posted 1 Feb 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 5
Clash of the Titans - or how to
develop a knowledge friendly organisational culture
The influence of culture on a company's decision making is more powerful than we realise. It may be time to do a cultural audit; to try and bring to the surface possible defects in the corporate-wide personality. Stephanie Pugh suggests some ways of helping knowledge management create a real and positive change through a knowledge friendly environment.
Have you ever been a member of staff in an organisation:
i. Where hoarding data was considered normal?
ii. Where there were no documented post-project reviews, and even if there had been no one would have done anything with them anyway?
iii. Where when you came up with an idea there was a resounding chorus of we tried that years ago and it failed miserably?
iv. Where all good ideas come from the top of the organisation?
If the answer is yes then you have already witnessed culture clashing with knowledge sharing and management.
Often an organisation's introduction to knowledge management begins something like this: A Board level decision is taken to improve the way the organisation manages its intellectual capital. An immediate and substantial investment in technology is made, thus creating what is deemed to be the 'enabler' of knowledge management. This is then followed by minimal investment in the 'people' aspect of knowledge management. Six months down the line the technology has a low level of usage, the knowledge worker's motivation is non-existent and the majority of staff cannot see the advantages of the huge investment their organisation has made in knowledge management.
Technology alone cannot make an organisation create and share knowledge but it can:
|help to support knowledge initiatives where people are communicating across organisational boundaries such as across functions or geographical regions.|
|provide an effective means for speedy, interactive and effective access to a variety of media from a single point.|
If the people within the organisation do not feel comfortable using technology to:
i. leverage knowledge
ii. carry out product development
iii. find answers to questions
iv. communicate with others
then knowledge sharing just won't happen.
Organisations may find it helpful to break knowledge management into the two components below.
Before organisations decide to invest in technology, assign a chief knowledge officer; create directories of experts; establish communities of practice or launch new knowledge product/services, they should think about what we at Crane Davies believe to be a vital ingredient of successful knowledge management - the culture of the organisation. Organisations must consider the way culture can inhibit or support knowledge sharing and aim to ensure it does the latter.
Establishing the type of culture that exists in an organisation is a key prerequisite to effective knowledge management. Implementation of knowledge management often involves significant change to the way an organisation operates and functions. Primary investigative analysis of the culture is essential and will enable later contextualisation of the information, communication, knowledge and workflows.
Individuals use knowledge to add meaning to particular situations. Their beliefs and the culture they are operating within may well influence the way they interpret the situation and any future actions they take.
If the organisation's culture is such that individuals consider knowledge to be their source of power they will be threatened by knowledge sharing, and feel that it will destabilise their position within the company. If there are a large number of individuals within an organisation who feel like this then a significant amount of effort, initiative and change management will be required to facilitate a knowledge management culture.
Organisations wishing to understand the type of culture that exists in their organisation should start by thinking about the following questions:
a. What are the different methods that your organisation uses to generate ideas?
b. What informal forms of communication operate?
c. How do people work together?
d. How are the different work functions organised?
e. Do cross-functional teams operate?
Tools such as the Cultural Web designed by Johnson & Scholes enable organisations to assess the significance of some of the softer areas of an organisation. The web model employs a simple checklist of the intangible dimensions that make up an organisation's culture so that inconsistencies can be managed.
A cultural audit would involve meeting with a range of staff from all levels in the organisation. A simple cultural model would then be employed to build up a picture of the cultural barriers to knowledge sharing and management, so that they could be managed, or so that their effect can be minimised
This is where structural and informal barriers would become obvious:
i. The secretary who had an aversion to setting up team meetings and communicating messages
ii. The information manager who was so unapproachable
iii. The manager who just never has the time to do a review
iv. The director who wouldn't respond to questions and was never available
These may seem to be small inconsistencies, but they are critical if an organisation is seriously trying to move its approach to knowledge management forwards.
So, if you haven't got a knowledge-friendly culture how do you start to build one? The following components can help organisations reinforce the behaviours they would like to establish, and facilitate a culture of shared learning and organisation-wide best practice which continues to develop.
