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Knowledge: The new currency of the 21st century

2021-05-03  Staff Reporter

Knowledge: The new currency of the 21st century
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Kingo Mchombu

It is now often claimed that knowledge is the new currency of the 21st century (Friedman, Knowledge is [the] currency of the 21st century, 2018). Regrettably, in spite of this notion valuable knowledge in many organisations remains unrecorded, in the tacit format, which constitutes about 80% of all organisations knowledge. The experienced employees who have worked for many years have accumulated valuable knowledge concerning, for example, customers and their preferences, work procedures, the history of the company and the various crises the company has faced and overcome over past years.  How to prepare funding proposals quickly and effectively, and the list is endless. Even the service standards and quality acceptable to customers are stored in their minds and often unrecorded anywhere else.  Although this knowledge is in the individual or collective mind of the employees, in reality it belongs to the organisations   because they created such knowledge as part of their employment engagement.  

Each year there are several ways Namibian organisations and government ministries lose vast amounts of valuable knowledge. A major way of losing institutions knowledge is when employees with valuable knowledge leave through retirement, death, transfers, resignations, or forced retrenchments. When an organisation declares that all employees above 55 years old should be retrenched on mass, it is also a decision that may result in a massive loss of experiential knowledge when so many experienced employees leave the organisation. Often the value of such knowledge is underestimated   and the loss is only realised when the employees have gone and can no longer be recalled to share their ideas and critical knowledge. Namibian organisations can use the state agency, Business and Intellectual Property Authority (BIPA) to register and protect their valuable ideas from being copied or stolen when employees part ways with them, but only a few take advantage of this opportunity to protect themselves from theft of valuable ideas.  Sadly, technically, valuable ideas of most Namibian organisations are available for free to anyone who wants to steal them and profit from this form of theft if not protected through BIPA registration.  

To put this into perspective, all of over Namibia at the end of each year there will be thousands of employees who retire or resign from the public service and the private sector.   Often those who depart are also the most experienced holders of the critical knowledge the organisation needs to continue operations and remain competitive.     

One of the critical questions then is why is it so difficult to capture and retain this critical knowledge while the knowledge holders are still employed in the organisation? The key reason might be that most organisations lack a culture or policy of sharing knowledge among employees due to the lack of a knowledge management system. Often knowledge is regarded as a tool of power by the knowledge holders and is thus guarded jealously by the holder of such expertise as a guarantee for indispensability, hence the unwillingness to   transfer their knowledge and ideas. 

Under such a policy vacuum on knowledge management system even simple steps like knowledge transfer between employees and appropriate retention protocols have never been put in place in the institution. A second reason could be the demographic peculiarities of many Namibian organisations where race and ethnic differences are still prevalent and you find the incoming generation of young black fresh graduates being received by an older generation of mostly white employees who are thus unwilling to transfer their knowledge to this group of young new comers who may be seen as having come to take over jobs of their predecessors.  Trust becomes a rare commodity and under such environment knowledge sharing becomes next to impossible. 

Certainly top management commitment to entrench a knowledge sharing culture including creating a knowledge management strategy as part of a broader policy to safeguard the intellectual assets of the organisation is an essential component for successful knowledge sharing, transfer and retention.  But an attitude of trust,   comradeship and team spirit among employees is also a vital ingredient. The leadership needs to give a sense of direction and lead by example in trust formation and open sharing of knowledge and ideas among employees.

The tools for knowledge retention are too many to be fully covered in a short article like this one. Most of the tools cost nothing except for the time of employees and a slight adjustment of an organisations management style to change from a hierarchical top-down management to a more open style of management which is a more collaborative and collegial style and values the knowledge and expertise of employees, including junior employees. With a formal knowledge management system in place, strategies such as knowledge retention would be part of the procedures of any organization. Some of the key tools include but not limited to the following: 

Knowledge hubs which are online knowledge repositories which incorporate all the knowledge harvested from employees, customers and competitors and stored in a digital format for example in an intranet which is carefully managed to ensure it is up-to-date and integrated with the organisations strategic goals so individuals can access relevant knowledge quickly and take informed action to make their organisation agile and competitive. 

But also add their feedback on what worked and what did not work when they used the captured content in the knowledge hub. Knowledge hubs may not capture all forms of knowledge especially the deep seated tacit knowledge which require ongoing conversation under informal settings to be successfully transferred from the knowledge holders to the knowledge seekers.   

It is normal for some institutions to confer emeritus status for retired employees so they can invite them back to share their knowledge and assist new employees to understand the history and culture of their organization by providing critical knowledge and expertise through conversations and storytelling. Universities are well known for this approach but also big companies can start a system of alumni for retired employees to continue to identify with their former companies and act as honorary ambassadors. 

The Japanese took this approach one step further of engaging former employees and even building retirement villages for the purpose of keeping retired employees close at hand for regular consultation.  The army, police and security forces have also employed this approach, from time to time, and created retirement villages to access their retired employees for consultations when the need arises. 

A mentorship system is yet another tool for transferring critical knowledge from experienced knowledge holders to younger employees.  Mentorship can also act as a succession training approach but the young staff members can also share their own knowledge with older members of staff especially when it comes to the latest technologies and new concepts they acquired recently at tertiary institutions of education. Hence this exchange may create a vibrant environment of intergenerational knowledge transfer which benefits all employees and builds a strong spirit of team work, intergenerational collaboration and mutual respect.  

Yet another technique could be conducting simple employee knowledge audit surveys   to establish the type and depth of knowledge which each employee has in order to identify high levels of  knowledge concentration which requires to be captured and stored in the knowledge hub but also with the possibility of developing a yellow page register which can help to locate  individuals in the organisation with a high level of  knowledge and thus benefit other employees when they need extra ideas and knowledge quickly.   

In conclusion, knowledge has become a valuable resource for modern organisations, including governments, and has been called the new currency of the 21st century. Thus there is need to put in place mechanisms for sharing all the available knowledge resources from both internal and external sources in order to add value to the goals and strategies of the country. 

Without clear knowledge retention strategies there will be a high loss of valuable knowledge each year as experienced employees retire or resign. It is therefore important that Namibian organisations recognise this loss and create a knowledge management systems which can help them to mitigate the annual loss of unrecorded knowledge as their most experienced knowledge holders depart for greener pastures or go to retirement. 

Having realised the critical need for knowledge management in the Namibian society, IUM is in an advanced stage of establishing a Centre of Knowledge Sciences to equip individuals, organisations and the country in general with the necessary know how to implement organisational knowledge.


2021-05-03  Staff Reporter

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