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The challenges and opportunities for implementing KM in public agencies in South Africa
By: Dr Nhamo W. Samasuwo, Learning and Innovation Subunit, Development Programme Services Unit (DPSU) Independent Development Trust (IDT), South Africa
Although Knowledge Management (KM) as a discipline had been in existence for over decade now, its impact on the public sector seems to have remained minimal at best, or at worst, ineffectual. The apparent minimal impact which KM seems to have made on the public sector is in deep contrast to the public sector’s well documented role in producing groundbreaking knowledge in the fields of humanities, sciences and development alike. Research on the subject also suggests that older management theories have previously and successfully migrated from the private to the public sector with value enhancing impact.1 The apparent difficulties faced in institutionalizing knowledge management in the public sector in general has tempted some scholars to explain away the situation in terms of the incompatibility arising from knowledge management’s bottom-line “business-driven origins” or “citizenship in corporate environments.”2 Thus, despite its strong private sector pedigree, knowledge management still has special validity in the public sector where multi-governance imperatives for a people-centred, responsive, innovative and flexible government mean that old and costly mistakes cannot be repeated in perpetuity, and often without serious negative social consequences on the governed. As in other developed countries, the governments in Africa not only have a responsibility to ensure the continued economic viability of their respective countries, but they also have to spearhead and drive an innovative, learning and effective public sector which is able to deliver services efficiently and eradicates chronic poverty.3
This paper tries to critically examine the key challenges and opportunities for implementing and integrating knowledge management in key development agencies which fall under the Department of Public Works (DPW) in South Africa. While there is abundant literature on the potential of knowledge management to deliver value in the public sector in South Africa and beyond, little or no scholarly effort seems to have been spared for a critical analysis of the state of implementation and integration of knowledge management in the country’s key “change agents” or development agencies in general. This is despite the fact that knowledge management has long been recognised as key imperative in development best practice and a driving force for pubic sector reform and innovation in most developed countries. Suffice to say that development agencies in South Africa have a special role to play in closing the debilitating economic disparities and bridging the divide between what commentators and policy makers alike have referred to as the “first” and “second” economies. As if to make matters worse, all existing platforms for collaboration and knowledge sharing that have emerged in the public sector seem perpetually condemned to remain as mere talk-shops offering no practical solutions on how to knowledge management can have a real transformative and developmental impact on the country’s public sector in general.
The knowledge economy imperatives and the Public Sector
Just like elsewhere, public service managers and administration in South Africa have to contend with intractable and multiple challenges of the 21st century. These challenges range from creating sustainable decent jobs, keeping new human security threats such as diseases at bay and creating new knowledge for the creation of resilient, sustainable and cohesive communities. They also have to ensure that the education system meets the needs of a contemporary knowledge economy and repair decaying social infrastructure. In South Africa, where decades of apartheid social engineering created the twin evils of racial social marginalisation and hard infrastructure disparities, the public sector managers face the daunting task of developing new infrastructure programmes that go beyond delivering widgets. In other words, they have to deliver development outcomes based on new knowledge that supports innovative anti-poverty interventions.
In the current global environment, every public sector has to promote the country’s global competitiveness in economic and knowledge terms. In fact, in South Africa, just as elsewhere, the public sector can no longer escape the reality that “knowledge and innovation [have become] the life blood of development.”4 The public sector has to think globally and act locally because of increasing competition in the area of service and policy making by other new global players or non-state actors. For example, one observable new trend is that non-state actors such as civil society, non governmental organisations (NGOs) and the private sector have started to directly challenge and compete with government for resources to deliver services to citizens. This has forced the public sector in general to actively take part in a new “global war for top talent.”5 The public sector can no longer afford to be the proverbial retirement home where the country’s best minds go to die. On the contrary, the civil service has to continually reform and transform itself through the creation, acquisition, dissemination and deployment of new knowledge.6 Such a paradigm shift will only take place if systems are put in place if knowledge management is mainstreamed and is used as a catalyst to create a culture of learning and innovation.
KM initiatives in the Department of Public Works
The implementation of knowledge management in South Africa’s public service has been largely spearheaded by the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA). The DPSA, through its Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI), has helped develop a platform for knowledge sharing and dissemination across the public service. Since efforts on implementing knowledge management in the public service started around 2003, there has been a stampede by various government departments “to do KM” as way of engineering the renewal and transformation of the civil service in general. The stampede has since given rise to a range of uncoordinated knowledge management interventions and the setting up of units with the sole responsibility of the broader institutional mandate to promote a knowledge-based culture or approach to service delivery. The underpinning objective was to make sure that the public sector avoided the wasting of valuable resources either by re-inventing the wheel, duplicating functions or repeating the same mistakes. Put simply, the expectation was/is that knowledge management should help create a smart working and knowledge-driven public service capable of running a developmental state.7
Given its pivotal role in service delivery, the Department of Public Works (DPW), often in collaboration with the DPSA, has sought to embed knowledge management and knowledge sharing as a new way of implementing government mandates across its family of major public entities such as the Independent Development Trust (IDT), Council for the Built Environment (CBE) and Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB)8. While the DPW has tried to take a more holistic and strategic approach to knowledge management in pubic entities through the Research Directorate located in the Strategic Management Unit, the public entities referred to above seem to have individually chosen to embark on separate initiatives to turn themselves into learning organisations. Despite this, efforts are still underway to develop an institutional-wide programme that is aimed at integrating knowledge management activities between the DPW and its public entities.
