Knowledge Management in the Public Sector

I was asked recently to provide some input to questions posed by a journalist regarding the state of knowledge management in the public sector. I have slanted my answers from a local government perspective, since this is where the thrust of my consultancy work has been focussed for the past 2-3 years. This also seemed relevant to the Community of Practice platform and strategy I developed for the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) in 2005 and which I’m still heavily involved with. The answers are mine and do not in any way reflect the opinions of the IDeA or anyone else I have worked for in the public sector.1. Over the past few years, there have appeared to be various different knowledge management initiatives such as the KM National e-Government Project, the UK Government’s Knowledge Network and the Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government’s network for improving KM. How do all of these initiatives fit together, if at all, and why is such focus being put on this area?

Yes, there have been a number of different and overlapping KM initiatives over the past 2-3 years, and it’s quite difficult to quantify what the cumulative or aggregate affect has been on the public sector. To summarise:

  • The Cabinet Office’s E-government and Transformational Government agendas had catalysed local authorities to offer more services via technology and citizens to increase take-up of those services. The initial response, a wave of electronic document/record management (EDRM) systems, had generally led to a disorganised proliferation of web sites across the sector that complicated the sector’s ability to realise those visions.
  • The Local Government Association, the lobbying body for English and Welsh local authorities, established the strategic priority of self-improvement and regulation for the sector as an alternative to the external Comprehensive Performance Assessment inspection regime.
  • Releasing resources to the front line (The Gershon Review) launched the Efficiency agenda, concluding that the entire public sector could realise more benefits from the resources they already had
  • Sir Michael Lyons began his enquiry into the financing and future of local government, looking for evidence of efficiencies and improvement in service delivery

In this policy environment, councils were under pressure to produce and guarantee higher quality services while demonstrating more efficient use of resources. Given the perennial squeeze on [council] budgets, the only way they can realistically achieve the outcomes demanded is by adopting smarter ways of working – and hence the focus on KM.

2. Where is the public sector at in terms of adopting knowledge management systems, how high is this topic up the agenda of the average public sector IT director at the moment and why? Which type of public sector organisations are embracing such initiatives – or their own internal ones – in the main and why?

The local government sector is – arguably – well ahead of central government in terms of adopting KM systems and processes. One major initiative that has been sponsored and managed by the IDeA is the development of Communities of Practice (CoP) across the sector. By supporting communities of practice and professional social networks across local government, the IDeA is promoting the potential of knowledge management as a tool for continuous and sustainable improvement. The strategy increases the sector’s capacity to share and maintain knowledge and experience across local, regional and national boundaries and supports the development of public sector policy and innovation. Since the programme was started in late 2005, almost 10,000 users have registered on the IDeA’s CoP platform representing 410 councils across England and Wales, and over 300 CoPs are working on various policy and service initiatives. For the following is a sample of the topics and issues being tackled by by these CoPs:

Policy and Performance

LAAs and LSPs


Equality Standards

Talent Management

Community Cohesion

Adult and Children’s Services

Customer Service

Rural Excellence

Countering Extremism

….to name just a few.

3. How big is the market for knowledge management in the public sector now, how fast is this expected to grow over the next few years and why? What are the key drivers/benefits to adoption?

New technologies – such as Web2.0 – are making it far easier for people to connect and share knowledge. All the major software vendors are in this space – IBM, Microsoft, BEA – offering a variety of solutions for collaborative working. The near exponential growth we’ve seen in the take up of the IDeA’s CoP initiative is evidence of the appetite for change and innovation that prevails across the sector. Clearly the big vendors are in this for commercial reasons, but unlike the previous ‘KM wave’ of the mid-90’s, which promised much but delivered little, there is now more substance to the technology. This in turn is creating a new industry around KM, and stimulating growth in e-learning applications and professional networking. Not forgetting of course the ubiquitous social networks such as Myspace and Facebook, which some may argue are more to do with leisure activities. However, these too provide opportunities for people with similar interests to connect and share knowledge, and Facebook in particular has a growing number of groups devoted to social issues and e-learning (Examples: Gurteen Knowledge Community, Staffs University Best Practice Models for E-learning, KM-Forum).So, to summarise, the (KM) market is big and growing. The public sector has traditionally lagged behind the private sector in adopting new ways of working but Web 2.0 is encouraging innovation and collaboration (the fundamental components of KM.) and the gap is narrowing. Those who can’t or won’t engage with the technology are going to find themselves increasingly isolated and disconnected.

4 . What are public sector organisations focusing on at the moment in terms of knowledge management and why? How is this likely to change over the next few years?

As I mentioned in answer to the first question, Public sector organisations have had to react to various policy initiatives for delivering more or better services whilst maintaining or reducing budgets. The only way of achieving more from less is by working smarter and ensuring you are maximising the potential of the resources (people) you already have. This, then, is the driver for KM in public sector organisations. LAA’s provided the model for sharing best practice, providing peer support and encouraging partnerships, and we’re now seeing the creation of more extensive collaborative and professional networks, e.g. the Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnerships. We expect to see this trend continue across the sector, which can potentially deliver more cost saving and spread of exemplar working practices.

5 How hyped is the knowledge management market and how realistic are the expectations around it? What are its shortcomings and why?

I think the ‘KM’ term has been over-hyped to some extent, and as I mentioned earlier, many people remember the underwhelming KM initiatives of the mid-90’s. However, there is a real buzz amongst most people I’ve met who are embracing the opportunities offered by improved connectivity, social networking and social media. These tools and processes are creating environments for more effective peer support and enabling ‘experts’ to connect with novice practitioners. However, information capture for categorisation and reuse is a growing weakness, partially due to the growing number of channels through which information is disseminated – e.g. email, forums, podcasts, video etc. Information (from which knowledge is derived) seems far more transient and ethereal, with relevance decaying far more rapidly than was one the case.

6. What are the key inhibitors to knowledge management adoption in the public sector and why? What are the main challenges when going down this route and why?

….something here about the socio-demographics of the public sector workforce – e.g. introducing a sceptical and mature staff demographic to the concept of virtual collaboration using social computing/Web 2.0 facilities?

7. What are the critical success factors for implementing knowledge management systems? What are the key pitfalls and where can things go wrong? What best practice advice could you provide here?

Though I’ve previously mentioned the opportunities that new technology (e.g. Web 2.0) provides for improved connectivity and collaboration, the most important factor is the ‘people’. People are demanding more choice in the way they work, and we have to meet that demand. Power and control mechanisms are not effective in bringing the best out of people; they need to discover the benefits of improving their life skills for themselves. Managers have to ensure they have created an environment which supports diverse ways for learning and self improvement. For some, this may be access to online (social networking) environments; others may prefer more traditional academic-based methods. We have to understand these different needs and (as far as we can) ensure they are available in the workplace and supported by relevant policies.

8. What are the key trends in this area likely to be over the next few years and why are they important? What is the future here and how is this likely to manifest itself?

The future is a far more ‘digitally aware’ demographic. School and university leavers entering the public sector are more familiar with – and expect – access to social networks and social media applications to support their professional development and work life. Immersive technologies such as Second Life will be part and parcel of how organisations work – e.g. virtual meetings and presentations. Technology is moving faster than most people can keep up with, but the next generation of public sector staff will be more comfortable with these sort of facilities, and will find more ingenious ways of using them to improve their own development and the services provided to the public.

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