Post 3 of 3:What can leaders do to embrace tacit knowledge more

My original name of this post was “What can leaders do to embrace tacit knowledge more to enable innovative organisational cultures?”, but this is too long!

This is the third post in the series. It is about some of the “how” questions that leaders should consider if they want to create more innovative organisational cultures. This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers some of the ideas tried by some of the leaders and organisations I work with.

How can leaders embrace the tacit knowledge in their teams?

Firstly, leaders must recognise the value of dissenters, namely those people who are expressing their opinions based on their different experiences and perspectives. Space must be created for those who think differently to make their contributions. In a learning organisation, different perspectives and views are valued above title and qualifications. Furthermore, people must be encouraged to express their enthusiasm or concerns without the need for “facts”. Intuitive remarks should be treated as hypotheses and leaders should encourage people to investigate these hunches so that plans and activities can be adapted to address them.

Secondly, leaders must create space for people to learn. This learning must not be limited to the core functions that people are responsible for. A learning mind set requires constant and wide-ranging learning, not only at the level of individuals but also at the level of teams. Furthermore, employees should be encouraged to read, explore and discover during work time. This means that managers must also create space for people to think individually and collectively. One way to encourage stronger social networks in organisations is to encourage people from different work areas to cooperate on solving a problem or developing an idea.

In my opinion, leaders must also ensure that their workers are balanced in how they work. For instance, workers who take loads of work home will not be able to be creative, playful or serendipitous during work time. This means that leaders must also lead by example, and not send long e-mails filled with detailed instructions after hours.

Thirdly, leaders must promote this learning culture by allowing for serendipity. This means that leaders can lead by example and allow workers to explore by themselves how things can be improved, changed or tweaked. Simple ways in which this can be encouraged are to provide teams with a small budget to try things, model things, explore ideas, jointly participate in online courses or invite a speaker to address staff. This kind of exploration cannot always be planned, but it must be encouraged within certain boundaries. Leaders must encourage teams to stretch their thinking or challenge their beliefs. This increases the stock of creative and imaginative ideas that people can generate in their daily work. While some exploration can be related to official plans, much exploration is about forming new social ties, self-expression, curiosity and even personal fulfilment.

Fourthly, great leaders can sense tacit knowledge in their people, but only if they are close enough to them. Teams and co-workers can figure out when somebody uses tacit knowledge to solve a problem or propose an idea, and can draw in people with different perspectives. Great team leaders know that tacit knowledge is an asset when people are encouraged to disagree or think out loud, when the voices of dissenters are taken seriously, and when diversity is openly embraced. Sensible leaders know when to trust their people and when to use explicit knowledge to shape the behaviour of their people.

Fifthly, the stories that people tell are important. Instead of trying to suppress gossip, leaders should listen and reflect on their own values and how these are perceived by their teams. Office gossip is a powerful form of tacit knowledge transfer, and it is not all negative. When people are talking about somebody’s misfortune, hurt or distress, leaders can step in with empathy and encourage teams to support people who are experiencing problems in their lives. This might even be an opportune moment to reflect on how organisations function within a broader societal context. Workers are extremely sensitive to the gap between what managers say they value and how they behave. When people talk about office relations, or breaches in values by any rank, leaders should step in and make sure that rules and regulations are adhered to, regardless of the seniority of the people involved. These are the moments where real organisational values are refined.

When co-workers start to influence each other negatively, leaders should step in and separate people or re-arrange them to break up negative cells. All of this is only possible when leaders listen to what their people are talking about, and then being trustworthy and responsible in dealing with what they hear.

Lastly, leaders should take care not to over-formalise. Formal rules often communicate mistrust and reduce the ability of people to exercise judgement. When everything is fixed in a rule, regulation or process, organisations’ ability to respond to sudden change is reduced.

