posted 8 May 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 8
The knowledge: Fons Trompenaars
Having researched and written extensively on how reconciling cultural differences can lead to competitive advantage, Fons Trompenaars is now widely recognised as a leading authority on organisational culture. He talks to Simon Lelic about what he sees as the five cultural dilemmas that sit at the heart of KM, and the need to move beyond ‘knowledge management’ and towards ‘knowledge leadership’.
To Fons Trompenaars, knowledge management is, or should be, fundamentally a cultural issue. “Data becomes meaningful when you structure it in a certain way – it becomes information. When you structure information, it becomes knowledge, and when you structure knowledge it becomes science,” he tells me. “It is the process of structuring that adds meaning. And since different cultures have different ways of structuring meaning, you can see that, by definition, knowledge management is a cultural construct.” This, he feels, is what many KM practitioners still fail to grasp. Technology continues to drive knowledge management, when what is needed is a holistic, systemic approach, one that aligns the use of technology-based tools with the philosophical and cultural concepts that underpin knowledge management.
The importance of culture in any sphere of human activity is something Trompenaars has been aware of for most of his life. The son of a French mother and a Dutch father, he grew up cognisant of the problems – and opportunities – that cultural differences often present. After reading economics in Amsterdam, Trompenaars studied for his PhD at Wharton School in Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Dutch government. Inspired by the likes of GeertHofstede, Hasan Ozbekhan and Russell Ackoff, the title of his thesis was ‘The organisation of meaning and the meaning of organisation’, a discourse on the way culture affects how we perceive organisational structures. After a number of years at Shell putting what he had learnt into practice, Trompenaars founded the Centre for International Business Studies in 1989, now Trompenaars Hampden-Turner, an Amsterdam-based consultancy specialising in – naturally – cross-cultural management.
Working with his associate Charles Hampden-Turner and a team of 20, dilemma reconciliation is the approach that dominates the majority of Trompenaars’s time. “Processing knowledge effectively has become today’s most important source of competitive advantage,” he explains. “It determines the way you can apply and retain the core competencies within an organisation, and the way an organisation learns. In turn, effective knowledge management is dependent on the type of organisational culture in which it reconciles dilemmas.” Through his extensive research and Trompenaars Hampden-Turner’s ongoing work with clients, five central dilemmas have emerged that Trompenaars believes are key to the success of the vast majority of knowledge-management initiatives.
The first of these he identifies as the universal versus the particular, a dilemma that he explores in great depth in his most recent book, Did the Pedestrian Die?. “Imagine you’re riding in a car, you’re friend is speeding and he hits a pedestrian. You come to court, and your friend’s lawyer tells you not to worry, as you were the only witness. You know he was speeding, but what right does your friend have to ask you to lie? Would you do so?” This is a question that vividly demonstrates the divide between universalist and particularist thinking. Trompenaars’s research has revealed that 92 per cent of Americans, for example, would fall into the universalist camp: respect to the truth and to the law overrides any notion of there being exceptions to the rule. Conversely, the majority of those in South Korea, Venezuela and France (and indeed most of the Latin world) would tend to a more particularist standpoint: in Trompenaars’s experience, most ask for more information before they are able to decide whether they would lie for their friend, the most common question being, did the pedestrian die?
In a corporate context, this cultural dilemma raises obvious difficulties for a knowledge manager, particularly those operating in a multinational organisation. Even on a functional level, it is a disparity that needs to be addressed. As Trompenaars says, while HR, finance and marketing professionals are generally universalist in their outlook, salespeople tend to be more particularist – they invariably demand exceptions for their clients, for example. For a KM system to succeed, therefore, it must reconcile the two. Implementing a standardised system in every office around the world and across functions will isolate the particularists, just as allowing every office and department to develop their own approach to KM will lead to chaos. “Mass customisation is the reconciliation of the universal and the particular,” he says. “You will not solve knowledge management through one approach alone; it’s about how you combine the two.”
