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Trends in Workplace Essay

The ancient Chinese saying “May you live in interesting times” has perhaps never been more relevant. As the 1990s draw to a close and the new millennium fast approaches, life is phenomenally interesting–and demanding. Professionals who are responsible for workplace learning and performance improvement are squarely in the center of the swirl of exciting possibilities–and requirements–that are emerging. The inextricable link between rapid technological change and the emergence of the global economy has created the necessity for profound change in the way people and organizations work. As a result, workplace learning is arguably more strategic to the competitive advantage of both individuals and employers than at any point in all of recorded history. So it’s a great time to be in this profession. But along with the tremendous opportunity that this period of economic history has brought come unprecedented requirements and responsibilities.

The same technological advances that are behind the rapid emergence of a truly global economy are forever changing both the demand for and supply of workplace learning opportunities. This article is the third of ASTD’s annual reports that identify major trends that are affecting the field of workplace learning and performance improvement. The underlying trends that were identified in the first two of these articles (see the November 1996 and 1997 issues of Training & Development) are longstanding and not likely to change in the near term. Four particularly noteworthy demand-side developments are the growing effort given to managing knowledge, the integration of learning and communication functions, a resurgence of interest in leadership development and executive coaching, and the intensifying requirement among employees that career development become an integral part of their employment relationship.

The supply-side developments to follow are those that hold the potential for revolutionizing the way in which work and learning occur: the Internet, intelligent tutoring systems, learning objects, and voice recognition. Two important developments in the marketplace for workplace learning, where supply meets demand, are the ongoing consolidation within the supplier community and the creation of an electronic marketplace where buyers and sellers of learning products and tools can meet virtually. Demand and supply–powerful, global forces that cannot be escaped but that can be harnessed to your advantage. So read on for a glimpse of what the world holds in store for you as the new year and the new millennium unfold. And as you read, keep in mind another old saying–“forewarned is forearmed.”

The demand for workplace learning and performance improvement Periods of rapid change create a premium on learning–for both individuals and organizations. Prosperity and growth are the rewards for those who are the fastest at learning and putting their learning into action; stagnation and decline are the penalties for delay. In an era when it is knowledge rather than physical assets that increasingly defines competitive advantage, the process of managing knowledge becomes a central part of the learning process.

Knowledge management.

According to some observers, the industrial era’s successor–the information age, in which white-collar jobs exceeded blue-collar jobs and entire industries arose just to help companies manage and process information–is already at or past the midpoint of its life cycle. The ever-declining cost of processing information has made it universally available. Indeed, information has become a commodity that is readily bought and sold. As a result, it is no longer enough to define competitive advantage. Gone are the days, for example, when banks could compete exclusively on the basis of which had the fastest information technology or which could slice and dice their account information in more ways than anyone else. Hence, the rapidly growing interest in knowledge as the “new” source of competitive advantage and the realization that we have now entered a new era–the knowledge era. In many ways, this is nothing new at all. A firm’s knowledge–the brains of its employees, their know-how, the processes and customer knowledge that they create–has always been a source of competitive advantage.

And by extension, so too has been knowledge management–the processes by which a firm creates and leverages knowledge. Whatis unique about the knowledge era is that knowledge is becoming the primary source of competitive advantage within a growing number of industries. Organizations from industrial-era industries, such as automobile manufacturing, to information-age industries such as consulting are recognizing that they each have a unique storehouse of knowledge, and that the future belongs to those that can grow their knowledge fastest and then apply and use it best. With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that in the knowledge era, creating and leveraging knowledge is the business of business.

By all available measures, the stock market is already providing handsome rewards to companies that successfully leverage their knowledge–a phenomenon that will almost surely grow in significance as knowledge-based organizations increase in size and number. A number of firms are anticipating this and looking to knowledge management to enhance, measure, and manage the knowledge of their employees and organizations more effectively.