Perhaps leaders can ask their teams “Is there something we must do less of to be more innovative?”. This question often targets excessive rules, policies and guidelines. I always encourage the leaders I work with to openly state when they have to make a decision for which a precedent or rule does not exist. We then encourage their teams to generate well-thought-out portfolios of options, or a portfolio of small experiments that can be tried. These portfolios must leverage the formal and informal capabilities of the organisation and individuals. This is one way that tacit knowledge becomes more explicit. One benefit is that by building the adaptive capability of their teams by not always taking the lead, their workers are encouraged to come up with ideas, solutions or options. When people understand that they have a role to play in formulating options, they are also better able to reflect on why some things works and others do not. This makes the organisation more agile, as people learn to work together to solve novel problems, and they become better at detecting when things are not going according to plan. Because they are co-designers, they are also better able to generate and evaluate alternatives, which means that the organisation has a greater stock of options that it can combine and execute. If too much formality is enforced this ability will not emerge.

In my view many leadership teams are too focused on explicit knowledge, and that tacit knowledge deserves more attention. For organisations to innovate now and in the future, the development of tacit knowledge formation must be encouraged and embraced. This means that opportunities must be created for people to self-organise around ideas, projects and topics. This builds trust, even if it does not always add directly to the bottom line. It also makes it easier for the finance people to team up with the technical people, and for people to get better at drawing on the experiences and perspectives of others.

Post 2 of 3:Why explicit knowledge dominates organisational cultures

In the previous post, I argued that tacit knowledge gets absorbed into the environment of the organisation (and society), but only if the right conditions prevail. It is futile to ask people to record their experiences or report on lessons learnt. Tacit knowledge is highly contextual, and it is nearly impossible to describe all the factors that an individual has to consider in an instant when deciding on a course of action.  Obstacles to identifying or sharing tacit knowledge include, for example, language (not knowing the appropriate words or not being able to explain something adequately), lack of self-confidence, fear of being ridiculed and a multitude of other factors.

Even when leadership is willing to listen to the concerns, ideas and anecdotal explanations of employees, many errors occur in this absorption process. Errors are caused both by the difficulty of the sender to explain or share what works and why, and because the recipient, in other words the broader organisation, might not be able to absorb this knowledge due to technical difficulty, the inability to appreciate the value of what is communicated, or often the inability to understand the relevance of the knowledge being shared. In South Africa this absorption process is often exacerbated by race, gender, hierarchy and various social factors.

Leadership of organisations, in pursuit of different kinds of innovation, must purposefully set out to create a learning environment. This does not mean that people only learn in the context of official projects, but that everyone is given the opportunity to experience the self-fulfilment of exploring ideas, trying new combinations, engaging with others, working together to improve productivity, and playing together to increase creativity. Practically this means that leadership must allow people to learn about topics where the value of the learning is not immediately clear to the organisation. Leaders must understand that people who are frequently learning new concepts, even if these are unrelated to their core functions, are better able to connect the disconnected, to reframe problems as solutions, and are more willing to embark on a process of discovery with uncertain outcomes.

When the innovation strategy of the organisation is too narrowly focused on project plans, milestones, etc., tacit knowledge usually suffers. Those who are more senior or more articulate crowd out the voices of people who may have great insight but no safe way of expressing their thoughts. The result is that although a successful product or process may have been completed, employees do not feel self-fulfilled or that they have learned anything of value. They may even feel neglected or isolated. This often happens when organisations strive to become leaner. Then all the connectors and generalists are replaced with specialists who have a direct contribution to make in key processes. This may result in organisations losing their agility to respond to changes in their context.

Due to the formality of the planning process, codified knowledge is valued above instinct; accuracy of information and planning metrics are more important than the views of people who express doubt, but who cannot explain why something does not seem right. The practice of learning, reflecting, arguing, rough prototyping and then adapting the process is often neglected, or allowed only in brainstorming sessions that are vulnerable to manipulation or group thinking. It takes sensitive leaders to recognise that some experienced people are holding back their thoughts, or that somebody from a different background could perhaps share a valuable insight or alternative perspective. Individuals may feel that their ideas are not valued, or perhaps because they struggle to express what is in their minds articulate people lose patience and just disregard the less articulate people. Or perhaps people with great ideas are simply worried that because time and resources are finite, they may derail the process or decelerate the momentum or change the direction of a certain train of thought.

