Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Policy Management is Knowledge Management

Dennis Howlett recently posted a scathing put-down of Enterprise 2.0 - declaring that Web 2.0 for the enterprise only makes sense in knowledge based businesses, and that even then the use cases are hard to come by. It prompted Dave Briggs to ask the question 'Is government a knowledge business?'.  I'd like to propose two things:  that all business is knowledge business, and that absolutely yes, government is a knowledge business.  I'll back up both, beginning with an analysis of policy making.

I provided my rough definition of government in a previous post when picking up on Tim O'Reilly's vending machine analogy. The main observation is that government represents the policy management process for our society.  What then is a policy management process?  The UK Government Cabinet Office took a stab at it in their Better Policy Making [pdf] report, and outlined 9 features of modern policy making (summary taken from homepage) -
  • Forward Looking - Defining policy outcomes and taking a long term view
  • Outward Looking - Taking account of the national, European and international situation; learning from the experience of other countries; recognising regional variations.
  • Innovative, Flexible & Creative - Questioning established ways of dealing with things, encouraging new and creative ideas, identifying and managing risk.
  • Evidence Based - Basing policy decisions and advice upon the best available evidence from a wide range of sources; ensuring that evidence is available in an accessible and meaningful form.
  • Inclusive - Consulting those responsible for implementation and those affected by the policy; carrying out an impact assessment
  • Joined Up - Looking beyond institutional boundaries; setting cross-cutting objectives; defining and communicating joint working arrangements across departments; ensuring that implementation is part of the policy process.
  • Review - Systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of policy is built into the policy making process.
  • Evaluation - Existing/established policy is constantly reviewed to ensure it is really dealing with problems it was designed to solve.
  • Learns Lessons - Learning from experience of what works and what does not.
It is an interesting list, and if we look at some keywords from each definition - defining, learning, experience, questioning, advice, evidence, consulting, communicating, evaluation, review, design - it sounds pretty 'knowledge' oriented.  Interesting too, that even human resources are framed in knowledge management terms.

I'd like to go a little further. Wikipedia describes policy (selected sentences):
A policy is typically described as a deliberate plan of action to guide decisions and achieve rational outcome(s). However, the term may also be used to denote what is actually done, even though it is unplanned.
The term may apply to government, private sector organizations and groups, and individuals. 
Policies can be understood as political, management, financial, and administrative mechanisms arranged to reach explicit goals.
It's hard to avoid seeing this as a concise description of what business is up to.  Going further - do we, humans, do anything but policy management? Perhaps a more palatable question is 'Do we, humans, do anything but knowledge management'?

Wikipedia has this to offer on knowledge management (selected sentences):
Knowledge management (KM) comprises a range of practices used in an organisation to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organisational processes or practice.
KM efforts typically focus on organisational objectives such as improved performance, competitive advantage, innovation, the sharing of lessons learned, and continuous improvement of the organisation.
In terms of the enterprise, early collections of case studies recognized the importance of knowledge management dimensions of strategy, process, and measurement. Key lessons learned included: people, and the cultures that influence their behaviors, are the single most critical resource for successful knowledge creation, dissemination, and application; cognitive, social, and organizational learning processes are essential to the success of a knowledge management strategy; and measurement, benchmarking, and incentives are essential to accelerate the learning process and to drive cultural change. In short, knowledge management programs can yield impressive benefits to individuals and organizations if they are purposeful, concrete, and action-oriented.
We're talking about the same thing here.  Policy Management is Knowledge Management. This is what humans do, as individuals and as organisations - it's all we do - create and implement policy through a process of knowledge management. This is what government does right now, and it is from this perspective that Gov 2.0 will be realised.

The UK conservative party recently touched on this:
There are currently no technological platforms that enable in-depth online collaboration on the scale required by government...
It is crazy that these things have gone wrong when you've got lots and lots of retired health professionals, retired policemen, people in the teaching profession, who have huge knowledge and expertise and had they been able to contribute better to the policymaking process we could have avoided some of these problems.
So, is every business a knowledge business? Too right it is - as a collection of humans, there's no alternative. And to answer Dave Brigg's question - 'Is Government a Knowledge Business'? You bet - all our organisations - right down to our solitary selves - are just policy processes in specific contexts. We are - individually and collectively - knowledge management machines.

When looking at government as a platform, our single, axiomatic goal is to open up, improve and oil the knowledge management process that is government. If we do this, we get a better vending machine.


  1. Hmmm....interesting. I like your recognition of policy as a key component but cannot agree that it is the same as knowledge (stripping away the management term for a clearer juxtaposition). In my view, policy incorporates an intent that knowledge, in itself, does not.

    Agree wholeheartedly with your observation that every business (enterprise) is a knowledge business and that it comes down to people. I have not followed the action in the UK to comment on the UK conservative party's position, but the quote suggests that they, like too many organizations, seek a technological answer to a human problem.

    Knowledge resources are humans, and the information they generate, create, receive, use, share (or not). Technology is both enabler and inhibitor depending on a host of ultimately human factors.

    Interesting thoughts on governance, too. After many years in Asia and now back in Canada next door to the mindwarp that is the US, I feel myself cranking up some cranky opinions! Thanks for some inspiration ;-)

  2. @CRM in Asia - thanks for the comment - the first for my blog! Being cranky is a great source of energy :)

    From my perspective intent is part of the knowledge set that defines a policy - e.g. policy consists of goals, measures of success, implementation plan, review plan etc. - all knowledge elements that combine to encompass 'intent'. From this perspective, we might be able to say 'China has a policy of xyz' (which, as you say, encompasses intent) - and we can use that as a knowledge input - perhaps from the 'Outward looking' UK gov category, and we might even add some knowledge to it describing our perception of China's intent to implement that policy. Once policy is seen as knowledge currency in this fashion, we get that capacity to realise (to a greater degree) some of the stuff in the UK government whitepaper.

    Another way I like to look at it is that everything we do is policy based - what time we get out of bed, where we go for lunch, how much milk we put in our coffee - we operate on the basis of policy we have formed through knowledge management (and nothing else). We are knowledge management machines, therefore policy management is knowledge management.

    It might seem a little arbitrary, but I'm a big fan of trying to reduce complexity by boiling things down to axiomatic principles, and from my perspective, this is one of those situations that can benefit enormously from a standardised understanding - especially as we move into a mass participation Gov2.0 era.

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