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Opinion - Prioritise knowledge management to accelerate development

2021-01-08  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Prioritise knowledge management to accelerate development

Prof Kingo Mchombu

Namibia is among a few countries in Africa which has knowledge management enshrined in its vision statement. Namibia Vision 2030 – has as one of its key goals to create a knowledge-based economy in Namibia by the year 2030. In chapter 4.3 in Vision 2030, it is stated that: to become a knowledge-based society, Namibia will transform herself into an innovative, knowledge based society supported by a dynamic education system and strong ICT sector. Although this is an excellent starting point, the vision statement was never followed up with concrete action and a clear action plan as we hope to show later. 

But what is knowledge management? One of the most practical explanations is by Collison and Parcell (2004) in their book titled ‘Learning to Fly’. They defined knowledge management as:  
‘…capturing, creating, distilling, sharing and using know-how. That know-how includes explicit and tacit knowledge and embraces know-how, know-what, know-who, know-why and know-when … It is not about books of wisdom and best practices, it’s more about the communities that keep know-how of a topic alive by sharing what they know, building on it and adapting it to their own use … Call it ‘performance through learning’, ‘shared knowledge’ or simply ‘working smarter’.

While the consultancy agency, McKinsey came out with a slightly more performance-oriented explanation by stating that knowledge management is used to enhance performance through a purposeful and systematic approach. Through the creation, development, and application of knowledge to the value-creating processes practiced within an organisation. 

Anyone who has doubts on the value of KM should look at the excellent example of the Asian Tigers, a group of countries who have applied knowledge systematically to support their development. One of the countries, which stand out, among the tigers, is the small country of Singapore. The case of Singapore offers a testimony to the power of knowledge management at the country level. When Singapore became independent in 1957, they had the same per capita (US$250) as many African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Malawi. Their first development plan was copied from Malawi according to Lee Kuan Yew, their first prime minister. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his autobiography on the day of independence he did not know whether to celebrate or cry because Singapore was so poor. But, Singapore’s economy today is over 10 times bigger than most other developing countries. The World Bank estimates that what made the difference was Singapore’s ability to acquire and use the latest knowledge to support its development.  

The second case to provide proof of the value of knowledge management is the World Bank. The World Bank (WB) realised it is staffed with highly educated individuals who over the years had amassed vast experience and knowledge on what did—or did not—work in accomplishing the WB mission of worldwide poverty reduction. However, this experience was mainly hidden in the minds of individual experts. It was thus difficult for other staff to benefit from this knowledge, let alone external clients unless they were getting a loan from the World Bank. Wolfensohn succeeded in smashing these silos and made the World Bank’s knowledge systematically available to anyone who needed it, both inside the World Bank and outside. This is how thee Knowledge Bank was born. The UNDP and other UN agencies have thriving knowledge management programmes as well. The German Agency for Development (GTZ), The British Development Agency (DIFID), to mention a few, all have very well articulated knowledge management programmes. 

Knowledge has become so valuable that it should be considered to be on par with other factors of production. Two experts in KM, Davenport and Prusak (1998) in their book subtitled ‘How Organizations manage what they know’ have argued that knowledge is so critical that it should be considered the fourth production factor in companies in addition to labour, land and capital.
Knowledge itself falls into two categories (i) tacit and (ii) explicit. 

Knowledge is tacit when it is in the head of an individual, including experiences and unrecorded known how. Knowledge, which is recorded, is regarded as explicit and may be in databases, reports etc. In terms of value, it is said the most valuable is tacit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge. The two forms of knowledge which complement each other have been compared to an iceberg with explicit knowledge representing the tip of the iceberg while tacit knowledge represents the submerged and bigger part of the iceberg.   

Tacit knowledge also includes the knowledge, which originates from the cultural roots of people, is called indigenous/traditional knowledge, and is found in the heads of elders in Africa. This category is now regarded as highly valuable in national development. 
One falsehood that is often heard among people is the claim that knowledge is power. In the knowledge management context, however, knowledge is only powerful if it is shared and multiplied. The more a group of people in an organization or country knows of what each of its members know, the better it can perform in the world and workplace and become more competitive.  

Many writers agree knowledge management has four components: (i) organisation culture (ii) processes (iii) technology (iv) leadership. For the success of an organization’s project, what the organization knows in terms of experience, expertise and best practices both internally and externally must be shared without any constraints or concealment of knowledge. The organisation’s culture is how people relate to each other and whether they trust each other enough to share and use each other’s ideas and knowledge. On the other hand, the processes refer to what they are trying to accomplish to meet the organisation’s goals, which must be supported by the knowledge system. Technology is the pipeline through which knowledge and ideas are transmitted. Leadership provides the vision and resources to implement a knowledge management strategic plan.  

Knowledge management has to be fully integrated into strategic plans and national agenda for success to be achieved. Knowledge only bears results and brings benefits when it is shared widely, accurately and put into action. Knowledge without action is of little benefit to anyone. 
Prof Thomas Menkhoff (2005) in his book ‘Governing and Managing Knowledge in Asia’   gives the example of Singapore which has used this approach so successfully and is now known as The Intelligent Island because all the population have access to the latest knowledge they need for national development. 

For knowledge management to succeed in an organisation or country several things are needed:
 Leadership and direction - Leadership and champions makes the connection between knowledge management and critical business goals. They show clear support for knowledge management, designate a knowledge management leader, and articulate what outcomes they expect, and provide material and human resources needed to accomplish these outcomes.    

Knowledge management strategy and policy framework – this is a written document which defines what the country hopes to accomplish through knowledge management and how. The strategy should support the country’s overall five-year strategic plan.  
 Culture - The country and its organisations including government ministries should foster a culture of collaboration and provide employees with both online and face-to-face opportunities for knowledge sharing, mentoring and problem solving.

Mission-critical - unique and at-risk knowledge needs to be proactively identified and either documented and made available online, or transferred from person to person as appropriate. Standard operating procedures are available and should be put used to capture lessons learned from completed activities and fully leverage the organization’s base of prior experience/expertise as new activities are undertaken.
Human resources and training - functions work together with the management team to identify emerging workforce knowledge gaps and risks. They pursue a coherent and synergistic approach to addressing these gaps and risks through recruiting, employee on-boarding. Appraisal of staff performance includes knowledge sharing and knowledge creation behaviours in the organisation. 

In line with these sentiments on the key role knowledge management can play in national development, IUM is creating a Centre of Knowledge Sciences to provide short courses, research and innovation, knowledge management policy and agenda articulation and formal courses starting from 2021. The IUM Centre of Knowledge Sciences will be operated in collaboration with external partners.


2021-01-08  Staff Reporter

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