Putting knowledge to work

When information consultant David Brown was sent in as part of a project to straighten out the passport and visa section of the Papua New Guinea Immigration and Citizenship office in 1994, he found a hoard of old paperwork crammed under desks and shoved into alcoves.

Through an arrangement of the Australian Development Assistance Bureau, computers had been installed and a network set up to streamline the office’s operations, train staff, improve communications with other missions around the world and out in place new procedures to make it all work.

But the paper remained a problem. “We had a disposal authority approved, so we could actually go ahead and get rid of what was not needed,” Brown says. “Of course, there were no resources, no trucks or recyclers to call. So we just went and bought a rake from the local shop, took the lot – which was a number of ute-loads – to the car park and burned them, like a big pile of autumn leaves.”

Streamlining functions and making better use of the available information is not just a matter of plugging in a computer. “If you can’t organise yourself in one medium, you won’t be able to organise yourself in another. It is not technology itself that will help you structure effectively,” Brown says. “A mess of paper will not turn into an efficient system just because it’s transferred to a screen.”

Brown says his work helps “fill the gap between IT specialists and the reality of running a business”. The best hardware and the most colourful software will not automatically make a company run efficiently, he says.

Enterprise Knowledge is in the business of knowledge management, which Brown defines in two parts; assets and processes. The knowledge assets include people and the equipment available. “Then there are the knowledge-related processes, which are the things that create, build, apply and safeguard knowledge and information,” he says. “It is this area that tends to be more our brief.”

Brown concedes that the phrase “knowledge management” seems to have become fashionable, but he maintains that just because it is the next “big thing” does not make it any less important. “It is just terminology. A few years ago it was records management, then information management; now knowledge. People look to keep changing the first word, but it’s the ‘management’ part of the phrase that is the key. You can’t stop managing the information that is essential to your business, but you have to change the way you do it to keep up.”

Enterprise Knowledge’s team of four consultants, including owner and managing director Judith Ellis, have worked for government departments, law firms, mining and primary industry groups, banks and charities. They are usually called in to help resolve a crisis, caused by amalgamation, relocation, a legal requirement, or organisational or technological change. “Businesses come to a point that needs immediate attention, where they have to put their house in order,” Brown says. “And that’s where we come in.”

The corporatisation of CitiPower, for example, in preparation for privatisation, was a massive job. “It was a mass of little departments and businesses that were not related to each other in any way beyond the fact that they all supplied electricity.” Brown’s job was to identify the assets and systems that would work best for the newly formed organisation, and bring it all under the one operating basis.

But the importance of helping get a corporate act together can go beyond better business practices. CSL Bioplasma, for example, sought Brown’s help to keep track of the processes and steps taken in the development of its blood products. “Maintaining public confidence is vitally important to CSL,” Brown says.

The company has to keep very specific records in case a problem develops in the future. “In 10 years’ time, if people started to suffer health problems from a blood product, for example, CSL would need to have kept accurate records to determine what the cause may be.”

Determining which information needs to be kept and which is expendable is a central process. “Our aim is to identify what the tasks of the organisation are, and match its needs to that. Or there may be specific legislation that demands keeping certain types of records, or a certain company code that requires an auditable trail or evidence of decisions taken. And then there may be some sort of community expectation as well that we will have to consider.”

But a document itself is often useless when not used in context. “An email by itself may seem meaningless,” Brown says, “like the one Poindexter sent to Oliver North saying simply ‘Well done’. By itself it means nothing. But put that in context, with regard to time sent and place, and it’s enough to convict someone. And that’s what an effective record-keeping structure is. Context and relevance are all-important.”


This story first appeared in BRW magazine