Knowledge Management Research Paper
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Example Research Paper on Knowledge Management
Knowledge management in a library, even a specialist one such as a Parliamentary Library, can conjure up images of one large catalogue, listing the complete collection and managed by librarians mediating the information into a politically acceptable form. As ever, the truth is more complex. There are about fifteen different collections within the New Zealand Parliamentary Library. Only some parts are catalogued. Access to collections in other parts of New Zealand and across the world means that the information sources available to the 120 Members of the New Zealand Parliament and their staff are therefore vast. The key to the translation of this information lies in the heads of librarians and analysts who can turn this information into ‘MP relevant’ form i.e. knowledge useful for the political process. The paper addresses six questions regarding knowledge management in this political context and suggests some ways in which these processes are already working in New Zealand to ensure the best ‘fit’ of services for MPs and their staff.
To a librarian, knowledge management may be the equivalent of whistling in the dark, a hopeful sign that the overwhelming amount of information coming their way can be “managed” – catalogued, not catalogued, thrown out, put into electronic form, and then dealt with. In consultancy terms, knowledge management has been defined as a system of information resources which promote more efficient and effective working. This definition assumes a paradigm of business where efficient and effective working is both measurable and measured. Not so in Parliament (what does an efficient democracy look like?) or the Library which serves a major part of its information needs. So, for the moment, I shall define it as a process of translating information into resources which serve Parliament in its day to day and longer term needs.
Also at the start, note the difference between knowledge and information – many learned articles have been produced on the differences between them – for the purposes of this paper knowledge is defined as information that is in a form that can change something or somebody, or allows that change process to be considered. It gives history, context and meaning. In carrying out its duties, the Parliamentary Library must produce the knowledge – and then trust that it will not be manipulated by the political process. At the same time, a healthy scepticism about politics demands a prophylactic, risk averse approach to the handling of such knowledge, and the interaction between the Library and its clients.
Knowledge management (KM) in a Parliamentary setting covers a range of issues – the use of knowledge in a democratic process, efficiency and effectiveness given the necessary split between Parliament and the Executive, and the perhaps less necessary split between various branches of the Parliamentary Service, the impact of budgetary constraints and resource allocation decisions. The division of Parliamentary agencies and the Executive, the blurring of these boundaries over the past few years, who generates and utilises the knowledge, whose knowledge paradigm has credibility (who is listened to and who ignored) all have their place in consideration of the issues in a political environment. While not attempting to encompass all aspects of the debate, I want to address a series of questions which are relevant to the provision of information from a Parliamentary Library to Parliamentarians, their staff and (often forgotten) the political research units which serve them.
The six questions are as follows:
- Is Parliament getting the information it needs to carry out its duties as efficiently and effectively as possible?
- How can and should technology influence the access to and availability of information?
- What counts as knowledge and not just speculation?
- What and who is the knowledge generated by the Parliamentary Library for?
- Are we structured as a Library as well as we could be?
- Who owns the information, and who pays?
I do not attempt to give definitive answers, but to add to the debate. The approach is discursive, rather than analytical.
Question 1. Is Parliament getting the information it needs to carry out its duties as efficiently and effectively as possible?
What does Parliament need to fulfil its obligations? Presumably, information on which to base its legislative decision making, and to meet its accountabilities to voters. The information can be just that – statistics, analysed data from various sources – or can be turned into knowledge through deeper research and contextualiseing results.
Looking at what the Parliamentary Library actually produces , it appears that Parliament needs:
- Personalised and confidential responses to questions from MPs and their staff
- Electronic portals to key subject areas – pushing information relevant to MPs onto their desktop.
- An overview of each Bill introduced into the House and reported back from Select Committees
- Research papers varying from short, electronic only I-briefs (2 pages maximum) to Background Papers – our latest on climate change over 100 pages
- Media monitoring – in a limited way
(These outputs are very similar across western Parliamentary democracies generally, so it’s not just New Zealand which thinks this is what MPs need.)
