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Whither the public sector knowledge worker?

Whither the public sector knowledge worker?

A growing crisis is emerging driven by an ageing workforce, widening remuneration gap between public and private sector, changing expectations of younger workers and the growing complexity of public policy issues.

The next few years are shaping up to be something of a crossroads for public sector knowledge workers. A growing crisis is emerging driven by an ageing workforce, widening remuneration gap between public and private sector, changing expectations of younger workers and the growing complexity of public policy issues. These things have been sneaking up on us, but we may look back on this as the year government woke up to the need to invest in its own organisational fabric. One of the symptoms is the progressive down-wasting of document and records management capabilities — like a glacier slowly retreating up a valley, a barely noticeable consequence of diminished snowfall years ago in unseen mountain snowfields.

The public sector once prided itself on the discipline of its paper records management, with registered filing being an essential element of the training of all public servants. The coincidence of the ease of electronic document creation, more decentralised organisation models and the demise of the career public servant, has led to a gradual loss of document and records management discipline.

Witness the almost universal failure of document and record management systems in recent years. Even if a system can be said to be operational, the quality of the recording is low. Most information is, in practice, stored in an ad hoc manner in thousands of computer hard drives and network folders, application databases and content repositories.

Why is it so? Because we can, as we have equipped ourselves with the tools of personal expression. Everyone is a writer. Everyone can create, name and store a document in an instant and send it by email. It is easier to create afresh than to find and reuse pre-existing content. The tools have empowered us to create documents with scant regard for the past (has this been done before or is anyone else working on this topic?) or the future (will anyone else need to find or use it tomorrow?).

This short-term expediency has become a part of public sector culture, reinforced by new hires unaware of public sector document disciplines, staff moving in and out of the public sector and from one agency to another with a delirious sense of living for the present. Write the brief, deliver the project … and move on.

But, you say, it’s all OK because technology will save us — its all stored somewhere and we can fire up a search engine to find anything we want. The irony is that some structure is worse than none at all. Hierarchical folders, partitioned networks, inscrutable document names, multiple document versions, email attachments etc defeat search. We would have been better with no structure at all … one big electronic file with open naming standards like the internet, then we could at least just Google the lot.

Why do I think 2008-09 will be any different? Because I believe we are at the beginning of a new generation of the tools that have caused this problem. Whereas the previous generation of tools were designed to support individual authoring and one-on-one exchanges such as email, the next generation is emerging to support collaboration. The major vendors, Microsoft and IBM, have delivered the first generation of a new breed of collaboration tools, and new entrants such as Atlassian and Google have launched a new paradigm altogether in internet-delivered tools.

These new tools make it easy and natural to share knowledge. New features, for example, include the ability to create a document in a shared repository, with many authors but only one authoritative version — a ‘Golden copy’ — searchable, secure and archived. Not in a separate document management system that nobody actually uses … in the tools that all knowledge workers will use every day.

It is no wonder, therefore, that most jurisdictions are agonising this year over their ‘desktop strategy’. The ‘desktop strategy’ starts out being an apparently simple renegotiation of an enterprise agreement with Microsoft and/or IBM, and ends up being a fundamental soul search about the nature of knowledge work in the public sector, the processes and practices, the people and their culture and behaviours.

This is a critical business issue for all agencies and is one that senior executives should be taking an active interest in. It is not a technical software procurement issue. Consider this: One of the key determinants of your ability to hire the best and brightest young employees in the near future may well be the quality of your knowledge worker tools and the culture of collaboration that they engender.

Dr Steve Hodgkinson is research director, public sector for Ovum in Melbourne.

Fairfax Business Media

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Tags public sector workersknowledge management knowledge workers

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