Post 1 of 3: Organisational knowledge and innovation: the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge

Knowledge in organisations can either be explicit or tacit, or a mixture of the two. Let us first try and sort out the difference between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is easier to identify and is typically captured in processes, systems, routines, documents, guidelines and so on. Some explicit knowledge from outside the organisation can also shape the internal environment, such as regulations, standards, professional codes and broadly accepted practices. Explicit knowledge flows in society, over organisational borders through channels like the media, the education system, professional bodies, accepted good practices, conferences, manuals, trade journals or the appointment of new staff, and so on.

Tacit knowledge is much harder to detect, capture and disseminate. It spreads slower, both because of the difficulties of detecting and transmitting it, as well as the challenges of absorbing it and figuring out how to use it. Most people are not fully aware of the value or perhaps even the existence of this kind of knowledge. What you do and why you do it in a particular way is shaped not only by the task at hand, but by your experience, your own values, your education and the current environment. Often when you ask a person how they knew what to do in a unique situation, they merely shrug and say “it felt right”. Tacit knowledge is often hard to explain and even harder to document or capture.

We gain, absorb, leverage and integrate these two kinds of knowledge in rather different ways. For leaders this distinction is important, as it provides clues on how knowledge that enables adaptation, improvement and innovation can be created or harnessed.

We pick up explicit knowledge from our environment, even if this process is imperfect and prone to all kinds of errors. For instance, we may misinterpret rules, overlook a regulation, or use the wrong form. With the dramatically increased amount of information that is now available in many organisations, we find that people often simply don’t know which explicit or codified knowledge to use. This applies to individuals, organisations and in some cases even industries. We can simply become overwhelmed by contradictory information, even if it is well articulated or explained in detail. The fact that it is sometimes very difficult to know which explicit knowledge to use gives rise to the use of brokers and gatekeepers, which could be a good thing or a bad thing. For instance, when rules are not clear, or are inconsistent, individuals might use their insight into the workings of the system to their advantage in return for favours.

But here is the rub. Tacit knowledge, as far as I can tell, starts mainly within individuals, and then spreads to teams. If we draw an arrow representing knowledge flow, we see that the arrow moves from the individual to the organisation, that is if the organisation is aware of the existence and of this knowledge and is attentive to its value. Many organisations are managed in such a way that tacit knowledge is suppressed, even if this is unintentional. Tacit knowledge is personal, although some of it may be shared with some close co-workers or trusted people. Tacit knowledge mostly spreads through personal exchange, trust, close observation or working closely with colleagues. For instance, one way in which tacit knowledge spreads is by mimicry, where you copy how other people behave or carry out a task. When people are able to express their insight into tacit knowledge, they do so conditionally, depending on their assessment of the intent and trustworthiness of the person asking for advice.

Many organisations have no way to determine the value of the tacit knowledge of their employees, and often the value of an employee’s contribution is only realised when they leave. It is these people who are sorely missed when they leave. Neither is it as simple as merely asking people to write down what they know – we’ll discuss this in more detail in the next post.

New series: Organisational knowledge and innovation

In the next few posts I will elaborate on the role of knowledge in enabling learning organisations. In a previous post (here), I have concentrated mainly on how knowledge for innovation is generated in organisations. The response from readers was very positive, and as I worked with management teams to strengthen their innovative culture I realised that there are some further concepts that I must elaborate on. It is not only about what workers do, it is also about the environment created by leaders.

The first post in this series will look at the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge, and how both are formed. The second post explores why explicit knowledge dominates organisations. The third post will discuss how leaders can embrace tacit knowledge and encourage their teams to create new knowledge together.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” 
― Confucius

Post 4: Technological Institutions that disseminate knowledge

This is the fourth post in this series about building technological capability.

In 2011 I explained how we define technology in a broad way. This definition looks beyond hardware to include knowledge and organization of the different elements. For instance, if a company decides to achieve a new standard of compliance, that is seen as a technology. This technology involves the way processes are organized, the knowledge of how to achieve and maintain this new standard, and the physical and knowledge infrastructure involved in the enterprise.