The Library attempts at all times to personalise the service – our own research into MPs needs has told us that each MP has specific preferences for the information wanted, how they process it (if at all), and how they want information delivered. Feedback shows that the individual, speedy and confidential response is the most highly regarded service the Library performs.
We also keep a watching brief on issues as they develop – MPs who are opinion leaders ask individual questions which can often lead to questions in the House, media releases and ‘issues of the day’. Information supplied by the Library as answers to questions can later become the basis for updating an electronic subject portal, or a short I-brief, available to all. It could be argued that this ‘democratisation process’, the spreading of knowledge, is one of the key, although often unnoticed, services that the Library provides .
While some MPs are major users of the Library, and utilise the information gathered from specific questions to develop their parties’ policies – the free good of research allows them to spend in other areas – others rarely if ever ask questions or use other library services. Maori MPs are also noticeable by their absence from many user statistics. There is much work still to do in matching our services with individual needs.
One area of research work that is developing rapidly in New Zealand’s Multi Member Proportional voting (MMP) environment is the greater role of Select Committees. This more prominent role was freely predicted at the time of the first MMP election in 1996, but has taken time to develop. Select Committees have major information needs. Their analysis of draft legislation, and their increasingly proactive role in instigating their own inquiries – cannabis, tertiary education, organic agriculture are a few of the most recent – has put a huge research workload onto Select Committee staff. Research requirements for Select Committees, while they may not be addressed directly by Library staff, will imply further work for the Library, given the collection resource and experience within the Library. (The average tenure of Select Committee clerks is now down to 14 months).
So, to return to the question, this is what we think they need. What though, do MPs really want? This is where the nature of oppositional politics makes itself felt. Want is about discrediting the government (if in opposition),
“ I want the electoral roll for Wellington Central” – (to discredit the Minister apparently residing at two different addresses and owning four houses).
Want is about looking good, keeping up with the story of the day – or hour – having information that noone else has. Knowledge in a political environment is therefore less about objective, factual information than about timing and scarcity value.
In a political environment, we need to be very aware that knowledge is created through received paradigms, often competing. We in the Library also have our own beliefs, values, stories, and ‘received wisdom’, not all of which is still relevant or even true. Paradigms also shift, often confusingly fast, especially in the area of national economic performance, one of the key subject areas for MPs’ questions. How we can translate ‘objective information’ through a political paradigm which speaks directly to MPs needs, while still preserving our reputation for an apolitical stance, is a key issue in developing our approach to research.
We need to be able to understand not only their information needs, but how this information is used – turned into knowledge – and then anticipate this process, and put it into context.
The ‘whole picture’ is often not apparent, especially at the time the issue is ‘hot’. MPs in this environment often exist on a meagre diet of fragments of information, corridor exchanges, and what as been called a ‘cottage industry of miscellany’ produced through debatable and unfocused research (Not the Library’s!). There is therefore a place for a cooler look at an issue, a research paper on a topic that hit the headlines but is now relegated to the inside pages. (Whether it is then read is another matter – a paradox between what MPs want, and what they need for their decision making through legislative processes).
Most of the Research and Analysis Branch’s work is focussed on economic issues and the statistical information around education, health, social policy and crime. To that extent, Parliamentarians are well serviced. However, we probably know more about possums than the family (Possum control Background Note 00/2)!, and no, we haven’t done a research paper on family issues, although specific topics, such as migration, youth suicide and welfare benefits all took the family as a starting point.
So our clients get what they want, usually. What they probably need is better social policy information, hopefully no longer subject to the vagaries of government interference – such as the hapless researcher who used the term ‘poverty’ in his research in Muldoon’s time , or the attempts at qualitative social research during the 1990s. Also, a better understanding of constitutional issues and the political cycle; our Background Note on the New Zealand constitution is still a winner, despite being around for nearly three years now.
