“He who knows, and knows not that he knows is asleep; waken him.” So runs a proverb variously credited to the Arabs and the Chinese.
Computerworld will not venture an opinion about the somnolent state of public servants, but there are many workers in both private and public sectors who are described by the first part of the saying — they have lost track of knowledge that lies, if not in their own brain then somewhere in another brain or in a paper or digital file within the organisation.
In practice, he or she who “knows not” will be far from in a state of sleep; they will be trying energetically and needlessly to find out the same facts again; an exercise that has been characterised as a WOMBAT (waste of money, brains and time).
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) is the latest to have seen the need for an improved way of knowing what its staff know.
MFAT has conducted an audit of the knowledge in its organisation and recently issued a request for information from potential suppliers of a knowledge management strategy.
“The Ministry is by [NZ government] standards a substantial producer and holder of information, much of it classified,” says an appendix to the documents.
“Explicit information is [at present] stored predominately as a paper-based filing system although sizeable quantities exist as an eclectic range of electronic databases,” the Ministry says. “Much of the Ministry’s processes, especially around administrative support, is codified in manuals.
The career structure of the Ministry in part supports a huge amount of tacit knowledge, much of it accessible but still largely not indexed in any way.”
The department is looking for a way of formalising its stock of informal knowledge, often circulated among small groups, and has concluded that it needs to invest in technologies to “harness the collaborative and communicative powers of the internet to facilitate more efficient interaction and provide access to information repositories and information management tools that are easy to use.”
The location of such knowledge is complicated by the spread of the ministry’s operations around the globe. In addition to offices in Wellington and Auckland, it has 50 overseas posts in 48 countries.
It wants to expand informal networks into communities of expertise and forums for discussion of specific areas. It also sees the need to codify informal learning.
A knowledge management strategy is expected to be in place by the end of the year, including a description of the environment it will need and a “gaps” analysis to indicate what needs improving.