posted 1 Feb 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 5
"Your Say": Creating a knowledge sharing culture
Creating and maintaining an environment in which employees are willing and able to collaborate easily is the key to success in any knowledge management programme. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from Atkins Business Solutions Microsoft Burton-Jones Associates Sandwell Healthcare NHS Trust Antal International ActiveIntranet ICL and EDS and discusses the potential barriers to establishing a knowledge sharing culture and ways organisations can act to overcome them.
Culture culture culture; as Bob Buckman of Buckman Laboratories famously noted the three most important aspects of any knowledge management initiative. But as so many businesses have discovered the perception that knowledge is power is not easily overcome. The natural inclination of employees at every level in almost every organisation is to hoard knowledge and unless the right environment is established any attempt to encourage effective knowledge sharing will ultimately prove futile.
In the experience of Graeme Mackay principal consultant at ICL almost all of the barriers to effective knowledge sharing are people-based. "Knowledge sharing needs a culture and a set of behaviours in which people will share knowledge as part of their day-to-day activities he says. While giving people a means to share their knowledge is an important prerequisite on its own this will achieve very little. Creating the desire to share is far more important." This relates closely to the 'knowledge is power' syndrome but also to what Sunil Sharma senior consultant at EDS describes as widespread apathy to sharing knowledge. "Apathy manifests itself through a number of factors primarily relating to a company's culture and environment he argues. These factors appear as what I term 'performance bearing mechanisms' - which in turn can be regarded as levers that can be manipulated to improve an organisation's ability to share knowledge." In particular Sharma draws attention to the effect the values and behaviour of senior management can have on employees propensity to share knowledge as well as how work activities are structured the importance of clarity in an organisation's guiding principles and an effective communication infrastructure.
Both Lynne Cooper library services manager at Sandwell Clinical Library and Jooli Atkins a consultant with Atkins Business Solutions echo the need for organisations to address the existence of poor communication networks. In particular as Atkins says the process of formalising knowledge sharing processes can often have an intimidating effect on employees who are used to exchanging ideas in an informal ad hoc manner. Similarly what Alan Burton-Jones managing director of Burton-Jones & Associates describes as 'stickiness' - the difficulties associated with articulating and codifying what is often tacit knowledge - also serves to hamper knowledge transmission while absorptive capacity affects how easily recipients can understand it. And not least as Atkins Sharma and Colin Ives chief operating officer at ActiveIntranet all stress time pressures with which most of us are all too familiar will always be a barrier to effective knowledge sharing.
Hence the need in Atkins' opinion to consider the value of time management skills. "Within the NHS she says the emphasis is on the patient and the immediate issues arising from their care. The benefit of time spent on knowledge sharing in terms of patient care is not explicit and therefore the immediate issues take priority. Staff cover for training shadowing multi-disciplinary and multi-functional teamwork and so on would help to overcome the major obstacles to knowledge sharing." In effect this necessitates organisations putting knowledge sharing higher up the priority list. And as Mackay says: "If an organisation takes the time to explain the importance of knowledge sharing to its business and involves people in the process of working out what to share and how to share it then enough people will buy-in to the idea to make a difference." The way this is done will depend very much on the organisation itself but as Mackay points out: "If you can't win 'hearts and minds' then any change is likely to be short-lived and it certainly won't amount to a real change in culture."
Where knowledge sharing is hampered by existing organisational structure the key in Burton-Jones' opinion lies in making the necessary structural changes. "If knowledge sharing is hampered by an overly functional departmental structure then it may be necessary to move to a flatter multi-functional system or if this is impractical to overlay current boundaries with communities of interest he says pointing to the example of the UK government interconnecting its departmental knowledge silos through a 'Whole of Government Knowledge Network'. Equally cultural problems imply the need for cultural change which says Burton-Jones needs to be led from the top a sentiment with which Tony Goodwin CEO and chairman of Antal International agrees. It is the absolute responsibility of upper-level management to not only encourage the creation of a knowledge sharing culture but also to drive the process on a daily basis he says. Ives also emphasises the need for senior staff to lead by example while David Bridger business solutions marketing manager at Microsoft stresses the need to strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches to KM. And as Burton-Jones suggests: The success of corporate leaders like Jack Welch ex-CEO of GEC Stan Shih at Acer and Bob Buckman can be traced in a large part to their ability to define and shape organisational change."
