The reasons for choosing Corporate HR - NCC are because NCC is the Norfolk local authority where a wide range of information and knowledge is transmitted and managed every day. In addition, Corporate HR is a team that supports the delivery of Council services by managing, supporting and developing NCC's employees. Therefore, it is convenient to find out how people interact and learn from each other. Moreover, the fact that Corporate HR - NCC are willing helpers facilitated the implementation of study in this organisation. The visit to NCC was carried out on Thursday, 4 March 2010.
Scope of Study (what will you study, what will you cover and not cover)
Since NCC is a large organisation with different departments responsible for a variety of services, it is impossible to observe and cover all activities of it. As a consequence, this report merely concentrates on the knowledge management practices within one unit of NCC - Corporate HR. The areas of knowledge management in NCC studied in this paper are knowledge types, learning levels, knowledge creating and sharing, and knowledge storing.
Methodology of Study (how you studied it and why)
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Methodologies used in this study are observing how Corporate HR Team communicate and learn from each other in their workplace, interviewing an HR officer of Placements - Ms. Sarah Holloway and using secondary data from NCC website and the available literature on knowledge management. After analysing all collected primary and secondary data, findings and recommendations are presented.
Definition of Knowledge
Knowledge has become a concern of philosophy since the ancient Greek. However, there remains a lack of consensus about the nature of knowledge. According to traditional epistemological Western philosophers, knowledge was described as 'justified true belief' whose essential attribute is truthfulness (Alexander et al., 1991; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, p.21). Nonetheless, this perspective appears to be vague and hasty since things people believe to be true may not be true knowledge. Moreover, it is hard to justify knowledge claims because no one can estimate accurately how much evidence is sufficient to guarantee the truth of a knowledge claim (Firestone & McElroy, 2003).
Another school of thought defined knowledge by distinguishing it from information, and data. 'Data is a set of discrete, objective facts about events' (Davenport & Prusak, 2000). Information is meaningful data that have been processed and organised to achieve a particular purpose (Davis & Botkin, 1994; Firestone & McElroy, 2003). Knowledge, similarly, is an aggregation of organisational information and expertise (Firestone & McElroy, 2003); consequently, it can be stored, manipulated and applied (Zack, 1999). Again, this understanding could not comprehensively explain the meaning of 'knowledge' as knowledge and information do not mainly differ in the content, structure or accuracy but in the location. As stated by Alavi & Leidner (2001, p.109), 'knowledge is information possessed in the mind of individuals: it is personalized information'. Moreover, knowledge is broader and deeper than information; it is also created due to the impacts of external stimuli. As a result, towards a clearer working definition of knowledge, this paper agrees that:
Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the minds of knowers. In organisations it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organisational routines, processes, practices, and norms.
(Davenport & Prusak, 2000, p.5)
Knowledge Types and Oganisational Knowledge Creation
Different approaches result in various classification of knowledge. According to Garud (1997), there are three types of knowledge, comprising of know-what, know-how and know-why. Know-what refers to minimal understanding of the facts such as knowledge of targeted customers of a product (Neef et al., 1998). Such kind of knowledge is generated by a process of 'learning by using', mostly through interaction between producers and users, sellers and customers. Know-how relates to skills and accumulated practical experience; it is the result of 'learning by doing' process and exists in individuals, organisational routines and manufacturing practices (Garud, 1997). Know-why, on the other hand, involves 'scientific knowledge of principles and laws of motion in nature, in the human mind, and in society' (Neef et al., 1998, p.116). It is deep knowledge found in individuals and acquired through 'learning by studying'.
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Polanyi (1967) and Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995), in contrast, argued that there are basically two types of knowledge: explicit and tacit. Explicit or codified knowledge refers to knowledge that is easy to communicate, transfer and express in text form (Ahmed et al., 2002). Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is embedded in human mind through practical skills and experiences, therefore, is difficult to be articulated. It is considered work-related know-how that is only transferred among people through a long process of apprenticeship (Polanyi, 1967).
