Thursday, 27 July 2017

How the demographics of the organisation affect Knowledge Management

The demographics of your organisation determine the distribution of knowledge, and therefore the Knowledge Management Framework

Here's another factor that can affect the way you address KM in an organisation; the demographics of the workforce. Because the demographics are is linked to the distribution of knowledge across the staff, it determines how many sources of knowledge you have, and how many net users, for example:

  • A company with very many junior staff and few experienced staff will have few knowledge suppliers and many knowledge users; while
  • A company with very many experienced staff will have many knowledge suppliers, each of whom is also a knowledge user.

Please note that I am not talking here about whether older people behave differently to younger people - there are many assertions made about these differences in behaviour, few of which seem to stand up to scrutiny.

Take a Western engineering organisation. 

Here the economy is static, and the population growth is stable. Engineering is not a "sexy topic". The workforce is largely made up of baby boomers. A large proportion of the workforce is over 40, with many staff approaching retirement - the blue line in the graph above.

Experience is widespread in the organisation - this is an experienced company, and knowledge is dispersed. Communities of Practice are important, where people can ask each other for advice, and that advice is spread round the organisation. Experienced staff collaborate to create new knowledge out of their shared expertise. Knowledge can easily be kept largely tacit. The engineers know the basics, and a short call to their colleagues fills in any gaps. The biggest risk is knowledge loss, as so many of the workforce will retire soon, and a Knowledge Retention strategy would be a good investment.

Take an Asian engineering organisation. 

China or in India the economy is growing, the population is growing, there is a hunger for prosperity, and engineering is also a growth area. The workforce is predominantly very young - many of them fewer than 2 years in post. There are only a handful of real experts, and a host of inexperienced staff - the red line in the chart above.

Experience is a rare commodity, and is centralised within the company, retained within the Centres of Excellence, and the small Expert groups. Here the issue is not Collaboration, but rapid onboarding and upskilling. The risk is not so much Retention of knowledge, it is deployment of knowledge, although the reliance on a few experts means that they must be given a Knowledge Ownersgip role, rather than using them on projects.  Rather than keeping knowledge tacit, it makes sense to at least document the basics in explicit form (the experts will be too busy to answer so many basic questions), keeping this documentation updated as the organisation learns.

These two demographic profiles would lead you to take two different approaches to KM. The Western company would introduce communities of practice, and use the dispersed knowledge to collaborate on building continuously improving practices, processes and products. Wikis could be used to harness the dispersed expertise. There would be huge potential for innovation, as people re-use and build on ideas from each other. Crowd sourcing, and "asking the audience" are excellent strategies for finding knowledge.

The Eastern company would focus on the development and deployment of standard practices and procedures, and on developing and deploying capability among the young workforce. The experts would build top-class training and educational material, and the focus would be on Communities of Learning rather than Communities of Practice. Innovation would be discouraged, until the staff had built enough experience to know which rules can be bent, and which must be adhered to. Crowdsourcing is not a good strategy, and the "wisdom of the experts" trumps the "wisdom of the crowd".

This is one of the factors that KM must address, namely the amount of expertise in the company, and how widely it is dispersed.

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