Firms depend on a variety of public and private technology institutions in order to compete, innovate and grow. Examples range from access to basic research all the way to access to technical problem solving. The measurement, standards, testing and quality assurance (MSTQ) of a country is also assessed from this perspective. The density of interaction between various technology institutions, as well as the interaction between the firms and the technology institutions, is an important factor in the innovation trends in a sector. Various kinds of technical services such as knowledge-intensive business services play an important role in knowledge spill-overs between different firms.

We call all these carriers of technological knowledge “technological institutions”. While some of these institutions are publicly funded (like a research centre, national standards organization or an start-up incubator), some could also be privately funded (like a supply chain development office at a multinational, a specialized equipment provider that provides training and technical support, etc). Specialist and technical service providers, management consultants, researchers and manufacturing extension experts all fall under this broad category. Some charge full service, others provide public goods, but all disseminate knowledge to enterprises.

An organization like a Technology Transfer Centre hosted by a University is located between an Education Institution (post 3 in this series) and a Technological Institution, and often it behaves like both. The Technology Stations Programme in South Africa is an example of an institution designed to fit the space between technological intermediaries, universities and enterprises.

It is noticeable that in many developing countries, the technological institutions that disseminate technological knowledge and that makes scarce technology available to industry are weak or missing. While some stronger enterprises may require and be able to absorb more technological knowledge, the domestic institutions often provide generic services that do not meet the expectations of these leading enterprises. In middle income countries, leading enterprises may simply disengage from the domestic technological institutions and engage with service provided in other countries, further reducing the scale of knowledge dissemination and weakening the system further. This leads to a situation where most enterprises in the country only have access to generic and low-value services, while leading companies and multinationals connect with global sources of knowledge and technology.

You may be surprised to find out which organizations are identified by enterprises if you asked them where they receive technological and specialized knowledge from. I typically ask “who do you turn to when you get stuck?”. In most cases, equipment suppliers, engineers employed by larger companies, or a junior lecturer with high levels of enthusiasm are identified as the most important sources of knowledge or technological advice. I have found this same pattern in many countries, the most important carriers of knowledge are not formal organizations, but individuals.

The result is that the cost of finding knowledge, or gaining access to scarce technology is high, and that those with broader networks are most likely able to gain access to this important resource while those that depend on public goods or generally available information are unable to access the necessary information.

I will explain in a future post how we can diagnose and improve the domain of technological institutions in order to improve the technological capability of enterprises.

Building institutions that supports knowledge flows to industry

It sounds like a cliche to state that manufacturing has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Yet people often say this without thinking of how it has changed. It is not just about the size of our manufacturers, or the increased competition from Asia or elsewhere. It is also not about the sophisticated equipment and the tremendous range of products that are now available to consumers. An important aspect of manufacturing change is the dependence on knowledge from internal and external experts, or Knowledge Intensive Business Services (KIBS). These knowledge experts include engineers, product developers, process experts, industry experts or logistical experts. While in a country like Germany, there are many public, academic and private specialists to go around and assist manufacturers to tweak their processes or solve specific problems, in developing countries we have a bigger challenge. Knowledge intensive services are prone to several market failures, and therefore it is important that we consider the role, importance and challenges that these knowledge services have.

Let me just state upfront that despite my PhD research focusing on the importance of knowledge services in the manufacturing sector, I am hesitant to treat the “knowledge economy” as something separate as it is often done in the South. The increasing importance of many different kinds of knowledge throughout the economy is pervasive. Just ask a commercial farmer in Africa how they have had to change their farming practices in the last 3 decades. It is almost unthinkable that 30 years ago a person could start commercial farming without a tertiary education or at least one highly experienced supervisor. The same goes for manufacturing.

There is a big difference between generic Business Development Services (BDS) and Knowledge Intensive Services. While with BDS our problem is to get good all-rounders to provide services to enterprises where it is very hard to determine the real value of the service offering, in Knowledge Intensive Services the service is very specific to a certain (technical) problem, it is deep knowledge and the value (and cost) is usually very clear. Firms that know what they are doing need knowledge intensive service providers to fill in the gaps where deep knowledge is needed, a BDS provider is typically out of their depth with a manufacturing enterprise that are trying to be competitive.