The envisaged plan is aimed at leveraging the existing pool of information and knowledge to promote cross-functional learning across the DPW as a whole. Thus, the Knowledge Management and Research Directorate embarked on a process to:
Key milestones in the context of the KM Life cycle
Although the introduction of knowledge management across the DPW’s various units and family of public entities appears to taken place in the absence of a broad framework strategy, certain milestones in terms implementation have been covered with varying results. The progress made so far by DPW and its public agencies is captured in the KM life cycle in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: KM Life Cycle and Milestones in the DPW and Principal Public Agencies9
Knowledge management milestones: analysis
The progress made in terms of knowledge management implementation and integration was extensively discussed during a workshop between DPW and its public entities hosted on the 22nd of October 2008 by the Learning and Innovation subunit at the IDT. During the workshop, knowledge managers from different public entities made presentations on the state and progress made on knowledge management in their respective organisations. All participants were encouraged to measure their progress against the stages in the knowledge management life cycle and to make comments on the internal challenges they faced as well as propose the way forward. The following results came out from the workshop.
It emerged during the workshop that the DPW, as the principal department of the public entities, has made significant progress in terms of implementation across its various internal units. In terms of progress, the DPW had reached the level of integration and implementation somewhere between the adolescent and adult stages as indicated in Figure 1 above. It was noted that the department showed greater awareness of the strategic value of knowledge management. Furthermore, various initiatives such as workshops, Ideas Festival and a library Week had been started to get the process moving. It was pointed out during the workshop that DPW was also initiating a public entity-wide Community of Practice (CoP) and developing a strategy framework to guide the implementation plan process.
While it was noted that the various units in DPW had young and energetic staff, the following factors were noted as the main challenges affecting the implementation and integration of knowledge management across the various units. The following factors were noted as key impediments:
Compared to all other public agencies that fall under the DPW, the IDT seemed to have made more progress over a relatively short period of time. The adoption of knowledge management in the IDT forms part of the agency’s long-term vision to become the leading knowledge-based development agency of choice in South Africa. During the workshop, it emerged that the IDT stands at the adolescence stage. Besides having a dedicated function with a budget, IDT already has a strategy framework and road map to drive the implementation of its knowledge management initiatives. A more recent reflection of progress made on such initiatives was successful hosting of the first Development Week in the history of the IDT. Other initiatives underway include the implementation of a research and evaluation programme that is aimed at generating new knowledge based on the organisation’s development experience. The IDT has established various platforms for sharing knowledge such as development dialogues that draw on the knowledge and feedback from internal and external stakeholders such as communities that benefit from its programmes.
However, despite these achievements, the IDT is still battling with the devolution of knowledge management practice and integration across its dispersed staff located in various regions across South Africa. The IDT has regional staff based in offices located in KwaZulu Natal (KZN), Western Cape (WC), Gauteng, North West (NW), Eastern Cape (EC), Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Free State and Northern Cape (NC). One of the main challenges the IDT faces is lack of capacity to capture and document knowledge. An internal and organisation-wide knowledge management needs analysis carried out in 200810 summarised the state of knowledge management in the IDT by making the following recommendations:
In contrast to the IDT, participants to the workshop noted that in the CIDB, knowledge management is still at the toddler stage. In fact, it was revealed that the organisation was still in the process of coming to terms with knowledge management as an idea. In common with many other organizations, it also emerged that knowledge management in the CIDB was regarded as synonymous with information technology and that all initiatives were driven by library or information specialists
The CBE’s position was marginally different from that of the CIDB. It was revealed during the workshop that the CBE was still at the toddler stage of the knowledge management life cycle. Part of the problem was that the organisation lacked a common or shared understanding of what knowledge management is. The commonest assumption was that knowledge management was the same as communications. Also, while the knowledge management as a function in the CBE is located in operations, it has been left to be spearheaded by a single champion. To make matters worse, because of the association of knowledge management with communications, it emerged that the latter often took precedence over knowledge management and related activities or practices. There was a general consensus that the CBE still needed to develop a strategy, focus on records management and revive its virtual Knowledge Centre.
