Category Archives: Human Resource Mgt

On why human resource management has been a major disappointment

One of my greatest annoyances is the failure of human resource management (HRM) to adequately utilise knowledge management practices and experience in developing and nurturing the human capital of organisations. HRM seems more interested in staying bounded by payroll, employment law, and offering some training courses than actively trying to heighten the capacity and capability of the workforce to work smarter, more collaboratively, and more effectively. Indeed, HR might find some insights into a number of current HRM issues around staff engagement, the ageing workforce, and retention of corporate knowledge by utilising the knowledge management literature and knowledge management experience.

Essentially, HRM is largely reactive, control-focused, and fails to take leadership responsibility for an organisation’s intellectual and social capital. HRM is a big disappointment.

I was complaining about this lacklustre performance of HRM to a former colleague of mine last week. He commented by saying that he wasn’t surprised since the Human Resources Department is, as he put, “an agent of management control”. He went on to argue that HRM is involved only in those areas of workforce management in which centralised control can be practiced. Payroll and training courses were classic examples. HRM overseeing employment law was also important in not only controlling the workforce, but in protecting the organisation (management) from legal action. Legal aspects of employment law also had a mandatory element for ensuring regulatory compliance.

I could see the logic in his argument. In fact, much of my professional experience in a range of organisations pretty much matched the examples he gave on what an HR department actually did. If HRM was really about management control, then utilising knowledge management that encouraged innovation and collaboration, the building of social capital and emergent relationship networks, were actually at odds with the HRM goal of personnel control.

My latest Accenture newsletter had this article on “how HR can elevate its business impact to enable high performance”. The article categorises various functions of HR. The first function matches the controlling function my colleague and I discussed earlier – personnel control. The second function accorded by the Accenture article was “people development” or talent management . People development generally means training and sending management to leadership courses where (in my experience) little change to existing bad management styles actually takes place! It might also involve elements of recruitment. The third rung in Accenture’s ladder is “talent multiplication” that “takes efficiency and quality gains and spreads them upward through the organisation”. Accentures goes on to say that “HR is able to drive business results by equipping the workforce with the right knowledge, resources and freedom to deliver breakthrough advances” – funnily enough, this statement is what knowledge management is all about!

Hello, HRM, is anyone out there paying attention?


On knowledge management and human resources

Some of you may already know that I am a great believer in the interplay between knowledge management (KM) and human resource management (HRM). I consider both KM and HRM as catalysts and facilitators for developing and enhancing an organisation’s intellectual and social capital. I believe KM is more than just managing databases and HRM is more than just payroll.

KM and HRM actually have a number of responsibilities in common: learning and development, enhancing staff performance, staff retention, team building and effectiveness, organisational development, and cultural change. The approaches may differ but I believe that the strategic and practical outcomes are the same – to equip individuals, groups, and the organisation to innovate, solve problems, establish effective workflow, and deliver quality services and outputs (both internally and externally).

I was therefore very pleased when I found out about a post-graduate course being run from Lancaster University Management School in England. The course is a Master (MA) in Human Resource & Knowledge Management. The course looks at “the conditions in which HRM and knowledge management have become the central links between people, work, and technology in contemporary organisations”. Excellent!

I wonder if there are any other examples of KM and HRM being featured within the same training or academic course.

On the road to knowledge management

I regard myself as a knowledge worker and integrally involved within the information sector. Over the last ten years I have increasingly been involved more on the knowledge management side of things than on the library-side.

When I first entered the information sector in the 1980’s I was physically based in a library. I worked in public libraries and corporate libraries, Macquarie Bank being my first corporate library experience. I have worked at the Parliamentary Library in Canberra. In all those environments there were books and often files that formed the main body of the “collection”.

Throughout the second-half of the 1980’s, electronic and online databases helped broaden the reach of information access and increase the speed and scale at which information could be found and circulated to the people who needed it. But I was still sitting in “the library”. And this was not such a bad thing, especially in corporate environments, where the library and my position in it were viewed as “neutral”. I was able to play information broker between different people and sections of the business – keeping in mind governance and compliance issues.

