Monday 22 March 2021

6 things Knowledge Management can learn from Safety Management

I often argue that safety management is a good analogy to knowledge management. Here are 5 things KM can learn from safety.

Both are management systems focused on intangibles and on behaviours. The main difference is that introducing safety management, especially in industries such as engineering and construction, has been widely successful. Introducing knowledge management has been much more hit-and-miss. 

There is therefore a lot that KM can learn from safety management, for example the 5 things below.

1. Behaviour change and culture change are possible.

The success of safety management relies on a change in attitudes towards safety among employees and contractors. The attitude has to change from "there are always risks, we can't really be safe, it's up to me how much risk I can personally accept" to "all risks can be minimised, we should really be safe, it's up to me to help improve the safety of the whole organisation". The fact that safety cultures are now widespread in many industries shows that a culture change like this is possible.

The KM culture change is a similar change in attitude, from seeing knowledge as something personal, to seeing knowledge as something that affects the whole organisation. If we can change the safety culture, then we can change the knowledge culture. Safety gives us a culture-change blueprint we can follow.

2. Leaders and senior managers need to be strongly involved in the behaviour change.

Safety culture goes hand in hand with safety leadership. Leaders are "the keepers and guardians of the attitudinal norms". A safety culture starts with leadership; leadership drives culture, which in turn drives behaviour. Management support encourages accountability and the recognition that safety is everyone’s responsibility.  Without the support of leadership, the safety culture is temporary.

The same is true for the Knowledge culture. Management support encourages accountability and the recognition that knowledge is everyone’s responsibility.  Without the support of leadership, the knowledge culture change will be temporary.

3. Intangibles need a management system or framework.

Wikipedia describes a safety management system as
...a businesslike approach to safety. It is a systematic, explicit and comprehensive process for managing safety risks. As with all management systems, a safety management system provides for goal setting, planning, and measuring performance. A safety management system is woven into the fabric of an organization. It becomes part of the culture, the way people do their jobs.
There are many such systems in place in different industries, and most of them contain elements such as the ones below
  • Policy policy
  • Organisational roles, responsibilities and accountabilities
  • Processes for identifying, reporting and fixing safety risks (processes such as Hazids, near miss investigations and so on) investigation and audit)
  • Audits and measures.
As far as KM is concerned, you could replace the word "safety" with "knowledge" in the wikipedia text above and it would make sense (if you remove the word "risk).  KM, like safety management, requires a system or a framework (I prefer the term Framework as "knowledge management system" is often interpreted to mean an IT system). The knowledge management framework would even contain similar elements - a KM policy, KM processes, KM roles, KM measures and audits. We might add "KM technology" as technology has more of a role to play in KM than it does in safety management. 

4. Even when the behaviour change is implemented, you can't relax.

Safety culture needs to be sustained. You don't eliminate the Health and Safety department once your safety record has improved, and leaders don't stop asking for accident statistics once they feel "the job is done". The safety job is never done, it requires constant vigilance, otherwise the culture can revert to how it was before.  Even when safety accountabilities are embedded within the projects and departments, there still remains a safety function, accountable for the safety management system itself.

KM will need a similar accountable sustaining function, even when the KM framework is fully embedded. We cannot assume that the KM team will do themselves out of a job - the job will never stop. At the very least they will need to pass the job on to someone else.

5. For the management system to really drive culture change, it needs to affect people's careers. 

Part of the reason why the safety culture has taken hold so well is that for many organisations, safety has become a non-negotiable.  If people do not behave safely, they know their job is at risk. The safety policy is a mandatory document, and compliance is mandatory.

Knowledge management may need to take the same hard line. We already see this in some organisations. The first words in the NASA KM policy are "compliance is mandatory". And as Bob Buckman wrote, "The people who engage in active and effective knowledge sharing across the organization should be the only ones considered for promotion."  If we believe that KM adds big value to our organisation, then KM should also become a non-negotiable.

6. You can even use similar metrics.

The primary difference between the two disciplines is that safety is more visible and more measurable. This makes it easier to implement. However we can even start to learn from the way safety is measured, which is through the reduction of safety incidents such as "lost time" incidents (when someone loses work hours through injury) or "near misses".  We can start to look for lost knowledge incidents, where people should have had access to knowledge but didn't, and so repeated a mistake or ignored a proven practice. We can even look for knowledge near misses, where someone found a critical piece of knowledge, but only by luck or chance. If we can eliminate these, then we have implemented successful KM, as well as adding value to the organisation.

So there are 6 ways in which you can treat KM like you treat safety management. Hopefully you can get KM to succeed in the same way as safety.

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