Over the last few days, two pieces have appeared in HBR, about the change agenda for HR. One is written by Ram Charan, which talks about splitting HR, while the other, written by Cathy Benko and Erica Volini, about what it will take to fix HR. At the most fundamental level, both these pieces acknowledge the fact that there is a problem with the HR function in the organization. And since they agree on that, they also agree that something needs to be done about it. And thats where, more or less, they move in different directions, as you would see from the blogs.
Lets step back, and take a look at some of the reasons why these problems are there, coming from the perspective of HR practitioners. The first aspect we need to understand is that in today’s world of business, with a steady level of complexity, and increasing levels of disruptive changes, HR managers need to understand details of the business, both internal and external to the organization. Only then can HR managers play a meaningful role in defining organization strategy. In other words, HR managers need to be at the confluence of business management, and people management. However, most of the HR practitioners I talk to are nowhere close to this point. Most HR practitioners are generalists, and not SMEs when it comes to business operations. This means that they need to take guidance from business managers, and formulate practices based on this guidance.
Because that might sound a bit abstract, let me take an example. Lets say a business manager decides that there are some skills lacking in his team. The manager would reach out to the L&D team, tell them what type of training is required, and the L&D team would search through a catalogue, identify the training, and execute the logistics to deliver the training. The L&D team, in this example, has no understanding of the reason for the training requirement, the objective that is to be met, or the outcomes that should come out of the training for participants. In this scenario, the team is essentially fulfilling requirements, rather than giving strategic inputs into the forecasting of medium- to long-term training needs, how these would help address business objectives, and address employee development.
To summarize, it is at the intersection of business and people management that there is a gap, and filling this gap is the need which needs to be addressed. To address this, we need people who have a sound understanding of the complexity and challenges of business, and how people practices can help to address those challenges and meeting that complexity. Whether this is to be achieved by splitting the HR function, I dont know, though the debate throws up more questions than just that. It raises the point that I am talking about here … that in stead of HR practitioners only taking guidance and fulfilling requirement, HR practitioners need to be in a place where they can add strategic value, and that this requires a change in the way HR managers look at the intersection of business management and people management.
I recently read a post by @nickknoco about the Knowledge Supply Chain. Nick draws a useful analogy with the concept of the Supply Chain, to describe how we could look at the flow of knowledge in the organization. Quite agree with Nick that when talking about supply chains, we dont start from the supply side, rather, we begin with the demand side, and this translates into first defining what it is that people need, and then creating a product (here, it would be a knowledge product, but the idea is similar) to satisfy that need. What i find more important is the analogy, because it recognizes the fact that knowledge flows through a value chain (or in an organization) quite analogous to material flowing through a supply chain.
Central to the idea of the knowledge supply chain is the understanding that knowledge flows, and that in any flow, like that of material or information in the supply chain, there are participants who enable the flow, and need to be at the focal point of any study of the flow. In the knowledge supply chain, it is the people, participating in the supply chain who are analogous to the organizations in a material supply chain. This is something KM practitioners already understand (KM is about people is the most written about, least practised theme), so this gives us a sense of how looking at a supply chain perspective of KM would lead us to things we are already familiar with.
So where does the organization come into the picture. The way I see it, the organization provides the backdrop for this supply chain or flow. I wouldnt go so far as to say that the organization is the reason for this flow, because knowledge flows span organizations, and there is no reason to assume that there was no knowledge-sharing in the pre-modern organization-era. Having said that, the organization does provide the context for the flow, and that is one of the aspects that I meant by backdrop (which is a clever thing to write, given that I havent the foggiest idea about what else I meant). In addition to providing the context, the organization also sets the tone for a knowledge-marketplace. Any supply chain is a series of marketplaces which define the optimum value exchange (pricing of products or services being only one component of value), and have a more-or-less well defined set of participants. In other words, the supply chain and marketplace views of KM are quite analogous, and I have since long been supporting this way of looking at KM.
My friend Dinesh Tantri recently shared a piece over at K-Community about knowledge hoarding knowledge in Indian companies. The reasons for why the ISB found employees not sharing knowledge can be found on the link. The article looks at Indian companies and the reasons why employees in Indian companies tend to not share knowledge but probably the idea of hoarding knowledge is a global one. Question is why. And while the reasons mentioned in the report make sense we may want to look behind these reasons.
A few thoughts on how i think about this. I believe that over the period of the last few centuries (maybe the advent of the industrial revolution?) there has, with the formation of the modern-day model of the organization a mindset of scarcity. This mindset works on the assumption that there isnt enough for everybody. What this means is that is someone gets more then that would be because someone else would get less. If we look at the idea that the industrial revolution was based on material resources this is actually true. If someone gets more coal then that is because someone else gets less. If someone gets more machinery then thats because someone else gets less. If someone makes more money then thats because someone else makes less. This is the reason behind the century or more of colonial expansionism starting with the 18th century.
Once we agree with this idea then the next step would be to understand that in addition to the material resources another resource which is important to convert material into finished products which can be sold to customers is knowledge. So if you read the textbooks on management they talk about the M’s … i think Man, Money, Machine, Material. The Man part of this comes from the understanding that people are the source of labour but that cant be the only reason. Whatever the reason, if there is a thought of scarcity and there is the understanding that peoples knowledge is an important ingredient, the idea of knowledge is power cannot be too far. And this is the scenario we live in.
Coming to the 21st century where more and more value creation is based on knowledge. The basic difference between the knowledge-economy work and industrial-economy work is that the critical input to creating value for customers is different, knowledge and material respectively. Lot has been written about the structural difference between knowledge and material, namely that knowledge doesnt reduce by sharing, rather it increases by sharing, unlike material resources which reduce by sharing. As we see more and more work being done revolving around knowledge and knowledge playing a more and more critical role in value-generation we are also seeing more and more the idea that knowledge shared is knowledge shared, and this is where new ideas about knowledge and knowledge-sharing seem to be emerging.
