posted 1 Feb 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 5
Knowledge Work And The Culture
Culture and incompetence
According to Victor Newman, benchmarking your company against the external indicators of success in others will give only a small idea of where you are going wrong. Comparing company culture is like comparing individual people; they may have the same essential functions but their belief systems, cultures and goals are totally different. Here, a new direction for transforming culture is given - a divorce from old technology in order to nurture creativity.
Whilst I find it ironic to say this here, in this magazine, I have come to the conclusion that the phrase 'knowledge management' is inadequate and has always been so. This means that I would like to propose a liberating formula:
Knowledge Work = Knowledge Management + Knowledge Development
In effect, the real issue is concerned with how to use knowledge to define work. This means using knowledge to understand what we already do, and the form of work that we will be moving into next. Knowledge Management is about managing what we know about what we do, and Knowledge Development is about creating new forms of knowledge for future opportunities. Both are in a continuous tension with each other.
The useful, but static nature of Knowledge Management is suggested by the square wheel in figure 1 . The dynamic nature of Knowledge Development is symbolised by the round wheel that is constantly moving ahead of KM. Both KM and KD are connected by a 'learning bungee' cord. As the form of work becomes more stable in an organisation and shifts towards commodity, the KD wheel is sent out to create new forms of knowledge that in turn, drag KM forward out of its rut and redefines it. This is a continuous process that is accelerating within a global, and increasingly competitive knowledge Economy. It is the speed of this economy that makes the issue of culture interesting.
Figure 1. Knowledge Work
As someone who studies management incompetence I have always been intrigued by the commonplace statistic suggesting that 70% of systemic change implementations fail. I have done some retrospective research on this statistic and combining it with my own experience, now interpret it in a slightly different way. I think what it tells us is potentially quite interesting.
1. Firstly, these systemic change implementations are usually consultancy-led involving the sale of a packaged approach by average consultants who did not develop the package.
2. Secondly, the client often confuses the consultant's selling process with strategic facilitation, which reinforces need to purchase the package instead of focusing on the strategic context.
3. Finally, when you talk to someone a year or eighteen months into an implementation they tend to describe it as failure because they have become educated by the change process to realise the naivety of their expectations at the original point of purchase and their unreadiness at that time to begin the cruel learning process.
As a result, and as an implementation psychologist, I apply simple creative techniques to overcome this 'happy shopper' syndrome and one of the most useful in the repertoire is reverse thinking. This is usually applied in at least two ways:
i. To visualise completion and a wish to get there
ii. To visualise failure in order to prevent it happening
Completion encourages the client to visualise success; from end-point, then to their 'champagne-moment' of publicly celebrating success and back through all necessary activities to the start-point. The other necessary technique is to ask them to visualise failure, to consider what it might look, smell, sound and taste like and then to prepare and deliver a speech listing in anticipation, all the reasons why failure might have occurred and even manage a simulated press-conference releasing this news. The thinking behind this is that we can take features of failure and by deliberately exploring it and reversing its contents, we can develop a stronger idea of what must be built into our plan with some emotion. Few clients enjoy this part of the process. Some have initially argued that exploring anticipated failure might actually bring it about. However, some discussion on the meaning of their own behaviour in being scared to explore failure, brings about a change of heart.
What is interesting about this exercise lies in the second or third anticipated cause of failure for an implementation. It always turns out to be that C-word, or Culture. After a while, I began to realise that there was something strange about the way we used this word. In organisational terms, I believe that use of the word Culture in considering implementation of new ways of working means that we have decided to fail. The way in which cultural writers and consultants use cultural models encourages us to focus on externals, so that we miss the core issue, which is not the paraphernalia of culture and its measurement but the issue of work itself and its continual re-definition. The real issue we face is that over a period of time, the competitive environment makes stable forms of work obsolete, and our problem lies in defining new forms of work and discarding those which are no longer sustainable. One of the problems for HR Directors lies in the historical accident of benchmarking as a technique for overcoming NIH (not-invented here) mindsets and the movement of sociologists like Rosabeth Moss Kanter and anthropologists into the management arena. The combination of the two created an artificial technology of culture. This led HR into a new field of benchmarking successful cultures in the belief that by copying the external indicators of success, companies could become more competitive and modern. What I have found fascinating about companies dedicated to market leadership based on creating new forms of knowledge is that they have very little time to waste on this kind of exercise. They often have vestigial official HR functions. If you are successful, you don't have time to waste on creating new forms of artificial work. You know exactly what you are doing. If you are failing, you probably don't understand why it is happening to you. This explains why leading organisations have always encouraged cultural benchmarking and visits from outsiders. They understood from the way that Japanese production was researched that you learn more about the researcher than the subject being explored. They knew that time dedicated to copying someone else's culture was time taken off the real issue of how to compete in an increasingly global market, and was time lost that could have been better used in creating your own unique source of competitive advantage. This is not to suggest that the study of culture is a waste of time, just that it is not the real focus for success. It is merely the outward clothing disguising a time-based success formula.
Understanding an organisation's culture requires a historical analysis of the way in which their technology has evolved. Unfortunately, most cultural studies ignore this invisible, historical problem-solving process that delivered their stable technology. Models and theories of organisational culture are like the dust covers on desktop computers. The shape of the dust cover can only hint at the nature of the technology underneath. Without understanding the context and the processes that have culminated in a technology described by a cultural model, it is very difficult if not impossible to copy such a technology since this involves a learning process that has to emulate the original crisis or opportunity that created that technology. Furthermore, the purchaser of cultural models cannot introduce these models unless they are prepared to symbolically divorce themselves from their old technologies. Unless a 'marriage' crisis occurs or adultery is committed, they remain in love or at least indifferent to new opportunities and trapped in optimising their old technology.
Knowledge work, culture, organisations and learning
The primary issue in overcoming the risks and limitations of cultural models lies in understanding the nature of the relationship between technologies and culture. Without understanding this relationship it is not possible to focus leaders' attention on the importance of developing genuinely new technologies with their own new, accompanying cultural by-products.
Culture and incompetence
Figure 2. Integrated Learning Model and innovating populations
Organisations are the product of opportunity. Their purpose is driven by
the exploitation of opportunity requiring the development, application and
optimisation of a technology. The creation and exploitation of opportunities is
described through the Integrated Learning Model1. This model which is shown in
figure 2, involves the participation of three innovating stereotypical
populations (Creators, Implementors and Stabilisors) working together in four,
integrated learning cycles to create and exploit opportunities.
i. Creators develop ideas that have the potential to create instability within the organisation.
ii. Implementors develop these ideas into workable systems and in turn, work with
iii. Stabilisors to develop work systems that Stabilisors manage, focusing on reducing variation and generally optimising.
The transformational learning cycle relates to Creators generating breakthrough ideas in the form of new types of knowledge that create opportunities. The developmental learning cycle involves Creators working with Implementors in order to create the prototypes and define the delivery system. The behavioural learning and tool-making cycle is concerned with configuring and implementing the delivery system and enjoys the participation of Stabilisors and Implementors. Incremental learning takes place through Stabilisors running and improving the delivery system.
In this four-step iterative cycle, the first two steps are about developing new forms of knowledge (KD) and the last two are about knowledge management (KM). Focusing on Knowledge Development in the first two steps enables organisations to develop knowledge leadership through evolving proprietary products and processes and competing through value-creation. Focusing on Knowledge Management in the last two steps means an accent on price through cost-reduction strategies, involving process optimisation of a declining asset, and exploitation of supply-chain leverage. What is interesting at this point lies in the service-wrap strategy. It begins with disguising the commodity nature of the product by surrounding it with service offerings which are themselves the product of knowledge development and opportunity recognition. These ultimately become more important than the original product which might as well be outsourced.
Cultural benchmarking implies that those organisations who wish to change have to begin the process of change by attempting to mould their culture into a new shape. But their first step must be to serve notice on their old technology, symbolically burying it and resigning themselves to managing a learning process involving the recognition and resolution of a sequence of crises necessary to introduce a new technology (the by-product of which will be a new culture). Traditional cultural models have disguised the nature of the change that organisations have to face for their competitive survival. By failing to understand that culture is merely the by-product of a process of introducing a new technology, all that cultural benchmarking can do is to equip organisations with the language to talk about their failure without understanding it.
If Culture is a technology, it is essentially a Stabilisor technology that reinforces conformity in defending and disguising the existing work-forms. This is evident when new ideas, regardless of their rationality and good intentions are rejected and justified with: 'This is how things get done around here'. This is the tell-tale signature of the Stabilisor population taking over the organisation with their primary purpose being that of expelling the Creators and destroying the requirement for the Implementor population. This is because Stabilisors have a hygiene-model that identifies divergence and destroys it through exclusion and rejection. The essence of successful innovating is continual disturbance; the continuous movement and response of the Stabilisor population to new crises. Without constructively supporting an ecology of diversity involving all three innovating populations, the organisation will decline and become irrelevant. As Dyson found when he tried to partner with vacuum-cleaner manufacturers who had lost their Creators a century before, their cultural conformity meant that they were unable to recognise the viability of his idea because it contradicted the primacy of their own technology. Some creative organisations implicitly understand the danger of contamination by the Stabilisor's production-management paradigm and have consciously divorced the Stabilisors through outsourcing. They manage to remain focused on developing new products and services and marketing. Without continuously moving through the learning cycles of the Integrated Learning Model, itself dependent upon this diversity, organisations will lose the ability to create the opportunities and exploitative technologies essential for competitive survival and get trapped into one corner of the model.
The problem with benchmarking against winning cultures is therefore that it can only offer clues without creating the skills of implementation. It is much like trying to become another Picasso by listening to recordings of Picasso's conversations, the comments of art-critics, by licking or weighing his paintings! The literary success of Peters and Waterman's 'In Search of Excellence'2 allowed them to introduce an artificial technology of imaginary emperors'suits, purveying style through a redundant technology of imitation, the fashion for which survived and was reinforced even when the businesses they considered to be excellent collapsed. And no-one seemed to notice !
 Chaharbaghi, K., Newman, V. (1998) 'The Corporate Culture Myth', Long Range Planning, Vol.31, No.4.
 Peters, T., Waterman, (1982) In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's best-run companies. Harper & Row: New York.
Victor Newman is Director of the Knowledge Development Centre at Cranfield University.