Knowledge Management and Retention: A Case of a Water Utility in Finland
|Kustantaja||Tampere University of Technology|
|Tila||Julkaistu - 9 kesäkuuta 2017|
|Nimi||Tampere University of Technology. Publication|
The shared opinion globally and in Finland is that water utilities, where most of the larger water utilities are integrated and provide both drinking water and wastewater services, face continuous challenges with the changes of physical and operational environment and with rapidly ageing personnel. Because knowledge management, especially tacit knowledge, is a critical success factor for water utilities when striving for better and more sustainable performance, utilities should manage both explicit and tacit knowledge and transfer them to new generations of employees.
This dissertation deals with knowledge management at one Finnish utility. The following research questions are addressed: (i) how do personnel at water utilities interpret the concepts of information, knowledge management and tacit knowledge, and how is knowledge captured and shared; (ii) what information needs do personnel have in performing daily tasks and what acquisition channels do they use; and (iii) what is the role of formal and informal networks in performing daily tasks and gaining new knowledge.
The approach of this research is qualitative and contained both longitudinal and cross-sectional time horizons. The personnel of the same water utility were interviewed with a semi-structured questionnaire in 2004 and in 2013. The interviews were analysed by combining qualitative and statistical methods. Multiple sources of evidence on knowledge management practices at water utilities and in organisations was gathered in thematic workshop sessions in 2010 and in 2011.
One of the interesting findings was that interpretations of knowledge management had changed from informing people in 2004 to understanding knowledge management as personal, individual property in 2013. The personnel were proud of the knowledge they owned of the water treatment processes. This knowledge was considered technical knowledge, which is critical to the livelihood of the utility. There were many ways to share information and knowledge and a number of reasons were found explaining why knowledge sharing was considered difficult. The most important difficulties mentioned included lack of time, competing priorities, organisatorial barriers, sharing attitudes and atmosphere, a gap between older and younger people, and unwillingness to share.
In 2004 tacit knowledge was an unknown concept while in 2013 the concept was quite clear to most of the personnel. Tacit knowledge was highly valued and it was associated with the skills and knowledge gathered over the years working at the same water utility. Tacit knowledge was shared in normal daily work and especially during malfunctions.
Information needs and usage at the utility were versatile and depended on the tasks performed by the employees. Almost everyone (over 90%) needed technical information on equipment, and over 60 percent needed knowledge of legislation. This research showed that the personnel used personal files, document collections, the internet and the intranet more often in 2013 than in 2004. The shift from printed material to electronic material has increased over the years. At the same time discussion with closest co-workers kept its importance.
The traced networks in trade union and professional association membership of the personnel indicate that assistance for solving professional challenges is not sought from these sources. The most important network was the closest co-workers, concerning the solutions to problems related to daily tasks. The results showed that external networks were large, quite stable and included multiple sectors. The professional networks consisted of task-relevant contacts, and every interviewee had individual contact networks.
Knowledge management requires long-term planning and actions. In this research it was clear that the top management should take responsibility for knowledge management at the utility. They should set strategies and approaches for knowledge management actions and ensure time allocations and tools for knowledge sharing. It is important to specify which kind of knowledge is valuable and worth retaining from the information overload.
Empirical findings from tacit knowledge, knowledge capturing and sharing, professional networks and knowledge retention at water utilities contributed to the understanding of the importance of knowledge management and knowledge retention. A limitation of this research is that it deals thoroughly with one water utility only. Thus, the results of this study are neither universally applicable nor directly applicable to water utilities of the same size. Yet, the gained results were supported by the evidence from multiple water utilities and water sector organisations.
The most important scientific contribution of this dissertation is that knowledge management was explored comprehensively in a sector that has not been studied extensively earlier. The results contribute to the body of scholarly literature in information and knowledge acquiring, creation, sharing and retention of water utilities. The study, among other things, found that a more in-depth study is needed to find out how knowledge management and retention differ at water utilities of different sizes and what effect ownership has on them. More research is also required of the demographic changes at water utilities, especially the effect of new generations on the way water utilities will operate in the future.