One notable feature of the current knowledge management landscape is the reported interest being shown by governments and international agencies in the subject. There is a dearth of publicly available information on the nature and scale of knowledge management practices within the Australian Public Service (APS). An earlier study revealed that knowledge management was a feature in little more than a dozen Australian government agencies and that few agencies had a real strategic perspective on knowledge management or saw it as a key driver for the achievement of corporate objectives. Possible explanations for the slow take-up of knowledge management included confusion over the nature of the subject, a tendency to equate it with developments in information technology, and cultural resistance to the concept (Stephens 2000) The Australian experience has been acknowledged in other countries, where governments have been struggling to come to terms with knowledge management. A major survey conducted by the OECD, while reporting that knowledge management was high on government agendas and that necessary cultural changes were underway, reported the absence of deep organisational changes as well as the costs associated with the introduction of knowledge management in government departments (OECD 2003). The OECD survey also identified widespread government concern with respectively, a greying civil service, competition between the public and private sectors for knowledge-intensive inputs, and the increasing complexity of public policy goals (OECD 2003). Australia was not named among the countries for which responses to the survey were recorded. This was disappointing in that not only had the Auditor General for Australia been a repeated advocate for knowledge management within the APS (Barrett 2001), but also the former National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) had worked steadily to promote the concept.
The case study approach was employed as a means of yielding rich insights in social contexts (Galliers 1991;Yin 1994; Walsham 1995), in this case the organisational environment of the National Archives of Australia (NAA). Although strictly speaking not part of this project, data from two previous web-based surveys conducted by the researcher – one of chief executives in government, the other of chief information/chief knowledge officers – provided valuable input to the design and content of the interview template.
The case study of knowledge management at the NAA
The findings from the previous survey served as the basis for interviews with senior staff at the Archives. These issues are depicted in Table 1 and discussed individually below.
Perceptions of knowledge management
Approaches to knowledge management
Approaches to knowledge management
Drivers of knowledge management
Links to core business
Approaches to knowledge management
Obstacles to knowledge management
Enablers of knowledge managementApproaches to knowledge management
The place of knowledge management in the organisational structure
Frameworks for knowledge managementApproaches to knowledge management
The use of metrics for knowledge management
The presence of champions for knowledge management
Approaches to knowledge management
Inter-departmental or agency links for knowledge management
Table 1: Range of knowledge management issues raised during interviews
Knowledge management at the NAA
The direct involvement of the NAA in knowledge management is now assessed in the context of the issues contained in Table 1.
1. Perceptions of knowledge management
The 12 organisations that participated in follow-up interviews can be grouped into a minority (three organisations) for whom knowledge management is a meaningless term and the remaining nine who find the concept helpful. The Archives falls into this latter group, recognising knowledge management as a helpful concept, particularly in the context of the recent Interim Australian Standard for Knowledge Management (Standards Australia 2003). The Interim Standard has done much to awaken interest within the NAA in tacit knowledge and its relationship not only to explicit knowledge but also to corporate memory and skills maintenance. The Archives has many staff who have been around a long time, and who have much tacit knowledge to contribute. However, it can also be a very silo-driven organisation in terms of how information is structured and organised as well as in terms of restrictions on flow between silos.
2. Approaches to knowledge management
The NAA recognises that they have a lot of knowledge that is not disseminated effectively within the organisation. They have enhanced their intranet in terms of content, improved navigation, and better search facilities in order to improve the capture and dissemination of knowledge. At a somewhat higher level, they also plan to develop a knowledge management strategic framework for the organisation by the end of 2005. This document will complement the NAA’s Information Management Strategic Framework (2002) and will include direction on creating, discovering and acquiring knowledge; capturing and storing knowledge; presenting, distributing and sharing knowledge and revising and disposing of knowledge.
In 2003 the national office ran an 11-week program called Knowledge NAA, which was designed to bring together, in fairly informal gatherings, people with much knowledge of the organisation and people who did not have such knowledge. These discussions were videotaped and distributed around Archives offices in other states. Attendance although voluntary was good, with an average of 50 staff per session. The major lessons learned were that they needed to put a structure in place to identify where knowledge was, to identify knowledge gaps and to determine what to do about them.
