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On the Human Dimension of Knowledge Management

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  • 1. On the Human Dimension of Knowledge Management“Someday, maybe we’ll see more companies searching not for managers and employees, but forimpresarios and wizards.” John Scully (1939-) Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple (1987)People perform knowledge work. People use technology and processes to create, manage, and usecontent to accomplish organizational goals. Consequently, people are central to knowledge managementin the DRDC. As pointed out by Harris, (1993): “The most visible differences between the corporation ofthe future and its present-day counterpart will be not the products they make or the equipment they use –but who will be working, how they will be working, why they will be working and what work will meanto them.” Tapscott (1996) considers the worker’s perspective: “In the old economy, workers tried toachieve fulfilment through leisure. The worker was alienated from the means of production that wereowned and controlled by someone else. In the new economy, fulfilment can be achieved through workand the means of production shifts to the brain of the producer.”There are two inseparable aspects of the human dimension of DRDC’s infrastructure. The social aspectfocuses on individual behavior, community dynamics, and organizational culture. This follows theindividual, group, and organizational learning framework of Crossman et. al (1999), but is used here in amuch broader context. Human resource management involves: staffing, supervision, and retention.Some elements of the human dimension are controlled by legally binding collective agreements, othersare constrained by government policies, and some are guided by frameworks of best practices.1. IndividualsKnowledge workers are discussed from four perspectives: the nature of knowledge work, as humancapital, human nature, and how people interact with computers. Managing knowledge workers isconsidered from staffing, supervision, and retention perspectives.Nature of work - Knowledge workers think for a living. This is different from the industrial era, whereworkers primarily used their hands or bureaucrats performed highly structured work. Thus, the nature ofwork and those who do it will change in very important ways. This has been described by a number ofauthors. For example, Strassman (1985) points out that: “The information worker in the large, supply-oriented organization will be a specialist. The information worker in a small, demand orientedspecialized organization will be a generalist.” Nonaka (1998) observes that: “Inventing new knowledgeis not a specialized activity... It is a way of behaving, indeed, a way of being, in which everyone is aknowledge worker. Drucker (1999) states that: “Productivity of the knowledge worker is not - at leastprimarily - a matter of quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.” Dinnocenzo and Swegan(2001) focus on the impact of accelerating change: “A dichotomy often exists between organizationalneeds and expectations in the age of technology, and the struggle for balance and sanity at an individuallevel. Individuals are being pushed to move at a faster pace by their organizations – and the organizationcontinues to raise it’s expectations as new productivity tools are developed.”Human capital - Human capital is an economist’s way of factoring people into their economic models. Inthis paradigm, people are seen as one factor of production, along with land, equipment, and capital. Theliterature uses analogies between knowledge workers and the well-understood traditional view to explain 1
  • 2. the new paradigm. Stewart (1997) states that: “Human capital grows two ways: when the organizationuses more of what people know, and when people know more stuff that is useful to the organization.”Davenport and Prusak (1998) point out the gap between traditional and new approaches to knowledgeworkers: “Despite the corporate mantra that employee knowledge is a valuable resource, most firms donot make concerted efforts to cultivate the knowledge-oriented activities of their personnel.” Drucker(1998) explains the fundamental reorientation between workers and management: “In the information-based organization, the knowledge will be primarily at the bottom, in the minds of the specialists who dodifferent work and direct themselves. Similarly, Ruggles and Holtshouse (1999) indicate that: “Inknowledge work, the means of production is now owned by the knowledge worker. They are volatile andcan work anywhere... Consequently, they must be managed as volunteers, not as employees.”Human nature - The human capital approach downplays a key aspect of knowledge work. Unlikemachines and bureaucratic processes, an organization cannot control what is in peoples heads, how it getsthere, or how it is used to crate and use knowledge. Further, knowledge workers are not readilyinterchangeable with each other; each has unique knowledge and abilities. Equally important, people aresocial animals; their place in a social context and the nature of their interactions with others is veryimportant. For example, Handy (1995) observes that: “People who think of themselves as members havemore of an interest in the future of the business and its growth than those who are only its hired help.”Tapscott (1996) extends this idea with: “It is only when workers identify with the goals of theorganization and trust it’s managers to act in mutual self-interest that effective knowledge work can beperformed.” Rihs (2000) explains: “For your people to be innovative and motivated, you need toconsider human needs. If you feel good and appreciated, you are much more open to many things than ifyou always need to defend yourself.” Finally. Holmes (2001), takes a Machiavellian approach: “Thereare employees who have a natural tendency to hoard information and look