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Knowledge Management in Asia-Pacific Organizations

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
knowledge manager

“Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” This saying could apply to the abundant sea water everywhere on this earth which is too salty to drink. Similarly, we are flooded with raw data, and unless we have the ways and means to tap into this vital resource it will be nothing but sea water to us. Raw data has to be channelized in suitable ways to convert it into useful information which gives knowledge about certain things.

Data is nothing but an event which has no meaningful relationship to anything and is just out of context. When we try to introduce some context or relationships with other data we get information.

When we get a pattern relationship connecting the data and information, the pattern slowly emerges into knowledge. It is called knowledge only when we can realize and understand the patterns and their implications. When we understand the foundational principles responsible for the patterns representing knowledge we arrive at wisdom. Simply put this is Knowledge Management. However, the process is not as simple as it sounds.

Data comprises of just some figures in numbers or words. Information relates to description, definition, or perspective including details like who, what, when, and where. Knowledge which can be derived from this information encompasses strategy, practice, method, or approach, which answers the question ‘how.’ This knowledge leads to wisdom or principles, insight, morals, or archetype, answering the question of why?

To explain further with an example, let’s consider a factory. The numbers 500, 1000, and 2000 mean nothing at all. They just form pieces of data. When we say that these numbers are the number of tools manufactured in January, February, and March respectively then we get information as there is now context.

The varying numbers in production were due to an increase in the number of laborers. This detail gives us the knowledge that more people produce more tools increasing the output of the factory. This knowledge leads to the wisdom that in order to increase production more input in the form of laborers, raw materials, and other facilities are required.

The principle stems from the fact that any action which produces a positive result encourages more of the same action, resulting in an emergent characteristic called growth, opine experts in this subject.

The flow of activities from the time we get data to the time we derive wisdom from it to achieve something forms a continuum:

Data > Information > Knowledge > Wisdom

This means that data which is a discrete entity progresses to become information, then knowledge, and lastly wisdom all happening in a continuous state as we understand the relationships that give information, patterns that represent knowledge and the principles of wisdom.

Knowledge Management, or KM, enhances an organization’s ability in defining a mission, in effectively addressing competition, enhancing performance, keeping abreast of changing conditions, and how to manage them. Hence we can say that KM refers to the ability of an organization to deal with today’s situations while at the same time planning for the future. The information available now and from similar periods in the past helps managers envision the future situation and take necessary action.

This is applicable to predicting sales during lean periods as well as festivals, production levels in factories, inventory planning, logistics arrangements, and so on. The best and most possible action is selected.

KM Strategy

Environmental changes and marketplace demands require organizations to address needs and issues and launch activities and initiatives which match the real challenges facing the organization. Besides certain typical situations, different organizations face unique issues to address. The KM strategy should suit the actual needs faced by the organization.

In the case of call centers which form the front end of many organizations there is a need to satisfy customers who expect immediate solutions to all their queries. Also call centers feature a high-pressure, closely monitored environment involving expensive training sessions for employees. The KM need is immediate and is bound to affect sales and the reputation of the organization.

Other front-line staff like sales staff and service personnel come in direct contact with customers. Most often they work away from the head office and due to limited communication, sharing of information is hindered among employees placed in different locations. Here KM helps in ensuring consistency, accuracy, and repeatability. OmniTouch International with offices in Singapore and Malaysia offers training and certification, mystery shopper, and customer satisfaction research for the contact center and customer service industry. It enhances KM by offering services encompassing operations management, customer relationship management, essential skills management, and call center operations management all based on knowledge gathered.

In business management the real challenge is to segregate the relevant information from the abundant information available in order to support business decisions. Decision-making by management staff is supported by KM which provides the relevant information, besides mentoring the managers.

An aging workforce creates the problem of knowledge loss when long-serving staff retire. The wealth of knowledge they have accumulated should not leave the organization with them. This knowledge needs to be captured and managed for the sake of the continuity of business operations and for the younger staff to rely on. The level of knowledge within an organization can be maintained by KM which offers a structured mechanism for information capture and transfer of knowledge when older staff retire.

The transfer of knowledge from the older employees to the younger generation is of utmost importance, especially for a country like Japan with a dwindling workforce. According to a Hays survey, 70 percent of organizations feel that the aging population has affected their business. Some companies have started looking for alternatives to retain workers by raising the retirement age. Japan needs to take rapid action to transfer the knowledge to maintain competitiveness among its emerging neighbors.

