Managing knowledge in the digital public sector

Managing knowledge in the digital public sector

As a society, we’ve become experts at information knowledge sharing. Wikipedia contains millions of articles recording virtually every aspect of human existence. If you ever want to know how to do something, there are hours of instructional videos on YouTube to refer to.

And, if you wanted an anthropological look at modern culture, simply refer to the exhaustive list of opinions and memes shared through social media. Yet, in public sector organisations, managing and sharing knowledge is a constant challenge.

Collaboration can stop short of permeating teams which are physically located next to one another as well as cross government departments. Hours can be wasted scouring through email trails for crucial bits of information. And yet there are fountains of expertise in every organisation that no one will be able to draw from because no one knows they are there.

It’s a challenge requiring an urgent solution, least not because of an impending skills shortage. Surveys estimate that as much as 30% of the workforce could retire by 2035, creating an enormous knowledge gap that the public sector will struggle to fill. To avoid this, it must become much better at retaining the expertise of outgoing employees in a form that can be easily shared with the rest of the organisation.

Fortunately, the digital workplace is catching up to these problems. For years now, private companies have been using collaborative platforms where knowledge can be stored and shared across people, teams, geographies and time zones. Government departments could take a page out of their book by taking advantage of similar solutions that allow information to be arranged by context to make it easier to locate and parse. They will, however, need to enact a cultural shift to truly employ these solutions effectively.

Recording and retaining the knowledge in the business

Today’s world is complex. You cannot be an expert in everything. Which is why, by making the expertise of everyone in the organisation easily accessible to all, enterprise social networks can drive real value.

Take the Austrian Ministry of Finance, for example. After implementing a collaborative platform, an employee posed a specific question for a company tax audit process ministry-wide via their new collaboration platform. Each employee profile was stored on the platform linking those who have specific taxation knowledge and expertise to one another. The answers and guidance that these experts posted in response not only efficiently remedied the issue, but were recorded on the system and can now be shared with anyone at any time.

Enterprise social networks can also provide important context for correspondence and documents. An employee may store an important email in a private folder, but on a collaborative platform, this information can be kept in the appropriate work group or project. This way, messages and important documents (such as contracts, notes, plans, etc.) can be stored centrally around the project or job itself. Such a system makes it much easier to onboard new employees. Rather than forwarding on email chains or sending them static documents, they can simply be added to the appropriate team or project group granting instant access to all relevant materials.

There are other operational benefits, too. For example, by dispensing with email in favour of the commenting and instant messaging, enterprise social platforms will increase productivity in ways that are not immediately obvious. Think of how much time you spend writing formalities at the beginning and end of emails, and then consider how we don’t really employ them when using instant messaging or comment features. Saving the time writing and reading all of those ‘Dear Sir/Madams’ and ‘Yours sincerelys’ is just one way in which these systems improve productivity.

Making a cultural change

Every public sector organisation is different, with different ways of working and different cultural attitudes. Some will embrace enterprise social networks and find it slots into their processes easily. Others may have to work harder to integrate such solutions into how they think and operate.

That’s why it’s important to remember that enterprise social networks are simply tools – they’re a means to an end. To implement these tools successfully, in a way that improves the productivity and the experience of the end-user, government departments must take a long, hard, honest look at themselves. Plus, the executive leadership must set an example in terms of adoption.

What are the aims of your organisation? What service do you provide to the public? And how do you see a collaboration platform supporting that mission? You must define how you expect people to use the tool you are giving them. The boundaries between formal and informal work, and how those forms of work will live on the platform, need to be crystal clear.

Crucially, you must consider how to launch the platform to your organisation. It’s essential that employees immediately see the value of it and understand how it is going to help them in their roles, which starts at the leadership level. Many people, particularly digital immigrants, will resist having to adopt a new piece of technology. You need to foresee this and account for it in your change management planning.

Because you have to get this right the first time. You only get one shot at launching a social collaboration platform. If you make mistakes, if you misjudge how it fits into your usual processes and practices, if you fail to communicate the benefit to end-users from the top down, adoption will be low or non-existent. And it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to relaunch the platform later.

However, if you do your due diligence, you can implement a system that stores and retains all of the knowledge residing in your organisation, while guaranteeing huge productivity gains. With all of this expertise collected and ordered in a sensible, logical way, you can rest assured that the service you provide to the public won’t be impacted by the imminent departure of an aging workforce.


By Johannes Buchberger, Director of Public Sector for Austria, Germany, Unisys