posted 1 May 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 8
across the globe
Much has been written about the cultural implications for knowledge management and knowledge sharing in modern enterprises. It is generally accepted by practitioners that the greatest hurdles to successful knowledge management are not the technical or process issues, but the cultural issues. Problems frequently raised include concerns about knowledge hoarding and creating an environment that encourages open sharing. In this article, Ben Torrey & Vanita Datta extend this question into the realm of the affect of the an organisation's cultural environment from a geographical perspective. In the past, the question of culture and knowledge management has been related almost exclusively to corporate or organisational culture, not what Ben and Vanita refer to as 'social culture.'
By social culture, we mean the culture of the society in which the organisation exists. For example, an enterprise may have a culture that encourages subordinates to engage informally with superiors, even to challenge them. This may be considered desirable as a means towards greater creativity, more efficient communication, increased employee morale and retention, as well as other benefits. Such a corporate culture may flow very freely out of Israeli culture where this sort of behaviour is considered the norm; it may be acceptable, even welcomed, in an American setting; however, in a traditional Asian setting, for example, individuals may find it most uncomfortable and extremely difficult to implement. For instance, in Japan the imposition of a cultural standard that calls for subordinates to challenge superiors on a routine basis may have the effect opposite of that desired. Morale may fall, people may leave, creativity may be stifled, and so on.
An example of the above was clearly highlighted when American managers were tasked with setting up cross-functional High Performance Teams across several corporations in Japan. They had to pass concepts along and transfer knowledge to their Japanese counterparts. Inherent in the particular High Performance Team structure was the need for an open and free-flowing sharing of knowledge. All 'High Performance Team' members were to participate in decision making, institute the practice of rotating leadership, and be fully accountable to each other, for their particular responsibility, thereby creating a flatter, less hierarchical organisational structure. Unfortunately, the teams were not forming as conceived. Upon investigation, it turned out that no matter how much the Japanese team members appreciated the concepts, the pattern of sharing information from senior to junior, in top down rather than flat structures remained immutable. Rotating leadership and initiative or suggestions originating from juniors to seniors were to a great extent absent. The imbedded culture was such that knowledge came from above and was disseminated in a way that was rank specific. The supposedly lateralbottom-up initiative-taking High Performance Teams ended up as a collection of resistant individuals who paid lip service to the ' High Performance Team' concept. In fact, they did not function as well as they did prior to the intervention and this further impeded knowledge sharing.
In the same vein, in India and other parts of Southeast Asia, the 'right' to certain knowledge may depend on age and gender. Thus, only older men with a high economic and social status may have the right to 'know' information, or possess knowledge. While this may be found in Western cultures as well, the pervasive influence of this and its acceptance in Asia could create serious knowledge sharing issues. Incidentally, it may also cause severe problems in conducting international business across gender, age and status line. Business deals may not mature, conversations may not be frank.
A reluctance to advertise one's expertise may also inhibit knowledge sharing, as was found by a US executive transferred to Australia where he discovered that the culture of 'mateship' discouraged individuals from calling attention to their abilities (Davenport and Prusak). One of the authors, during a conversation with a group of Dutch students of knowledge management, also found similar attitudes to be a factor in knowledge sharing within parts of Europe.This was also found to be true in Korea in an effort there to develop a knowledge management system. Even though the project was eventually abandoned for fiscal reasons, early on it became evident that there were some strong cultural barriers to knowledge sharing that would need to be overcome. Considerable thought and discussion went into this.One of the barriers was a concern about expressing one's self openly, regardless of issue or expertise, in the presence of one' s superiors. Since the knowledge management system would be public, anything published on it would be in the open for superiors, as well as everyone else, to see. It just wasn't 'proper' for a subordinate to be expressing himself, by voluntarily offering his opinion or expertise, in the presence of his superior-at least not in public. In this situation, there were very few women considered to be in a position to have any contribution to make. It was virtually a forgone conclusion that, if there were any women, they would not, in any case, be involved in the discussion. Perhaps the most clearly articulated concern, was that 'experts' would see their prestige and position threatened by sharing their knowledge through the system - the 'knowledge hoarding' problem that has shown up all over the world.
