Knowledge Management in the Public Sector

A thriving knowledge management program requires the active participation of all workers throughout an organization. These employees must contribute as well as seek information and processes that will help them to accomplish their group's mission. To facilitate this process, organizations often find it necessary to provide incentives for sharing knowledge.

In the private sector, where the bottom line determines success, sharing can be encouraged and rewarded financially. Public organizations, which operate with limited resources, seldom have this option. Yet the knowledge that civil servants hold becomes truly useful only when dispersed to citizens and agencies at the federal, state and local levels, as well as governmental partners.

Unlike their peers in private enterprise, government workers must also complete paperwork for even the simplest tasks. This demand can potentially hamper workers' productivity and create an institutional tendency to perform only the minimum job requirements.

For these reasons, government workers may resist efforts to build a culture of knowledge sharing. They may perceive knowledge management initiatives merely as extra work. Says Richard Warrick, a principal consultant in the knowledge management practice at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers LLP in Fairfax, Va., "Any time people perceive that you are putting one more thing on their plate, you can't blame them for rejecting it."

Likewise, the structure of government, with its emphasis on command and control, can be a barrier to the free flow of information. Implementation of KM programs may suffer delays from administrative red tape having to do with national security, privacy or regulatory issues. And political changes can endanger or stall new programs.

A Sense of Mission

How, then, can public agencies successfully encourage their employees to share what they know? For one thing, the public sector has some advantages for encouraging a knowledge sharing culture. For example, agencies generally worry less than corporations about trade secrets and other vital information leaking to competitors if they implement knowledge management repositories.

One of the strongest incentives is intangible: unlike employees in private enterprise, most civil servants are not directly profit-motivated. Rather, their jobs are devoted to providing service. "The federal government does very little actual labor in creating products and services. They enable those things," says William Millward, director of knowledge services for the government services practice at Andersen in Washington, D.C. "As a result, the government is attuned with intellectual capital in its enterprise."

Public sector workers are apt to respond positively to an initiative that they perceive as contributing to the
organization's overall mission. A successful and widely deployed knowledge management program must link strongly to their organization's goals.

In fact, Millward considers the belief that employees need to be paid before they will contribute to a KM system "a fallacy," at least in the public sector. "It's a red herring to emphasize financial rewards as an incentive," he says. "People who want to share will do so, money or no money. They share because they believe in the sense of social good."

To underscore the importance of its employees' mission, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario (WSIB) in Toronto encourages them to think of themselves as experts in their chosen field, whether it's automotive, mining or healthcare. Exemplary individuals are profiled regularly in an in-house newsletter distributed to all employees. Because the practice promotes a sense of pride and of being valued, workers are more likely to pass along knowledge if they know they will get positive feedback from colleagues. They're also more willing to use information from others to advance the primary goal of preventing workplace injuries. "We see ourselves as the custodians of knowledge for workplace safety that, in the long run, belongs to the public," says Ash Sooknanan, the board's corporate knowledge officer and a principal designer of its seven-year-old KM system.

Although most of the KM initiatives at the WSIB are taking place within its IT department, Sooknanan tries to encourage knowledge sharing throughout the organization by providing other incentives. One successful strategy has been to offer employees training in computer programs that they will need to learn before adding content to the group's KM depositories, such as Lotus Notes, Windows NT or Netscape. The promise of improved computer skills that can enhance their everyday jobs has spurred many workers to subscribe to the KM efforts, according to Sooknanan.

Performance and Pay

Of course, no KM practitioner would suggest that public employees care nothing about money. When compensation comes into play, practitioners recommend linking it to performance issues rather than paying piecemeal for contributions. Some public agencies encourage knowledge sharing by measuring how much and how often employees contribute to the group's knowledge base and factoring that information into their formal performance evaluations. This demonstrates to workers that participating in the organization's KM system is a necessary part of their jobs.

