she was encouraged to think in terms of “the corporate knowledge asset”.
“I asked, ‘What skills do we have, what projects have we done and whose doing what with the customers?'” she says. She advises that planning for the future is left to the scenario experts.
“You could spend a lot of time guessing. It’s more about keeping up with needs as the customer defines them and concentrating on the skills and issues that will help the business now.”
At management consultancy and IT services group Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, HR director Robert Ingram sits on the organisation’s global knowledge management steering group where he has a company culture remit. “There are other people on that team who are involved in capturing the knowledge, so the culture and technology aspects work together,” he says. Ingram believes it is possible to keep information overload in check and encourage a knowledge culture.
“It is important to have the right culture,” he says. “You can have all the IT processes in the world but they will be wasted if you don’t.”
In this context, the “right” culture is an open one and it can be reflected and encouraged through recruitment and appraisal.
“We look for people willing to share knowledge and keen to build on others’ knowledge,” says Ingram. “We encourage people to look at what their colleagues have done and build on that first.”
As Ingram explains, in a knowledge management environment the people who share their ideas “are demonstrating their value”. There needs to be a mix of people giving ideas freely and others accepting them.
He sees a very positive role for HR professionals in maintaining their influence by encouraging knowledge sharing while managing the flow of information and dispels the mystique. “We’re developing a repository of skills and client requirements,” he says.
“Knowledge management is a matter of sorting the wheat from the chaff and of making sure that useful things are available – the 100 reusable items that need to be retained.”