suspiciously on and discreditdata that others have developed. To many, entering what they know into a computer system and passingit on to someone in another department is not only threatening, it’s a pain in the neck.”People and computers - In today’s fast-paced and complex world, computers are an essential tool forknowledge work. However, productive knowledge work will require human-centric design, not the otherway around. For example, Strassman (1985) notes that on one hand, “High-performance people willextract from electronic systems levels of performance that the designers might have consideredunfeasible.” In contrast, he continues with: “Technology is inexpensive and is getting more so. Thepeople using it cost the most money.” Burton (1996) comments on the importance of the human mindeven in performing seemingly routine tasks: “Payable clerks are blessed with intuition, memoryrecognition and the ability to make educated guesses. Computers are dumb and dumber in these areas.”In contrast, Haddrill (1997) points out that: “The amount of time you use a computer is almost inverselyproportional to how high up you are in a company.”2. CommunitiesCommunities are as old as civilization. Prehistorically, groups gathered around a fire to share stories. Inancient Rome, groups of craftsmen shared social and professional interests. In the middle ages, guildsfulfilled a similar role throughout Europe. Although such groups lost their influence during the industrialrevolution, professional interactions continued through formal arrangements (associations, committees,work groups) while social interactions continued through informal arrangements (informal networks,clubs, cliques). Wenger, et. al. (2002) define modern-day communities of practice as “groups of peoplewho share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge and 2
  • 3. expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. They continue with “it is not communities ofpractice themselves that are new, but the need for organizations to become more intentional andsystematic about managing knowledge, and therefore to give these age-old structures a new, central rolein the business.”The emerging literature can be grouped into four categories - connectivity, societal impacts, designprinciples, and function.Connectivity - Communities of practice are a consequence of the communication networks provided bythe Internet. Cooper (1996) notes: “The real advantage of making it possible for everybody tocommunicate online isn’t cheaper and more efficient communications – the mechanical-age viewpoint.Instead, it is the creation of virtual communities – the information age advantage that was revealed onlyafter it materialized in our grasp.” Similarly, Armstrong and Hagel (1996) observe: “The notion ofcommunity has been at the heart of the Internet since its inception... Scientists formed interactiveresearch communities that existed not on a physical campus but on the Internet.” Hoffert (2000) used atransportation metaphor: “Connected communities, our living and working places for the twenty-firstcentury, are established by new information routes, which are consequences of the digital revolution.They are beginning to replace the urban, suburban, and rural communities that were enabled byautomobile, railway, and airline routes – consequences of the industrial revolution.” He also used ameeting place approach: “Networks have become social halls, and they are occupied by virtualcommunities that require no physical space, do not encroach on each other, and never go to war becausethey outgrow their resources.”Societal Impacts - Negroponte (1996) predicts that no less than societal infrastructure could be affected:“As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both largerand smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical spacewill be irrelevant and time will play a different role.” Holmes (2001) predicted a significant increase inin citizen involvement in governance: “Citizens connected to the web are by far the most conversant withthe issues confronting the digital age, much more than politicians, who still largely “don’t get it.”Design principles - Establishing communities of practice is very different from most other managementprocesses. Boyett and Boyett (2001) state that “Communities of practice...are critical for knowledgecreation and sharing. Managers cannot create or direct communities of practice, but they can encouragetheir growth. Wenger et.al. (2002) provide seven principles to guide the development of communities ofpractice that are “alive,” that is natural, spontaneous, and self-directed.• Design for evolution - Because communities are organic, designing them is more a matter of catalyzing evolution rather than imposing a structure. They should build on preexisting networks and evolve as members and interests change.• Open dialogue between inside and outside - Good community design requires an internal understanding of the communities potential to develop and steward knowledge as well as an external perspective to help members visualize broader possibilities.• Invite different levels of participation - People have different levels of interest in a community and will participate to varying degrees - as core, active, and peripheral members, with their level of involvement changing over time. 3