In light of the challenges faced DPW and its public entities, participants at the workshop agreed that a KM Steering Committee (composed of DPW and its Public Entities) should be established to foster the cross fertilisation of knowledge and identify ideas that can fuel knowledge sharing and innovation in the public service. Amongst other things, it was proposed that the KM Steering Committee would:
It is clear that the challenges facing some of the country’s “change agents” or principal government departments such as the DPW are consistent with the findings of studies and discussions on knowledge management in the public sector in general. It is clear that there is variegated of differentiated picture of capacities and strengths among the different organisations. Indeed, this is symptomatic of the variegated nature of delivery capacities across the South Africa state as a whole. For example, studies on the state in South Africa have long pointed out that the existence of differentiated capacities and pockets of excellence across the public sector stood as the single most important obstacle to the realization of strong developmental state. This has led to calls by local development specialists for a reconfiguration of the state to boost service delivery capacity through coordination. However, what is missing in this new debate on reconfiguring the state is the potential presented by an effective public sector knowledge management strategy in building cohesion, shared learning and innovation across the whole sector.
There is no doubt that the highly compartmentalised structure of public sector institutions in South Africa also accounts for most of the problems faced by DPW and its public entities in implementing and institutionalising knowledge management. Furthermore, the lack of consensus and often varied understanding of what knowledge management is and its association with library and information technology both stand as key disablers.11 In particular, the thinking that knowledge management is the same as information technology has led to the development of unnecessary, expensive and often incompatible information technology systems or tools that only a few find useful. Even worse, this lack of understanding of knowledge management as a concept has led to the dusting-off and re-labeling of largely defunct information centres or libraries. Not surprisingly, institutions with established libraries regard themselves as knowledge management champions in the public sector. This misunderstanding of knowledge management as a concept also explains why people see it as extra work which they simply don’t have time for. This is despite the fact that most public service workers are actually knowledge workers themselves. An even bigger challenge to KM in the public agencies is a crisis of expectations. Rather expect KM to yield results in the near to long term, management sometimes expect instant pay-offs or results, almost as if KM was akin to instant coffee.
Beyond the isolated and emerging pockets of a thriving knowledge management culture in some departments and public agencies, a lot of other numerous obstacles still remain. Among those commonly cited at a recent DPSA workshop include lack of resources and internal research capacity to document knowledge, lack of viable learning platforms, weak management support for KM initiatives, a culture of intolerance to criticism, silos and the ‘not invented here” syndrome.12 The point about the lack of internal capacity to carry out research and document knowledge is a profound one because no viable knowledge management culture can be built on a low skills base. Part of the problem is the pervasive culture of consultancies in government departments. Little or no research is done internally as most of this research work is given or outsourced to consultants. Besides being costly, this over-reliance on external consultants ensures that departments don’t develop internal capacity to research, analyse and distil data or even document information and share knowledge by themselves.
The consequences of not cultivating the development of a knowledge-driven workforce or civil service mean that the problem of underdevelopment and chronic intergenerational poverty will continue to confront the majority of poor South Africans for yet another generation. Even with its vast mineral resources and untapped intellectual potential South Africa risks facing a similarly ironic fate alongside many other poor African countries: that of living like a pauper with the responsibilities of a rich man. It is therefore, pivotal that platforms such as the KM Africa Conference help address these knowledge management implementation challenges in the public sector. This includes looking at how the education systems should produce a new generation of interdisciplinary knowledge workers capable of integrating knowledge from different disciplines. While specialists remain relevant, the need to produce integrationist knowledge workers has become paramount. Thus, placing too much emphasis or resources on the teaching of science subjects only at the expense of humanities may not be the ultimate answer. Furthermore, it may also mean that KM practitioners may have to examine the potential for using adult education techniques in order to embed KM thinking and KM-based learning in their respective organisations.
What is clear is that while there exists some pockets of progress, there is no doubt that a new knowledge management culture or discipline remains largely in its infancy in the public agencies referred to above. In turn, the failure to implement knowledge management in government departments such as DPW and its key agencies will have far reaching consequences. Thus, platforms such as the KM Africa Conference have a responsibility to build capacity for implementation and to help link governments with external pockets of knowledge and learning on the continent. Ultimately, the conference will have served its purpose if it also helped devise new ways of tapping into the continent’s already existing rich but often maligned intellectual base. Africa’s intellectuals must be fully mobilised and utilised in order to develop fourth generation knowledge needed for the continued sustenance and survival of the continent not only in the current global knowledge economy, but also in an increasingly inequitable world where the rate of consumption has reached unsustainable levels.
Submitted by storytelling on 29 July 2009 - 12:36pm. categories [ ]