Tapping Government’s Biggest Asset—Knowledge

How agencies can develop, share and keep critical expertise.

This is the last in a series of articles on how the next administration can improve federal government operations.

Knowledge is an organization’s purest form of competitive advantage. Yet the government doesn’t do a good job of developing its employees or retaining and disseminating institutional knowledge that often is lost when key employees depart their agencies. Further complicating the problem, many human resources specialists have left government, depriving managers of critical guidance needed to develop their workforce.

To achieve the results the Trump administration is seeking, the federal government needs to find new ways of doing business. Employee development and rebuilding the human resources management field are among six areas of management that offer enormous opportunity to improve government operations. They include:

  • Government performance
  • Accountability
  • Employee engagement
  • Team development
  • Employee development
  • Rebuilding the human resources management field

Previous articles in this series covered government performance and accountability, and employee engagement and team development

Employee Development

The 2016 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey showed only 53 percent of respondents were satisfied with the training they received for their job. And in those agencies that implement individual development plans, there is little follow up, if any.

To address the problem agencies should:

  • Develop systems, methods, agreements and networks that identify, retain and disseminate key institutional knowledge. They should develop knowledge management programs from the following perspective: What knowledge is needed for the organization to meet its goals?
  • Build each program around the four forms of knowledge: codifiable (can be explained and standardized), noncodifiable (cannot be easily explained), know-that (based on fact, intuition or belief) and know-how (ability to perform tasks or operations).
  • Incorporate into each program the four types of developmental activities that support each form of knowledge: structured, nonstructured, cognition-based, and action-based.
  • Conduct regular forums and discussions that highlight the reflections, perspectives and lessons learned from experienced employees and former employees. This not only benefits those who are less experienced, but it also boosts the morale of seasoned employees when they see that their wisdom is valued.
  • Incorporate knowledge management plans into employee feedback on performance to clearly establish the relationship between the two and create a stronger focus on professional development.

Rebuilding the Human Resources Management Field

During the reinventing government initiative in the 1990s, human resources management was centralized across much of the federal government to reduce the need for thousands of positions. Sensing that HRM was no longer valued, many employees left the field, or the government entirely, resulting in a fewer experts whom managers could turn to. This HRM deficiency still exists today and diminishes agency performance.

A government workforce that has become more educated and litigious further complicates this challenge. In fiscal 2015, for example, the Merit Systems Protection Board processed a record 28,509 cases disputing personnel actions—a 63 percent increase from the previous year. In addition, 4,418 charges of unfair labor practices were filed against federal agencies. And agencies paid out $105.7 million to employees and applicants who filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Federal employees also filed an untold number of grievances.

First and foremost, agencies need to affirm their commitment to rebuilding their HRM talent. Some progress has been made (e.g., the online courses offered by HR University), but much more needs to be done. As part of a comprehensive knowledge management plan, agencies should contract with and/or reemploy former federal HR management experts to mentor and develop the current HRM workforce. The key is to offer them developmental activities that address the noncodifiable, know-how knowledge that is so desperately needed and not easily learned through online classes or HRM manuals.

HRM knowledge management plans should also focus on:

  • Exposing HRM officials to the day-to-day work their customers perform in order to provide them with better service. Workforce management officials need to become strategists and developers of talent rather than compliance specialists and paper pushers. 
  • Offering HRM officials technical training that is not only grounded in theory, but also focused on real challenges that are affecting their colleagues.
  • Requiring HRM professionals to attend third-party hearings before such diverse bodies as MSPB, EEOC, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and arbitrators so they understand the litigation process.

Strategic plans for human resources activities should emphasize a transition from organizations that primarily process paperwork and fill positions to valued management partners focused on agency goals and objectives. HR management should ultimately have a seat at the table.

In addition, agencies should develop a balanced scorecard for personnel activities that can serve as a model across agencies. This will enable HR organizations, including the Office of Personnel Management, to build consistency, best practices and lessons learned across a variety of areas, such as staffing, succession planning, performance management, EEO practices, and labor relations.

Federal agencies are at a crossroads with the incoming administration, which brings with it new opportunities to create something special. A fresh look at time-tested management approaches could go a long way toward harnessing knowledge and talent to improve government performance.

Stewart Liff is president and CEO of Stewart Liff & Associates Inc., specializing in human resources management and team development. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees, A Team of Leaders and Seeing is Believing. He can be reached at stew@stewartliff.com.

Paul Gustavson is an organizational design consultant and founder of Organization Planning & Design Inc., which helps companies around the world create and sustain high-performance teams. He is the co-author of A Team of Leaders, The Power of Living by Design and Running into the Wind. He can be reached at pgustavson@organizationdesign.com.