Why manage knowledge? There are a variety of reasons for the emergence of knowledge management as a real business concern. Among them is the messy transition from industrial-based production and work systems to information-based systems, which rendered many functions and people obsolete. Though downsizing seemed to be the answer of the 1980s, this butcher’s knife approach often resulted in the loss of valuable knowledge rather than the financial gains that firms expected. Knowledge management offers, instead, a surgeon’s scalpel that sharpens and refines the value of people and what they know. Certainly, the exponential growth of information technology and the plummeting cost of information processing also helped by laying the technological foundation for the emergence of knowledge management.

A necessary, but in no way sufficient, part of most knowledge management efforts is a set of technologies for capturing and synthesizing information from which knowledge can be created and shared–technologies such as intranets, Lotus Notes, electronic performance support systems, and specialized software. These technologies provide not only wide and instantaneous access to information by people inside and outside firms who previously lacked such access, but also to the contextual cues that transform information into knowledge. Results from one of the first benchmarking studies on knowledge management, by the American Productivity and Quality Center, suggest several other reasons for its rise, including • the need to capture what employees learn through customer contact.

Empowered employees who had no way of sharing new solutions or innovations. • internal and external benchmarking as a way of finding best practices • increasingly global and geographically dispersed operations • customers seeking firms who leverage knowledge to meet their needs • the rise of knowledge work and increased need for collaboration • the need for increased responsiveness and shorter cycle times. What exactly is knowledge management? Like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, what knowledge management means to people depends on which part they are touching. For many, knowledge management is simply a more contemporary label for what they have already been doing under the rubric of information management, total quality management, training, the learning organization, electronic libraries, and so on.

Adding further confusion is that some cast the knowledge management net more widely than others. Karl Erik Sveiby, an early advocate of knowledge management, views it as “the art of creating value from an organization’s intangible assets.” For others, knowledge management is confined to the management of the codified, formalized, explicit forms of knowledge such as repositories of lessons learned, documents, databases, and company yellow pages, rather than all intangible assets. In their book Creating the Knowledge-Based Business, David Skyrme and Debra Amidon define knowledge management as “the explicit and systematic management of vital knowledge and its associated processes of creating, gathering, organizing, diffusion, use, and exploitation.” Perhaps the best way to understand knowledge management is to take a closer look at some examples of what companies actually do when they make knowledge management a priority. In a now classic study, Tom Davenport, along with Mike Beers and Dave DeLong, of Ernst & Young found that knowledge management initiatives tend to fall into one of several categories, including

• creating and storing knowledge in repositories
• measuring the financial value of knowledge
• facilitating the transfer of knowledge
• creating a knowledge-sharing environment.

The most common initiative–building knowledge repositories–is intended to take some form of knowledge that has been extracted from people’s heads and store it in an information system for later access. For example, Hewlett Packard and Sequent Computer both have systems that store sales-oriented documents–white papers, presentations, marketing collateral–for access by their field salesforces in selling computers. Other knowledge repositories are less structured, consisting of the insights and observations of employees, sometimes called “discussion databases” or “lessons-learned” systems. Some repositories do not hold the knowledge itself, but point to those who have knowledge. Hewlett Packard, for instance, has expert repositories for researchers in its HP Laboratories and Corporate Education groups. A number of firms have undertaken initiatives to measure and manage the economic value of their knowledge.

Two of the most widely known firms that have focused on value are Skandia and Dow Chemical. Skandia, the Swedish insurance company whose focus on “intellectual capital” is perhaps the most widely known, primarily addresses the measurement of value. Dow focuses more on the management of value by harvesting little-used patent and license assets. Many firms have knowledge transfer, the third type of initiative, as their primary objective–either through technology or human means. BP Exploration has built a desktop videoconferencing system to enable workers at remote exploration sites to exchange their knowledge with each other. UNISYS relies upon “virtual team rooms” to allow members of a particular project team to share files and communicate on a regular basis.