  • 4. • Establish both public and private spaces.- The public space provides tangible experience of participation, demonstrates the community’s level of sophistication, and influences the organization. The private space creates conduits for sharing information in more limited ways.• Focus on value - Value may come from solving members problems, creating a body of knowledge, individuals sharing insights, or solving group problems.• Combine familiarity and excitement - As communities mature, they tend to settle into routine activities that provide a level of comfort, a neutral place that invites candid discussions. However, vibrant communities also need occasional infusions of divergent thinking and activity to provide novelty and excitement to compliment the familiarity of every day activities.• Create a community rhythm - The ebb and flow of activities such as meetings, teleconferences, Web sites, and lunches provide a sense of movement and liveliness. If it is too fast, members become overwhelmed and stop participation; if it is too slow, the community becomes sluggish.Function - How successful communities function is beginning to be understood. For example,Armstrong and Hegel (1996) note that: “A community full of half-empty rooms offers visitors a veryunsatisfactory experience. The value of participating in a community lies in users’ ability to access abroad range of people and resources quickly and easily. Baer (1999) focuses on a key reason forparticipation: “When you’re a member of a community of practice, you need to know what othermembers of the community know, not to get one up on them, but rather to invoke their knowing –because none of us have the skills or the time to be expert at everything. Ruggles and Holtshouse (1999)focuses on community interactions: “Inside a community, ideas are validated by the shared practice orparadigm of that community. Taking an idea outside the community requires the testing not just of theidea, but of the paradigm itself. Negotiations between communities, therefore, make knowledge morerobust and force us to understand the barriers to knowledge sharing.Plunkett and Attner (1983) explain that informal communities exist because they serve one or morefunctions: 1) maintain the social and cultural values that group members hold in common, 2) provide anopportunity for status, social interaction, and fulfillment, 3) provide information, and 4) influence thework environment. Individual beliefs and characteristics, such as age, experience, personality, proximity,interaction, race, sex, religion, and language can also lead to the formation of communities. They mayalso cross organizational levels to provide subordinates with access to a friendly ear at a higher level, andprovide superiors with direct communication and access to information from lower levels. Informalcommunities provide a system of checks and balances that can facilitate or retard organizational plans.Two characteristics of informal communities are norms and cohesion. Norms are standards of behaviorthat are accepted by all group members. They may influence conduct, work practices, communicationoutside the group, and productivity. Failure to adhere to community norms may result in verbalreminders that can escalate to warnings and sanctions. Cohesion is the degree to which members share agroup’s goals. The greater the cohesion, the greater the control and the greater the group’s success inachieving its goals.Informal communities can have both positive and negative effects on an organization. Positive impactsinclude: Increase total effectiveness by supporting the organization, support management by providing 4
  • 5. advice and encouraging cooperation, provide stability by creating a feeling of acceptance and belonging,provide a useful communication channel, and encourage better management by fostering openness.Negative impacts include: resistance to change to protect its values and beliefs, conflict between theformal and informal organizations, create and process false information or rumors, and pressure toconform.3. CultureAn organization’s culture consists of the behavior and norms that stem from the shared attitudes,assumptions, values, and beliefs of its people (Eagen, 1994). Changing an organization’s culture fromcontrolling information for empowering individuals to sharing information for empowering theorganization is key to implementing knowledge management. As Argyris and Schon (1974) point out,however, there may be a difference between stated organizational values and actual practice. Employeeswill readily detect a difference between promoting knowledge sharing and rewarding individuals whohoard knowledge. Providing no resources to support purported values leads to a conclusion that thevalues are not really supported by senior management. The literature can be classified into three topics:the role of culture, the importance of culture to the knowledge agenda, and culture change .Role of culture - Culture is fundamental to all forms social structure, including organizations. Morgan(1986) notes that: “When we talk about culture, we are typically referring to the pattern of developmentreflected in a society’s system of knowledge, ideology, values, laws, and day-to-day ritual.... we are thususing an old agricultural metaphor to guide our attention to very specific aspects of social development.”Taylor (1996) observes: “What has been done, thought, written, or spoken is not culture; culture is onlythat fraction that is remembered.” Gershenfeld similarly notes that: “Handling the constant arrival ofnew bits will keep us from ever managing the old bits properly. Loss of cultural memory becomes theprice of staying current.”Knowledge agenda - It is generally understood that changing an organization’s culture is a prerequisite tolong-term success of knowledge management. For example, Davenport and Prusak (1998) state:“Values, norms, and behaviors that make up a company’s culture are the principle determinants of howsuccessfully important knowledge is transferred. Hamel and Prahalad (1994) put it somewhat moregraphically: “Any company that fails to reengineer its genetic coding periodically will be as much at themercy of environmental upheaval as tyrannosaurus rex. Holmes (2001) presented a similar argument forthe public sector: “Cultural resistance is the greatest obstacle to integrated online public services. Therewill be employees who resent the intrusion of new technology in their daily routine and cling to the old,familiar ways no matter how well processes are improved.”Culture change - Perhaps the greatest challenge to implementing knowledge management is the need tochange long-standing, deeply entrenched, vertically oriented bureaucracies to dynamic, learning,adaptive, and horizontally-oriented structures. As noted by Allaire (1992) “The hardest stuff is the softstuff - values, personal style, ways of interacting. We are trying to change the total culture of thecompany. When you talk about it in general terms, everybody is all for it. But... in terms of individuals,it is much tougher. And yet, if individuals don’t change, nothing changes. Hamel and Prahalad (1994)state: “To create a social architecture senior management must have a point of view on what valuesshould predominate, what behaviors should be encouraged, and what kind of people should feelcomfortable working in the company.” 5