Nonaka (1994, 1995) argued that knowledge in an organisation is created by individuals through the interaction of tacit and explicit knowledge in four conversion processes, starting from socialisation (tacit/tacit), externalisation (tacit/explicit), combination (explicit/explicit) to internalisation (explicit/tacit). However, as argued by Gourlay (2006), this view seemed to be unconvincing since the classification ignored the fact that knowledge, in some cases, may not be completely tacit. In other words, whether there is such thing as tacit knowledge or only knowledge which is tacit. Moreover, the mechanism does not reflect how new ideals are created or how depth of understanding develops. It is unclear why knowledge conversion has to begin with socialisation rather than others (Gourlay, 2006) and also unsure whether tacit knowledge is completely and accurately transmitted from a person to another by simply observation, repetition and practices. Hence, it is said to be hardly a representation of knowledge creation.
Levels of Learning
As argued by Argyris & Schon, there exist two levels of learning in the organisation: single-loop learning and double-loop learning. Single-loop learning is lower level of learning which concentrates on problem-solving, mainly detects and corrects error, and as a consequence, results in incremental improvements. Double-loop learning is the higher level one which emphasises on continuous self-reflection and examination of ways the organisation defines and solves problems (Ahmed et al., 2002). Accordingly, it often leads to transformative improvements which are critical to the success of the organisation, especially during times of rapid change.
Knowledge codification, as defined by Cowan & Foray (1997), is 'the process of conversion of knowledge into messages which can then be processed as information'. In the era of knowledge economy, as knowledge residing in the human minds can greatly contribute to the sustainability and development of organisations, the codification of knowledge, namely the conversion of tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge in a useable form, is really essential.
Knowledge management as presented by Huczynski & Buchanan (2007) is the conversion of individual tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge in order to be shared among people in the organisation. It is the process of identifying, extracting and capturing the knowledge assets of the firm so that they can be fully exploited and protected as a source of competitive advantage. In order to improve the productivity of knowledge management, it is necessary for the organisation to utilise information technology to increase the individual and group ability of knowledge creation and storage as well as to strengthen the linkages among individuals and between groups (Alavi & Leidner, 2001).
Knowledge Management in Corporate HR - NCC
A Typical Day at Corporate HR - NCC
Corporate HR are responsible for all sorts of HR issues, encompassing HR strategy and Policy, Learning and Development, Health & Safety and the Employee Services Centre. Their aim is to support the delivery of Council services by managing, supporting and developing the people who work for NCC.
A normal day at Corporate HR begins at around 8.00 am when people come to the office and check all latest emails they received. They answer the emails and if there is any matter that they do not know, they email or ask their colleagues for information or their own HR senior manager for advice. Besides, they check appointments in their computers, answer the phones, talk to each other about work and how to deal with the projects. They also complete their own electronic flexitime sheet with the time when they start working and leaving. The employees here are encouraged to self manage their working hours. However, they must not be absent from work during core time - between 10.00 am and 4.00 pm and must work for at least 37 hours a week. In addition, HR staff have to attend the scheduled meetings with the whole Corporate HR team or with people involved in their own projects, or with the managers to inform about the project procedures and progress, other aspects of work and express their feelings at work. During my visit, there was a meeting between HR officer, Corporate HR between Ms. Glenda Bennett - Corporate HR Manager, Ms. Jane Hanrahan - HR and Organisational Development Manager of Learning - Adult Social Services Department and Ms. Sarah Holloway, HR Officer of Placements about Apprenticeships at 10.00 am. After the meeting, Ms. Holloway came back and wrote carefully in her computer what she took note while other people continued working at their desk until 4.00 to 4.30 pm.
Knowledge Types and knowledge Creation
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After one-day observing how employees work and interact with each other, I recognise that knowledge transmitted in Corporate HR is the combination of both explicit and tacit knowledge. It is clearly illustrated when the HR staff and her senior manager discussed how to answer a question she received via email, when the staff showed an apprentice how to use a photocopier and asked her to demonstrate using the photocopier to her, and especially through the meeting between Ms. Holloway and other two managers about Apprenticeships project. In the meeting, the tacit knowledge was externalised into explicit knowledge when Ms. Hanrahan explained the content of the Apprenticeships project to Ms. Bennett and Ms. Holloway. Then, the combination process occured when Ms. Hanrahan gave them a leaflet containing some activities of Apprenticeships programme and when Ms. Holloway wrote down the information and understanding about the project in her notebook. After that, the explicit knowledge again was converted into tacit knowledge as Ms. Bennett and Ms. Holloway repeated some contents of the project Ms. Hanrahan has just said to ensure they understood correctly and thoroughly. From the reality of Corporate HR, it could be said that Nonaka (1994) was right when asserting the dialogue between tacit and explicit knowledge is continuous and dynamic. Nevertheless, in this case, the knowledge creating process did not strictly follow the model of Nonaka since knowledge is produced from the externalisation process not rigidly from the socialisation. This, again, has strengthened the aforementioned criticism of Gourlay (2006) toward the model of Nonaka and Takeuchi.
