posted 25 Aug 2004 in Volume 8 Issue 1
In any organisation, creativity and innovation are essential to the growth of the workforce. However, the individuals who embody this growth are often undervalued. Jerry Ash considers the obstacles to cultural change and presents his vision of a ‘new order’ that aims to empower workers, open communication channels and help organisations keep pace with KM.
The conditions for a powerful ‘new order’ have been created by personal computing, the explosion of the internet and other forms of personal communication – coupled with the highest level of human intellectual activity ever seen.
People who were once content to be led are now less likely to blindly follow. Patients often research their own symptoms and make decisions about their own care based on what they know, not just what the doctor tells them. Shoppers go online not just to buy, but to research their options, and depend much less on what the salesman advises. In many cases, the customer knows more and so knows best. Media channels are no longer limited to newspapers or broadcast journalism, creating an even freer flow of information and ideas. Citizens can take charge of their own government-related affairs and bypass intermediaries from their desktops. The knowledge effect is ubiquitous.
The impact is evident both in the marketplace and the workplace, which means it affects the way we work both inside and outside the organisation. People thrive on the responsibility of decision making at home. When they go to work, they are looking for an environment that will not only allow them to use their heads, but will expect them to.
It’s a winning combination. Bright people with fresh ideas and initiative are ideal for enterprises that need innovation and agility to keep up with rapidly changing methods and marketplaces. There is no such thing as a non-knowledge worker; informed and creative thinkers are everywhere and they have been ready to take responsibility for their own careers for a long time. But do we believe in the value of the knowledge worker and can we trust them?
Management consultant Carol Kinsey Goman recalls research she undertook in the late 1980s to determine organisational loyalty, which was presumed lacking. Unsurprisingly, among the hundreds of people she interviewed, not one said that their goal in life was to do a mediocre job at a company they hated and were disloyal to. “Most of us want to do a terrific job on meaningful projects at a company we care about and with people we like. I think this is also the potential power behind trust,” she says. Goman believes that employees want to trust and that most people would rather work in collaborative, trusting relationships. “We get high on the feelings we have about ourselves and others when operating in these kinds of relationships.”
Denny Bellesi, pastor of the Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, California, intended to teach his flock a lesson in stewardship when he decided to trust the good sense of his parishioners. He gave out $100 bills to a total of $10,000 from his church’s general funds with the simple instruction that parishioners were to invest the money outside the church. Instead of simply teaching stewardship, Bellesi learnt about the power of distributed decision making based on trust.
Those who were given the $100 bills were instructed only to meet the goals and objectives of the church mission. How each spent the money was a personal decision. What began as 100 people soon involved far more, as well as funds much greater than the original $10,000. The results included small acts of kindness, such as helping a family buy food or clothing, to large projects such as funding the construction of a church in Asia.
Bill Shedd, one of the parishioners, said, “It was the most important $100 I had ever held in my hands.” To add to the pot, Shedd’s 13-year-old son donated $100 of the allowance he had saved and Shedd’s daughter also pitched in money. Soon the Shedds had collected $1,000. After weeks of debate, the family donated $800 to a shelter for abused women and children. Then Shedd read a newspaper article about 15-year-old Javier Zambrano in nearby Santa Ana, California, who was collecting holiday gifts for children even though he didn’t have enough money to buy soccer shoes for himself. Shedd gave Zambrano the remaining $200 for soccer equipment.
There were many similar stories. Michael Rodriguez used the $100 to begin a donation drive at the internet consulting company where he worked. Nine-year old Alex Benson sent the money to a four-year old Oregon girl to help her family with expenses for a heart transplant. Gene Shook used the money to buy materials to train pastors in Asia.
It is fascinating to compare these stories with the usual ritual of financial decision making. Even non-profit organisations pattern themselves after the corporate spending model: money is collected, banked and budgeted by the institution. It travels from the church member to the finance committee, where decisions are made on spending. The administrator carries out the will of the committee, the accountant writes the cheques and, of course, there is a financial report, ideally showing balanced books. The old model is all about spending the money; the new model is about getting the most out of it.
The issue isn’t so much about changing human culture as it is about changing the environment to take advantage of the natural human urge to do good work. If there is a culture that needs changing, it is the corporate culture. We are clearly caught between two management eras.