From the second-half of the 1990’s until recently, except for my time at the Parliamentary Library in Canberra, my working library environment became much smaller. My management and use of information resources  became much more digitally based (and the internet was the obvious driving force). Bookshelves gave way to intranet portals and Google, and online databases became more sophisticated and carried significantly more content.

During much of the “noughties” (the year 2000 and beyond), the emphasis was less on a centralised one-to-one directed research and information service, but on establishing and managing networks of information and people within the organisation. In addition, more communication channels could be used to enhance reach and provide more specialised services while at the same time increasing the number of access points and search options. Communities of practice was one such manifestation.

Now I am working in a “library environment” that has no on-site physical collection and specialises in distributing information widely and in specific, tailored information products. We still have a book and journal collection, although most journals are now accessed electronically.  There is less emphasis on one-to-one research, although this service is still provided.

We still use an electronic library management system, although we also have a (rather mediocre) content management system using Sharepoint 2003. Information is much more dispersed within organisations and there is far greater user-generated content, both internally and externally.

We also have thematic networks that are gradually emerging as a facility to promote knowledge sharing and information distribution across a range of groups of various subject interests.

There are other disparite activities that are happening in learning and development, human resources, internal communications, and information technology. There is much information produced and knowledge generated in program areas and country desks.  They all have a part to play in how knowledge management takes shape within an organisation. Yet there is a need to give shape to knowledge management as a real and driving entity within organisations – all organisations.

The way forward is still to be mapped out in terms of an integrated strategic approach to knowledge management, although I hope to be part of it. After all, one of the strengths of the library and information profession is in “organising”, whether it is a subject search or an intranet page.

Giving life to knowledge management is therefore a real challenge and something a modern “library” can certainly play a vital part.

On change or staying the same

Firstly, an apology. I had promised to give some detail and comments about the papers from the RMAA Convention yesterday. However, I took my notes to work this morning and left them there with the records management plan I am working on! I promise to blog about the conference papers and add my comments tomorrow.

But for now, I want to touch on a topic that has always interested me and was triggered in part yesterday from the convention theme on adopting and adapting – change. And I want to begin with an evocative scene from a particular television show I watched when I was a child. The television series was Planet of the Apes. One scene from one of the episodes remains a clear and distinct memory that often comes to mind when I am thinking about things staying the same or changing.

Planet of the Apes is set on Earth in the year 3085. Entering this future world from 1980 is a NASA spacecraft that crashes, with two surviving astronauts. The humans take the astronauts to safety and look after them. The scene that remains with me is where the Planet of the Apes’ humans have cattle in a corral. The corral consists of tall, thick wooden posts that have been pushed into the ground and lined vertically in a circle. The upright posts have gaps between each, the gaps of course being too narrow for cattle to walk through. However, after a while the cattle lazily push against the vertical posts and the posts are pushed over and the cattle walk through. The humans round the cattle up, dig the vertical posts into the ground again in a narrow-gapped circle, and the cycle continues.

One of the astronauts asks why the posts in the corral have been set up only as vertical posts and the cattle allowed to eventually escape. The farmers respond by saying that they have always built the corral that way and it’s expected that after a while the cattle will escape! Our 1980 human suggests that building the corral with both vertical and horizontal posts for rigidity and permanence will prevent the cattle from escaping. The rest of the scene has our two astronaut humans and the farmers building a new corral that can’t be knocked down by the cattle.

I always see this scene from Planet of the Apes as a metaphor about organisations and how responsive they may or may not be to new ideas. If we accept the current way of doing things because it has always been done that way, then we may keep repeating poor practices over and over. Believe me, I have seen plenty of examples of this type of thinking. Even past successful practices need review and analysis.

