Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…
This article was written for Policing Today (September/October), with Inspector David Moffat (Fife Police). The message it carries is focused on public services, but it also alludes to a potential sweet-spot for KM practice, regardless of sector.
Realising what we know today to use tomorrow
Put a cost on the operational knowledge lost as a senior officer redeploys from one role in a Force to another. Put a cost on the knowledge lost when senior staff exit the Police Service through retirement. What is the cost of having to relearn what we already know? What cost in terms of operational lag? What cost to the public while we relearn what we used to know? What cost to reputation, brought about by diminished decision-making capability?
Police Forces across the UK are being asked to do more with leaner resources. Improve efficiency and effectiveness, but do it with less staff. This is made all the more challenging by the prospect of having to navigate this process while also experiencing a loss of expertise. UK Forces have a potential perfect storm looming on the horizon and there is a need to start preparing now. We are talking about increased operational demands, delivered by fewer staff who are under more pressure and with less expertise. Why less expertise? This is the reality of an ageing work force, where senior and long serving officers, after thirty years service, will soon be leaving our Forces. Then there are those on promotion or career development paths who, as a result, will more than likely be redeployed within the service, taking with them their knowledge and expertise. This is something that we need to start preparing for and recognising if we are to protect our operational capabilities.
Take Fife as an example, a relatively small Force (just over 1,000 Officers) in the Central belt of Scotland, who, like many, have recently lost or are in the process of haemorrhaging a significant proportion of highly skilled, experienced officers brought about by changes in terms and conditions, which improved the office of constable some thirty years ago. Fife, for example, has lost almost 50% of its Superintending ranks through retirement in the space of two years. In addition to coping with this not to insignificant challenge, an increased focus on career development has influenced many officers to move from post to post as they map out the best route to promoted and/or specialist posts. A consequence of this career-centric movement results in ‘knowledge gaps’ that cause operational lag, as officers new to post learn the role ‘on the job’. This is where we have to ask the questions posed at the beginning of this article and we have to ask ourselves, what can we do better?
Knowledge Management is a strategic management tool that provides a proven solution to the problem. But, even here, the Forces can possibly do better. For example, if we look at the NPIA report (Policing Knowledge: An action plan for improving knowledge use in policing 2009-2012), a potential problem surfaces, in that it does not prepare UK Forces for the knowledge loss they are about to experience. It misses something significant; the acquisition and storage of what we already know. How can we have a knowledge based action plan that does not explicitly look to acquire and store what we already know within the wider Force? To be clear, this is not about technology; this is about what our people know. This type of knowledge is much more than about what is written in reports, this is about high value ‘know-how’ that is embedded deep within us. You can’t write that into a report or a document to be filed away on a shared drive somewhere. Technology is not the answer; people are the platform for our knowledge stores. Can our Forces afford to lose this knowledge? The answer is, no.
An example of this potential knowledge loss is where an officer remains in a critical post, such as a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) role, typically, in a Force like Fife, this would be a Detective Inspector, for a lengthy period of time. As officers in such roles build up specialist experience they are called upon time and time again to lead often very complex and protracted inquiries thus building up their own knowledge quickly without time or consideration by them or the organisation to utilise this new “knowledge”. Then, after a period of three or four years, the officer moves on; his post-specific knowledge and expertise is lost and the in-coming replacement can take perhaps as long as a year to fully understand the role that they have taken over.
The question is, what are we trying to capture and how do we do it? First, defining what we it is we want to retain: Know-What; Know-How; Know-Who; Know-Where; Know-Why; Know-When. That, simply put is what needs to be embedded within our Forces. Then there is the challenge of ‘how’ to do this. This is where collaboration with Human Resource driven Knowledge Management experts can bring value. Fife Constabulary are exploring a partnership approach with industry leading international KM expertise at the University of Edinburgh. This has led to further engagement with the Scottish Police College, in order to look forward towards a more general knowledge strategy where lessons learned can benefit all Forces.
Analysis so far has signposted the need for a Forces wide KM strategy that clearly identifies what knowledge means to the Force, where it is located and its operational value. A plan is needed to operationalise this, one that includes: knowledge mapping exercises: what do we know, where is it located, how accessible and how reliable is it, how diffuse is it and how motivated are people to share what they know; Human Resource succession planning and competency mapping needs to be addressed so that we can identify and embed the right knowledge within the right staff; Communities of Practice (CoP) need to be explored with a focus on Active Learning Hubs, where Action Learning events socialise learning experiences and knowledge transfer through operational problem solving challenges. The solution to the problems facing UK Forces require a holistic approach, a blend of strategy and operational response; a blend of policing and Knowledge Management expertise.
These are challenging times that require a measured, evidence-based response, no matter how demanding the process. The benefits will minimise operational lag; amplify decision-making capabilities; minimise the cost of reacquiring or relearning what we already know; and support the delivery of an improving public service with leaner resources. What cost to our Forces if we are not prepared to confront this challenge?