As storytelling expert Steve Denning says, “My sense is that we have two related but different domains here. On the one hand, we have the domain of power and hierarchy, which is decision making and control. On the other, we have the domain of knowledge and expertise, which is creativity and innovation. The former domain is ruled by, who’s calling the shots? The latter domain is ruled by, who’s got the smarts? Occasionally, it is the same person, but not too often.” Denning draws attention to organisations in the 20th century, where the emphasis was on who was in control and on arranging and re-arranging things so that the person in charge could gain even greater control. He calls this a game of diminishing returns.
Unfortunately, the age of knowledge management was immediately preceded by a parade of contrived management fads that tried to call the shots, resulting either in limited success, failure or long-term harm (although mostly unintentional). KM pioneer Charles Savage lists work simplification, group dynamics, transactional analysis, business-process re-engineering, organisational development and change management as just a few of these fads. Savage remembers them all as ways to address the structural problems of the industrial era – all without any real success. “Why did they fail?” he asks. “Because none of these efforts really made the shift from the industrial era’s culture of distrust and devaluing to a culture of trust and co-creativity.”
Denning adds quality management (QM) to the list of fads that don’t work in a people-driven knowledge environment and finds KM much more openly embraced by employees because of its appeal to the natural instincts of those who work directly with clients. Over his time at the World Bank, he had contrasting experiences with QM and KM. From 1990 to 1996, Denning laboured diligently to have QM accepted in one part of the organisation and found the going very difficult. He found that quality management was generally equated with a mechanistic, one-size-fits-all formula in a business where every country and every project presented new and different challenges.
Between 1996 and 2000, Denning spearheaded the KM effort and found a fairly immediate and enthusiastic response at the World Bank. “There was an instinctive recognition, except for middle-management diehards, that we were in the knowledge business,” he explains. Denning believes that KM made sense of what the World Bank was trying to do in ways that other management approaches, such as business-process re-engineering, seemed to be trying to stifle. “KM prospered so long as it honoured the organic nature of knowledge. Whenever KM became mechanistic, it ran into difficulty,” he concludes.
However, many business leaders feel threatened by the untidy and cross-cutting nature of bottom-up initiatives that could undermine their control. Those who are hostile to the notion of distributed empowerment may never see the true value of the new perspective. Some are in denial, rejecting the knowledge phenomenon as just another fad. Others delay and avoid acceptance by operating with a traditional lens that resists change. They seek justification, analysis of competition, good-practice examples, business-case examples based on traditional ROI and so on, to avoid action rather than plunging headlong into the priceless imperatives of the new order.
Even worse, workers remain in the dark about the new order and their place in it. They are still labouring under the belief they were hired for what they do, not what they know. This belief is reinforced by managers who write prescriptive job descriptions and base performance evaluations on preconceived notions of how a job will best be done. “We take big people and put them in little boxes, held apart by steel girders. We then give them a half-written script and expect them to play a role. The minute they start to be themselves, we stuff their scripts in their faces and demand they get on with it,” says Savage.
Those who are finally given the freedom to do it their way don’t understand or trust it because the concept is so foreign to their life-long experience. Many remain intimidated by hierarchical structure and cope by adopting a ‘stick to the knitting’ approach, either for their own personal safety or as the formula for advancement. Many are fearful they will be ridiculed, ignored, or that credit will be taken by others if they reach beyond their own assignments to contribute what they know for the overall good of the organisation. They are in competition with each other, hoarding what they know to protect themselves in a downsizing programme or to climb the corporate ladder. Like their superiors, they are dealing with each other from the perspective of what Savage calls an “economy of scarcity”, where personal achievement and advancement are available only to a few.
The workplace situation is not nature, it is nurture. Higher-education consultant David Hawthorne believes that creating knowledge is as natural as breathing: we do it to survive, individually and collectively. So why are people still reluctant to share? Hawthorne believes that learnt fears are generated by mistrust, mishandling, playing for advantage, the fear of embarrassment and the myth that knowledge is power. Although it did not protect knowledge-holders during the downsizing era, the acquired habit of knowledge hoarding has transformed workers into a fragmented ‘know it all’ culture that was tolerable in the industrial era when knowledge obsolescence took years and provided leverage for those who built their own domains. Today, the shelf life of knowledge is much shorter. The new model of power is a cycle of learning quickly, sharing what has been learnt while it is still valid, unlearning what no longer works and relearning. This set of behaviours is based on power as a function of understanding and the facilitation of information and knowledge flow.
