posted 15 Nov 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 3
It’s good to talk
Knowledge Fair 200 represented an attempt by the Department of the Navy to bring people and ideas together from across the armed forces. Moonja P. Kim describes the event, and reveals the steps the department has taken on its journey towards becoming a knowledge-centric organisation.
On 1 August 2000 the Department of the Navy (DON) held Knowledge Fair 2000, sponsored by the DON Knowledge Management Community of Practice (KMCP), and hosted by the Under Secretary of the Navy. DON Knowledge Fair 2000 provided a rich opportunity for sharing knowledge management successes and ideas across the 900,000 strong organisation. Over 75 knowledge management projects were exhibited coming from the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Joint Forces. During the course of the day-long event, over 3,000 people passed through the exhibit hall, learning about knowledge management initiatives, sharing ideas and trying out the knowledge management tools on display.
The first DON Knowledge Sharing Awards were a highlight of the fair. Following brief remarks reinforcing DON’s commitment to knowledge management, the Honourable Jerry MacArthur Hultin, Under Secretary of the Navy, presented plaques recognising seven different teams for their outstanding knowledge management initiatives. Immediately following the awards presentation, DON leaders exited the ballroom for a ribbon cutting ceremony, marking the opening of the exhibit hall. As ribbons were cut and the crowds surged in, one team in a booth located near the entrance handed out 250 brochures in the first 20 minutes. DON leaders were taken on VIP tours of the exhibit hall – spending time viewing projects, asking questions of exhibitors, and talking to attendees, and speaking candidly about the importance of knowledge management in videotaped discussions. The exhibits were creative, high-tech, and informative, and high energy permeated the atmosphere. Exhibitors eagerly shared their projects while enthusiastic attendees had an opportunity to learn and network.
The high level of participation from across the Navy and Marine Corps demonstrates the commitment to knowledge management throughout the department. A culture that allows people to try new ideas and share ideas and knowledge with others is critical to the successful implementation of knowledge management. DON Knowledge Fair 2000 exemplified that culture. People exchanged ideas, learned, and networked – Knowledge Fair 2000 was a tremendously successful knowledge-sharing event. The sharing that started at the Knowledge Fair is continuing as a CD containing video clips of each exhibiting project, remarks by DON leadership, and a compendium of knowledge management and e-business initiatives was compiled and is being distributed worldwide.
The fair was a planned effort by the department to facilitate the organisation’s journey toward becoming a knowledge-centric organisation (KCO). A KCO is defined as one that organises virtually around its critical knowledge needs and then builds useful and relevant information to fill those needs. This virtual organisation is an overlay to the existing organisational structure; personnel integrate knowledge sharing into their everyday lives. By providing access to the breadth of organisational knowledge, people have the ability to quickly and accurately draw upon critical lessons learned to make work time more efficient. The bottom line is that in a KCO, knowledge workers will be up and running faster and more effectively than ever before.
DON Knowledge Fair 2000 was a well-orchestrated event-driven example of knowledge transfer. By bringing the knowledge seekers and knowledge owners together into the ‘knowledge market’, it encouraged the exchange of knowledge and still allowed for spontaneity. It brought people together without preconceptions about who should talk to whom. Davenport and Prusak (1998), in their book Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know, emphasised the importance of a knowledge fair atmosphere and described a knowledge fair held by Ernst & Young. This fair provided the opportunity for people from consulting and research units to talk about their work and socialise freely, creating the ambiance that encourages synergy and knowledge sharing among the participants. Very often conferences are organised for knowledge exchange with a full schedule of speakers and no time is allowed for people to talk informally. Davenport and Prusak argue that although the cost of this type of conference is higher than the cost of a knowledge fair, the knowledge sharing that takes place among participants at a knowledge fair far exceeds the knowledge sharing that takes place at a traditional conference. The fair, with its atmosphere that facilitated open exchange of innovation and knowledge, was a stepping-stone toward embedding a knowledge-sharing culture throughout the department.
