A rapid development in information technology (IT) has enabled firms in manufacturing, agro-based and food-based industries improve their knowledge management systems (KMS) initiatives to produce more value-added products. KMS are applications of the organisation’s computer-based communication and information processing systems to support specific knowledge management (KM) processes.
KM and IT have been recognised as a strategic tool to increase competitiveness and productivity of a firm. Even though KM is a relatively young topic in Sri Lanka, it has attracted many researchers. Most of these researchers focused their works, either on information technologies or management information systems in public organisations or industries. Studies on the application of KM in the agricultural sector especially in the area of supply chain management (SCM) have been very scarce. Sri Lankan firms are also transacting using their capabilities of KMS and IT aggressively along their supply chain to enhance their competitiveness.
The plantation industry is considered as one of the pioneers in this endeavour. Since its beginning, the success of the industry has been the result of the ideal climate, efficient agro and processing technologies, research and development (R&D), effective use of management tools and marketing strategies. The Sri Lankan government has been fully committed to expand the plantation industry and encouraged global expansion of production.
Being competitive and profitable, this industry has continued to seek ways to improve performance by using better production and marketing strategies. This has contributed significantly to the growth of the agricultural sector in the past. To preserve the dominant position in the regional and international markets, the plantation industry is striving to improve its productivity and competitiveness through continual technology innovation.
Knowledge management is a relatively new terminology in business management and is an innovative interdisciplinary business technique. The most concise and acceptable definition is that proposed by Malhotra in 1997 which states, “Knowledge management caters to the critical issues of organisational adoption, survival and competence in face of increasingly discontinuous environmental change. Essentially it embodies organisational processes that seek synergistic combination of data and information processing capacity of information technologies and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings.” This can be extended and applied as a management strategy in the plantation industry.
The plantation industry forms a crucial segment of the economy of this country. This industry which comprises tea, a beverage of mass consumption, rubber, a strategic raw material for industrial use, coconut, sugarcane and palm oil, being multi-food crops will continue to play a very significant role in the current competitive global marketing environment.
Presently, the global economic environment is undergoing a major transformation process from traditional labour intensive technologies to knowledge-based technologies, due to globalization. Far reaching changes have been taking place in the plantation industry both in Sri Lanka and throughout the plantation economies of the world.
These relate, among several others, to privatization and changing forms of ownership and management, impact of the global economic situation, technological innovation and updated work practices, progress in wages working/living conditions and diversified markets for plantation products. These changes have a profound influence on the management of plantations and in turn on, knowledge management to effectively meet the challenges ahead.
Productivity improvements, product diversification/value addition and cost control are the three macro-level features of the plantation crop scenario with particular reference to their management dimensions.
Increasing the yields beyond the traditional levels, to 5000 kg/ha, 3000kg/ha and 20,000 nuts/ha in tea, rubber and coconut, respectively over the next five years should be the foremost management effort, besides increasing the share in product diversification/value addition.
While labour wages and cost of imported materials are bound to rise, the extent to which they could be neutralized in terms of cost of production through a combination of innovative agricultural practices, optimizing key inputs and mechanization field and factory operations where possible will be another challenge before the plantation management community. It is therefore necessary to look beyond traditional ways of business to remain competitive in the market for survival and growth.
The plantation industry’s control over land, weather and market conditions is somewhat restricted, but the single and most important sphere in which it has influence and is amenable for up gradation is the human factor.
The professionally managed plantation organisations have human resources component that assumes massive proportions about 23 CEOS, 150 senior executives and supporting staff in the head office, 2000 superintendents/managers and assistant superintendents, 10000 operational estate staff and as many as about 500,000 workers.
Although the first priority of the plantation companies is the achievement of its organisational goal, one of its objectives should also be to create opportunities for the use and development of human knowledge and skills to the mutual advantage of the management and the employees.
Training is a tool by which these objectives can be achieved. In the conventional plantation model, training is carried out continuously at various level, both for new recruits and those in service, through what is known as ‘on-the-job-training’. For estate level executives, this involves the senior superintendents taking young entrants under their wing and disseminating to them the benefit of their knowledge and experience. While there is much merit on this time-tested system, it has been accepted that it is necessary to supplement it with a more professional approach to training and retraining.
The government’s policy framework encourages greater private sector participation as it has been recognized that the state has too great an involvement in the provision of goods and services that would be more efficiently undertaken by the private sector. It may be that it is the ‘training’ or ‘knowledge management’ that creates this distinction between public and private sector organisations. It is generally accepted that private sector training may be systematic, mission driven, goal oriented and cost effective in terms of investment and expected outcome.
In keeping with these concepts and to take forward the UPFA government’s policy in revitalizing the plantation sector, it is proposed that the task of meeting the human resource development needs of the plantation sector be assigned to a private sector organisation which would function as a self-reliant commercial business venture.
The roles and responsibilities of the private sector company that is expected to work very closely with the National Institute of Plantation Management (NIPM) and the Plantations Crop Research Institutes (TRI, RRI and CRI) on all subjects related to training, publications and consultancy should be defined in keeping with the changing demands of the government and its clients in the plantation sector.
It is also proposed that the training organisation/company would have the mandate to undertake the training functions jointly with the NIPM, TRI, RRI and CRI.
It includes the formulation of training strategies to cater to the needs of the plantation industry, designing of academic and training courses/programmes, development of learning modules and learning resources, assisting these institutes to provide consultancy services on plantation management to state plantation companies and other organisations, publications, development of affiliations with national or/and international institutions for conducting of academic/professional study courses/training programmes and generally perform as a reputable training institution in plantation management and function as a self-reliant organisation utilizing national and international experts in the sector/industry.
The justification of the plantation model in the modern context affirming the economies of large scale agriculture and the importance of integrated processing should be that it helps to transform traditional labour intensive agriculture into a truly agri-business encompassing ‘knowledge management’ concept as a management strategy to remain competitive in the current global business environment.
In conclusion, based on the emerging needs of the plantation industry, improvements to the conventional style of professional training of plantation employees, identifying and assigning priorities have been proposed and appropriate organisational changes to ensure their effective implementation have also been proposed with the singular purpose of enhancing the usefulness of the training activities to the industry, that is expected to flourish in the future, as well.
(N. Yogaratnam can be contacted at email@example.com)