For example, the WSIB's IT division evaluates and rewards its workers according to their overall performance. But employees who can show that they have helped to promote knowledge sharing within the review period are recognized as leaders and are more likely to receive advancement opportunities and pay raises, Sooknanan says. In this way, public agencies can surmount their financial restrictions and offer a compelling incentive for workers to share their know-how.

Incentives for Sharing

According to Geoffrey Malafsky, president of Technology Intelligence International in Burke, Va., if knowledge sharing isn't a part of the evaluation process, there's little hope that it will become a part of the organizational culture. Malafsky argues that sharing knowledge should be seen as a way to make employees better workers. Those who do not contribute and seek knowledge should be cited for failing to improve and grow in their jobs. "Employees need to know that knowledge sharing is not just a nice thing to do--it's critical for their own success," Malafsky says. "The ultimate incentive is not money but efficiency and productivity gain."

To overcome this problem at the U.S. Navy, Malafsky encouraged workers to begin the process of knowledge sharing by giving away not trade secrets but rather information that everyone could benefit from and that didn't require much effort to share. He suggested that they answer questions such as: "How do you reduce your workload? How do you talk to people in Congress? What's your funding like? Have you heard anything about this or that federal program?"

The resulting exchange fostered a sense of quid pro quo among knowledge workers. "We needed to get people to admit that they were fighting the same battles," Malafsky explains. "This was something that could help them day in and day out."

The potential to improve one's expertise and skills can be a powerful motivator on its own. Most workers respond positively to new practices that will make their jobs easier. In this light, knowledge management can appear desirable to overburdened civil servants.

Francine Haddock, who leads Accenture's human performance and KM practice in Tampa, Fla., confirms the effectiveness of this approach. While implementing a KM portal for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Office of Policy and Planning, she discovered widespread frustration among workers. Even though most retained a strong sense of dedication to serving military veterans, they often felt powerless to help their constituency in the face of such a large and unwieldy bureaucracy. This contributed to their general suspicion of the proposed KM practices.

Haddock and her team countered this mistrust by demonstrating how the technology could help to organize information better for both employees and veterans. "People really value their personal credentials," she says. "They gain an intrinsic reward when they get better at doing their job. If you can offer them that, they are pleased and supportive."

One form of incentive that seems to work well in both the private and public sectors is the simple act of recognition. Tokens of appreciation such as letters of achievement, awards ceremonies or small gifts for coming up with good suggestions give employees a sense that their contributions matter and are being noticed by supervisors and upper management. To many workers, these measures mean just as much as cash rewards.

"Recognition doesn't have to cost a lot; it just needs to be genuine," says Shereen Remez, who was chief knowledge officer for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) before taking the same position at AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) in Washington, D.C. "The idea is that people should be valued for what they know rather than for what their job titles are."

The GSA rewarded active contributors with clocks emblazoned with the agency's logo. "It was just a token, but people liked it. They put it on their desks to show that they were part of the knowledge sharing," Remez recalls. The agency issued more substantial rewards to groups or individual employees for achievements tied to knowledge they had contributed or found. Such rewards could comprise thousands of dollars in merit bonuses as a result of formal performance evaluations, she says.

Common Sense

Rewards of any kind should be tied to performance in knowledge sharing. But formally evaluating that performance requires an accurate way to measure individual contribution. Unfortunately, proving a direct correlation between a particular KM initiative and its impact on an organization's mission can be elusive, because knowledge management in the public sector doesn't always yield tangible results such as increased sales or profits.

Nevertheless, employees should be recognized on two fronts: for contributing to the knowledge base in the first place and for how that knowledge grew and was used by others in the organization. For example, in team efforts, it's important to track how group members used one person's contributions. At the WSIB, every piece of content in the agency's 250 or so knowledge repositories is tracked by author and by how often others view it.

Some analysts argue that knowledge sharing shouldn't require a unique set of metrics. "Ideally, you are not creating new incentives at all," says PwC's Warrick. Knowledge management produces its own rewards in the form of greater efficiency, better and smarter workers and an increased focus on the organization's goals. Hence, the incentives for knowledge sharing, particularly in the mission-oriented environment of the public sector, are merely reasons to practice good management.

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