After all this matching of MPs needs and wants to Library services, let us not get carried away in thinking that our research might drive the political process – short time horizons and a lack of understanding of much contextual information, plus values and beliefs drive this as clearly as ever (issues such as the cannabis and hemp inquiries, superannuation and the ‘brain drain’ being cases in point.) The best we can do is to build and maintain the trust of MPs that our research replies and papers are well analysed, are as objective as possible, and that we guard against the taint of political bias. The rest is up to them.
Question 2: How can and should technology influence the access to and availability of information?
The Library is currently putting much of its resource into developing subject portals, and other electronic access to information, including commercial databases, mostly from the USA. In addition, the Internet is becoming one of the key information databases for MPs and librarians alike. The message is very much “search here before asking us a question”. The proliferation of information sources may be a factor in the decline in questions being asked of the Library – but not in the way guessed at. We had assumed that the more difficult questions, which would take longer to answer, would become the norm. Not so. MPs who asked for particular documents continue to do so. Those who had asked the more analytical questions on statistical and economic information continue to use the Library as their policy development resource. What has happened is in the middle ground, where political research units in particular, are asking for information not available on the Internet, or a variety of aspects of a particular issue is requested from overseas journals.
The plethora of technologies, and their rapidly changing nature, has led to problems which are only recently being acknowledged. We cutback our daily newspaper ordering, given the services – originally free – of such electronic access services as Stuff and Newsroom . Now Stuff will be ‘pay as you go’., and their archives are hardly wonderful. Infotrac has access to over 3,000 serials for us, but they are overwhelmingly US in provenance, there is only full text access to some of them and you can’t see where they sat on the page of the original journal. However, the ease of access to this particular database may well tempt a harassed librarian with a 1pm deadline not to search further for more local commentary or more relevant analysis of the issue.
Technical problems abound with the increasing reliance on rapidly evolving technology. The oversize floppy disk with no PC drive available means that some electronic storage media may now be unreadable. Microfilm tapes may no longer fit the current spoolers, librarians can spend all day in front of a PC not using the collection, especially those items in the lower basements. Who knows how to use microfilm readers – how do you even switch them on? A recent power outage left people at a loss – how to work without electronic resources? Meanwhile, the older parts of the collection continue to deteriorate, making it even less likely that anyone would attempt to take the books off the shelves, let alone use them to search for historical context.
The digital divide is not just about those with access to electronic resources being better able to take part in society. MPs are overwhelmingly paper and people people. Many of them use their computers only for email, for keeping in touch with people. While we may be able to serve their needs using electronic means, and increasingly they will be able to this for themselves, the technology must not be allowed to become the message. We need to be aware of the limitations to the information we (and they) can access by electronic means. There are people around Parliament with more relevant information in their heads than could ever be found on the most expensive database, or the best Internet search engine. I will come back to this point, but for the moment, beware of technology! Time in front of a computer may more usefully be spent browsing the stacks or talking round the water cooler.
Question 3: What counts as knowledge and not just speculation?
In a political environment, credibility is often gained by who said it. In the same way, the Parliamentary Library is frequently cited in Hansard and in Select Committee as a shorthand for ‘reliable and objective’ information. There are some more notorious MPs who can arrive at the wildest conclusions from the small pieces of information gleaned from us – and issue it as a Press release. We have few defences in this case, but most parties are careful in their attribution to the Library.
The authority of the Library is its best prophylactic, and we must ensure that ‘safe km’ practices are practised in order to guarantee that protection. These include written quality control procedures that are understood and adhered to, a culture of questioning and checking information before accepting its validity, and developing a culture of knowledge sharing that rewards the sharer, and not just the user of that knowledge. The process of sharing knowledge also flushes out the speculative assertion from the facts, an extremely useful process in a political environment.
Question 4: What and who is the knowledge generated by the Parliamentary Library for?
This may seem a strange question. Our services are specifically for Parliamentarians, although our International collection of documents from such institutions as the United Nations and the World Bank are also available to members of the public.
