Recent Trends in Human Resource Management

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Role of HRM in Knowledge Management

Knowledge management has become a fashionable term in organizations today. We can define knowledge management as the discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, retrieving, sharing, and evaluating an enterprise’s information assets. These information assets may include databases, documents, policies, and procedures as well as uncaptured, tacit expertise and experience resident in individual workers.

HR and Knowledge Management

There are several roles that can be played by HR in developing knowledge management system.

First, HR should help the organization articulate the purpose of the knowledge management system. Investing in a knowledge management initiative without a clear sense of purpose is like investing in an expensive camera that has far more capabilities than you need to take good pictures of family and friends. Too often, organizations embrace technologies to solve problems before they've even identified the problems they are trying to solve. Then, once they realize the error, they find it difficult to abandon the original solution and difficult to gather the resources needed to invest in a solution to the real problem. Effectively framing the knowledge management issue, before deciding on a course of action, is a crucial prerequisite for success.

Second, as a knowledge facilitator, HRM must ensure alignment among an organization's mission, statement of ethics, and policies: These should all be directed toward creating an environment of sharing and using knowledge with full understanding of the competitive consequences. Furthermore, HRM must nourish a culture that embraces getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

Third, HRM should also create the "ultimate employee experience." That is, by transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge through education, organizations must build employee skills, competencies, and careers, creating "bench strength." This combines the traditional training and development responsibilities of HRM with the new responsibilities of human capital steward: using all of the organization's resources to create strategic capability. Disney's new staff orientation, which emphasizes the firm's mission, values, and history within a context of the "magic kingdom" experience, is an example of this process of making tacit knowledge more visible.

Fourth, HRM must integrate effective knowledge sharing and usage into daily life. That is, knowledge sharing must be expected, recognized, and rewarded. For many individuals and organizations, this reverses the conventional relationship between knowledge and power. Often, the common pattern was to hoard knowledge because it made the individual more valuable and more difficult to replace. Effective knowledge management requires this trend to be overturned and requires those with information to become teachers and mentors who ensure that others in the firm know what they know. Teaching must become part of everyone's job. Clearly, for such a cultural shift to take place, HRM must overhaul selection, appraisal, and compensation practices. Human resource management has the capabilities for creating, measuring, and reinforcing a knowledge-sharing expectation.

Fifth, HRM must relax controls and allow (even encourage) behaviors that, in the clockwork world of industrial efficiency, never would have been tolerated. For example, conversations at the water cooler were viewed in the past as unproductive uses of employee time—after all, employees were not at their desks completing specified tasks detailed in their job descriptions. In the knowledge economy, conversations inside and outside the company are the chief mechanism for making change and renewal an ongoing part of the company's culture.

As another example, consider individuals in organizations described as "gossips," who would rather talk than work. Frederick Taylor's industrial engineers would have eliminated these gossips from workplaces in the early twentieth century, since they did nothing that was perceptibly valuable. However, in the knowledge economy, if the conversations are relevant to the firm's strategic intent, these same people may be described as "knowledge brokers": those individuals who like to move around the company to hear what is going on, sparking new knowledge creation by carrying ideas between groups of people who do not communicate directly. If the topics serve organizational needs, these individuals play a role similar to bees that cross-pollinate flowers and sustain a larger ecosystem.

Organizations should selectively recognize and reward, rather than universally discourage and punish, these types of behaviors. Clearly, not all conversation is productive and constructive. Human resource management still must play a role in discouraging gossip that undermines, rather than promotes, a learning community. Human resource management will need to adjust both its own perspective (from rule-enforcer) as well as that of managers and others who hold outdated notions of what is "real work."

Sixth, HRM must take a strategic approach to helping firms manage email, instant messenger, internet surfing, and similar uses of technology. Clearly, the Internet has a role in generating and disseminating knowledge, and therefore is an integral part of knowledge management. But what are the unintended effects of monitoring email, tracking employees' web searches, and similar issues related to privacy? Certainly some control is needed, but the larger question for HRM is determining appropriate boundaries. When does control become counterproductive? When does excessive monitoring become an inappropriate invasion of privacy?

A related issue is HRM's role in helping firms manage the distancing consequences of electronic communication. As employees increasingly rely on technology to communicate, they lose opportunities to develop the rich, multifaceted relationships that encourage the communication of tacit knowledge. Human resource management can contribute to developing social capital by sensitizing employees to the negative consequences of excessive reliance on electronic media and by creating opportunities for face-to-face contact.

Seventh, HRM must champion the low-tech solutions to knowledge management. Although it should not ignore the high-tech knowledge management tools, HRM contains the expertise to develop low-tech knowledge management strategies. For example, when the team that developed the Dustbuster vacuum tool was created, they were given a "war room" in which they could spread out their materials and leave sketches, models, notes, and so on plastered on walls and throughout the workspace. These visible outputs of their thinking processes helped create a shared context for their efforts and turned the room into a truly collaborative workspace.

Some Asian firms, such as Dai-Ichi, create special rooms (with green tea and comfortable places to sit), where researchers are expected to spend a half-hour daily, telling whomever they meet about their current work. Neither of the two preceding examples requires large financial investments in technology that will rapidly become obsolete. Yet both examples demonstrate how HRM could help a firm orchestrate and facilitate knowledge sharing.

As can be seen from the previous discussion, the knowledge facilitator role cannot be easily slotted into traditional HRM functions, such as training and development or compensation. The knowledge facilitator role is much more broad and requires creative integration across traditional HRM activities. It entails both rethinking old ways of managing the workplace as well as using innovative approaches outside the box of traditional HRM. Most important, becoming an effective knowledge facilitator requires conceptualizing HRM as a vehicle for creating capabilities and capitalizing on the human factor to create a community of knowledge workers.

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