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A recently published study by Gregory Richards, Telfer School of Management, and Linda Duxbury, Carleton University demonstrates the pivotal role of middle managers as knowledge facilitators in public sector organizations. In particular, the research speaks to the importance of middle managers in enabling the use of knowledge by work teams, the impact of knowledge applicability and the role of common knowledge in teams.

Public sector performance management has been extensively discussed and debated over the last two decades. And it has recently has become more important as a result of citizens demanding more transparency in government operations, managers seeking to ensure value for money and politicians becoming increasingly conscious of eroding economic conditions.

Yet as practitioners and scholars have emphasized the use of performance-measurement systems and frameworks in improving organizational performance, surprisingly few proponents acknowledge the fact that public sector work predominantly involves the delivery of knowledge-based services, the researchers write in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. The team set out to examine the determinants of knowledge acquisition of groups of public sector organizations based on the premise that the performance of these organizations depends to some degree on knowledge processes. Their findings, conducted with 28 work groups in 7 public sector organizations Ottawa, lead to a number of implications. 

  1. One of the key precursors of knowledge acquisition in the groups was their perception of the relevance of knowledge, and middle managers appear to influence this perception.
  2. Middle managers play a role in helping work groups understanding the importance of new information. They appear to do so by mostly sharing strategy information that enables group members to filter out what’s important from what is not.
  3. Common knowledge across group members is also an important element influencing the degree to which groups acquired knowledge. This speaks to the need for team-based training in organizations to establish a common base of reference.

In today’s information-rich environment, the ability to recognize, capture and apply knowledge is a critical issue for public sector organizations, the researchers conclude. This “absorptive capacity” depends to a large extent on the skills and behaviours of the middle managers: more than any other level of management, they play the role of connectors across the organization. In addition, they influence significant control over resources and are in a position to support or constrain innovation and change. The findings of this study suggest more attention should be paid to the development of these managers, especially as it relates to the use of knowledge in improving program delivery.

© 2020 Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa
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