This seems to be the season for fundamental re-thinks. It began with Dave Snowden’s post about alternative to CKO, which delved into the relationship between business units and KM. I had published a poll about the same topic (which is open till 10th October), and blogged about Dave’s thoughts. And something i have been thinking about for a few days (the reason i havent been able to blog about this earlier is simply laziness) … how could one define KM. And came across this post by Dave Snowden, defining KM, which i think is a very good description of what KM should be doing in an organization.
I think the definition Dave gives describes KM quite well:
The purpose of Knowledge Management is to provide support for improved decision-making and innovation throughout the organization. This is achieved through the effective management of human intuition and experience augmented by the provision of information, processes and technology together with training and mentoring program.
Improved decision-making … this is something which was promised by information systems more than a decade back. Though decisions did improve, there is still the possibility of decision-making being more improved. How, one may ask. Till now, the paradigm of decision-making hasnt considered that decision-making is not a perfectly rational process. In other words, decisions arent always made on perfectly rational assumptions, or on information available, and that, even if theoretically, all possible information were available (which it cant), there would still be that factor x which is not totally definable, and which cannot be externalized, which influences decision-making. Could we call this tacit knowledge? Probably. Could we call this experience? Maybe. No matter what we call this, this remains the major aspect of Knowledge Management.
Add to this the aspect that it is not usually possible for everyone to have access to all possible information required to make a decision. Not only is this because of systemic constraints, but also because there is usually no single definition about what information is relevant, or required, for making a decision. In some scenarios there is, but not in all. Given this, one aspect of KM is also to get people connected with sources of knowledge, whether repositories, or people, and to get them access to knowledge, whether directly or indirectly, which may be relevant for decision-making. This is the essential value-proposition for tools like social networking.
Another aspect which Dave mentioned is about the positioning of KM in the organization. The essence is that at a centralized level, KM needs to be synchronized with the strategic imperatives of the organization, while implementation should be done at localized level. Implementation of KM initiatives should be within the context of the localized business requirements. This has a number of benefits. One, this ensures that while overall KM is aligned with strategic requirements, at the point of implementation, KM is aligned with specifics of business requirements. Two, this also creates a level of ownership for KM initiatives among business units. Three, it is easier to measure the impact of KM initiatives in highly localized context, where it is easy to define the way KM can impact the business, rather than at a generic level.
There is a wonderful post by Dave Snowden discussing alternatives to CKO. I would put this post as one of those which is a must-read for anyone who has some interest in the realm of Knowledge Management. This is because the post gives a very clear picture of the way a KM team should be structured, and what should be some aspects of the role of a CKO in the organization.
I agree with Dave that with the current model, of having a CKO as being distinct from the “business units” or LoBs in the organization, KM is seen as being something which needs to be done by someone else. This is one of the reasons why KM initiatives in a lot of organizations face a scenario of low engagement with business units. Unless we can come up with a scenario where KM is not seen as being something has to be done by someone else, this seems as though it would continue. KM, in other words, needs to be the responsibility of everyone. However, an important part of this is that KM must be relevant. KM today is seen as a set of practices, and platforms which can be used by everyone in the organization uniformly. This is where i believe there must be a change. That different people in the organization need KM to solve different problems, that different people would engage with KM in different ways and scenarios, and that different people need different things from KM is something which needs to be understood well. If KM is something additional which needs to be “done”, probability is that it wont get “done”. Which means that KM needs to be more and more a part of the day-to-day work of people. In other words, we need to look at a scenario where KM practices are integrated with the business processes in the organization, as i have written before (and still looking for inptus, folks).
Another important thing that Dave says is that central support is a must-have, though it should not be the driving factor, but rather, the supporting the factor in KM initiatives. The way i look at it, the KM initiatives should be driven by the business units, with some form of support which comes from a centralized KM function, which can leverage their expertise at KM initiatives to support the KM initiatives being run by business units. This will ensure that the KM initiatives are synchronized with the business needs of the business unit, while at the same time, ensuring that the business units own the KM initiatives. A small example … When you are talking to a team to introduce the KM portal to them, are you able to introduce the portal as a KM portal, or as their portal, which, by the way, is hosted by KM, being the facilitator. What this means, i believe, is that the KM function in the organization should look at a form of a federated structure, with a central KM team, which are the facilitators, or rather, i would look at them as being consultants, who are also facilitators, supporting the KM initiatives decided and run by business units, with their own KM teams.
Dave also says that the role of the CKO should not be rotating role, with people from the different functions and business units taking up this role for a period of time. This would ensure that there is no drying up of new ideas to take KM to the next level, and also that the KM initiatives are synchronized with business needs. Another way, though, i feel, could be to create a clear distinction between the ownership for KM initiatives, and the facilitation for these KM initiatives. If the CKO should be someone from business units, then the career path for people who are part of the central KM team seems to lead to the bogs. On the other hand, if you have a dedicated, full-time CKO, and he happens to be a CKO 1.0 (please pardon the pun), then that, probably, is the surest way of taking your KM initiatives downhill. A large number of organizations, for example, have CKO’s who dont really appreciate the power of web 2.0 in knowledge-sharing, and this is a sure way of getting the KM initiatives going the way i mentioned before.
In a nutshell, KM should be a two-tiered structure, with a central, support team, and a business unit-owned team, which actually formulates, and drives the KM strategy, and the resultant initiatives. While on this topic, please look to the right of the screen, and right below the beautiful picture of the Victoria Memorial, please do take a moment and post your opinion on the poll i have posted (isnt this the season for KM team structure?).