Incentive schemes can also have a role to play in the process of establishing a knowledge sharing culture. Siemens for example has used such programmes to great effect and both Goodwin and Burton-Jones highlight their potential value. Care must be taken though that incentive schemes promote the knowledge sharing behaviour they seek and do not lead to an 'artificial' climate of knowledge exchange. Burton-Jones argues that to avoid reaching a situation where incentive schemes actually become counter-productive organisations need to closely examine the alignment between personal and corporate goals. "This may mean replacing or moderating personal performance incentives with group-based ones and ultimately corporate-based incentives he says. Nippon Roche the Japanese subsidiary of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant improved sales productivity by 40 per cent after demonstrating to its salesforce that sharing the lessons of experience gained in individual sales situations would benefit both them as individuals and the company at large." ICL on the other hand has avoided introducing any form of incentives specifically for knowledge sharing and Mackay warns against the possible pitfalls. "The problem is that it is very hard to measure the real worth of a person's contribution other than by using a fairly crude measure such as the number of documents published he says. However if you do offer incentives particularly monetary ones against a measure like this then all you are likely to get is a high number of meaningless documents being published two days before the next round of appraisals."
The implementation of technological tools to facilitate knowledge sharing raises a similar dilemma. On the one hand there is little doubt that certain technologies can go a long way to making knowledge exchange far easier and more efficient. According to Ives: "Appropriate technology is likely to be the single most important factor in leveraging knowledge in organisations. The idea of 'workplace portals' with an effective mix of structured and unstructured access to knowledge can help the process a great deal." Ives highlights the need for a careful combination of tools; a powerful KM engine integrated with scaleable intranet document management and translation tools together with a simple functional interface. Bridger also considers technology to be an integral component of any attempt to introduce corporate wide change and though suggesting the degree to which KM tools are employed will depend wholly on the specific organisation in a tech-savvy company implementing new technology can actually create immediate benefit and help drive cultural change . But Bridger also recognises the difficulties in the current market of spotting the fad from the latest tool that will actually deliver competitive advantage and it is easy for a business to be swept along on the wave of new trends.
Indeed the flip-side to the issue of technology is the danger of becoming over-reliant on knowledge management tools. At ICL Café VIK the company's corporate intranet (see ICL's café culture') has become in Mackay's words as indispensable as email but Mackay remains a firm believer that knowledge management is first and foremost a people-related discipline . Implementation of technological tools can get out of hand; the threat of analysis paralysis and information overload as Goodwin says is very real. Or as Sharma puts it technology for technology's sake can quickly lead to: "Old organisation + new technology = very expensive old organisation." Cooper summarises the general consensus: "Technology should act as the facilitator to furthering knowledge management within an organisation. There is a danger that access to the technology becomes the issue rather than access to knowledge. Commitment to KM processes should be endemic to the culture of an organisation with IT providing one method of access." Admittedly it is equally possible to place insufficient emphasis on technology as Burton-Jones points out but successful organisations will be those that get the balance right.
Once the culture tools and processes consistent with a knowledge sharing environment are in place across an organisation the challenge for the company is to sustain that climate. Continued top-level support is deemed crucial by this month's contributors and Atkins Sharma and Cooper all advocate regular evaluations as to how knowledge is shared within and across departments. "This may take the form of audit procedures or staff questionnaires says Cooper. Workshops can also be held with key knowledge providers to look at ways of improving knowledge sharing." According to Mackay sustainability is probably the hardest thing to achieve when it comes to cultural change and this is the primary reason ICL has focused the majority of its knowledge sharing initiatives around the development of communities. "The opportunity to learn from and contribute to these communities and the natural enthusiasm of their member is a powerful way of encouraging and sustaining a knowledge sharing culture says Mackay. Ultimately suggests Burton-Jones the environment may even become self-sustaining: A knowledge sharing culture tends to attract and retain individuals who are comfortable in such an environment and weed out those who are not."
If an organisation succeeds in reaching this point where as Bridger puts it knowledge sharing becomes 'the way we do things round here' the rewards will be substantial. By avoiding wasteful duplication of effort businesses will realise significant cost savings and productivity improvements and may foster an atmosphere that promotes innovation and stimulates creativity. But the transition towards establishing a truly collaborative culture is easily misdirected. To be successful a company must strike the right balance in the technological tools and incentive schemes it employs the working environment it creates and above all perhaps in establishing the right attitude and appropriate commitment of staff at every level.
Jooli Atkins is a consultant at Atkins Business Solutions Ltd. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Bridger is business solutions marketing manager at Microsoft. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Alan Burton-Jones is managing director of Burton-Jones & Associates. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lynne Cooper is library services manager at Sandwell Clinical Library Sandwell Healthcare NHS Trust. She can be contacted at: email@example.com
Tony Goodwin is CEO and chairman of Antal International. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Colin Ives is chief operating officer at ActiveIntranet plc. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Graeme Mackay is a principal consultant at ICL. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunil Sharma is a senior consultant at EDS. He can be contacted at: email@example.com