The Archives is also undertaking Step B of what is known as the DIRKS project (Developing, Implementing Record Keeping Systems). As explained below, this is a strategic approach to managing business information. It is designed to enforce disciplined naming conventions for records and files throughout the Commonwealth. Step B, the Business Classification Scheme identifies eight core functions for the Archives with related business activities. This model will be used to develop a record-titling tool, and the functions will eventually be incorporated into the metadata fields of other information sources, for example, the intranet, enabling searches to be carried out across all storage portals of the organisation. It is expected that such an arrangement will expedite knowledge sharing and general management in the Archives.
3. Drivers of knowledge management
The findings of the earlier survey disclosed that although departments and agencies differed quite markedly in their areas of interest and responsibility, all experienced a combination of pressures towards the adoption and implementation of some form of knowledge management. In some cases these influences were common enough to be regarded as generic in nature, emanating from changes within the APS, in others they were more specific to particular organisations. These drivers of knowledge management are now considered in relation to developments at the NAA.
(a) Generic drivers of knowledge management
In planning the interviews, it was assumed that most organisations embarked on knowledge management would to some extent be driven by pressure from the top, by comparisons with peers and the availability of new technologies and more effective delivery platforms. Other drivers expected were the need to improve services to clients and to impose some kind of control on information flows. All of these things turned out to be true, but the most significant driver of knowledge management in the APS was the need for compliance with legislation and government regulations for record keeping, and in particular the disposal of Commonwealth records.
In the Commonwealth, the NAA has developed a suite of products under the banner e-permanence to promote better management of government information to ensure that it is captured in a way that allows it to be utilised, shared, exploited, protected, and if necessary preserved, to support efficient and accountable public administration. A central product in this suite is DIRKS – A Strategic Approach to Managing Business Information (NAA 2001). DIRKS was developed as a joint initiative of the NAA and New South Wales State Records in 2000. It expanded on the eight-stage methodology outlined in section 6.2.2 of AS 4390 Australian Standard for Records Management for designing and implementing a record keeping system. The Archives has linked the disposal regime, for which it has legislative responsibility under s.24 of the Archives Act 1983, to DIRKS Steps A to C. Step A is a preliminary investigation of the context of the organisation; Step B an analysis of business activity and Step C an identification of record keeping requirements, one of which is the requirement to retain or dispose of records.
The result of the analysis undertaken in Step B is the development of a Business Classification Scheme (BCS) which identifies core agency functions and linked business activities. The agency’s functions identified in their BCS, plus the 17 common administrative activities carried out by every agency identified in Keyword AAA: A thesaurus of general terms (produced by New South Wales State Records, and available by Commonwealth agencies through a licensing agreement), provides a comprehensive conceptual model of all of an agency’s business activities. The terms in the BCS can be used to develop titling tools such as an agency thesaurus, which can be used to create, manage and access business information and knowledge.
The completion of DIRKS Steps A to C for the granting of records disposal authorities by the NAA and the pressure that this places upon departments and agencies is widely acknowledged within the APS. It would be fair to say that there is also a certain level of disquiet among departments and agencies as to the manner in which they perceive the NAA was enforcing compliance. A particular criticism is that the Archives adopted an approach that was at times inflexible and rule-driven, and that they made insufficient allowance for how departments actually worked. This was a view that perceived the NAA as the repository of considerable power and influence, in that without the granting of disposal authorities, departments would be unable to meet requirements for compliance.
Conversely, the Archives does not regard itself as having the power to mandate good record keeping in the Commonwealth. However, linking the first three steps of DIRKS to disposal is seen as one way of providing agencies with a sound information framework for building compliant and accountable record keeping systems where information and knowledge can be captured and managed appropriately over time. This expanded role for the NAA in the Commonwealth is accepted, promoted and supported by key regulatory agencies including the Australian National Audit Office, the Australian Public Service Commission, the Australian Government Information Management Office and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Indeed, the Audit Office conducts record-keeping audits of Commonwealth agencies based on whether they comply with the Archives’ whole-of-government responsibilities, by requiring agencies to undertake DIRKS Steps A, B and C in order to achieve an approved disposal authority.
(b) Specific drivers of knowledge management
Specific drivers include attempts by the NAA to respond more effectively to the perceived needs of a client base that includes both the general public and other departments of the APS. There may well be ambiguity about the role of the Archives in the minds of some of these clients, who may view its actions as more driven by internal corporate requirements than by external client needs. This is perhaps compounded to some degree by the fact that in addition to its whole-of-government role as promoter of compliance, the Archives is itself engaged in ensuring that it too complies with legislative and regulatory requirements for archives and records. As a result it is involved in a continuous communications and relationship-building exercise. Staff go out into their various client communities to promote good practice, to tell people how the Archives itself is responding to the need for good practice and to publicise their products and services.