In the case of rapidly evolving industries such as IT, consulting, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals, innovation is the key to ensuring long-term growth. Efficiency of time-tested processes and products are relied upon and innovation does not seem to appeal to such organizations. But innovation should be encouraged in the form of new techniques. KM promotes innovation in any business environment.

India-based e-Zest serves companies in the IT, finance, healthcare, legal, sports, manufacturing, travel, and education fields. It develops and implements efficient and continuous processes in which knowledge is identified, captured, validated, structured, stored, and disseminated. This knowledge is then managed by appropriate Information Technology and media infrastructure. The company employs Web 2.0 technologies to build products and solutions.

e-Zest KM solutions help clients provide better services and products for their customers, enabling a better application of ideas and innovations. It gives access to best-in-class methodologies, competitor and market intelligence, and the ability to deliver continuous learning. It also reduces the loss of knowledge through staff turnover.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Every organization is characterized by its purpose and activities, culture, size, geographic spread, staff skills, history, resources and marketplace. Based on these, the KM strategy is worked in two fashions. The top-down method leverages the strategic direction of the organization to arrive at the focus of the KM initiative via various activities. In the bottom-up method, research is done involving the activities of staff working on key business processes. The results highlight staff needs and issues which can be addressed through KM initiatives.

In a Chinese dining corporation in Hong Kong, KM is used to gather tacit knowledge from the chefs. This helps in managing daily operations in the restaurants and making decisions with the chefs. Since KM makes people share their knowledge with each other, the company will not be affected even if one of the chefs or restaurant managers leave.

To encourage the crew to share, an atmosphere of knowledge sharing is created by providing training courses and holding meetings. One of the meetings is called Bottom to Top, which requires only the branch subordinates to attend. The moderator will take charge of the meeting and the focus group will be asked some questions about their work conditions. So the crew in the meeting can express their ideas and feelings as their bosses would not attend the meeting.

The KM strategy enables the senior management to understand the way the organization operates and the issues confronting it. Staff needs and issues can be dealt with by launching activities and initiatives which give a measurable impact on the organizational functioning. This reveals business benefits besides ensuring long-term growth and stability.

KM in Asia-Pacific

Being new comers to industrialization Asian firms leveraged the idea of joint ventures and collaborations to access critical knowledge and technologies. This led to rapid development for majority of the firms within few decades. Support came from the governments unlike western nations for the promotion of KM and innovation in the Asia-Pacific region.

National and local governments provided services to encourage corporate innovation and collaboration between national and corporate innovation systems. Also, the national culture and administrative capabilities promoted knowledge transfer and innovation here. The management styles as in Japan were conducive to modification, improvement and technology adoption.

The economic growth witnessed in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, China, and India prove how effectively KM and innovation have been leveraged to arrive at success, which will also serve as optimum management models for the rest of the world. Companies like Acer, Huawei, Haier, TATA, Hyundai, Lenovo, Mahindra & Mahindra, and Samsung are only a few examples of successful organizations serving this region and the rest of the world.

All Asian countries have varying levels of industrialization, economic growth, cultures and political situations, but they are all characterized by strong institutionalized pressures from governments over economic exchange, traditions, social practices, and culture.

Even large firms are organized in business groups and not as multidivisional firms. Institutional theory helps in KM and in driving innovations in the Asia-Pacific region. KM gets influenced not only by state control in research activities but also depends on social norms connected to knowledge creation, transmission, imitation, and relocation. A technical project or knowledge transfer can be stopped if it goes against social norms of a country or region.

Institutional theory emphasizes that organizational outputs, goals, and actions must be in accordance to institutional rules, norms, beliefs, cultures, and expectations, imposed by institutional environments, especially in countries like China.

Knowledge creation, transmission, and relocation depend on the institutional infrastructure. If the organization fails to safeguard intellectual property rights it discourages innovation. When institutions support IPR, they will encourage more innovation, entrepreneurship, and thus economic growth. In the Asia-Pacific region the piracy of intellectual products is more owing to a lack of strong laws to protect IPR. Asia-Pacific countries are emerging economies and are experiencing rapidly-changing institutional environments with institution-based KM and innovation strategies.

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