And sometimes organisations need someone from “outside” to recognise and suggest that there might be a better way to do things that bring about improved results. At the same time, new ideas need to be couched in terms of the organisational context. Likewise, new ideas need to have some chance of being listened to and acted upon. Timing often becomes a critical factor in whether new ideas are ready for adoption or adaption. New ideas don’t convert to benefits automatically – there is usually a lot of hard work (like building a proper corral).

There must be a reason to initiate change. The reason for change needs to be positive and acceptable for the people who are being asked to change. As a knowledge management professional, my role has often involved getting people to change the way they do things or suggest improvements via a new tool or an adaption to a work process. I often say that knowledge management is about getting other people to do stuff, and as such, we deal with change and change management all the time.

Like the scene from Planet of the Apes, we must be able to identify needs and initiate change. And, most importantly, we must be active participants in the change process ourselves. Change is just part of our personal and organisational evolution.

On records, information and knowledge management strategy

Lately, I have been giving a great deal of thought with respect to information and knowledge management strategy. This is partly because I am working on an electronic document and records management business case and implementation plan at my current work, but also because I want to place the records management case within an organisational knowledge and information framework.

Traditionally, records management has been a stand alone discipline focused purely on documents and records. That was my early experience in that field! But of course, electronic document and records management systems have grown to significant levels of sophistication, as any of the major EDRMS vendors will tell you! At the same time, we also have digital library management systems and web-content management systems.

But the landscape is changing fast as the explosion in information, particularly user-generated content, gathers even greater volumes of information to capture, store and access across a range of different media and repositories. We have seen the physical information world become the digital information world and now the social digital world – Web 2.0.

The transformation is really very obvious in photography, for example. The modern evolution looks like this: a photographic print in physical storage, a digital image stored in a personal computer file, and a digital image stored on a shared global internet platform, like Flickr, for potentially unlimited distribution and comment.

As information has exploded exponentially, across a range of media and via a plethora of channels, organisations are looking at ways that provide a whole-of-enterprise approach to information and knowledge management. And I believe that records management is becoming less an independent arm in the information landscape, and more an integrated process and functional system within a whole-of- enterprise information and knowledge management environment.

I am less interested in discussing turf wars between records managers, librarians, and knowledge managers these days. It seems to me that there are significant benefits of information convergence by utilising a range of information tools and processes for enterprise advantage.

What I am really interested in is how whole-of-enterprise information and knowledge systems can work for organisations utilising specific records, information and knowledge management tools and processes. I can see that to achieve such a whole-of-enterprise solution will depend on a greater degree of co-operation and collaboration at the broad information management level than what often happens now, especially in large organisations. Ironically, as a knowledge manager myself, I can see that information professionals need to collaborate more and to lose the defensiveness that comes with our historical traditions. Moreover, I see human resource management playing a greater role in the discussion about human and social capital, all of which fits the domain of information and knowledge management very nicely.

I can say with a fair degree of confidence, based on my experience and observations, that whole-of-enterprise records management, information and knowledge solutions will become more the norm than the exception. Organisations will look to leverage the complete suite of operational knowledge and information practices and procedures in a completely integrated and almost seamless architecture. These systems and processes will support the organisation’s explicit knowledge needs.

In addition, these systems and processes can contribute to social capital by making information visible across a range of formats – creating network links between people as well as documents and artefacts, and facilitating collaboration spaces and communities within and across organisational boundaries.

In looking at a strategic approach for organisational information management, I believe that we now need to leverage an integrated (or even federated) suite of record, information and knowledge management practices and processes for operational excellence.

Our strategic thinking should therefore be focused on determining how best to utilise our records management, information management and knowledge management practices and processes for whole-of-enterprise advantage. And as I have noted before, we need to keep the dialogue happening with human resources to maximise the intellectual and social capital of the organisation’s people – a resource that needs operational integration as much as systems.

On the ties that don’t bind

This article from the Australian Financial Review(subscription required) discusses a recent book by human resource management academic, Lynda Gratton, on the power of weak ties in the network. Having read Gratton’s Living strategy, I was intrigued to learn more about the new book, Hot spots, albeit written for a more mass market audience.

