Artes y Oficios
Knowledge is an intangible asset of high value within companies and other organizations. Its management is complex. It is a resource not in a permanent state of use and, in order to be valued as a business asset, it must undergo processes similar to those of industrial waste management systems. Without Knowledge Management (KM), it merely becomes a personal resource of some members of the company or non-corporate organization. In a business or service operation without KM, the effective use of knowledge will depend on the professional style and permanence in the organization of a certain human talent, together with a less coordinated acquisition of information technology. In that scenario, knowledge would be similar to untreated industrial wastewater.
I knew little about industrial wastewater reuse and recycling, until not long ago when I had to study the Mexican technical standard that regulates these industrial practices. That lesson was part of the lectures on Environmental Law taught by Professor Mauricio Llamas (PhD) of the University of Anahuac. It is a dense regulation, from which I grasped a basic understanding, thanks to my professor’s good teaching skills. Also, thanks to the practical explanations of a particular private tutor, an industrial engineer with experience in the management of such kind of systems, with whom I just happen to share a home and life with.
Knowledge within an organization is a resource as difficult to collect, recycle and optimize as the water needed for various manufacturing processes. A knowledge manager must complete various purifying steps, so to speak, so that an intellectual skill is profitable in some other business or activity within that entity. The professional development of human talent is like clean water from external sewerage systems used for the first time. Once applied to a specific business, it might not live up to the quality standards of the organization, unless it undergoes further treatments, in order to adapt it within a production or performance standard.
In this new economy, the complexity and speed of transactions also prevent this process from being manual or artisan. It is essential to support KM with the development of methodologies and technological platforms. In their book, The Knowledge Manager’s Handbook, published in 2016, Nick Milton and Patrick Lambe, share theoretical-practical lessons on how to guide the implementation of a knowledge management system.
In it, they explore the results of a survey conducted in several different organizations in order to prioritize the key approaches about their KM implementation systems. The eleven most voted elements were, in descending order: (1) Connecting with people through communities and networks. (2) Learning from experience. (3) Improving access to documents (including search systems and portals). (4) Knowledge retention. (5) Creation and provision of best practices. (6) Innovation. (7) Improved management of document. (8) Provision of knowledge to customer-facing staff (sales/support). (9) Accessing external knowledge and intelligence (10) Knowledge-based engineering. (11) Big data.
The beginning of the calendar year, and halfway through the fiscal year, is an appropriate moment to explore opportunities for continuous improvement, which leads me to consult the aforementioned handbook. On our way to work, the aforementioned industrial engineer and I talked about how his practical explanations about the manufacturing process, while studying the regulations on wastewater treatment under the guidance of professor Llamas, were being recycled for professional purposes by me.
Milton and Lambe suggest that, when considering the creation and improvement of a knowledge management function within an institution, it is advisable to draw from existing processes within the organization, with similar administrative efficiency purposes.
The two authors, who in their résumé include experiences advising Mars, Huawei and the Youth Olympic Games, specifically suggest observing other processes of the company or organization that manage intangibles, and build on their good practices. Among the processes they suggest as models of comparison with knowledge management, the experts refer to risk management or compliance, quality management, customer relationship, branding, business reputation and safety management.
The administration of a wastewater utilization process, like any business process, has a financial component and a market component, as my recycled advisor explained to me. Hiring and retaining personnel who have the right talent to help shape a leadership based on shared knowledge as expected by customers or stakeholders, is as burdensome as obtaining water from the aquifers and transferring it to society, in the quantities that are required by industrial activity, I added.
At the large-scale level involved in manufacturing, it is unthinkable to only use the water flows provided by the sewage system to take advantage of the water. Something similar occurs with knowledge. Not recycling it through treatment processes is an inefficient waste. It is interesting to discover professional synergies between a lawyer working in KM and an engineer specializing in total quality management.
Water treatment processes are chemical and physical in nature. There are levels of optimization that will allow the water to return to the productive cycle, or be useful for other needs such as irrigation or the sanitary services of the corporation, as I was explained in a sort of benchmark. Until its new purpose is decided, the water, once used, is stored in a repository. Other times, instead of being stored in a repository, it is outsourced to companies specializing in recycling industrial inputs.
Knowledge management is challenged by the constant search for ingenious treatments that allow the organization it serves to recycle know-how, in a profitable fashion, both with regards to financial results and satisfaction of the target market, that justify the investment in such a novel operating cost. Its activities range from basic undertakings such as connecting people and networks, initiatives for continuous improvement and experience based learning, to others that require the intervention of a due process of obtaining, processing and redistribution of knowledge, with the support of new technological platforms, in order to generate innovative results.
Companies and organizations have an intellectual capital, often wasted, dispersed and abandoned in physical or electronic files. KM can provide administrative procedures designed to rescue such capital. In addition, external processing resources are added, such as information services or Big Data, depending on the item or service of the entity in question. The KM area is responsible for managing the effectiveness of these external contracts.
As Milton and Lambe explain, each entity must exhaust its own weighting of the knowledge management elements or activities with which it makes sense to work. In my experience of three years working in KM in a legal services firm, I agree that the development of networks of interdependent relationships between the area of knowledge management and productive areas is a fundamental pillar. Milton and Lambe describe their manual as a step-by-step guide to embedding effective knowledge management in your organization. Embedding is a word that I constantly hear in my KM tasks.
Integration can be casual, looking for natural allies, the so-called KM champions that identify with the process; or institutional, creating KM committees at company management levels that consolidate the strategic vision of the new area and support the efforts of the structure of managers, specialists and champions.
In order to achieve and improve the results, I believe that knowledge management must have at least six pillars of the eleven aforementioned elements, in constant activity, oriented towards measurable and concrete goals. The inclusion of technological innovation tools is essential, if their results justify the investment. Once acquired, the KM area is called upon to effectively use those developing trainings and special projects, which can pass to the external level (client-facing KM).
Following the advice of the previously cited international experts, the company or organization interested in carrying out or improving its KM work, should examine its other intangible management processes, if any, and build upon the best practices achieved in designing its KM area. Another option is relying on outsourcing. The creation of a KM division that results in a repository of knowledge should be avoided, in the same way that industrial water left standing, without proper treatment for recycling and subsequent use, remains isolated from the areas of operation where knowledge, not only is created, but is constantly evolving.
The parallels between knowledge management and water use, in building or improving an administrative process, close ranks with the scientific method. KM must be constantly examine with measurement tools created for this purpose, allowing to verify if the goals of quality improvement and generation of new and better results are met. This applies to all kinds of organizations that depend on the knowledge of their staff, such as a university or the Judiciary.
Despite being a subject of scientific rigor, when writing this column, I could not help remembering a verse from the poem Between the Stone and the Flower by Octavio Paz that I recently discovered in my fifth year living in Mexico: Water sounds. It dreams. Water, untouchable on your stone grave, trapped in its tomb of air. Hanging water, underground water, of humid humble tongue, imprisoned. Water unseen in its stone grave dreams invisible in its water grave.
Paz's lyrical expression seems to engage in dialogue with Milton and Lambe. Institutional knowledge must cease to be imprisoned, invisible or lying in underground places. Squandering away, it is equivalent to sitting down and waiting for water to return thanks to the natural course of nature's hydrological cycle. In the context of the digital economy, sitting down and waiting for the benefits of individual knowledge would be as poetic and strange as reciting Octavio Paz on the production lines of a manufacturing company or in the hall of a law firm.
(Translation: Yeli Martínez de Geara)
Versión en Español: Reciclar el conocimiento