The second of Trompenaars’s five dilemmas is the individual versus the team, which is closely aligned to the third: specific and codified versus diffuse and implicit knowledge. Finding and lighting the cigar for which he had been hunting for the first 15 minutes of our interview, Trompenaars leans back in his chair and offers an example by way of explanation. “A short time ago we worked with General Motors to help integrate its joint venture with Isuzu, a Japanese truck-producing firm. Because their knowledge was so individualised, the Americans spent about 30 per cent of their time codifying their knowledge and writing it up in handbooks and procedures. The Japanese, on the other hand, never wrote anything down. Their knowledge was stored in the network of their relationships. This infuriated the Americans, but in a group-oriented culture, you need other ways of communicating knowledge. Whereas in an individualised society, there is a tendency to keep knowledge because knowledge is seen as power, in Japan, knowledge is only knowledge when it is shared; your status is dependent on how much you contribute to the group.”
Eventually, GM’s managers succeeded in convincing their Japanese counterparts to compile more concise, less time-consuming manuals, which went some way to satisfying both parties, but the challenge of reconciling the individual and the group, particularly in an international organisation, is clear. Again, though, and as Trompenaars says, this dilemma is not unique to multinational settings. IBM experienced a similar problem in the US, he explains, a dilemma that was ultimately resolved by altering the firm’s system of rewards. “IBM gave bonuses depending on how many computers you sold as an individual salesperson. This led to pretty good sales, but also to a great deal of stress and internal competition, which the firm realised was impacting on sales potential.” As such, the company introduced a system whereby bonuses depended not on individual sales but on each salesperson making a presentation to their colleagues detailing what they had learnt from their customers. Their peers then voted on which presentation was most useful to them. Sales went up 38 per cent. “So individuals were held responsible for what they had learnt as part of a wider community,” says Trompenaars. “Talk about knowledge management in action!”
The IBM example also illustrates a means of reconciling Trompenaars’s fourth dilemma – internal versus external control, or how to connect an organisation’s inside world with the external environment. “Effective knowledge management should not be constrained by the walls of the organisation,” he says. “Inner-oriented cultures prefer to start by enhancing internal processes, while externally-focused cultures begin with the insights and needs of the client. The internal and external environments need to be amalgamated in order to develop, not a balanced, but an integrated scorecard, in which the client has a direct influence on internal processes, which in turn serves to increase knowledge of the client.” Trompenaars points to Sony as a prime example of a firm that has done wonderfully well in this regard, in contrast to, say, Philips, which has patented a huge number of revolutionary products yet often struggles to find a market for them.
The last of Trompenaars’s five dilemmas of knowledge management relates to the disparity between perceptions from the top down and from the bottom up. “Data about clients and products is stored in the heads of individual staff members,” he says. “Middle management translates it into information that in turn is organised as knowledge by top management. For effective KM, the reconciliation of this dilemma can be found in ‘middle-up-down’, in which middle management is the bridge between the standards of top management and the chaotic reality of those on the front line,” he says. It can also be reconciled by the ‘servant leader’, he continues, a leader who connects the bottom with the top through the style with which he or she leads, drawing their authority by serving the community as a whole. In Trompenaars’s view, this is an approach Goldman Sachs seems to have mastered.
“In all these dilemmas, the context of organisational culture dictates the starting point of reconciliation,” says Trompenaars as he stubs out his cigar, “but effective knowledge management is dictated by the integrated scorecard of rules and exceptions, group and individual, explicit and implicit, top and bottom, and inner and outer worlds.” In fact, Trompenaars is adamant that the only real competence an effective leader needs is the ability to integrate opposites, a conclusion he also draws in his book, 21 Leaders for the 21st Century. Perhaps, he suggests, ‘knowledge management’ would be better termed ‘knowledge leadership’. “After all, the essence of making knowledge fruitful is to reconcile the types of dilemmas I’ve mentioned,” he says, “and that’s essentially leadership, not management. In KM there is too much management and not enough leadership.” It is a convincing argument, but in a world where the promises of technology still tend to obscure the centrality of cultural concerns, it will only be the most forward-thinking companies that take heed.
1. Trompenaars, F., Did the Pedestrian Die? (Capstone Publishing, 2003)
2. Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C., 21 Leaders for the 21st Century (Capstone Publishing, 2001)
Fons Trompenaars will be making one of six keynote presentations at this year’s KM Europe conference and exhibition. For more information, or to register your attendance, visit www.kmeurope.com