Other drivers specific to the NAA include a staff profile that reflects the presence of a high proportion of non-tenured staff, among whom there is a steady attrition rate. This carries clear implications for knowledge loss and retention, for the maintenance of corporate memory and the need to maintain some level of continuity of expertise and service. Furthermore, the Archives is a very procedural-driven organisation, with lots of policies and procedures to support the strongly focused process operations conducted. At the same time, however, staff realise that to do these things really well they need to know a lot about the background and culture of the organisation in order to be effective strategically and environmentally.
4. Links to core business
At the Archives the link to core business comes in the ability provided by knowledge-based processes to improve efficiency and performance in managing operations spread across the country. Linked to its external role, the Information Management Section of the Archives through the presentation of papers to agency forums transfers knowledge about how it uses DIRKS and other record keeping products.
5. Obstacles to knowledge management
Most of the obstacles identified to the dissemination or success of knowledge management were the familiar ones of lack of resources, the inability of people, particularly those in authority, to see the point, and cultural issues. However, at the NAA the major obstacle to the spread of knowledge management remains the unflattering light in which the concept is seen in many circles. This view is now being countered owing to the presence of the Interim Knowledge Management Standard released by Standards Australia in 2003, which can be shown to people and discussed, and to the emphasis on knowledge and its management in internal training sessions, for example, the training that is delivered to staff on using the EDMS emphasises the necessity to capture knowledge as a record that can be accessed and shared across the organisation.
6. Enablers of knowledge management
In the NAA a number of enablers to knowledge management were identified, including key communication tools such as the intranet and the electronic document management system (EDMS). Archives staff are required to save evidence of business transactions into the EDMS which show approval or authorisation; guidance, advice or direction; provide information relating to projects or activities being undertaken and capture formal business communications between staff and with external agents. The EDMS is an enabler which supports knowledge management in the Archives by providing a repository where both tacit and explicit information that is also evidence of business activities, can be captured, stored and accessed.
The NAA intranet was recently redeveloped and promoted as the portal where the most up-to-date information is readily accessible. Already it has delivered benefits including saving staff time with key information being centrally located and easily accessible; facilitating access to a wide variety of sources through the use of web technology and improving communication within workgroups and across the organisation supporting the sharing of knowledge and expertise. The other key enabler used by the NAA to transfer knowledge is a program of professional development seminars, held monthly, in which staff present papers on current projects.
7. The place of knowledge management in the organisational structure
In most departments and agencies, responsibility for the knowledge management function may be located within the information technology department, the library, or corporate services. At the NAA, responsibilities are currently divided between the Information Management section (responsible for managing business records of the organisation, information and knowledge), located in the Corporate Branch, and the Business Systems section (responsible for information technology) located in the Collection Management Branch. The director-general, Ross Gibbs, has considered some kind of amalgamation in order to reduce the silo effect and a certain fragmentation of the technology function and to bring together the management of electronic records, information, content, and the technology. There remain concerns however, lest this result in an outcome in which the technology is dominant and the resulting system is sub-optimal in terms of the wider mission and business objectives of the Archives. External consultants have been engaged to revisit this issue before any final decisions are taken.
8. Frameworks for knowledge management
The web-based survey revealed little sign anywhere of the conscious application of those formal knowledge management frameworks of the type popularised by Wiig (1997) or more recently Joshi and Holsapple (2000). Where formal structures existed they tended to be largely information management frameworks, expanded to take account of the knowledge dimension and in particular, of the need to account for differences between tacit and explicit knowledge. This is clearly the position at the NAA, where staff are working to identify and categorise existing information, including any gaps in coverage, determine strategies to close these gaps and, as mentioned earlier, develop a knowledge framework for the organisation. This includes strategies aimed where feasible at turning information into knowledge to enhance products and services and sustain corporate capability and memory.
