Thursday 24 November 2011

KM and the demographics of the organisation

Here's another factor that can affect the way you address KM in an organisation; the demographics of the workforce.

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. 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. The biggest risk is knowledge loss, as so many of the workforce will retire soon.

Take an eastern engineering organisation. Here 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. 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 Retention of knowledge, it is deployment of knowledge.

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 Expertise 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.


Anonymous said...

I'd only counter this by saying that from my experience "younger" organizations are more willing to work in a less hierarchical way such as participating in communities of peers whereas "older" organizations often prefer a more centralized command and control approach to knowledge where it is dispensed by trusted experts - or maybe that's just because I work at the UN.

Nick Milton said...

That may be because you work at the UN. My experience has been quite the opposite! Many or most of the "older" companies I have worked with have embraced peer networks, while it has been far more of a struggle in the "younger" companies.

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