The corporation within society
Much has been said about the international language and the borderless impartiality of modern business. However, in everyday life it is impossible to divorce an organisation from the social culture which surrounds and pervades institution and individual. Polyani (Polyani, M.) effectively suggested that knowledge is implicitly and explicitly a question of membership within a social network or community. The business world is essentially a large circle within a still larger circle i.e. the social and cultural world. Every corporation creates its own culture. Each such culture has its own distinctiveness as well as its similarities to other corporations. A corporation's own culture enables it to survive and flourish; yet, the corporate culture often does not account for all situations. Anyone involved in international business or large multi-national firms is well aware of the many cultural pitfalls encountered by the unwary traveller, even within one enterprise.
For this reason, many of the largest and most successful multi-national or global concerns go to great lengths to establish a strong organisational culture that is homogeneous across all parts of the enterprise and transcends national or social culture. What we question, however, is whether or not these global firms are successful in doing this. Perhaps they are not successful-as they hope-so much in creating a single social culture as in creating an international language of processes, of systems and technologies. This inability to create a single social culture would have a significant impact on the very premise of effective knowledge management and knowledge sharing - namely, the right information at the right time to be used in the right way to gain business advantage.
The Basic Requirements
Knowledge Management and Knowledge Sharing require value systems that go beyond technological advancement or established corporate business practice. In some ways it even means going back to the basics. The knowledge community and the knowledge economy are viable because of the nurturing of the sense of community, of belonging and, most of all, of trust. A seamless knowledge community, though wonderful in concept, in actuality is only an ideal. Given the culturally diverse ways in which people accept and share knowledge, a seamless knowledge community would imply universal sameness in knowledge gain and knowledge sharing and most of all universal trust. Since, the practices of knowledge management, knowledge sharing and knowledge creation differ from culture to culture, a seamless knowledge community would be a practical impossibility. Trust comes with understanding the world in the same way, accepting knowledge through internal and external cultural filters and from dealing with situational challenges via socially accepted actions. The repeat of this behaviour inspires confidence and order. Focusing on the understanding of knowledge management across cultures will facilitate knowledge sharing and innovation, smoothing the path towards learning and transferring knowledge across cultural boundaries. As we consider knowledge management and knowledge sharing, it strikes us that the issues of social culture have considerable bearing on how successful an organisation' s efforts in this arena will be. We also wonder to what extent certain basic cultural presuppositions influence the shape of knowledge management efforts. In the same vein, we also wonder what cultural supports or hindrances for knowledge sharing may exist in various different cultures that are not recognised or are ignored in the realm of business. The rest of this article is our effort to ask these questions and to raise the issues.
We are by no means cultural anthropologists or experts in this area. As individuals, exposed to different cultural contexts and working in the arena of knowledge management; we have thought about these issues in order to make sense of what we (and others) in practice are experiencing. We are echoing the words of colleagues and friends who, even in our modern technological environment, are more often than not frustrated with the obstacles to gaining the right information at the right time. We do not have the definitive answers; rather, we seek to raise the questions, perhaps to point to where answers might be. We desire to stimulate discussion and, hopefully, systematic research into this inquiry. We do believe that such research and discussion will pay off in at least two ways. One benefit would be to gain a greater understanding of barriers to successful knowledge management and so work to remove those barriers. The other benefit would be to identify hitherto unknown cultural supports and leverages for knowledge management. With this in mind, we ask the following questions. Is the modern discipline of Knowledge Management a product primarily of Western academic and business cultures?
Many authors have pointed out that knowledge management, in one form or another, has been with us for millennia (Ives, Torrey & Gordon). Yet, it must be admitted that, in it's modern form, it is truly a product of modern institutions and technology. Knowledge management as a discipline has been explored and developed within the context of the modern academic and business world, products primarily of Western culture. With this in mind, one may ask if the underlying concepts are not, therefore, shaped by the culture of that world.
Modern Western culture, or Western civilisation, has grown out of a rich history going back to the democratic institutions and philosophical explorations of ancient Greece. From there, it developed through the authoritarian, engineering and legal context of ancient Rome, in which context were laid its Judeo-Christian foundations. Out of this milieu, through Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, came the development of our contemporary ideas about knowledge, science and technology.
Some of the fundamental ideas about knowledge held in this day and age can be seen to be dependant on this cultural history. We venture to say that certain of these ideas have been critical to the development of this modern discipline. A short list of such ideas and their roots might contain the following: Knowledge can be known, it can be the subject of vigorous debate, and it is objective. It can be taught explicitly. These ideas come right out of the Greek and Biblical traditions concerned with the search for truth.
|Knowledge is democratic-it belongs to everyone. Again, we see the influence of the Greek and Biblical traditions, allowing and even encouraging all to seek and to know truth.|
|Knowledge is valuable in its own right. This, too, stems largely from Greek and Biblical thought.|
|Knowledge is utilitarian-it is useful and is to be explored for its usefulness. Here we see the Roman suppositions coming in to play, the importance of engineering and legal knowledge-the practical.|
At this point, let us come forward in time and look at the development of the modern corporation and the impact that this has had on knowledge management.