  • The first challenge we have with intensive or specific knowledge is scale. When just a few manufacturers use more advanced equipment in a country there is a good chance that few service providers, experts or technicians will be available. In market failure terms, this is called an indivisibility (you cant divide the cost of the expert easily between different enterprises, or just take a small piece of the expert). It could also be about scale (not enough business to justify the emergence of a specialized service provider). It is often difficult for manufacturers to coordinate their use of expert service providers, or to coordinate the procurement of similar equipment that makes the development of a pool of service providers possible. This is called a coordination failure and it is pervasive in our developing economies.
  • A second challenge is that many manufacturers are hesitant to search outside their firm. This is often due to costs (which includes the time spent to find the right expert), but also because for so long manufacturers had everything they needed in-house. In South Africa, many of our older firms are hesitant to use “consultants” because they don’t trust them. This could be described as a market failure around asymmetrical information or adverse selection.

One way to increase the availability of knowledge intensive service provision in a developing country is through the connection between academic institutions, public funded industry support programmes and industries themselves. This requires that technical or knowledge experts are able to be released from certain teaching or research duties to work with firms. This is often very difficult due to the high student load in many of our African universities. I am often astounded by the world class research capacity and expertise that are hidden inside universities that are desperately needed in industry. This failure has many names, but in market failure terms it is called a public goods failure, in other words, public funds are not used to overcome persistent market failures in industry.

A second and parallel strategy should be to make sure that the Meso level organizations (which include universities and higher education institutions) are concentrating on overcoming the market failures in industries and in firms. In developing countries these Meso organizations, meant to address specific performance issues at firm or industry level, are more focused on securing and spending national (or international) funding than to become valuable and responsive to the needs of industry. To get the Meso organizations focused on the plight of firms requires an industrial and modernization policy that is focused on building the right economic and industry supporting institutions – this cannot be done just by merely implementing projects or programmes – it must be systemic. With right I mean relevant and equipped with high level experts that understand and can relate to the issues in industry.

This phenomena of the disconnect between public knowledge services and the need of industry is more widespread than you would think in our developing countries. It is a public good failure that undermines the well being of our economies. I believe this is also an ideological failure, because governments tries to use their funds to provide incentives or prioritize certain kinds of behavior both in the public sector and in the private sector. Instead of responding to what is emerging or what is needed in the private sector, the public sector tries to prioritize what it believes to be ideal. The result is that the firms that are most able to create jobs and wealth are left without public support.

In Mesopartner we will be working on consolidating our experience in bottom up industrial policy. We will work closely with research organizations and development partners around the world to strengthen and develop a body of knowledge on how some of these issues can be addressed in the developing world. We do this by developing a theme where instruments, concepts, theories and practice can be integrated. If you are interested in participating in this process, or have experience to share, please give us a shout.

I have previously written about this some years ago in the post about the service sector  and about the increased importance of knowledge intensity here.

The increased importance of knowledge-intensive business services in a knowledge-intensive era

As some of you may know, my PhD research was all about knowledge intensive business services and market failures. In a recent publication I wrote a short piece on knowledge intensive business services that we did not use in the final publication. I thought that perhaps it would be useful to some of my readers if I simply posted it here.

Your thoughts and contributions would be appreciated.

Over the last fifteen years, development practitioners have become more aware of the importance of business services to small enterprises. For many, the essence of the debate about Business Development Services (BDS) was about providing commercially viable ‘business development services’ or BDS to small enterprises. Typically these services related to generic or strategic services (Committee of Donor Agencies for Small Enterprise Development, 2001). In many cases generic (and unappreciated) services were promoted to small enterprises not really interested in competition or improved performance, but in survival. Furthermore, BDS interventions were not always systemic in nature and frequently did not consider how markets function[1]. Value chain practitioners were quick to respond by identifying business services that were needed by actors in value chains, and finding ways to increase commercial transactions in these services in order to strengthen the enterprises.