The type of organisational structure that exists will have a high level of influence on the ensuing culture. It is unlikely that hierarchical or functional organisations with formal boundaries and/or autonomous business units which are self-governed will have the incentive or resource to share best practice or new ideas with other parts of the organisation. However, if there is a central body within this organisation that draws together the disparate parts, comparing their performance and skills, looking for synergies, demonstrating how one could learn from another, encouraging job swaps, inter-functional coaching and skills transfer then a knowledge-sharing culture could begin to take shape.
Connected organisational structures that are made up of a series of clusters or a network with a flatter structure are known to stimulate creativity and teamwork. This type of structure promotes a cohesive organisation that is open to sharing and works towards well publicised common goals. This form of organisation is more likely to respond well to change and will also be able to accept that change is inevitable if it wishes to retain competitive advantage. It is more likely to see knowledge sharing as positive and instrumental in future goal achievement.
An organisation's communication structure and processes will have significant impact on knowledge management. A style of communication that is open at all levels will support a knowledge-sharing environment where knowledge and learning related activities will prosper. The key is to ensure that as many individuals as possible throughout the organisation are involved in knowledge initiatives and to spread the word.
Open communication encourages creativity and brainstorming; colleagues informally discussing projects they are working on will prompt shared learning and experience.
Many organisations employ an unintentional but largely one-way, communication structure where information is dished out and little response is expected or actioned. It is not enough for organisations to even ask for ideas and opinions any more. They must actively demonstrate how and where suggestions will be implemented and if they are not used, then people must consider why this is so.
For example, an employee attitude survey is a useful means of measuring motivation, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, wants/needs and ideas for change. But if twelve months later the repeat survey responses are the same and employees can see no evidence of progress, the communication process will break down.
The communication structure is working when:
a. Individuals openly ask for help and ideas
b. Individuals recognise that their colleagues have something to offer in terms of knowledge and experience
c. Asking for assistance is seen as good practice rather than a sign of weakness
Some organisations will have the sort of culture that enables knowledge sharing to be promoted via a performance management system. For example, one of the area's staff could be appraised and rewarded for their contribution to knowledge management. An individual's critical success factors in the area of knowledge management may include a set number of contributions to internal best practice databases, internal coaching and mentoring, effective teamworking and team development or contributions to product development and innovation. All contributions would require quality management to ensure they were of a high standard. Levels of usage regarding people's contributions could also be a valid indicator.
The idea of incentive-based knowledge management is also effective within certain cultural environments. Cash, entertainment and gift rewards may well improve the level of interest within an organisation's knowledge management arena. However this should only be used as part of a more comprehensive effort. Those people who have the time or the incentive to contribute may not be those with the most valuable knowledge assets within the organisation.
Recognition by peers is increasingly being seen as a key factor in establishing and promoting knowledge sharing. Organisations should demonstrate to employees that by sharing knowledge, their value to the organisation and to their colleagues is increased. Expert/Guru/Champion status should be assigned to individuals to dispel myths that sharing knowledge damages your position. Many organisations have informal gurus, experts, etc. who are known to some employees. By raising the profile of such individuals others will be encouraged to achieve such status and replicate their behaviours.
Teamworking and team development
Knowledge management can become very effective through the use of high-performing teams. An effective team will operate in a mutually supportive environment, with each member fulfilling a specific role that enables the team to achieve its aspired goals.
The team will pool skills, resources and knowledge as and when required. The strengths and weaknesses of individual members will be acknowledged and exploited accordingly. There will be mutual trust amongst team members and all members are empowered to put forward ideas and suggestions without fear of failure. The team will adhere to a common set of values and ground rules.
Establishing communities of practice for product development, business planning or industry specialisation should involve development of these types of skills.
Organisations that are looking to establish a knowledge sharing culture should aim to recruit people with knowledge management competencies and the types of skills that will promote positive behaviours. The development of job profiles/role guides which include requirements for knowledge management skills such as networking, facilitation skills, leadership, teamworking, communication, interpersonal skills and people development will further reinforce the desired norms.
Continuous professional development within organisations should focus on individual, team and organisation competencies, which would help to develop the intellectual assets of the organisation.
Organisations must begin by understanding the cultural environment they are working within. Once they are aware of the 'nature of the beast' they can begin to align some of the key components illustrated above. This coupled with senior management commitment and technology will enable a knowledge-friendly culture to begin to develop.
Stephanie Pugh is a Knowledge Manager at Crane Davies Associates (strategic HR consultancy).