The capability model

The model has five key areas, as shown below. Each area is distinct from the others, but all work together. Success in one area can have significant positive impacts in other areas.

The area of Leadership and Strategy works together with the area of Culture to build overall organizational capability through an iterative process. The other three areas – Networks and Communities, Experiential Learning and Knowledge Base – are supportive processes that contribute to this overall development.

Over time, as organizations continue to develop these areas and staff and managers begin to value the generation and sharing of knowledge, the strategic management of knowledge becomes second nature – simply the way an organization carries out its business. 

Exhibit 1: The knowledge capability model                                                                                                 Source: Developed by Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia

Capability area 1: Leadership and Strategy

Strong leadership and effective strategies are critical to success. The shift from work with tangible assets in predictable environments to an emphasis on mobilizing knowledge to deal with complexity and change requires a shift in perspectives and values as well as tools and practices. In other words, it is a change initiative that requires vision, direction and energy when starting out.

Work with knowledge is not mechanistic. It involves relationships, trust and connections across boundaries, culture, social systems and free will. A leader who brings a clear understanding of why knowledge is valuable and models effective collaboration is likely to have a great impact in changing the culture of the organization. In high-performing organizations leaders clearly communicate the value of knowledge to their agency.

Effective knowledge-intensive organizations have leaders at many levels. Strong executive leadership is critical at the start since organizational change requires support from the top. However, executive leadership must also be complemented by leadership from line managers, change agents, networkers and those who cross organizational boundaries.

Because this is a change initiative, clear strategies, a resource commitment, champions and the removal of barriers to success are required. When these pieces are in place, then the creation, sharing and use of knowledge takes on a ‘life of its own’ and becomes the way the organization does business.

The assessment questions: Leadership and Strategy

In this capability area, the questions help organizations determine if they have strong leadership at all levels and an effective strategy for ensuring knowledge is valued and managed as a critical strategic asset.

Senior managers should consider the following questions:

  • Is the importance of all forms of knowledge clearly communicated to your organization?
  • Have you identified risks associated with knowledge loss and, if so, developed strategies to mitigate those risks?
  • Have you deliberately committed resources to build capacity for knowledge generation and sharing to meet strategic objectives?
  • Have you supported middle managers and others to be effective champions throughout the organization?
  • Have you identified and worked to remove some of the significant barriers to generating, mobilizing and using knowledge?
  • Are the strategies and practices developed to manage knowledge, aligned with your business objectives and do they match the context of your organization?
  • Have you measured the impact of strategies in place to manage knowledge?

Further guidance and practical examples:

Capability area 2: Networks and Communities

Networks and Communities enhance the mobilization and sharing of knowledge across “silos” (i.e. distinct units within and between organizations). Capable organizations strive to stimulate networks and encourage staff to be part of “boundary-spanning” groups to share expertise and ideas and to generate new knowledge.

All effective leaders have networks of various types. These networks contact each other to share experiential learning and act as each other’s sounding boards, devil’s advocates and problem-solvers. Research shows that even if organizations have great storage and retrieval systems, people still go to people for context, conversation and a sense of how current and reliable information is (see, for example, Cross et al. 2001, pp. 100–112). Often a person can quickly reach others with appropriate expertise, and trusts them because they are recommended through a colleague. In this way, one might discover that work has already been done and so there is no need to “reinvent the wheel.”

Communities of practice (CoPs) are one such network. They are relatively nimble and responsive and can be used for rapid learning across boundaries. In BP, these are the glue that holds different systems in the corporation together. The BC Forest Service also includes a number of strategies to stimulate networks in order to move knowledge quickly across the silos.

Organizations can also support developing expertise networks through business processes and technologies. For example, an expertise locator can be used to identify specialized knowledge that may not be visible in a job description.

The assessment questions: Networks and Community

In this capability area, the questions help organizations assess the extent to which networks and communities are becoming a way of doing business – that is, emerging in response to business needs and effective in sharing and generating knowledge and specialized expertise.

Both senior and middle managers should consider these questions:

  • Do employees with expertise and in need of expertise participate in cross-boundary groups and form networks to generate and share knowledge?
  • Do groups such as communities of practices actively manage knowledge (sometimes explicit, such as body of knowledge repositories; and sometimes tacit, such as relationship-building and cross-boundary problem-solving)?
  • Do you have well-used technology such as an expertise locator or searchable personnel websites to support learning and access to experts?
  • Do you include outside experts such as retirees, stakeholders, customers and researchers in your work on a regular basis to improve outcomes and learning?
  • Do you have policies in place guiding the sharing of knowledge in these communities? (e.g. intellectual property, confidentiality and privacy considerations)

Further guidance and practical examples

Capability area 3: Experiential Learning

Capable organizations recognize that experiential or “on-the-ground” learning is critical to supporting innovation and continuous improvement. If an organization gives almost all its attention to doing things as it has always done them, it is unlikely that innovations and improvements will be identified to enhance performance.

 Experiential learning builds on existing formal education programs. Trainers have long realized that it is difficult to transfer learning from a classroom to workplace processes. Much of the reason is that at least 70% of workplace learning is informal – most is ad hoc and not facilitated (Cross 2007).

The “learning before, during and after” framework from BP has been adopted by many organizations as an easy way of thinking about experiential learning. It involves deliberate learning at different stages of initiatives. Framing these tools and processes as “learning before, during and after” gives needed structure and simplicity to work that is complex and integrative by nature (Collison and Parcell 2004, pp. 35–40).