“KM practice should illuminate the circumstances that call for knowledge sharing and prescribe the behaviour most likely to produce optimal outcomes. Then we need to figure out how to build the technical and social infrastructures most hospitable to those behaviours,” says Hawthorne. If there is to be a ‘prescription’, then it should be management who takes the medicine. The organisation that genuinely re-organises its philosophy to build an environment of initiative and collaboration will find a change in employee culture occurring rapidly because learning and sharing is in the enterprise’s DNA.
Human beings are social animals. “Like creative thinking, telling what we know is something that children do naturally and enthusiastically,” says Goman. She believes that much of the problem stems from our formal education process, which is where we begin to learn that it is unwise to share information – if you have the answer and give it to someone else, you put yourself at a disadvantage. We learn that only some children get good grades in art class and, as such, they are the only ones deemed ‘artistic’. Both of these misconceptions are enhanced by organisations that place ‘creative’ people in marketing, communication, PR and advertising, and don’t ask for ideas from the rest of us. When reward systems and department funding are designed to create competition between employees, it becomes nature versus nurture; most organisations have nurtured knowledge hoarding.
On the other hand, Hawthorne believes we are at our best when we tell children and employees the truth and base our lessons on honouring the trust they put in us. “We also live to regret when – for expediency sake – we threaten, lie and trick our kids (and employees) into doing what we want them to do,” he says.
Knowledge managers need to create an environment where knowledge workers can use open communication to come out of their cultural bunkers to teach and learn. In the case of Goman’s perfect knowledge-sharing model, managers are valued not because they know more than their staff, but because they can quickly communicate to employees what they know and get staff members to do the same with each other. “Leaders build environments of trust and mutual respect where creative contribution is nurtured,” she says. “Employees at all levels understand that being successful in this networked world increasingly requires collaboration.”
However, the reality is somewhat different. Goman recently completed a survey of 200 mid-level managers regarding knowledge sharing in their companies. The results confirmed what many KM practitioners have been experiencing: all too often team leaders withhold information and dole it out on a need-to-know basis. Executives ask for collaborative input when what they really want is a rubber stamp for decisions that have already been made. Goman’s survey proved that people aren’t sharing what they know due to various personal and organisational inhibitors.
These human barriers underscore the importance of tackling the people issues. Management consultant Maribeth Achterberg has seen the positive effect of building knowledge-sharing environments through her work with an organisation that began sharing information that had traditionally been held as appropriate only for senior management. Some of this information was highly sensitive and confidential. Achterberg was amazed to see willing workers who were aware of the significance of this action and the trust factor that management was employing by releasing such information. “The level of care and accountability towards the organisation by the workers rose each day as this atmosphere of open and honest communication was nurtured by continued sharing of information that helped the workforce do its job more quickly,” she observes. The hierarchy of management was no longer a knowledge-sharing roadblock.
Achterberg maintains that the first step is a defined common vision towards a common aim that shows benefit for each person involved in the organisation through daily practice of guiding principles. This implies that:
- Everyone understands and agrees that the vision and aim of the organisation is a worthy cause and agrees to support its endeavours;
- Everyone’s role is defined and understood to be necessary to the success of the organisation. Each person involved in the organisational structure is important and none is more important than the other, including customers, shareholders and suppliers/vendors;
- Everyone’s knowledge is an asset to the success of the organisation, regardless of rank or position;
- Sharing valuable, pertinent information regarding work practices vital to the organisation is the norm, not the exception. Knowledge hoarding does not produce a position of power but rather weakens the organisation. If people are invested in the organisation, knowledge hoarding is seen as counterproductive and is not tolerated.
Achterberg believes that these principles are fundamental. “If this foundation is set, I believe the more complex concepts of a KM-enabled organisational culture can be cultivated.”
A truly knowledge-intensive company is comprised of self-motivating, empowered workers who know their knowledge is important to the performance of their organisation. Such a change in culture has developed significantly in recent years. It has changed the way staff work, share, learn and respond to clients’ needs. It has increased productivity and created communities within organisations. It has fostered a culture where staff are eager to share knowledge and wisdom.
These are the evolving realities of the new order. They are lessons repeated often enough over the past 50 years to merit constant attention and action by today’s business leader. The change taking place in enterprise today is not a fad promoted by vendors, but a quiet revolution fueled by a shift in social, political and economic order that is already a fait accompli.
Jerry Ash is consulting editor and US correspondent for Knowledge Management. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org