9. The use of metrics for knowledge management
Metrics is another area where, despite general agreement on their importance, there is widespread reluctance to embark on the application of unproven methods for valuing and accounting for knowledge projects. Although not quite the same thing, the web-based survey revealed a growing interest in the application of some kind of metrics to reward contributions to knowledge or desired knowledge-sharing behaviours. The NAA has proposed including this kind of arrangement in individual work agreements. To date their human resources people have discouraged this step, but have expressed some interest in inserting a requirement in the agreements for supervisors to the effect that they ensure that staff reporting to them comply with these behavioural requirements. There is also an expressed interest in the subject of metrics for knowledge and knowledge-based projects. This interest is however, unlikely to result in anything concrete at the NAA in the immediate future.
10. The presence of champions for knowledge management
Across government in general, where a knowledge management champion has emerged, this has frequently been the departmental secretary, the most senior public servant in the department. In the NAA the valuable role that a champion can play is appreciated and will be explored when the proposed Knowledge Framework is developed. Arguably however, as an Executive Agency, which does not have a departmental secretary, the Archives could be an disadvantage in that it lacks a potential high-level sponsor to champion knowledge management within the organisation. In practice, this lack appears to have been more than offset. At the national level, the director-general has succeeded in winning some very powerful sponsors in other departments, who for all practical purposes operate as champions across the whole of government. During 2003 for example, when the Archives embarked on a new initiative to inform public servants of their responsibilities to create and keep records (a program called Keep the knowledge – make a record) it was launched by the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the nation’s most senior public servant.
11. Inter-departmental or agency links for knowledge management
The earlier web-based survey produced the somewhat surprising finding that there is a lack of inter-departmental and inter-agency activity in the knowledge management field within the APS. If anything the Archives is better at this than most departments and agencies, owing to its whole-of-government responsibilities for record keeping. NAA staff participate in a number of cross-departmental bodies, including a CIO Forum, and are involved in Communities of Practice across departments and agencies on such themes as content management and EDMS. The Archives also operates its own internal Communities of Practice on an Australia-wide basis. Finally on this point, staff from the NAA, along with others from across government, are regular participants in the proceedings of a very active local interest group, the ACT Knowledge Management Forum.
The major conclusion to emerge from this research project is that (as is a common experience elsewhere) the course of knowledge management at the NAA is dependent on a range of perceptual and contextual factors. Two specific points can be made however. First, in terms of its current stage of development, the NAA falls clearly within the category of an agency in which knowledge management is a developing phenomenon. The Archives understands the importance of knowledge in supporting its business operations and has taken specific steps to encourage and promote the capture and sharing of both explicit and tacit knowledge. It is expected that the Knowledge Framework being developed in 2005 will enable an integrated approach to be adopted, taking into account the culture, administrative context, staff skills, knowledge requirements and existing practices. Second, in addition to being an adopter of knowledge management, the NAA is playing an important secondary role through its whole-of-government presence in compliance issues. Although compliance is primarily focused on the disposal of records, the Archives aims to promote good record keeping and information management practices which are fundamental in supporting sound knowledge management. This expanded role has been endorsed and encouraged by other key standard setters and compliance agencies in government.
Barrett, P 2001, ‘Retention of corporate memory and skills in the public service: more than survival in the new millennium’, 6th Biennial Conference of Australasian Council of Public Accounts Committees, Canberra, February 2001, viewed May 2004, http://www.anao.gov.au/website.nsf/publications/4A256AE90015F69B4A2569F3000. Commonwealth of Australia 2004, Government Online Directory (GOLD), viewed May 2004, http://www.gold.gov.au/
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Professor Bill Martin is Research director at the School of Business Information Technology, RMIT University. He is active internationally in teaching and researching in the knowledge management field and in supervising a large cadre of PhD students. He is currently leading an ARC-funded team researching the emergence of new business models for digital publishing.
This paper emerged from an earlier survey of developments in knowledge management within the Australian Public Service (APS). The earlier study pointed to future research possibilities in an emerging relationship between knowledge management and archives and records. The resultant case-based research reported here shows that this relationship operates most strongly in the context of key drivers of knowledge management within government agencies and departments, and in linkages between the work of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and that of other Commonwealth organisations. Knowledge management also emerges as an important strategic issue for the National Archives of Australia. Eleven issues emerging as common in the previous study were discussed at the NAA: Perceptions, Approaches, Drivers, Links to core business, Obstacles, Enablers, Structures, Frameworks, Metrics, Champions and inter-agency networks. In overall terms the NAA emerged as an organisation that was at the development stage for knowledge management and one that was taking conscious strides in this direction.