Many tools and practices can fit into this framework. Some emphasize knowledge sharing and learning from peers, for instance, while others focus more on generation of new knowledge and innovation.

  • Learning before is the work one does before beginning an initiative. It includes learning from external experts and peers who have undertaken similar projects, and through existing research and evaluations. For example, an innovative multi-million dollar project might begin with a peer assist (Collison and Parcell 2004, p. 35).
  • Learning during is the work one does throughout an initiative. For example, a project can include a number of five-minute action reviews (Collison and Parcell 2004, p. 36).
  • Learning after is the work one does after an initiative, evaluating both the failures and successes of the projects. Such learning can be captured with a lessons-learned exercise (Collison and Parcell 2004, p. 36).

The assessment questions: Experiential Learning

In this capability area, the questions help organizations to determine if they view learning as an integral part of business and whether they have taken steps to ensure that people have opportunities to learn before, during and after projects and events.

Leaders at many levels should consider the following questions:

  • Is it clearly understood and emphasized in your organization that learning in the short term can make doing more efficient or effective in the long term?
  • Does learning before a project begins include gathering of explicit and tacit knowledge?
  • Is it expected that your employees will review progress and lessons learned during a project?
  • Is it expected that a post-project review will take place where lessons learned are shared and understood by peers or captured for future use?
  • Are learning processes well used and adopted throughout the organization or are they just occurring in isolated pockets?

Further guidance and practical examples:

Capability area 4: Knowledge Base

Some knowledge assets lend themselves to being captured and stored. These tend to be relatively stable explicit assets such as policy documents. However, systems and technologies to capture, share and use knowledge shouldn’t be limited to documents. Organizations also need to consider ways to share elements of tacit knowledge – lessons learned or specific expertise, for example.

Well-used knowledge bases often have stories, photos, video clips and contact information about recent innovations. With emerging Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, social networking and blogs, there is potential to enhance knowledge sharing and management. But pitfalls exist too.

Across all systems, there needs to be work to ensure that: appropriate structure and standards are in place; content is refreshed and validated to encourage use; the systems can work across the organization; and the systems are accessible with appropriate search tools to support use.

The assessment questions: Knowledge Base

In this capability area, we ask questions to help organizations assess whether they have appropriate systems, technologies and processes to ensure information and knowledge can be effectively captured, shared and accessed across the organization.

Senior and middle managers should consider the following questions:

  • Does your organization have standard software, hardware and communications to ensure that documents and communications can be shared across organizational boundaries?
  • Are there organization-wide standards guiding the collection, storage, organization, retrieval and archiving of – and access to – explicit knowledge assets?
  • Are search capabilities in place to allow for effective retrieval of key knowledge from remote locations and across organizational boundaries?
  • Is there a well-defined “push and pull” capability? For example, are key knowledge-sharing sites set up both to gain knowledge from others and communicate it farther afield?
  • Do you have the ability to access and exchange knowledge both internally and externally?
  • Do users trust the content because it is validated and refreshed regularly?
  • Have you developed technologies to support the sharing of know-how, lessons learned and expertise that resides with your staff? For example, have you used stories of lessons learned, podcasts or blogs from senior managers to share knowledge?
  • Do you have mechanisms for sharing and capturing the critical knowledge of those who may leave the organization?

Further guidance and practical examples:

Capability area 5: Culture

A long-used definition of culture describes it as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor, 1924). Although this definition is not specific to organizations, all of these elements have been important aspects of organizational culture studies.

Developing a culture of knowledge sharing is vital for supporting innovation and the generation of new knowledge, developing staff, preparing an organization for change and improving problem definition and decision-making. Yet, changing culture is also recognized as being one of the most challenging and long-term aspects of this work.

In many ways, culture is an outcome of adopting practices outlined in the other capability areas. But it is also a critical success factor and issues or challenges with culture will always impact the effectiveness of other initiatives. For example, if an organization does not have a good level of trust, people are far less likely to share ideas or try something that runs the risk of failure. In the same way, if people are not empowered to contribute to a Web 2.0 site or are not given clear expectations that knowledge sharing is part of their job, these sites may not be well used.

 So, where leadership provides the spark, it is the culture of the organization that keeps the fires burning. It is very difficult to change culture directly. However, as thinking and acting in a way that values knowledge expands, and as benefits to the organization are recognized, culture can shift. At an executive level, this shift requires consideration of policies, models and innovative approaches for maintaining accountability while mitigating the problems caused by separation of silos, disincentives to learning and work across boundaries. It also requires all managers to champion change and to build trust both within and outside their work units.

The assessment questions: Culture

In this capability area, the questions help organizations assess the extent to which they are developing environments in which knowledge grows and flows easily, thus ensuring effective operations even in complex, and rapidly changing environments.

Leaders across the organization should consider the following questions:

  • Have you established a connected, collaborative workforce that operates through trust?
  • Do employees comfortably engage in conversations across boundaries and across hierarchies?
  • Are staff regularly participating in knowledge-sharing and generating activities? Do many of these activities go beyond the organization into other organizations, communities or sectors?
  • Have areas of mistrust been explored? Are perceived levels of trust improving?
  • If work with knowledge as an asset is still new, are there respected change agents at different levels of the organization?
  • If this work is more mature, to what degree can change agents step back and monitor sustained momentum?
  • Do practitioners select appropriate practices and learn from experience?