But Parliamentarians use the services in different ways which can raise some eyebrows – questions which start “We’re developing policy on xxx – please give us analysis on the subject in a form that we can use to formulate the policy” Or “we’re not getting officials to give us the information we need – can you help us?” We may be straying into the area of contestable advice, which we have never been keen to enter, seeing ourselves traditionally as objective deliverers of information rather than knowledge disseminators, or decision influencers.
But as the world becomes more complex, and the sheer weight of available information doubles every few months, the need for advice and guidance, based on knowledge, and not just information, will grow. The Library through its research is already providing this knowledge base, and there is no reason to expect that the need will diminish. In fact, since the Christine Rankin case, (where a Departmental Chief Executive took the State Services Commissioner, her employer, to the Employment Court), this has become more noticeable as a trend.
Our Prime Minister recently stated as a result of this case, that while officials would still be expected to give free and frank advice to their Ministers, it would from now on be in a “more formal setting” . There appears to be a growing gap in the provision of advice that is trusted, especially from government officials. It is an area which the Library is aware of, but is careful to protect itself from any hint of ‘advice giving’ other than contextualiseing the information provided. A definite need for prophylactics in this type of environment, especially now we are giving oral briefings to MPs where we are asked “well, what do you think?”
The most used and valued aspect of the Library is its answers to individual questions. These are dealt with on a confidential basis, but are also recorded on a reference database. Similarly, the statistical information analysed for a particular question is kept on a series of spreadsheets, now numbering in the hundreds. From time to time, this information is updated, ‘recycled’ and issued as a research paper to all MPs. This is seen as a reasonable method of efficiently using the information gleaned for one person for a wider audience. Most topics so far used in this way are ‘old faithfuls’ like student loans and crime statistics. The personalised service has in effect become ‘democratised’ by its provision to all.
Coming into an election year also poses the question of who is it for – or perhaps, why is it needed? While our colleagues in the UK Parliamentary Libraries shut down their services in the weeks leading up to an election, in New Zealand we contribute information to parties busily putting together an election strategy, and next year (an election year) we are developing new Electorate Profiles – a service with current electorate MPs specifically in mind. Whether this gives them an unfair advantage over other candidates is moot – but we also hope to be able to put the Profiles on the Internet, so a levelling process should mean that the information is available to all candidates in time for the run up to next year’s election.
Our research also serves a wider audience. The appearance of research papers including Bills Digests on the Web in the next few months signals that we believe our work serves electorates, and the interested voter, as well as MPs and their staff. We are working with the Office of the Clerk to better integrate our research with their Select Committee process, again signalling a closer ‘fit’ between the Library and other Parliamentary agencies. We have wider horizons than the 120 MPs in the chamber.
Question 5: Given all the above, are we structured as well as we could be?
Last year, the Library was restructured for the first time for many years – the process was difficult, as all restructurings are, with the added problem of an organisation unused to change. The aim was to move the focus of the Library from the collection, and its internal clients, to our external clients (MPs and their staff) and to develop new, in particular electronic, services for them. At the same time, the research side of the library was given a higher profile, getting its own manager for the first time.
We are becoming generally more client focussed, although the physical distance of the Library from the rest of Parliament is still a major barrier. The shift of resources away from hard copy to electronic resources, with the cancellation of many tens of journal subscriptions over the past 12 months has been difficult. The fact that the journals have been rarely used still does not lessen the feeling of loss when the subscription comes to an end. It is difficult to know whether they were rarely used because they were not known about, or whether they were genuinely useless to the Parliamentary process. The catalogue of serials was tricky to navigate, (especially for a non-librarian). There is no central repository of this info – it’s often in individual’s heads. While we can therefore ask colleagues where things are, it is easy to overlook some of the straightforward information sharing processes which we could use instead – documented systems, written descriptions of where to access particular parts of the collection, and who to go to for information on a particular subject, a filing system and shared drive that is used by everyone.
In this way, the formal structures of the Parliamentary Library would become less relevant, especially in the move to ‘cross-Library’ projects. This will put pressure on the ‘library culture’ with its rules based approach to the provision of information towards a freer, more client centred culture where new ways of interacting can be tried and tested.
