You’ve heard it before, but the only asset a public relations agency has is its people. More specifically, it’s the knowledge and experience that those people have accumulated over the years. Now doesn’t it make sense for an agency to invest in sharing that knowledge, institutionalizing it? That’s the objective of recent moves—in the PR industry and the wider world of business—to create “learning organizations.”
Last week, Shandwick announced that Bruce Benidt, a practitioner in its Minneapolis office, would assume the title chief learning officer. Burson-Marsteller has had a chief knowledge officer for a couple of years now. Ruder Finn has one too. And almost every major agency has a “knowledge center,” although many are really nothing more elaborate than high-tech libraries.
Writing in his supplement to PR Reporter earlier this year, Otto Lerbinger argued that “public relations practitioners are major contributors to the intangible assets owned by an organization, by creating customer loyalty, employee commitment and other attitudes and behaviors towards an organization. Now practitioners must connect with intellectual capital, the newest intangible. It refers to what people know and how they use what they know.”
Recent management literature is replete with references to “intellectual capital,” “learning organizations,” and “the knowledge economy.” There is a recognition that knowledge is one of a company’s most valuable assets, and that it must be managed with as much attention as any other key asset. That means establishing procedures for recognizing intellectual capital, putting a value on it, and disseminating it throughout the organization.
Technology has made that possible. Leslie Gaines-Ross, who is chief knowledge officer for Burson-Marsteller’s North American region, says “we have to know what we know and know what we don’t know. Technology enables us to do that. Then we have to create new knowledge. That’s a big part of my job.” Gaines-Ross has worked on projects designed to track CEO reputations and to measure corporate reputation.
Most agencies are still taking a traditional approach to knowledge management. At Manning Selvage & Lee, for example, there’s a Knowledge Center, headed by knowledge director Susan Kaufman. Kaufman is a former librarian and the Knowledge Center offers Nexis/Lexis, Dow Jones News Retrieval, and Dialog, and also serves to direct employees to others within MS&L who are knowledgeable about a particular market or industry. It also suggests links to Internet resources.
“It’s like the old New York Public Library,” says Capozzi. “It used to be you could call up the New York Public Library and ask them any question at all and they would get back to you with an answer. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Benidt’s role at Shandwick is broader. In addition to identifying sources of knowledge and making sure the technology exists to disseminate knowledge, he will focus a good deal of energy on showing people how to learn. “Right now, the competition for people in this business is intense, and you have to offer them more than just a pay check. We want to teach them how to learn. People in this business are hungry to learn.”
Clients are demanding more from their agencies too, says Benidt. If agencies don’t bring all of their intellectual resources to bear on a problem, they won’t hold the business for long, and in an agency like Shandwick, with offices all over the world, no single individual can know where all the knowledge resides. For that reason, people have to be taught to share it.
That’s not always easy, Gaines-Ross says. It’s impossible to force people to share information, and some of them believe that their value to the organization resides in the uniqueness of their knowledge. Sharing it, they assume, would reduce their uniqueness and thus their value. Those people have to be convinced that their value depends on the information they share, not the information they keep to themselves. B-M has developed a process it calls Knowledge Share, designed to elicit knowledge, and is studying best practices in other industries.
“Companies like Anderson Consulting have a very formal process, and every time a project is completed they have a debriefing that asks the people working on the project what they learned, what were the takeaways, what were the measurable results,” says Gaines-Ross. “That information goes into a database and is shared.”
Certainly traditional professional development programs are no longer sufficient, says Benidt, because they almost always feature seasoned, experienced professionals offering advice to their younger pupils. “We have to recognize that everyone has knowledge, and everyone’s knowledge is valuable. We have to provide a mechanism through which occasionally young people will have an insight that our more experienced people will find valuable. That means we have to make our senior people just as open to learning as our junior people.”
Benidt sounds like an evangelist, and he’s convinced the pay off from creating a learning organization will be worth the investment of time and energy. “A learning organization is one that can ride the wave of change rather than simply being swept along by it,” he says.