Yet, other initiatives do not address any specific knowledge domain, but rather try to improve the overall knowledge environment by fostering an appreciation for knowledge and a culture of sharing. These projects may focus specifically on the reward systems for evaluating knowledge generation, sharing, or use. Given the fact that much of the interest in knowledge management has come about because of advances in information technology, it should come as no surprise that most of the initiatives falling into the just-described categories are centered around the introduction or use of information technology. A survey by the Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation found, for instance, that technology-centered efforts dominated the specific knowledge management projects of the 431 U.S. and European organizations that participated (see the table). The same survey found that information technology (IT) departments were twice as likely to lead knowledge management projects as any other part of the organization.

Knowledge management roles. Companies going down the knowledge management road, even after just a few timid steps, find that it won’t happen on its own. Sure, knowledge has been gathered and shared as long as people have been able to communicate, but leveraging knowledge for business success requires that someone have explicit responsibility for making sure it happens and happens well. Hence the rise of the chief knowledge officer (CKO), director of intellectual capital, and chief learning officer (CLO). Though responsibilities may vary from firm to firm, this new executive-level position is typically charged with organizing, capturing, and distributing the organization’s knowledge. Some of the most widely known people with titles such as these include CLO Steve Kerr of General Electric (GE), CKOs John Peetz of Ernst & Young and Judith Rosenblum of Coca-Cola, and Leif Edvinsson, director of intellectual capital for Skandia.

One estimate suggests there may be more than 250 firms in the United States with positions such as these. However, the jury is still out on the value of CKOs, CLOs, and the like. Though slightly more than half of the participants in Ernst & Young’s survey said that a CKO could be valuable for their organization, only about 28 percent said that establishing new knowledge roles would make sense for their organization. Regardless of whether knowledge management is given a seat of its own in the boardroom, large firms especially discover quickly a need for a host of knowledge managers.

The knowledge management roles for managing Pricewaterhouse Coopers’s intranet KnowledgeCurve and its 150 Lotus Notes servers in the United States is an excellent example. More than 100 people in the firm’s knowledge management organization report to Ellen Knapp, its CKO. This number does not include the owner, moderator, and administrator of each discussion group or her “power user” council of more than 200 KnowledgeCurve champions in PricewaterhouseCoopers. These positions are critical for capturing the best knowledge in the organization, ensuring the quality of knowledge, and supporting the smooth operation of the entire system.

No one said it would be easy

No matter what knowledge management projects organizations undertake or how they support them, we already know that road is paved with obstacles and fraught with complexity. Ernst & Young’s survey reveals that the top four difficulties most organizations are likely to face fall into the areas of culture, measurement, quality, and money (see the table below). Overcoming technological limitations, by contrast, came in nearly last (15 percent).

Larry Prusak of the IBM Consulting Group warns, “When it comes to successfully managing knowledge, culture trumps all other factors.” Some organizations are fortunate to have had a knowledge-sharing culture before beginning to formalize their knowledge management. These firms, typically high-tech or knowledge-driven organizations, according to Davenport and Prusak in their book Working Knowledge, have the advantage that they already attract and hire employees who sought and applied knowledge while in school. Other organizations, however, must cultivate such a culture by providing an environment that encourages and rewards the sharing and use of knowledge. People must be given the time and opportunity to share and then be reassured that their contributions will be recognized. Perhaps the most critical condition for overcoming a culture in which knowledge is seen as power is senior management support for knowledge management.

Robert Buckman, CEO of Buckman Laboratories, puts it moresuccinctly: “Frankly, I do not think you can have a successful knowledge project without that proactive entrepreneurial support from the top.” Other firms find success by building their knowledge management efforts off of groups or parts of the organization that already share knowledge. Is knowledge management a passing fad? Today, it does seem that there is more talk than action. Thomas Stewart, the Fortune magazine writer who first called the business world’s attention to the importance of people’s brainpower, warns that knowledge management has the potential for becoming a fad solely because of the money to be made from the information technology tools that frequently support it.