Question 6: Who owns and pays for the information?
This is not just a question of copyright, despite the large copyright notices on each photocopier. (Our copyright law differs from that in Australia and means, for example, that we are constrained by law in our dissemination of press cuttings, one of our most requested services).
While the Library owns the information generated, and a copyright notice appears on each research paper, research and analysis is seen as a free good by most clients. One of the smaller political parties frankly admitted they used the Library as their research unit so they could spend their research dollars on expanding their Web pages. While we have to cut back on serials to pay for electronic developments, we are becoming of necessity more canny in expanding resources and services without expanding the budget.
There is a growing feeling within the Library that it is cutting to the bone its collection services, but is still able to maintain its ‘motherhood and apple pie’ image with its clients. How can this paradox be? Are we working smarter, or are our clients’ expectations very low? Do they not know us very well? If so, as we get to know them better through the client management programme, our rating level may well fall. Such are the vagaries of political life. There may well be a shift in MPs perception of the Library as an institution (motherhood) to individuals who are delivering the service (the equivalent of ‘ones mother’ with all her quirks and human failings). The institution is wonderful. One’s mother probably less so.
The idea of user pays has not gained much leverage in the Library, and with the advent of Internet access, it is even less likely to be an issue. Taxpayer funds will continue to be our only income for the foreseeable future. However, as we work increasingly closely with other agencies, such as the Office of the Clerk, access to and paying for information and knowledge resources will surely become an issue. At the same time, there may be efficiencies which can be made as we work across boundaries within the Parliamentary environment.
Knowledge management in context – the challenges in a political environment
Essentially Parliament is a people based environment. Knowledge as a resource still rests primarily in people’s heads. Good knowledge management would look to me like experienced and trusting researchers working closely with their clients, in Select Committees. While proficient in electronic accessing of material, researchers would need the back up of other staff with good knowledge of the collection as a whole, including the historical volumes. The researchers would be the ‘forward scouts’ who, through working directly with MPs, would fully understand the needs and processes of the Parliamentary environment. The culture of the Library would ensure the free flow of information and knowledge across both researchers and collections specialists.
The Library building would be the base for librarians and researchers who really understand the collection – all of it, not just the electronic databases and the Internet, and can give not only current hot news from Stuff, but can delve into the history of the issue from the (paper) archives. Perhaps there need to be as many historians as librarians?
Knowledge needs to include the context. While MPs may ask for a snappy answer to a question, they (and the Library!) may also need the protection of the implications of this answer. If they want to know the number of teenage single mothers in Pororua, they not only need to have the figure but also the answer to “compared to what?” – national figures, last ten years, other mothers, other jurisdictions? They may also need to know whether other MPs have used this information in the past – from the Hansard record – or whether a Select Committee has produced a report on the same topic.
Library staff also need protection given the closer links with clients. Research is not immune from the political interference. The closure in 1938 of the first social sciences research bureau prevented publication of information that contradicted received wisdom of the first Labour government, about the welfare of dairy farmers . The rise and fall of the Public Health Commission and the NZ Planning Council act as reminders that independent research needs to be carefully guarded.
We cannot be complacent, not only of the role of the Library, but how easily confidence in its services can be lost, and how political issues need to be taken into account, while guarding against over enthusiasm. The rise of ‘green’ issues, following the election of seven Green Party MPs, is a case in point. While enthusiastically researching new areas of political debate, such as ethical investment of Government funds, or growing hemp, we need to guard against assuming that some of these issues will form part of mainstream policy development. (the minor parties ask over 30% of reference enquiries). Good knowledge management can differentiate between knowledge which is valuable over time (good ‘shelf life’ for research papers, for example) and which is valuable only in the moment.
