Transforming management thinking and practice: Lessons from AU-FB’s MBA ‘Knowledge Management’ courses
Athabasca University deserves its reputation as an innovator in management education, having launched the world’s first online MBA in 1994. Now, leading universities around the world are adopting the online Master of Business Administration (MBA) model pioneered by AU’s Faculty of Business (AU-FB).
I had the pleasure of offering a weekend course for Athabasca University Faculty of Business (AU-FB) MBA students on Intellectual Capital and Knowledge Management in the early 2000s. The goal was to develop practical solutions to major business challenges.
Looking back on those discussions, it is uncanny how the challenges of consolidating and using corporate knowledge identified by AU-FB MBA students resonate even more today. Certainly, the business context has dramatically transformed. So too have the resources. Today’s digital information and communication technology would have seemed like science fiction two decades ago. And the term knowledge management has given way to the focused objectives of collaboration, innovation, and expanding workers’ capabilities.
Knowledge workers in a knowledge-based economy
Yet for all that has changed in the business world, there are four enduring truths regarding knowledge workers in a knowledge-based economy that AU-FB MBA students at a 2002 weekend course identified. These remain the biggest challenges to maximizing the potential of workers’ knowledge:
- Knowledge workers—a term that students used inclusively to include all employees—must, as management guru Peter Drucker advocated in 1999, be enabled to continuously learn, teach, and innovate in their jobs. To do so, they must be given responsibility for these goals and autonomy to achieve them.
- Given that knowledge is a vital input and output of today’s economy, organizational leaders must look beyond knowledge ‘collection’ by providing employees with ample opportunity to cultivate the personal connections needed to generate new ideas.
- It’s essential to recognize the limitations of any knowledge management system. These systems have built up a huge stock of knowledge, resulting in what one weekend school participant called “islands of floating knowledge” that are of little practical benefit. This calls for a shift in focus, to how employees actually use knowledge day-to-day in their jobs.
- Some of the most valuable ‘how to’ knowledge for business success comes from experience and is difficult to codify. A weekend school student provided the example of a paper-making machine operator who had just retired. Soon after, a newly-installed machine broke down, confounding the engineers. Then someone called the retired operator, seeking his advice. His response: “You need to regularly clean the paper dust from behind the machine’s rollers.” This critical information wasn’t passed because, as the operator put it, “nobody asked me.” This problem of lost knowledge from retirements or other departures is an even greater problem today.
While these four challenges persist, workplaces today face additional barriers to generating, sharing, and using knowledge. Based on surveys of Canadian workers reported in my book Redesigning Work (with Frank Graves), since the early 2000s work stress and work-life conflict are up, while job satisfaction and engagement are down. Furthermore, despite steadily rising educational levels, Canadian workers are less able to take initiative, fully contribute their knowledge, or learn new ways of doing their job.
Promising solutions involve strengthening an organization’s culture, cultivating a positive work environment, and building trust between managers and employees. For example, the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and resources for making organizations more resilient and agile can help in this regard. Major employers recognize that by cultivating psychologically healthy workplaces that promote employees’ well-being, they are laying the foundation for sustainable success.
Thriving employees are creative, innovative, and collaborative. The result is a positive upward spiral, with employee well-being and organizational performance improving in tandem. If we reconvened the weekend school on knowledge management, I’m fairly sure that the AU-FB MBA students—now business leaders—would agree.