  • 6. 4. Human Resource ManagementMuch of human resource management is controlled by federal laws, regulations, and policies. However,our interest here is not with administrative matters, such as pay and benefits, competitions, or collectiveagreements. Rather, this section emphasizes how HR choices and decisions that are within theprerogative of DRDC strongly affect the knowledge agenda. There are three broad considerations:staffing, supervision, and retentionStaffing - Knowledge workers need different capacities and abilities than industrial-era workers orbureaucrats. However, DRDC does not need to invent appropriate capacity and ability criteria; they arewell understood in fields such as science, engineering, and the law. For example, Ramo (1969) focusedon similarity of reasoning ability rather than domain specific knowledge when he stated: “The kinds ofindividuals capable of analysing and predicting the actions of a complex, multiparameter system aremuch the same as those who are capable of improving our understanding of the basic laws of nature.”More generally, he continued with: “People skilled in thinking precisely about imprecise quantities areneeded.” Scully and Byrne (1987) were somewhat more whimsical in predicting: “Someday, maybewe’ll see more companies searching not for managers and employees, but for impresarios and wizards.”Pfeffer (1998) used a more business-like approach: “A company’s ability to generate those exceptionalreturns in a knowledge-based economy is dependent, in large measure, upon its ability to attract, retain,and develop the right work force – and whether it succeeds in unleashing their mental capacities.”Supervision - As with staffing, science, engineering, and the law provide rich models for managingknowledge workers. For example, Whiteside quipped: “Nobody’s dumb at IBM...but it’s like herdingcats - they just all have their own agenda.” Similarly, Tapscott (1996) observed that: “Anyoneresponsible for managing knowledge workers knows they cannot be “managed” in the traditional sense.Often they have specialized knowledge and skills that cannot be matched or even understood bymanagement.” Yet, Ruggles and Holtshouse (1999) described the gap that often exists between what isneeded and what exists: “Every company’s annual report says “Our people are our greatest asset,.” butfew companies are managed as if they believed it. More to the point, von Krogh et. al. (2000) stated:“Knowledge workers cannot be bullied into creativity or information sharing; and the traditional forms ofcompensation and organizational hierarchy do not motivate people sufficiently for them to develop thestrong relationships required for knowledge creation on a continuing basis.”Retention - For decades, the paradigm of business and government has been to cut back staff throughattrition, lay-offs, or early retirement. This reflected both necessary and imaginary drivers, such asreduced budgets, a desire to “clean out deadwood,” enable hiring younger employees with fresh ideas, orsimply a bureaucratic approach of throwing away what was done in the past to claim credit for somethingnew (which flies in the face of reusing, leveraging, or repurposing what already exists). Delong (2004)indicates that company after company has come to recognize the short-sightedness of this approach.Managers and professionals have considerable experiential knowledge, only some of which is formallydocumented and shared. “Often, the only way their successors discover that they are missing keyinsights that their predecessors had is through mistakes, unexpected quality problems, or other costlydisruptions in performance.” Now that the problem has been recognized, however, the shiftingmarketplace for knowledge workers makes it increasingly difficult to retain knowledge and experience.For example, Handy (1995) notes that: “If laborers are worthy of their hire, there is no reason to supposethat they won’t go where the hire looks better. The assets of the new information-based corporations are,as a result, increasingly fragile. Similarly, Sheen (1996) observes: “They look at their fathers and say, 6
  • 7. ‘Dad didn’t get the gold watch.’ So these young people say ‘I’m going to be a craftsman. And this is mycraft, the computer and technology. Armed with this, I can go anywhere.” From an DRDC perspective,the private sector is, perhaps a decade ahead of the public sector in recognizing the extent of the problempartially because the public sector lacks the clear, immediate indicators that a problem exists..Knowledge work emphasizes new dimension of employment. If DRDC would become a knowledgeorganization, it will have to encourage, promote, motivate, and reward those behaviors that support aknowledge organization.“Sometime soon...managers will come to realize there are not enough skilled younger workers enteringthe labor force to replace the older ones leaving through retirement. When that happens, they will likelydo a rapid about face–from encouraging early retirement to discouraging it.” David W. DeLong (1956-) Lost Knowledge (2004) p75Al SimardApril 13, 2010 7

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