The modern corporation grew out of European and early American society, primarily as a means of collective ownership of property. Individuals would band together for a common purpose and would need to hold property collectively. A group of extended heirs would need to share commonly inherited property. A community would need to finance and own shares in a large common project. (Much later in its history, especially in the realm of business, it became a vehicle for limiting the liability of the individual members (Seavoy). The key factor here is that of property rights. Within Western civilisation there developed a strong sense of individual property rights. Each of the sources of this culture enshrined this concept in one form or another-the Eighth Commandment is Thou shalt not steal. As modern experiments with socialism and state communism have amply demonstrated, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build a thriving modern industrial/technological economy where property rights are not preserved and the rule of law (the Judeo/Christian and Roman heritage) is not well grounded.
What does this matter to knowledge management? It is within this context that the concept came into being that knowledge, as a thing to be managed, can be owned and owned collectively as well as privately. This is the concept of intellectual property and intellectual capital.Are there non-Western cultures of Knowledge Sharing and Knowledge Management that can complement or enrich those of modern corporate enterprises? Having explored briefly the possible Western origins of modern concepts relevant to knowledge management, let us now look to the East to see if there are equivalent or different concepts in the Oriental cultures that may speak to the issue. In India, China and Japan to highlight some accumulated Asian thought:
|Knowledge was prized for its intrinsic value alone. As with the Greeks and Romans, the fact of knowing meant a movement away from not knowing and that was inherently good.|
|Knowledge affected status. Certain knowledge was diffused among certain communities. Thus, what a potter in India knew about his community and his craft, held true for that class or subclass of potters. Other groups would need cultural translation, or explicit permission to have that knowledge. The knowledge among that group of potters gave the potters their equality within the group, but was, by no means, an entrée into any other group. Each grouping of professions, fell into a hierarchy of professions. Thus knowledge was a vertical and horizontal social marker. This principal held true for China and Japan, though the occupational group could differ.|
|Knowledge is practical and utilitarian. It could translate into belonging to a group, the means to make a living within the group, to marry, to be included in all the rights of passage afforded to that group|
We see that the prevalence of intellectual property and ownership of knowledge as a privilege to be shared among certain members of a group is not unique to the West alone, though Western thought and European terminology may have more currency in today's business world. It is important to recognise it's prevalence in other areas and schools of thought. Thus, for example, in the field of medicine, an obvious example of knowledge management, skill development and knowledge implementation - Chinese, Ayurvedic and other non-Western traditions of medicine were passed along from practitioner to practitioner, in socially validated rights of passage. These rights of passage-occurring as they did within a community that had deep-seated understanding of them as well as of the substance of the medical practices-were observed, memorised and practiced in prescribed forms particular to that community rather than learned through the written medium exclusively. This created a body of knowledge that was transferred through a variety of methods. Obviously, people outside this social milieu did not understand the complexities, rituals and nuances of that body of knowledge and had knee-jerk reactions or partial explanations for the success of the initiatives. Consequently, because the interpretations or analysis were too narrow, the practice in question was often suspect and discredited.
Factors that led to the development of the corporation in the West had similar expressions in the East. Thus, Indian castes, divided on specialty lines held property in common. Japanese zaibatsus involved ownership of both property and knowledge as exclusive to the group. In Eastern cultures, that which belonged to individuals and that which was social property included both physical assets and knowledge assets. The importance of preserving ownership and protecting the owner's property rights was also upheld in the East. It was prevalent among the Samurai, as well as among the Zaibatsu and Chinese business conglomerates and Indian castes. Stealing from one's community, caste or clan was punishable by death and ostracism for generations.
Where do these questions lead us?
We believe that, from the lack of knowledge about unfamiliarity with different social milieu and cultural situations, organisations fail to see the richness of support for knowledge management inherent in the various cultural frameworks of their global enterprises.