Weak ties are people who are generally acquaintances or people you bump into occasionally. They are not good friends but may be friends of friends. Granovetter’s 1973 article was one of the first to examine weak ties and much work has been done since refining the concept in relation to a range of networks. One of the first papers I read on the topic was Hansen’s 1999 paper on weak ties in knowledge transfer in organisations. Over the past 10-15 years there has been a far greater interest in discovering and mapping social networks, often using social network analysis (SNA) and sensemaking software.

The gist of the new Gratton book is that “innovation comes from people who cross boundaries (and) talk to people in all areas of the business and outside and bring foreign ideas into their own work”. Gratton rightly points out that most organisations don’t even realise the capacity and power of potential networks inside their own organisation – an untapped and relatively inexpensive resource.

At the individual level, people need to take up the challenge of boundary spanning – the capacity to move outside the central node of friendships and social contacts into the more ambiguous and uncertain domain where they don’t really know people very well. With some curiosity and interest, these weak ties will form.

At the organisational level, there is often the fear that individuals need permission to meet and discuss issues outside their immediate working relationships. An open and collegiate workplace culture certainly helps dispel such fears, but where this culture doesn’t exist, encouraging co-operation and boundary spanning from senior management is a good start.

One example of boundary spanning inside an organisation can occur naturally. A new employee often brings new insights and ideas to a new organisation because they have not been corralled into like-minded teams inside the organisation. Once people become ensconced with people of similar ideas and contexts, the opportunity for innovative ideas tends to break down. As the article today says: “in order to get something unusual, you need to put people together who are different from each other”.

I pretty much agree that new thinking and new ways of looking at problems and opportunities are enhanced by diverse teams and weak ties. I also happen to be a fan of networks generally, believing much can be done by tapping the power of both information and social networks.

However, at my own new workplace, I must also become aware of the environmental context in which people are working. Plenty of fresh ideas are wonderful, and I like to think that I have a few ideas myself, but a scatter-gun approach may not be the most effective initial strategy. Nevertheless, I think it is still important to consider those fresh ideas within the existing workplace framework, as well as to frame those fresh ideas into new and potential workplace frameworks.

Certainly, as the new boy on the block, I am already forming loose ties across the organisation. I can have plenty of conversations within this organisational context, enabling a better understanding of the current workplace environment, while at the same time working through and generating new ideas for the future.

On participation

I was listening to the radio this week when I heard an interview with a film producer on triple j. Of special note was the comment by the female dj that perhaps casting for movies should be done the same way as decisions are made in those reality tv shows. Just sms your vote! The film producer was aghast at such a thought! In contrast, the dj’s suggestion was just an obvious manifestation of what is already happening within her demographic’s frame of reference.

And this is where the demographic fundamentals will be working in businesses today. Participation isn’t something the management requests when it suits them, oh no! In a culture where participatory decision-making and social networking are becoming second nature, the workplace will need to adapt as well.

At the same time, the very same set of younger generations have not only been brought up with a hefty dose of reality tv but they have also been participants in the internet revolution. To them, the web and all it can do is as normal as a mobile phone.

Enter web 2.0 (the term web 2.0 was actually born in 2004) and add gen x, y and z.

The web-savvy generations with their penchant for personal networks and participatory decision-making are gradually working their way now (and in the future) into the very dna of organisations across the globe. The norms of organisational decision-making in those post-Fordist managerial hierarchies are looking a tad less secure in the 21st century.

For managers, we need to foster this connectedness and participatory zeal in our workplaces. We can assist with a suite of web 2.0 applications (RSS, blogs, wikis, social computing) that enhance the level of participation and communication among our people and our people-networks. And we can allow and actively encourage the participation, the networks and the conversations to take place inside our businesses because it is through these interactions and participation that we generate real organisational value competitive advantage.

Participation and web 2.0 are a great combination so let’s use them to the best of our advantage. [Check out this Ross Gitten’s article for some more reasons to treat your employees well].