Dumb and Dumber

Over the past few years, corporate North America has been bludgeoned with the message that knowledge is one of our most vital corporate assets. But business leaders in Canada and the United States are proving to have uncommonly thick skulls, for despite the bludgeoning they have still done little to ensure that corporate knowledge is captured and rendered of service to the organization.

According to a recent survey, Executive Perspectives on Knowledge and the Organization, conducted by Ernst & Young Centre for Business Innovation, almost half of respondents (44 per cent) admitted to being poor or very poor at transferring existing knowledge to other parts of their organization. A meagre 12 per cent felt they were above average at leveraging that knowledge.

This despite the fact that 87 per cent of respondents described their business as “knowledge-intensive” and named multiple types of knowledge as being critical to their competitiveness, while an even greater number (94 per cent) admitted that it would be possible, through more deliberate management, to leverage that knowledge to a greater degree.

You would think this might argue for the creation of the formal role of “Chief Knowledge Officer” within the organization, but respondents were wary of such a suggestion. Almost half (45 per cent) believed that such a role was either not at all valuable or not very valuable, while 29 per cent conceded that it would be “somewhat valuable”. The main reason for the reticence: some thought the danger was too great that a staff position focused on knowledge would simply translate into more bureaucracy – executives in charge might cease to focus on ultimate business goals and pursue knowledge management for its own sake.

The biggest obstacle in transferring information? According to more than half of respondents (54 per cent), it is corporate culture, which many executives characterized as encouraging “knowledge-hoarding”. Next on the list: top management’s failure to signal knowledge management’s importance. Other obstacles included: the lack of shared understanding of strategy or business model; organizational structure; and lack of ownership of the problem. All people issues, Ernst & Young points out — technology limitations and non-standardized processes didn’t make it onto the list.

Yet most respondents felt that management efforts regarding knowledge management were focused more on process and especially technology issues. Far and away, the most initiatives undertaken to date surrounding knowledge management involve technology investment, including (in order of prevalence) intranets, data warehouses, decision-support tools, and groupware. But the top three efforts respondents say they should do (but aren’t doing currently) are people-oriented: mapping sources of internal expertise; creating networks of knowledge workers; and establishing new knowledge roles.

This disturbing fact caught the attention of Nancy Dixon, Associate Professor of Administrative Sciences, George Washington University, who remarked, “If companies believe it is difficult for people to change their behaviour, and that it is difficult for management to maintain its focus on knowledge management issues, why the unflagging emphasis on the technical rather than the cultural? Perhaps because organizations know more about building databases than about implementing a knowledge culture. But be warned: Such tendencies to cling to the familiar could be dulling an organization’s competitive edge.”

According to the survey, the biggest difficulty in managing knowledge is in changing people’s behaviour (56 per cent), followed by measuring the value and performance of knowledge assets (43 per cent), and determining what knowledge should be managed (40 per cent). Seems they may have missed one — getting your ass in gear.