Almost at the same time an academic debate was going on about the increased importance of knowledge and specialised services as inputs into manufacturing and the rest of the economy (Wölfl, 2000, Wölfl, 2003, Bryson and Daniels, 2007). In the knowledge-based era, business is becoming more knowledge intensive, resulting in certain services being labelled as knowledge-intensive business services or KIBS (Roberts, 2003:130, Toivonen, 2004, Miles, 2007:278). Miles (2007:277) explains that almost all activities in an economy are based on some knowledge, and that all societies are knowledge based. Over time the knowledge intensity not only of manufacturing (and intermediate goods) but also of farming and the service sector has increased. Knowledge-intensive business services are concerned with the collection, analysis and distribution of information and knowledge, and play a significant role in the creation, dissemination and application of knowledge both within and between firms at the level of the region and the nation and internationally (Antonelli, 1999, Andersen et al., 2000, Miles et al., 1995).

The discussion of knowledge in business services should focus on what knowledge services are used for. Miles (2007:277) explains that when people refer to knowledge intensiveness, they refer to highly specialised knowledge, or codified knowledge. This knowledge is about the principles, ‘know why’, and methods that can be generalised across numerous specific situations and problems, and should be contrasted with ‘know-how’ and ‘know-whom’ knowledge which is tied to particular tasks and places.

Miles et al. (1995:ii) define knowledge-intensive business services as services that:

  • rely heavily upon professional knowledge;
  • supply products which are themselves primarily sources of information and knowledge to their users (for example reports or training consultancy);
  • use their knowledge to produce services that are intermediate inputs to their clients (for example communication and computer services);
  • own knowledge-generating and information-processing activities;
  • are of competitive importance and supplied mainly to other businesses.

Knowledge-intensive business services can be classified into two broad classes. First is the social and institutional knowledge involved in many traditional professional services, with the emphasis on problem solving or applying rules and procedures (Miles, 2007:280). Accounting or communication services typically fall into this class. Second is the knowledge that has risen to the fore in recent years, which is more focused on science and technology. These services often deal with artefacts and the real world, such as aircraft, engineering, construction and infrastructure. There are services such as architectural design that often combine these two classes of services.

Kox and Rubalcaba (2007:31-34) explain that business services also play an important role in national innovation systems by performing the following functions:

  • They develop technological advances through engineering and other fields.
  • They develop non-technological innovations in areas such as accounting, organisational development and consultancy.
  • They diffuse knowledge between firms by spreading ‘best practice’ information.
  • They play an important role in surpassing human capital indivisibilities[2]. This is especially important for small and medium sized enterprises that could previously (due to internal economies of scale) not afford access to certain professional services.

Many of the services mentioned in this section operate at the frontiers of new technologies and are essential for the success of other high-technology industries (Di Cagno and Meliciana, 2005).

However, there is a tendency for business services, especially the more specialised services, to be concentrated in urban areas. This means that firms have access to specialised services and are able to outsource less critical business activities, while concentrating on their core business areas. The service providers who serve these businesses play an important role in diffusing knowledge between firms.

Sources

ANDERSEN, B., HOWELLS, J., HULL, R., MILES, I. & ROBERTS, J. (2000) Knowledge and innovation in the new service economy, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

ANTONELLI, C. (1999) The microdynamics of technological change, New York, NY, Routledge.

BRYSON, J. R. & DANIELS, P. W. (2007) The handbook of service industries. IN BRYSON, J. R. & DANIELS, P. W. (Eds.). Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

COMMITTEE OF DONOR AGENCIES FOR SMALL ENTERPRISE DEVELOPMENT (2001) Business development services for small enterprises: principles for donor intervention. Washington, DC, Committee of Donor Agencies for Small Enterprise Development, The World Bank SME Dept, The World Bank Group.

DI CAGNO, D. & MELICIANA, V. (2005) Do inter-sectoral flows of services matter for productivity growth? An input/output analysis of OECD countries. Economics of Innovation and New Technology, 14, :149–171.

KOX, H. L. M. & RUBALCABA, L. B. (2007) Analysing the contribution of business services to European economic growth. Bruges European Economic Research Papers. Belgium, College of Europe.

