posted 15 Nov 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 3
A key facet of knowledge management is the importance the discipline places on the experience and tacit knowledge of individuals. Marcus Blosch describes the benefits of creating in your organisation a sense of community, and offers practical advice on how to achieve this aim.
One of the important innovations knowledge management holds over its predecessor, information management, is the recognition of the importance of the experience of individuals and groups. It is relatively easy to record the formal knowledge of individuals, facts, figures, processes and so on, but when it comes to tacit knowledge things become difficult.
This difficulty arises primarily from two factors. Firstly, the difficult in developing a suitable model for representing tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge emerges out of the rich cognitive map that individuals have of their environment, which contain many variables that interact in a complex way. In most instances this cognitive map remains subconscious, and represents an individual’s experience. More work needs to be done in this area if tacit knowledge is to be modelled successfully.
A second factor limiting the recording and sharing of tacit knowledge is the value of this knowledge as a resource. If knowledge is power, then individuals will not, under most circumstances, freely give their knowledge away. If tacit knowledge is to become available to the organisation as a whole, then organisations must not only ensure that the opportunity to share exists, but also the willingness to do so.
Societies and communities
It is possible to make the distinction between a ‘society’ and a ‘community’. In a society, individuals and groups are regulated primarily by rules and regulations. In a society individuals act primarily out of self-interest and within the framework of the rules and regulations attempt to further their own ends. It is possible to recognise these traits in many contemporary organisations, where politics, self interest and lack of due regard for other individuals are the norm.
A community also has rules and regulations, but its most important characteristics are trust and the centrality of individuals. Trust revolves around individuals acting in predictable ways, closely linked to the centrality of individuals. In this sense the centrality of individuals refers to the recognition of individuals as the most important asset of the organisation. It is, after all, individuals who hold tacit knowledge, and who bring the resources of the organisation, be they material or knowledge-based, to life.
The concept of the centrality of the individual extends beyond the view of the individual being an asset of the organisation. Individuals must also be seen as important in themselves. The organisation must work towards enabling, as far as possible, the self actualisation of individuals by ensuring that work is meaningful and enjoyable and that the organisation feeds back positively to the individual.
Another important component in the centrality of the individual is participation. Value and self-worth extend from the individual feeling involved in their work and in participating in decisions taken that will influence their work or the organisation. By excluding individuals from this process they become mere objects of the organisation’s process, which results in alienation, with all its negative consequences.
Community is created where individuals feel involved and informed, and where they trust their colleagues and managers to act in their best interests, balancing what is required for the organisation against the interest of the individual, who is seen holistically as not only an employee, but also as a person in their own right. The creation of a community moves away from individuals gathering together so that they can collectively pursue their self-interest, to individuals gathering together for the interest of the community, and acting for the benefit of the community.
Finally, the issue of trust has another aspect, extending the idea of trusting individuals to act in predicable ways for the benefit of the community. Managerial strategies in societies tend to centre on ensuring and policing compliance. Power is exercised through the system of rules and regulations, which are enforced using techniques such as surveillance, either directly by the management, or indirectly, an area where information systems have been particularly influential. These organisational cultures are dominated by a lack of trust, suspicion and the need for control.
In communities, managers trust their staff to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Management control does not focus on attempting to enforce conformance, rather individuals are self-motivated to work towards the benefit of the community. It is under these circumstances that the full benefit of information technology in terms of working from home, networking and so on, can be felt by the organisation.
The benefits of community
It is easy for managers to develop a cynical attitude to ideas such as community. The natural inclination where managers are under pressure is to attempt to increase the amount of control that they exercise over the organisation, which, ironically, tends to increase the pressure they are under. In addition, it is possible to question the value of participation in terms of the quality of decisions being taken and the length of time required to reach those decisions.
But there are obvious benefits to such an approach. Rather than attempting to control more and more, managers can ‘let go’ and assign the responsibility for key areas to their employees. This frees up managers to focus on the issues that need their direct attention. This also has the effect of motivating employees by assigning to them meaningful tasks.
There has been considerable attention of late on the issue of information overload, where managers are inundated by the volume of information reaching them. By involving their employees and assigning responsibility to them, this can reduce the volume of information on which a manager must focus. This, once again, requires managers to trust their employees.
Participation does not have to mean pluralism in decision-making. In many cases, it may simply mean managers keeping employees informed. There is a certain arrogance in managers who do not seek their employees’ views and insights; after all, it is best to ask those who work in a certain area, and know it well, about issues affecting that area, rather than to assume greater knowledge. Research has consistently shown that participation is a key factor in building motivation, job satisfaction and commitment, and if managers wish to draw on and share tacit knowledge, this is a central strategy in doing so.
If organisations are to take full benefit from flatter, leaner structures, increased motivation and commitment, the sharing of tacit knowledge and the opportunities offered by information technology, then management needs to move towards a culture of participation and trust. It must be remembered that successful leadership relies, on the one hand, on the qualities of the individual leader, but also on the commitment and loyalty of the team that follows. Fundamentally, each team member must trust every other.
Steps to building a corporate community
- Selection and training – A community relies on the ability of each member to fulfil their role. This requires that the right individuals are selected and that they receive suitable training throughout their career. It is worth noting that the essential qualities of individuals need to centre around being a team player with good communication skills who can demonstrate commitment.
- A commitment to the individual – As was mentioned above, it is important to see the individual not merely as a component in the process, but holistically as a person. This involves taking consideration of their personal development both inside and outside the working environment, and making a commitment to forward, as far as practicable, the individual’s interests.
- Team-based work – The building of community, and the sharing of tacit knowledge, revolves around team-based approaches. In order to make teams effective, one organisational paradox needs to be resolved, namely that the requirement to work in a team is often set against the assessment and reward of the individual rather than the team as a whole. Assessment and reward should be based on the team and the individual’s contribution to the team. In addition where teams are required to work together this aspect should also be included in any assessments. This should also be extended to managers, who should be assessed against the degree to which their teams are working together successfully. Essentially, the whole organisation needs to be committed to the community, rather than seeing it simply as a strategy for getting more out of employees.
- The devolution of responsibility – In order to make the jobs that teams and individuals do meaningful, managers need to devolve responsibility for these areas. This includes not only accountability, but also responsibility for decision-making and the setting of policy.
- Participation – Individuals must be involved in the decision-making process, and feel that their views and opinions are taken into account. It is important to recognise that this is an area where the tacit knowledge of individuals can make a significant contribution.
- Channels of communication – This is perhaps one of the most important elements of increasing the sharing of tacit knowledge. Providing forums where teams get together to discuss their work is an important building block. But this must be extended to ensure that individuals across teams come together and share their experience and ideas, for example regular presentations by teams of the work they are undertaking. Another area for this is the use of an intranet on which individuals and teams present their work. This should be encouraged to be not simply a public relations exercise, but focused around the sharing of information and knowledge.
Thinking out of the box
Perhaps the most important aspect of the move from society to community is a step change in managers thinking. Despite living in democratic countries, many organisations are still structured around hierarchy and direct control. Managers often find it difficult to conceive of businesses being any other way, and as a result many initiatives to create new forms of organisation fail, or are simply a veneer covering up the old structures. What is required is for managers to think out of the box and think and act in a different way, and accept that the organisation can be fundamentally different. It is in this fundamentally different organisation, the community, where the advantages of increased motivation and commitment lead to environment where knowledge, and particularly tacit knowledge, is shared and used.
Marcus Blosch is a business modeller at DHL Systems. He can be contacted at: email@example.com