Prof. Prabhu Guptara: What Should Knowledge Management Focus on Today?

Professor Prabhu Guptara is regarded as a thought leader even though much of his work, by his own admission, is in fact very down to earth. He works with innovative, cutting-edge and otherwise outstanding people throughout the world to identify new ideas that might bring value to his colleagues and clients. 
 
Widely reputed as a featured speaker and broadcaster, author of several books, and included in Debrett’s People of Today, he offers an unusual perspective regarding the areas on which knowledge management should focus today. 
 
Prabhu Guptara speaking
 
On his work, he says: “Even when I was organising think tanks for what was then the largest bank in the world, the upshot was always merely one sheet of A-4 with bullet points that needed to be considered for very practical action. ”
 
Our first question was related to this.
 
TallyFox: On your website, there is a sentence that caught our attention: "He enables people to see and motivates people to engage in actions that create progress." Where do you see Knowledge Management in relation to this?
 
Prabhu Guptara: Often, people aren't motivated to act because they don't see what needs to be done. And while it is true that sometimes people don't *want* to see because they are too lazy, or because they feel it will affect their own interests, most of the time it is institutional and cultural barriers that impede knowledge flow. In my view, knowledge management is as much to do with removing or reducing the hindrances to knowledge flow as it is about encouraging, enabling and organising knowledge flow.
 
 
Tallyfox: You wrote an article called "Why Knowledge Management Fails". Do you think that now, almost 20 years later, we have learned enough to make KM work?
 
Prabhu Guptara: The best organisations have always been "best" at least partly because they were better than the competition at encouraging knowledge flows across hierarchies, departments and locations.
 
However, as far as I can see, the problem has never been a matter of ignorance about why knowledge management fails. 
 
All that I was doing in that article was articulating what most people already know (that may be the reason why that article has been and is the most-viewed and most-cited of all my writings).  So: the real reason why knowledge management fails has everything to do with the lack of the will to act. Especially on the values of individuals in the organisation, from recruitment onwards, and on the values of the organisation as expressed and embedded in reward systems, policies and structures such as divisions, departments, roles, and routines or protocols. In today's world, technology offers wonderful new ways of knowledge-sharing and knowledge-management.  But it may be questioned whether the full potential of technology can be utilised if an organisation is excessively hierarchical, divisionalised, project-oriented, or greed-driven. 
 
TallyFox: A lot of knowledge managers take issue with rewarding knowledge sharing as a means to make KM work. What’s your stand on that?
 
Prabhu Guptara: As far as I can see, the people of the world are 1% good 1% evil and 98% neutral. The 2% will continue doing what they do regardless of the incentives, rewards or punishments you give them. But the 98% of the world that is neutral will support the structures already in place. They will excel if they work in an environment which enables, encourages and rewards the right type of behaviour.  Similarly, in other types of organisations, the 98% will not rebel; they will simply do what the system tells them to do. Encouraging knowledge sharing should have this in mind - incentives rewards and punishments do matter.
 
Prabhu Guptara speaking in Texas
 
TallyFox: Can technology help with efforts to implant the right values in an organisation?
 
Prabhu Guptara: Very much so. If an organisation's leadership wishes to change any aspect of an organisation, technology and knowledge management are nowadays essential to accomplishing that change successfully, systematically and efficiently. You can use technology to encourage and incentivise people to exhibit the right behaviours.  For example, if your reference is collaboration across divisions, you should not only add it to KPI's, you can also then use technology to monitor how much of that collaboration is across divisions, and assess the results which are coming from such cross-functional activity, and recognise as well as reward it.
 
TallyFox: Being an advisor to companies in many different industries, where do you think knowledge management is most needed?
 
Prabhu Guptara: Inside companies, knowledge management is most needed for the process which leads from horizon scanning, industry-tracking and competitor analysis, to strategy development, strategy implementation and strategy monitoring (with rapid strategy modification, whenever necessary).
 
 
TallyFox: How can knowledge management best help companies not just survive, but grow and become more profitable as a company?  
 
Prabhu Guptara: Knowledge management can help you to scan the environment better than your competitors if your system is right. It enables you to gather weak signals from the environment regarding the latest changes that are taking place (whether in politics, economics, business, society, technology, or law), so that your company responds quickly to those changes. The process and the speed with which you gather and analyse information compared to your competitors is the single most important thing that knowledge management can enable. 
 