MILES, I. (2007) Knowledge-intensive services and innovation. IN BRYSON, J. R. & DANIELS, P. W. (Eds.) The handbook of service industries. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

MILES, I., KASTRINOS, N., BILDERBEEK, R., DEN HERTOG, P., HUNTINK, W. & BOUMAN, M. (1995) Knowledge-intensive business services. Users, carriers and sources of innovation. Brussels, European Commission, European Innovation Monitoring System (EIMS).

ROBERTS, J. (2003) Competition in the business services sector: implications for the competitiveness of the European economy. Competition and Change, 7, :127-146.

TOIVONEN, M. (2004) Expertise as business – long term development and future prospects of knowledge-intensive business services (KIBS). Department of Industrial Engineering and Management. Helsinki, Helsinki University of Technology (Espoo, Finland).

WÖLFL, A. (2000) The service economy. Business and industry policy forum series. Paris, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

WÖLFL, A. (2003) Productivity growth in service industries: an assessment of recent patterns and the role of measurement. OECD Science, Technology and Industry Working Papers. Paris, OECD Publishing.


[1] This is the topic that I dealt with extensively in my PHD dissertation.

[2] Indivisibilities refer to the difficulty of subdividing something into smaller parts. For instance, it is not possible to divide an engineer into smaller pieces. You either appoint an engineer, or you cannot afford to. With the emergence of the knowledge-intensive service sector, a small enterprise cannot gain access to a service provider for a fraction of the cost of appointing a full-time engineer.

Human capital development for growth

Very often in training relating to the improvement of regional and local economies we stumble onto the topic of the importance of human capital for productivity and economic growth. This results in three arguments emerging between participants. Firstly, some participants are upset about human capital development, as this often implies a higher level of learning that involves the application of technology or other advanced topics. This is seen as benefiting too few people, especially in Africa where countries are generally suffering from high unemployment and large numbers of under-educated people that are mostly trained into low-technology low-skill (and low wage) jobs. The second argument is about the role of technology in economic growth. Again, people tend to shy away from technological development that is capital (or technology) intensive towards creating jobs for large numbers of people. The third argument is that productivity improvement is not important for growth, as it only benefits the owners of firms and it is according to some people counter-productive for employment creation, as it leads to job losses.

During these arguments it is important to remain calm and clear headed, and to not fall into ideological debates. I will not try to address all three these arguments now except to say that the importance of human capital development is increasingly been promoted by organisations like the Worldbank, the OECD and others (for a great recent report on this click here). This after the topic of tertiary education has received very little attention in global programmes like the Millennium Development Goals and other programmes, with more basic education programmes like universal primary school access receiving more attention. I am relieved that the big guns are now more supportive of tertiary education and its role in human capital development. While I agree that we have to increase employment for large numbers of low-skilled people, we should not behave as if we have endless resources and management capacity available in many developing countries. This means that while we have to create jobs, we also have to be mindfull to constantly work at increasing productivity in order to carefully maximise (or allocate) the resources of the society. I am always amazed at how our politicians in South Africa want to create hundreds of thousands of jobs when we are short managers at almost every level of our society. This means that we may have to settle for less jobs (because we cant manage all these people), and that we better make sure that all the people are in sustainable and productive jobs, within competitive firms in competitive industries. We can not disconnect these different things. In fact, I think we should be calling for far more technology intensive jobs in order to optimise the skills and our resources at our disposal, while not neglecting trying to find ways to get more people with lower skills into the job market.

The times have changed, and being loyal to a country or being comfortable in a society is no longer sticky enough to hold back the increasingly mobile creative talent people of the world. People with talent (or developed human capital) can now work almost anywhere in the world, and then be paid handsomly for the sacrifices of moving. These people do not always leave countries because they are negative about the challenges facing developing countries, although this certainly makes it easier to go and live between a different and often strange cultural group (no offence intended).

I propose that we raise the importance of tertiary education, human capital development and use technological advancement to achieve progress in our developing countries. This will lay important foundations for future economic growth and for the necessary increases in productivity to optimise the resources available to societies.

What do you make of this?