Knowledge transfer: Serbia Customs shares its experienceBy Dragana Gnjatovic, Senior Customs Advisor, Customs Administration of Serbia
The Serbia Customs Modernization Plan covering 2019 to 2023 recognized that the success of its implementation relies heavily on having qualified and professional Customs officials. It therefore provided for the development of a Human Resource Strategy to manage its human capital in a way that aligns with the organization’s overall mission, goals and future aspirations.
By adopting a clearly defined policy for managing people, based on principles such as equity and transparency, the Administration wished to ensure that staff motivation is high and to foster a work culture which offers support at all levels within the organization. The objective was to increase not only productivity, but also the quality of the service delivered.
The Human Resource Strategy defines four main areas of activity:
- Human resource planning, a process that aims at identifying current and future human resource needs;
- Professional and competency development, a process that aims at identifying and selecting resources for officers to build professional skills and competencies, such as a list of courses, training activities, and learning opportunities;
- Developing and strengthening the integrity of Customs officers; and
- Improving the working environment.
Serbia Customs is ageing: around 23% of its employees are over 56 years old, around 69% are between 31 and 55 years old, and around 7% under 30 years old. As is the case with other public administrations in Serbia, many of our employees will retire in the coming two decades and, of course, will take with them the knowledge and experience they have acquired.
When the HR team started working on professional and competency development, they first analysed the demographics of the Administration, starting with the different generations present: Gen X (born in the 1960s and 1970s), Gen Y (millennials born in the 1980s and 1990s) and, lastly, Gen Z (born after 1995). The generations differ in their formative experiences, aspirations, attitude towards technology and career, level of loyalty to an employer, life priorities, and preferred modes of communication. They also differ in the way they learn.
Knowledge transfer and its challenges
The HR team soon identified the need to set up a knowledge management policy which would address issues such as how to facilitate the creation of knowledge, how to enable sharing and transfer of knowledge (especially between generations), and which tools could help such processes.
But they faced some challenges. On the one hand were senior employees, with a huge amount of experience and institutional memory, and forming a solid part of the organizational culture – but not so willing (or able) to share their knowledge. The reasons for this are various: they have no time, do not know how to go about it, do not want to speak in public, or feel that, if they reveal the tricks and secrets of their job, they will endanger their position. On the other hand were young employees, who are often impatient and believe that new times bring new ways, that loyalty is overrated, and that any working method unrelated to technology is old-fashioned.
Several initiatives were taken to overcome these constraints. They are described below.
The Customs Training Centre and the Vocational Training Centre play a key role in staff’s professional development. There are three types of training: basic, advanced and specialized. Basic training focuses on Customs regulations and procedures. Training material is updated when needed (for example, when there is a change in regulations), but the scope of the programme does not vary.
In contrast, advanced and specialized training is designed and modified according to the needs of Customs officers. Trainers at the Vocational Training Centre are in direct contact with employees to develop the training content. Preparing such training requires, among other things, gathering the experience and knowledge of employees, and finding ways to translate tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.
Trainers also adapt their teaching methodology in order to take into account the Administration’s demographics – for example, the fact that younger colleagues like to use technology when learning, or to interact more.
In accordance with the Public Servants Law adopted in 2014, new recruits must go through a probationary period before becoming permanent employees. During this time, they must also have a mentor to support them by sharing knowledge and know-how, and by providing feedback and input which the employee can use to improve their job performance. The mentor is usually the new employee’s line manager. He or she must keep a diary of the employee’s work performance and behaviour. After six months, the mentor sends a report to the unit manager, who will then decide whether the employee should be hired permanently.
Knowledge management has traditionally focused on capturing knowledge that already exists within an organization. But it is also important to mobilize employees across various departments and across generations, focusing on specific issues in order to create knowledge. With this in mind, regular meetings are held.
For example, if the Administration is confronted with a difficult case or has to implement a new regulation, solutions are proposed and discussed. More senior officers can explain how they handled similar situations or legal changes in the past, and younger officers can share their ideas. It is like a discussion among friends as there is no pressure of any kind to achieve a result. A very frequent topic is how to standardize practices at divisional and higher levels. Encouraging exchange between generations on the rationale behind their ways of doing things is critical here.
This dialogue is very satisfying for all participants. They feel connected and more engaged in their work. At the end of a meeting, a report is drafted to feed the documentation database of the Administration. The decisions or procedures emerging from the discussions are also shared with all employees via email, and we make sure that credit is given to the employees who worked on this.
Knowledge shared is knowledge squared
The title of this section is a slogan from an advertising brochure for Microsoft’s Sharepoint, but that does not make the statement any less relevant to Customs administrations. If we are open about what we do and how we do it, we will all benefit.
By focusing on knowledge management, our new HR Strategy aims to connect employees, build their sense of belonging and pride, and create a knowledge culture. Experienced officials are recognized and their knowledge is valued. As for the new generations, they feel they contribute to the making of institutional memory. Together, they decide on what should be preserved and passed on to generations to come. The Administration’s management must facilitate such interaction and collaboration to create new knowledge about how to get things done. This is not an easy endeavour, but Customs must keep creating new knowledge in order to keep pace with the changes in its operating environment, in the technologies it can leverage, and in the tasks assigned to it by government.