Besides tacit and explicit, knowledge in Corporate HR also includes know-what, know-how and know-why. Know-what and know-why are generated mostly through different training courses designed by Corporate HR. For example, Corporate HR have cooperated with member colleagues such as UEA and City Colleges in Norwich to provide HR practitioners with necessary HR formal qualifications - CPP (Certificate in Personnel Practice - level 3) and CIPD (Postgraduate Certificate in Personnel and Development - level 7). Additionally, they have developed Learning Hub, a website offering e-courses such as data protection and customer services, and organised seminars and conferences regarding some particular topics to help any NCC staff to improve knowledge at work. Know-how, conversely, is acquired through 'learning by doing'. Namely, when an employee of a department has grievance and it cannot be sorted out by his own HR department, it will be passed to Corporate HR to solve. After settling the grievance, HR staff will record it as 'a case law' for them to solve similar problems if happening.
People in Corporate HR use numerous ways to interact with each other and with other departments, from face-to-face discussions and meetings, email, telephone, fax to formal writing. However, the most widely used way is to share knowledge electronically via PeopleNet. PeopleNet is an intranet site designed, updated and monitored regularly to provide clear, concise HR information and knowledge to all NCC staff. This site holds all HR related information from procedures, policies to forms and frequently asked questions so that employees can find the answers for their questions as a first point of contact. Furthermore, Corporate HR also tailored an electronical newsletter called HR Matters. It is produced monthly and emailed to HR community to inform them about impending legislation, various project updates and messages from the Head of Human Resource & Organisational Development. With other organizations and public, the team mainly interacts by using email, telephone, meetings and presentation, putting information on the Press or Website (extranet) for recruiting or arranging work experience.
Information and Knowledge Storing
All information and codified knowledge of HR are stored in three systems - electronic filing system, paper filing system including document folders, books and copies, etc. and Outlook Calendar containing information of meetings, seminars and conferences. Storing information and knowledge is very essential for any HR staff to retrieve if necessary and make it become their knowledge indispensable at work.
Based on the interview with Ms. Holloway, I found that most of learning activities in Corporate HR is only single-loop learning. It is because Corporate HR is only a unit within NCC. Most of work and projects they handle are given by Senior Management in NCC or come from the government. Central government develops initiatives and as a part of local authority, Corporate HR has responsibility to develop the initiatives that are relevant to them such as Apprenticeships. During the implementation process of projects, if HR staff realise some arising problems, they will talk to their managers about that. The managers can suggest a solution or organise a team meeting to discuss. Other members, then, will contribute their opinions and recommendations to solve the problems or develop and perfect ideas of the project. Furthermore, the learning activities, different from the theory of Agyris, are still ongoing even when there are no mistakes and no changes made to the projects. As Ms. Holloway said, the employees continue contributing their ideas and sharing them to other team members in order to improve the quality of the projects even when the projects are in progress. This reveals a gap in the model of Argyris and recommends that learning is a dynamic process and should be defined in terms of process itself.
Summary and Conclusion
This paper is about how Corporate HR - NCC manage their knowledge. The main literature review mainly refers to knowledge types, knowledge creation, levels of learning, knowledge codification, and knowledge management. The objects of observation and interview largely concentrate on the nature of knowledge shared, how knowledge is created, managed and transmitted and the information system that supports it, how HR staff interact and learn from each other, and how they store information and knowledge. Weaknesses in the organisational knowledge creation theory of Nonaka and Takeuchi as well as in learning model of Argyris and Schon are pointed out and proved by the operations of Corporate HR.
Due to the time limit on observation and interview, all facets of knowledge management in Corporate HR - NCC could not be completely discovered and discussed within the scope of this paper. Given the fact that the NCC is a large organisation with different departments, further study could concentrates on finding out more details of knowledge creating and sharing process; NCC's norms, values, and routines which are affected by the knowledge management as Davenport & Prusak (1998) suggested about organisation knowledge; as well as the learning process of the Corporate HR in particular and the NCC in general.