Knowledge management in the agile working economy

Mark Eltringham considers how the move to more flexible working practices must be balanced by the continuing needs of businesses to bring people, and their knowledge, together.

It’s now just over a year since nearly all of the UK’s full time workers were given the legal right to request flexible working, but the truth is that even before that piece of legislation was introduced the practice had become commonplace. Research published in April by recruiters Robert Half found that the number of employers offering flexible working had increased by a third in just three years. Then again, you only have to look around at the growing army of tablet and laptop wielding workers on trains and in cafes and hotel lobbies to reach the same conclusion.

There is a bit of an issue with all of this, of course. We work in a knowledge-based economy, reliant on personal know-how and the free exchange of ideas and information. Yet organisations clearly have their main asset - their intellectual capital - stuck in people’s heads and laptops, literally roaming the streets. Although a great deal of this information is now stored digitally, it has the knock on effect of increasing paper use. So the need to store stuff physically as well as digitally is with us still and will continue for as long as we work in offices. However, what has changed is the way we use information.

In an agile working economy, it’s no wonder there is so much talk about knowledge management. Organisations could once rely on having most of their information stored safely on bits of paper in filing cabinets. Managing it was relatively easy because we had almost total control of both of its volume and its location. We knew where it came from, what it was and where it was kept for most of the time. Everybody was at work sharing it, a bag search was all that was needed to keep it secure. Now we have to develop secure systems that integrate electronic and paper storage and facilitate the sharing of information. The whole area is typical of many aspects of the modern management in the way it has to integrate aspects of facilities management, human resources, IT, culture, property and interior design.

In the past, we measured the storage of information in linear metres. That is now only a part of an intelligent solution. For example, it’s increasingly important to make a distinction between information and knowledge. Knowledge only really becomes useful when it is put into context, when there’s a human element. Cold hard information may not be meaningful without that human element to convert it into what we now commonly refer to as intellectual capital. It’s people that make it all tick. Even so, there is a strong link between the varying types of knowledge and information and they must be preserved and developed together.

The challenge for workplace managers is how to create the right environment for this process to become a source of competitive advantage. The core principle of knowledge management is how to make best use of what its theoreticians call the knowledge space of individuals and create systems that allow for this to become part of the organisation’s communal knowledge space. However, since these issues first came to prominence around twenty years ago, they have been subject to a growing tension created by the move to more flexible working practices and the rise of the mobile worker with his or her mobile technology.

When the idea of knowledge space was first being popularised at the turn of the Millennium we were still in the infancy of flexible working. Since that time things have changed a lot and what we now have is the need for tangible knowledge space within organisations for that knowledge to be created and shared. It’s about technology, culture and buildings.

Many of the trends we already see in workplace design are a response to the need to bring people together to share knowledge and create the right environment to retain and develop the organisation’s intellectual capital. At its most fundamental level this is about creating access to information, either through technology or in hard copy form through an intelligently layered system of storage which offers the right storage options from the personal to the archived or libraries. At another level it’s about encouraging people to spend time together, communicating and developing ideas. That is why so many modern workplaces have such a focus on encouraging people to spend time with their colleagues in breakout areas, in meeting rooms and in learning areas.

People and the firms they work for understand that the ability to work flexibly is essential, but they also understand that they need to come together to generate any sort of competitive advantage. How exactly this is resolved for any specific organisation is likely to be unique to that organisation. But the products, technology, experience and skills needed to make it come together do exist. And what is really important is that it provides yet another way for workplace professionals to make a telling contribution to the bottom line of the business.