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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The future challenge to knowledge management

I've been catching up with some reading this weekend. The front cover of the Economist is titled "The Great American slowdown' and that they consider that the American economy has slipped into recession. and that the American consumer is in no fit state to start picking up the baton and start spending, in fact they are starting to re trench. I don't think that the recession will be deep but in America and for the world it might be long. However, I think that the concept of economic decoupling might mean that the recession is likely to be uneven in its impact especially in India and China.

I was then reading an article in Legal Week covering knowledge management - side by side with an interesting article by Bruce MacEwen over at Adam Smith who comments on the economics of law firms.

This has started to posit a thought in my mind regarding knowledge management in organisations as a whole. The thought is this - is a recession in the world economy going to help or hinder knowledge management in organisations.

One of the areas that I have studied is the lack of time that people have to share knowledge within their organisations - now you would argue that as a recession bites that a wise management would work with people and encourage them to replenish the organisations knowledge banks to make up for the reduction of work volumes and also start to develop both client and internal knowledge networks.

However if you have an economic model of business that charges according to time spent on a matter, and rigidly keep to it, then if those people don't hit the targets and you decide to lose them, then you take a double hit a loss of potential fee earning when the economy turns up as well as a loss of knowledge. 

I'd be taking the hit in term of fee income but retaining people for the turn up and for those areas which aren't so busy ensure that they are updating their knowledge banks, more training, increased mentoring and those all important client and social networks so that they have got the reserves to draw upon to become better problem solvers both internally and externally.

Of course if you start to make people redundant , then you send a message that you keep working as hard as you did and that sharing knowledge still isn't on the managements agenda be it good times or bad times. This leeches into the organisations culture and then future knowledge sharing becomes more difficult because of the Hawthorne effect described by Roethlisberger and Mayo.

In a recession, because of the fear of redundancy, most people traditionally will decide to hoard knowledge, thinking that this is the way to stay safe by concentrating on their own work silo rather than helping colleagues by sharing knowledge. Will managers reward those who share knowledge or those who hoard - the decision is up to senior management to decide which side they choose to reward.  People surely should not be measured in how many hours that they work in a week, but in how the solve a clients problems and work with their fellow colleagues both as people but also by sharing knowledge for the betterment of all.

At the end of the day people learn that sharing knowledge isn't a core concern of the organisation and because of this learn not to share knowledge within their organisation and that being homo economicus - the return on investment does not match the original investment. 

However people are not wholly economic animals and even Adam Smith recognised this when he said 'that an individual stands at all times in need of the co-operation and assistance of great multitudes'  He also states in Moral sentiments with a quote on which our well being in the future might depend " How selfish so ever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness to him, though he derives nothing from it." 

I talk about reciprocal altruism, and believe that people do share knowledge even though they might gain nothing from it now - they share it because of care for a fellow human being and for me the ability to look into a mirror and see the person my parents wished me to be and that ones active principles should be that of generosity.

 Though I recognise that the temptation in troubled times must be immense not to share knowledge with a colleague who you suddenly see as a competitor and that you may have to fight figuratively speaking to save your job, your standard of living of you and possibly your family. 

Does knowledge sharing go even more backward in your thoughts at this time or do you have enlightened management that supports knowledge management in tough times recognising it as an investment in the future of the organisation or do they see it as an easy target for budget cuts a nice to have rather than a core necessity. It is a long term change for senior management in any professional services environment and I don't think that any one management theorist has all the answers - but it is a challenge that we need to address to keep our organisations going in the future.

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