But the forces behind its emergence are real and fundamental, and likely to continue. One thing is certain: Managing knowledge is not a well-defined process. There are many questions that remain unanswered. What knowledge should you keep and what should you toss away? How do you capture the knowledge of chance hallway conversations? How do you avoid the perception that having the latest, best hardware or software equates to managing knowledge? How do you make tacit knowledge explicit? On the other hand, the potential benefits are enormous. Those firms who answer those questions will benefit from knowledge management by • increasing the amount of learning that takes place

• making work less frustrating and onerous
• making the promise of the learning organization a reality
• creating knowledge, insight, and understanding that can help people in their lives outside of work. All of which will be essential to competing in the knowledge era.

Learning and employee communications

The business imperative to accelerate organizational learning has created new functions within organizations to speed up the process of creating, capturing, and disseminating information and knowledge. The same forces that are creating a focus on knowledge management are causing firms to combine their learning and communications strategies. As training moves to learning, more and more organizations are looking to foster a learning environment to piggyback on training or to create an architecture in which learning, both formal and informal, is ongoing and consistent. As a relatively young company, Qualcomm (founded in 1985), a San Diego-based wireless communications company, did not have an internal communications department. So when the director of the learning department, Tamar Elkeles, decided she needed to better communicate Qualcomm’s learning and training initiatives to employees, she created a subdepartment within the learning department, called employee communications.

Different from corporate communications, which is located at the headquarters facility and focuses on external public relations, employee communications informs employees about more than just training events; this group has assumed responsibility for communicating the company’s training and learning philosophy, as well as its culture and values. The use of the company’s intranet Website for information exchange, as well as for more formal distance learning, has been an essential tool in Qualcomm’s employee communications efforts. Employee communications has been a part of Silicon Graphics’s learning and development department for some time. Drew Banks, manager of integrated performance support at SGI, believes that intranet-based distribution of information was the catalyst that made combining learning and development with employee communications work. But he thinks that the underpinning philosophy that drives it is the view that organizational communication and learning are both on the same continuum.

Lars Thykier, director of training at Scandinavian Airlines System, agrees: “The border between training/learning and internal communications is increasingly difficult to draw.” And, he continues, “There is increasing awareness that internal communications are also learning activities, meaning that there is a need for closer ties between the two strategies.” If a corporate learning department is set up for broad-based corporate learning (not just skill-based training), says Banks, then this combination can make sense. In fact, he says, it is one of the four logical placements of an employee communications department (as shown in table). The placement of employee communications within an organization should depend on which goal is more difficult to achieve without an organizational linkage. For example, in a command-and-control culture, the first option in the table is best. Additionally, says Banks, any one of these goals could be more critical than the others depending on where the company is in its life cycle. This would mean that the organizational placement of employee communications could change over time.

The increasing overlap of learning and employee communications within organizations originates from the need of an organization to link its functional silos, says Michele Miller, director of knowledge, strategy, and facilitation at Arthur Andersen. Much like the trend toward combining learning and performance consulting, organizations are melding learning and internal employee communications. Although many organizations have recognized this need, says Miller, they are taking different approaches to address it. Some organizations, for instance, have located the employee communications department under the training department umbrella. Other organizations, like Arthur Andersen, are looking at creating stronger partnerships with broad-based groups that may have organizational responsibility for the knowledge and communications areas.

This has resulted from the blurring of distinctions among communications, knowledge, and learning and from the increased importance of a holistic approach to address their different dimensions. The desire to move learning from discrete interventions to a complete learning environment appears to be pushing the integration of the learning and employee communications departments. Knowledge management, formal and informal learning, performance improvement, and intellectual capital enhancement appear to form the basis for this push, as well as a desire to help employees better understand their organization’s vision, mission, culture, and values. No longer content to work within the constraints of functional silos, learning directors have begun to take a more systemic view of informing and developing employees through the creation of their own, or integration with existing, employee communications departments.


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