The nature and sources of information are changing and the public sector is less a monopoly provider of information to Parliament. There is now a wide availability of tools and acknowledgement of ‘spin’ stories, posing as information. A good example of this is the ACT (a minority, right wing) party whose Web pages are probably at the forefront of political technology, stating that it wanted to become “the political Web portal for all New Zealanders” . Its pages extol the virtues of freer trade (is this possible in NZ?), education vouchers, right wing US think tanks, and other assorted ideological standpoints, interspersed with opinions on issues of the day.
While user friendliness democratises knowledge by ensuring its easy flow, at the same time there is a weariness generally in New Zealand with the huge volume of information, more soft news and less analysis and contextualiseing of information together with a growing cynicism about the political process. There are therefore some risks in using the wide variety of sources available – and a greater need for cool analysis, with Library staff able to differentiate between fact and opinion.
Library staff are not immune from the engulfing wave of information.
The plethora of sources and time constraints can lead to a problem solving approach rather than challenging paradigms and providing context. Short time frames – the “I need it now” request, limits the proper management of knowledge. While there have been efforts in the Library to harness the results of answering queries through the use of a questions/answers database, use of this has gone down from 80% of questions and answers being put on the database to around 30% in the 18 months since it was set up. Lack of time is given as the key reason, although there may also be a lack of acknowledgement that this recording of information is a great storehouse of knowledge for future use.
KM is not formally accounted for: the purchase agreement is primarily about counting research reports and answers to questions – about 170 and 14,000 respectively in 2000/1. We may appear to measure our work, manage our knowledge, by counting things. A review of reporting and monitoring processes to focus on these keys aspects of our work is ongoing.
Poor standards of behaviour from MPs, and the ‘dirt digging’ approach to information gathering can lead to cynicism in library staff having to do research which they know will be a weapon for political and personal abuse. There can also be a poor standard of analysis from the recipients – we did a piece of work for an MP who immediately put out a Press release stating the complete ineffectiveness of a trade agreement – without taking into account the downturn in world markets at the time.
These problems are not just with MPs and library staff. The technology gatekeepers within Parliament have a lot to answer for also – understanding little about business processes, they can be oblivious to the fact that the technology is there to serve the process, and not for itself. There are the concomitant problems of quickly outdated technology also – lost records, broken data series and information trails, often due to storage of electronic records rather than paper based files. (This is a common problem, not just within the Parliamentary Service).
And finally, there is poor recognition of the Maori environment for the development of much research. There is a noticeable lack of use of the library by Maori MPs – we have much to catch up on here, in providing as excellent a service to Maori as we do to their colleagues. One way in which this is happening currently is by recruiting Maori librarians who can work directly with the Maori Select Committee, or Maori caucus, to elucidate their information needs.
All is not lost! The Parliamentary Library has some major advantages:
- Historical tradition – we are unlikely – although we need the prophylactic approach here – to lose the library
- We are known for authoritative research, from senior and experienced researchers and librarians
- Our analysis is comprehensive, as objective as we can make it, and we stand by our work (sign it off individually in all circumstances)
- We are prepared to experiment – we’ll try new ideas and are flexible to tailor our services
- We are collaborative – we do share information, albeit informally.
- We have good neighbours in Australia with excellent information services relevant to our own
KM practices rely on good information, accurate contextualisation, an appreciation of the world view of the recipients of the knowledge, and a level of trust which means that a risk averse approach within the Library becomes less necessary over time.
These practices depend on the trust of staff for each other’s information resources and values, the sharing of information whenever possible, and the opportunities to do so. There is a pivotal role here for the experienced librarian and analyst, with their understanding not only of the formal Parliamentary processes, but also of the shifting sands of the political world. The political arena is governed by norms which are the very antithesis of good knowledge management.
Having nurtured good practice within the Parliamentary Library, we will still need a prophylactic approach as we venture outside its environs, in a fairly alien culture for most library staff, where knowledge is closely guarded, shared with noone, traded, or used as a weapon. Out there, we need all the protection we can get. Perhaps the last question should be, how do we get good knowledge management within the political system? The answer to that one, like miracles, takes a little longer.