Another important benefit a company can get from knowledge management is in strategy formulation and implementation.  A well organised KM system can help you to formulate your strategy more efficaciously and efficiently because you can tap the knowledge and wisdom of all your employees not just of a few people sitting at the top. Also, the coordination between local action and local strategy on one hand, and global action and global strategy on the other, can be managed much better using knowledge management systems, provided that those are of the right kind. 
 
Knowledge management can also help with strategy monitoring and adjustment which is crucial in a world where things are changing so quickly. 
 
There are also supplementary aspects like relational analytics which provide a forward-looking indicator of how your company will do because it measures your capacity to be able to deliver well tomorrow. 
 
That’s because even the best knowledge management systems can fail because of formal barriers and mental barriers inside the organisation. Both formal barriers and mental barriers arise from as well as influence both organisational and personal relationships. Therefore, if your knowledge management systems can integrate a way of measuring relationships inside an organisation that is very powerful. I recommend The Relational Lens, recently published by Cambridge University Press, as the best available analysis of the minimum dimensions of relationships that should be measured in order to have a reliable indicator of what is working and what is not working in any organisational relationship.
 
Professor Prabhu Guptara youtube interview
 
TallyFox: How exactly can you measure relationships?
 
Prabhu Guptara: In two ways. First, nowadays most organisational relationships of major organisations can also be measured from outside those relationships, using Big Data.
Second, and of course best, relationships can be measured by representatives of the two (or more) sides of the relationship responding to a long or short questionnaire (actually as few as 20 questions provide a huge amount of insight).  
 
TallyFox: I see. But the larger question remains.  How does measurement of relationships address the barriers to using KM effectively?
 
Prabhu Guptara: Organisations currently use technology and knowledge cafes to address the barriers.  And yes, technology enables us to overcome some of the barriers of time and place but they don't make relationships themselves, they serve relationships. That is why, and nurture – and that’s excellent. So now you have relationships and you have the technology, what can possibly be added?  What can be added is improved productivity via relational analytics!  
If you have proper analytics in place, you can see precisely in what dimensions your organisational relationships are working (and why), and you can also see the dimensions in which your organisational relationships may not be working so well (and why). That gives your organisation the possibility of a systematic approach to managing relationships proactively.  You want to be able to recognise and celebrate the relationship areas that are working well.  And you want to focus attention on those relationship dimensions (or on those relationship drivers or sub-drivers) that need to improve. So your knowledge cafe session can focus in a precise way on relational issues, rather than only on task issues: my experience is that once relationships improve, the efficiency and effectiveness of task performance goes up exponentially. If you just get together and have a nice time, that’s great, but that is not necessarily going to improve the pattern of any organisational relationship. Organisational relationships need to be improved in those points where they are weak if they are to avoid going back into old, ineffective ways of doing things. Once the weaknesses have been addressed by means of new protocols, projects, action points in relation to those areas where the relationship was weak, then the relationship becomes strengthened and enables knowledge to flow over those relational routes, tracks or bonds. 
If the relationship between two divisions or sections of an organisation is bad or non-existent, knowledge will not flow, and even if it does flow, the knowledge that does flow could be ignored, distorted or misinterpreted – as you know from your own experience even at a personal level.
 
TallyFox: Do knowledge management systems address these benefits?
 
Prabhu Guptara: I think very few of them actually even have the ambition to look at this kind of thing. Most existing knowledge management system usually say: Let’s get experts together to solve task issues of which we are already aware. That is absolutely essential, but not enough in terms of strategic priorities of the company. Knowledge management systems should help the company to survive and to grow as well as to improve profitability (which are the key problems that are bothering most of the boards today). The key is to identify strategic issues and address them before they become a problem. Entire companies have closed down astonishingly quickly because they have not managed themselves well in such matters.
 
TallyFox: How much should companies invest in KM in order to stay competitive on the market?
 
Prabhu Guptara: In practice, any company that under-invests in comparison to its main competitors is that much more likely to lose ground. So one thing that might be helpful is to keep an eye on what competitors are spending.  But that is only a very lame indicator. The best is to be clear about your corporate ambition and then invest what it will take to get you there.  I can tell you unequivocally that spending on knowledge management is only a tiny fraction of what a company spends on all the rest of the things that it needs in order to win in the marketplace.  A company's knowledge management is like a body's entire nervous system including, but not only, the brain.  Everything else should be in order as well, of course, but if the brain and nervous system are not functioning well, you may not even know that key things are going wrong.  In other words, everything else suffers if the brain and nervous system are not offering you peak performance.  Essentially, that is the test of a good knowledge management system: does it offer an organisation the possibility of peak performance.
 

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