Huran An, P.E., left, project manager with the city of North Miami Beach water treatment plant, reviews the city's water production database with the city's water quality manager, Renuka Mohammed. Photos: North Miami Beach Public Services
Above: Loss of key operational staff due to retirement creates a knowledge gap. Below: Public services director Kelvin Baker, right, recognizes the value of sharing information to promote continuity within the organization.
Defining Knowledge

The definition of knowledge is often misrepresented as being synonymous with information. A practical definition of knowledge is:

A fluid mix of framed experiences, values, contextual information, expert insight, and grounded intuition that provides an environment and framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information.

Knowledge is not simply information. Rather, knowledge is actionable information. It is information that is stored and captured and used for future decision-making purposes. Many organizations are rich in information but lacking in knowledge. That makes a great difference in terms of the effectiveness of the organization.

Knowledge can be classified into two general categories—tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge—or “soft knowledge”—is personal, context-specific knowledge that is difficult to formalize, record, or articulate. This is the type of knowledge that resides in people's heads. Explicit knowledge—or “hard knowledge”—is that component of knowledge that can be codified and transmitted in a systematic and formal language through documents, databases, Web sites, e-mails, and charts.

There are various systems and techniques used for successfully capturing tacit knowledge such as succession planning, implementation of cross-training programs, and the development of employee-retention programs to avoid losing staff. Knowledge management systems are one technique that can be specifically tailored for capturing, storing, and sharing of explicit knowledge within the water utility environment.

Knowledge Management as a Solution

In the past, public utilities have heavily depended on staff as the sole source of knowledge without other mechanisms for ensuring the retention of knowledge. This was an effective practice due to the high level of employee loyalty and a baby boomer generation heavily invested in government sector pension plans. However, keeping your eggs in one basket is not a good practice and a knowledge management system can serve as an alternative.

Again, knowledge is either tacit or explicit. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to capture or formalize. Typically, this is the knowledge that people gain through hands-on training and years of experience, and therefore it is not easy to standardize. However, explicit knowledge is much simpler to capture. This knowledge is comprised of actionable information that can easily be stored in paper form or databases and is easily administered using knowledge management systems.

Historically in the public sector, people were under the misconception that the more they knew and the less they shared, the more worthy they would be to the organization. To some extent not sharing their knowledge was a form of job security. To institute an effective knowledge management culture, one must overcome this behavior that some refer to as the “knowledge adage,” which states:

As long as your job security and my job security depends on what we knowour skills and level of understandingit makes you and me more reluctant to share our basic, critically exclusive knowledge and understanding with others.

The key to overcoming this behavior is education. Management should always emphasize and highlight that the more that knowledge is shared, the more efficient and effective the organization will be. Also, a knowledge-rich organization promotes learning, allows for jobs to be executed more easily, and provides ready access to information. However, cultural change requires reinforcement. So, it is important to create a vision that is frequently reinforced until a culture is created.