We have seen that the community is quite important in relation to knowledge sharing in traditional Eastern cultures. A deeper understanding of this and how it might be applied may help to counterbalance some of the strong individualistic trends found within modern corporations as individuals seek to further their own personal ends through various means. To return to our Korean example cited earlier, plans to address the concerns expressed in regards to knowledge hoarding and publishing ideas publicly centered on taking advantage of the strong group loyalty bonds and competitive spirit that are an important aspect of Korean culture. Efforts would involve building a strong sense of team, possibly among the various groups within the enterprise and certainly across it. If superiors could be identified as coaches while the members of the group were brought to see themselves as important members of the team, which was in competition with other internal groups and external organisations, it was thought that the barriers might be overcome. Team loyalty and competitive spirit would encourage both the experts to yield up their personal stock of knowledge and others to contribute more openly.
While there are quite strong, even in some cases rigid, inhibitions against challenging the ideas of others, especially social or corporate superiors, there are also ways that these cultures have to compensate for such factors especially when the sharing of knowledge is vital to the stability and growth of the community. In seeking to implement knowledge management within such culture milieu, it would serve the enterprise well to seek greater insight into these factors. In order to get the High Performance Teams working in corporations in Japan and to assure the necessary sharing of knowledge, changes in the team makeup and strategy were required. The Japanese traits of strong respect for the job and for consensus were drawn upon. To begin with, the rotating leadership concept was abandoned, accepting the fact that it would not be possible to have anything other than a top down hierarchy in the teams. However, an emphasis was placed on the importance of knowledge (and opinion) sharing as an aspect of the job itself. Along with this a commitment from the top was received to push this. Seniors and juniors were both rewarded for knowledge sharing and for encouraging knowledge sharing. Seniors were required to take responsibility for assuring that juniors spoke up. By working these behaviours into the framework of the job itself, it became difficult for the individuals to not do them. The knowledge sharing also became part of the consensus B. building mechanism. The importance of all of this for the welfare of the group was stressed and accepted by the participants. The level of trust within the teams was raised through some team building exercises that emphasised knowledge sharing as the significant duty of the team. The end result were functioning teams that melded traits of both Western and Japanese cultures in new ways. The groups were productive, became close knit and met or exceeded expectations. If global enterprises desire to take advantage of their organisational intellectual wealth, they should seek to understand the benefits of the social and cultural situations in which they exist and attempt to create an articulate form for acting on these concepts. The mistake many business organisations make is to jump too readily to conclusions about what is needed to create a knowledge sharing environment without taking into account the underlying social culture. Conversely, when presented with something that appears to be of great value, perhaps even a breakthrough, they may well assume an explanation that fits their own cultural presuppositions rather than seek a more comprehensive understanding. In such cases, the potential benefit may well be squandered while the actual contributing behaviour is squelched!
In conclusion, we point out once again that this paper is not intended to provide thorough answers to the questions raised, but rather to show why we believe that there is a great value in exploring non-Western cultures (whether in traditional or modern garb) for the effects they have on Knowledge Management. We see these effects being both positive and negative. We also see that there are factors that may well prove quite helpful in overcoming some of the negative effects. We would also like to see the exploration of these ideas with an eye towards concepts that may help with the barriers widely recognised to exist within modern ('Western') corporate culture-new (old) ideas to address existing concerns.
We suggest that without taking social culture into account, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement knowledge management successfully. We also believe that, for all the vaunted ' globalisation' of modern business enterprises, knowledge management efforts that are applied identically across the board, without taking different national or social cultures into account, face an extremely difficult challenge-a challenge that, with some sensitivity, care and effort could be avoided. To put it more positively, there is a wealth of knowledge available in the world's cultures that can vastly enrich the knowledge management culture of today's global business enterprise. It is there waiting to be explored.
Davenport & Prusak. Working Knowledge: How Organisations Manage What They Know. Thomas H. Davenport, Laurence Prusak, Harvard Business School Press, Boston. 1998, Ives, Torrey & Gordon
Knowledge Management: An Emerging Discipline with a Long History, William Ives, Ben Torrey and Cindy Gordon
Journal of Knowledge Management. Volume 1 Number 4, June 1998
Seavoy. The Origins of the American Business Corporation, 1784-1855, Ronald E. Seavoy. Greenwood Press. Westport, Connecticut, London, England, 1982
Polanyi M.(1966) quoted in The Tacit Dimension: The Terry Lectures, Doubleday Publishers. Ed. David Snowden
Knowledge Management, April/May 1998, Issue 5, vol. 1
Vanita Datta and Ben Torrey are managers within Andersen Consulting. They can be contacted at: