posted 25 May 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 8
Changing an organisational culture to embrace knowledge sharing and collaboration is easier said than done.
By Graeme Burton
Nothing illustrates more clearly the pettiness, back-biting, self-serving bitchiness and other negative traits that characterise the average office than any episode of The Apprentice, the popular business reality-television show.
Contestants that otherwise despise each other make opportunistic alliances to stitch up other contestants they hate even more; others hide what they know, while handing as much rope as possible for their ‘project manager’ to hang themselves in a blaze of highly entertaining, televised incompetence.
Much the same happens in every workplace, minus the television cameras, editing and (arguably) entertainment value, hopefully on a smaller or more modest scale. But the fact remains that individuals do not always align their self-interest with their organisation’s and do not share knowledge and know-how as selflessly as senior managers would expect or hope for.
Of course, it is little wonder when so many tales abound of staff being asked, for example, to train their cheaper replacements – some not even told beforehand, although it is plainly obvious to the soon-to-be unemployed – that many staff, likewise, adopt equally cynical attitudes.
Yet knowledge sharing and greater collaboration in the workplace ought to be a win-win. While the organisation gets a higher quality of work (and worker), staff have the opportunity to learn more, more quickly; to become better, more valuable members of staff. So is there a secret to pushing through this so-called knowledge culture, to persuading staff that knowledge sharing is in everyone’s best interest?
The answer, unfortunately (for everyone except chief knowledge officers), is no. It takes time, consistent application, a little help from ‘above’, some tools, attitude (of course) and, above all, hard work.
That is the message of Marc Aafjes, global head of knowledge management (KM) at mobile telecoms giant Vodafone. “It’s definitely a tricky task. It’s something that cuts across different types of users and different functions and not all of them are necessarily inclined to follow the ‘right’ set of behaviours,” says Aafjes.
There are five key elements that constitute an organisational knowledge culture1:
1. Trust and collaboration are promoted as core values.
These are inspired by:
2. A leadership commitment to investing money, time and effort into embedding KM into every part of the business.
This is supported by:
3. Systems (predominantly IT-based tools) and processes (such as the requirement for after-action reviews after a major project) that develop, encourage and reward knowledge flow and creation through knowledge sharing, co-operation and learning.
These can largely be facilitated by:
4. Tools and technologies to enable and manage knowledge sharing, teamwork and networking, and to maintain the flow of knowledge throughout the organisation.
This needs to be promoted by:
5. Effective communication internal marketing to sustain the focus.
For a multinational company with operations on several continents, the issue of culture change is an order of magnitude greater than in organisations that either only operate within national boundaries or can be discretely segmented by country or region, such as retailers.
This is partly because there will be multiple cultures involved and also because of the implied homogenisation of corporate culture.
Cultural differences are, of course, evident from senior management downwards, from the consensual approach of the Dutch, for example, to the more dictatorial attitude of, say, managers in a Brazilian company, suggests Arno Boersma of KM consultancy Squarewise.
Many major companies, however, have started to connect their global workforces in a bid to spread ‘best ideas’ and best practices worldwide.
Engineering design contractor Arup – perhaps best known for the Sydney Opera House – is one such. It offers staff three categories of systems in a bid to connect them globally and improve the exchange of knowledge:
- Arup People – a portal designed to bring people together;
- Arup Projects – tools and technologies to support project practices;
- Arup Insight – tools and technologies to enable strategic KM across the firm.
Arup was an early adopter of KM and its Arup People portal is specifically designed to encourage staff to talk about themselves – not just to draw out their skills, but also emerging professional interests, as well as hobbies, communities, memberships and useful external contacts. A sports fan, for example, might be able to provide valuable input into a stadium project anywhere in the world.
Handled imaginatively, the cultural differences between members of staff in different parts of the world can also be the source of much creative friction, believes Aafjes. “The differences themselves might actually be a very good source of different types of knowledge being created and different perspectives actually leading to a better understanding of the environment in which an organisation is operating,” he says.
And cultural attitudes are far from fixed. As China has opened to outside influences and its economy has, equally, revved-up school teachers have reported that their children have become more inquiring and demanding – more likely to demand answers to their questions rather than do as the teacher tells them. The internet and the instant access to information it provides has been pinpointed as one of the major reasons for this shift.
The Arup example indicates the vital importance of enabling IT tools, especially for a multinational organisation. The key technology over the past ten years, of course, has been the intranet or web portal, particularly because access to an intranet is universal – previous proprietary collaboration systems were either expensive or limited in range – and new features and functions (such as blogs and wikis) can be added to an intranet on an ad hoc basis at any time.
Combined with low-cost internet telephony, webcasting and e-mail, almost the full range of human communication can be performed online. At mobile-telephone-network operator Orange, for example, virtual teams around Europe keep in constant touch using audio conferencing, backed up with collaborative software so that they can swap documents and other information, too.
Technology has also helped to breathe new life into an old concept: communities of practice. Initially, when first ‘observed’ by KM veterans Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in the back office of an insurance company, it was considered little more than an informal group of staff – peers – who consulted each other for their collective insight.
This was followed by the observations from Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Tom Allen that the technical quality of work within the aerospace industry was higher the better people were networked. And not just among project-team members, but with people outside of the project, too.
For years, however, CoPs were considered informal – you couldn’t make a CoP, it had to be organic and built from the ground up by the people who would become its members. That is no longer considered true. “As companies have implemented communities over the past dozen years, our understanding of the role of communities in organisations has changed,” says Richard McDermott, a CoPs specialist and consultant.
CoPs can do much to bring people together and improve collaboration, but far from being organic they actually need organisational support to thrive. Without it, many simply wither and die as quickly as they are formed.
But it requires more than just technology to support them, helpful though internal internet bulletin boards, blogs and wikis can be. They need active leaders, says McDermott, that are officially supported and able to travel and cement community relations. The leader of a new community might spend as much as half their time building it up initially, he indicates, and such a level of commitment requires the support of line managers and senior managers – they need to see the value in it.
When the community is established that leader will still need to spend between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of their time keeping it ticking over, by networking among members (40 per cent of time), networking among sponsors (30 per cent), facilitating meetings (20 per cent) and handling logistics (10 per cent).
That adds up to a serious commitment in time and resources, but staff can be inducted into the practice from day one. One company McDermott cites, for example, has a new-hires community, making CoPs and collaboration a foundation stone of its culture from the moment someone joins.
Senior management support
It almost goes without saying – as if the chief executive were an all-seeing and all-knowing ‘Big Brother’ – that KM culture change requires senior-management support and leadership as a prerequisite. “Board-level support makes a difference,” says Aafjes. “If you look at successful companies that have led in KM, then I think you will find that all of them depend upon senior-level support.”
One such pioneer, of course, was Buckman Laboratories, the specialty chemicals company famed for the KM practices that underpinned its fast growth over many decades in a challenging niche of the market.
But Bob Buckman, the chief executive who introduced many of those practices in the 1980s and 1990s, did not just lead by example and expect people to follow, he wielded a ‘big stick’, too. The late Melissie Rumizen, knowledge strategist at Buckman for many years, recounts how Buckman insisted that knowledge sharing should be a mandatory part of everyone’s jobs – and that they might well be looking for another one if they failed to comply.
Buckman’s attitude filtered down: “The head of our research and development (R&D) department at the time, Wally Puckett, mandated participation by R&D. He made it clear that he expected everyone to contribute and that he knew the contribution of each person,” wrote Rumizen in a 2003 Inside Knowledge case study.
When line managers are taking such a close interest, the minds of everyone will be concentrated. Many organisations now make knowledge sharing a formal part of employee-review processes, which can further embed attitudes.
Nevertheless, such top-down initiatives do not stop many equally beneficial initiatives from percolating from the bottom up – often under the radar of senior managers, some of whom might even squash such ideas if they knew they were going on. For example, because of their relative low cost, many Web 2.0-style initiatives, such as blogs and wikis, have been implemented in a corporate environment by enthusiasts.
Being below the budgetary radar meant that IT staff or knowledge managers could slip such applications onto the intranet to see how staff would take to them. Many senior managers, initially nervous of such applications, have been able to see with their own eyes the benefits: wikis cost considerably less to implement and take much less effort to run than specialist collaborative applications, while a blog remains a far more effective way to communicate than a group e-mail.
Just two years ago, blogs and wikis were only tentatively explored in most organisations. Today, they are almost universal – and most certainly do enjoy widespread support from the very top. “It might actually be an outcome from some earlier initiatives that make the board excited and they say, ‘Yeah, this is something that we need to pay more attention to because we can see how it generates value’,” says Aafjes.
In the process, it has also demonstrated the importance of knowledge sharing and driving through culture change to those same senior managers because they have seen the benefits as a result. “If your organisation is able to learn more quickly, learn more and apply it more effectively, then that’s the most sustainable competitive advantage that you will ever have,” adds Aafjes.
Yet pushing through change of that nature cannot be a ‘big-bang’ event; it must be an organic, emergent process in order for it to be embedded. Indeed, it requires, in many respects, process change encompassing the chief executive and the top leadership from human resources, IT and others.
And as shows such as The Apprentice maybe demonstrate, it’s often senior management that is the most regressive part of a company when it comes to true teamworking, rather than the ‘foot soldiers’ that make the company work on a day-to-day basis.
1 Developing a KM Culture, by Joanna Goodman, published by Ark Group
BOX: Common challenges
Sustaining a knowledge-sharing culture means finding ways to resolve the tensions between individual and collective values, competition and collaboration and openness. “The dilemma for many organisations is dealing effectively with the needs of the individual, while at the same time ensuring that the needs of the organisation are fulfilled by people working co-operation with each other,” says knowledge-management academic Catherine Kelly, who teaches at London Metropolitan University.
Common barriers to enterprise-wide knowledge exchange and collaboration include such practical considerations as:
- Organisational structure, size and geographic separation;
- Lack of time in the face of pressing business priorities;
- Difficulties accessing and utilising online resources;
- Problems with tools and technology;
- Information overload;
- Keeping knowledge resources relevant and up to date;
- Staff turnover.
Hard to overcome are the human factors, including:
- People not realising they have information or knowledge of value to others in the organisation;
- People hoarding knowledge – because ‘knowledge is power’ – rather than sharing it;
- Internal competition;
- Lack of trust.
Source: Developing a KM Culture, Ark Group
BOX: Seven foundation-stones of a KM culture
1. Emphasise the value of co-operation over competition;
2. Proclaim the importance of openness and sharing at the top managerial level;
3. Ensure senior managers behave in a candid and open manner;
4. Avoid ranking individuals against each other in personnel evaluations;
5. Ensure that every knowledge worker owns the enterprise. For example, identifies with and feels responsible for the organisation as a whole;
6. Reward individuals for sharing;
7. Reward teams for leveraging knowledge.
Source: Jim Bair, Strategy Partners
BOX: Seven practical ways of integrating KM into organisational culture
1. Embed KM as part of daily activity;
2. Make knowledge-creation activities a key part of business processes;
3. Integrate KM into the enterprise vision, goals and objectives;
4. Provide recognition for those who create knowledge and those who re-use it;
5. Emphasise teams in recognition programmes;
6. Avoid using competition as a motivational factor. For example, by pitting organisational units against each other;
7. Define success as that of the enterprise, not the department or individual.
Source: Jim Bair, Strategy Partners