Successful knowledge transfer within an organisation is the most critical aspect of knowledge management. O’Dell and Grayson (1998) claim, in their book, If Only We Knew What We Know, that the transfer of internal knowledge and best practice allows delivery of the right information to the right people at the right time so they can take action and create value. A major factor in the success of any knowledge transfer project is the common language of the participants. An example case was described in Davenport and Prusak (1998) in a study of skill sharing, in which a surgical team of five from northern New England medical centres participated. The goal of the study was to determine whether observation of one another’s work could improve the success rate of surgeons performing coronary-artery bypass surgery. This study showed that observation of another surgeon in action resulted in a 24 per cent reduction in the mortality rate of the surgery. The surgeons in this heart-surgery study, who share the same specialised area, could understand one another’s words and actions. Without a shared common language, people may not trust each other and understanding will not be complete. DON Knowledge Fair 2000 helped participants begin to grow that common language, sharing their experiences with various projects such as Knowledge Homeport, Knowledge Today, Knowledge Worker System, Virtual Program Office, Virtual Naval Hospital, and Next Generation Library, and talking about the need for communities of practice in different areas.
Trust in the source of knowledge is another important factor in the success of knowledge transfer. We evaluate information and knowledge based on the source, and use the reputation of the person who provides the information as a basis for evaluating the tremendous amount of information we receive. We don’t always have time to assess everything cautiously, so we select the information we absorb based on the reputation of the sender. For example, “I would not use this information because it is from Mike, he is not reliable. I remember having problems when I relied on some information he gave me.” Knowledge transfer requires two actions: Providing knowledge to a person or group and incorporation of that knowledge by that person or group. If this person does not incorporate the knowledge into his own knowledge base, the knowledge transfer is not complete.
Providing knowledge and accessing knowledge does not guarantee that knowledge will be used by the recipient. Organisations undertake the knowledge transfer effort to improve efficiency and increase their value. New knowledge will lead to positive change in behaviour or boost innovative ideas. We often see people gain new knowledge from various sources, such as talking to other experts or watching someone else’s actions, but they do not put it into action for some reason. A significant reason for not putting knowledge into action is not trusting the source of knowledge. Other reasons may be pride, stubbornness, lack of time, lack of opportunity, and a fear of taking risks. DON Knowledge Fair 2000 provided an opportunity to show that DON leadership is committed to knowledge management, and that they believe that knowledge management efforts will greatly benefit the DON. It also offered to participants authoritative and trustworthy sources of new knowledge about the department’s efforts in knowledge management.
Resistance to change is very forceful, even if there is evidence that a particular change makes sense. For example, there is a large amount of information about the dangers of too much fat in our diets, but Americans are more overweight than ever. Knowing is not the same as doing. Barriers to transfer of best practices across a company were examined by Szulanski (1996). Four key barriers were identified:
- Ignorance – Some people identify ‘best practice’ and do not realise others may find that useful. People could benefit from that best practice, but they are unaware that someone else in the organisation has the required knowledge.
- No absorptive capacity – Although employees are not entirely ignorant of the best practice, they do not have the management resources (money, time and people) to review the procedure in enough detail to make it useful to the company as a whole.
- Lack of pre-existing relationships – People incorporate a best practice from other people they know, respect, trust and like. When leaders of the company do not have a personal relationship or link that pre-establishes trust, they are less likely to benefit from each other’s experience.
- Lack of motivation – People may not see a clear business reason for making any efforts to transfer a best practice.
While these barriers are identified in transferring best practices within a company, the same barriers prevent effective knowledge transfer. Whereas some of these obstacles are on a personal level, most of them are the result of organisational structures and a culture that discourage sharing. Organisations must address systemic obstacles to improve knowledge transfer.
O’Dell and Grayson (1998) presented five basic categories of organisational personalities that discourage knowledge transfer: ‘Silo’ companies; ‘not invented here (NIH)’ companies; ‘Babel’ companies; ‘by-the-book’ companies; and ‘bolt-it-on’ companies.
- The ‘Silo’ company has an organisational structure that encourages silo approaches and actions. A silo is a business unit focused on maximising its own accomplishments and benefits while ignoring the broader value to the enterprise. People hoard information because they feel competitive against other groups, want to improve their own relative performance, and block other groups from excelling. This results in sub-optimising the performance of the organisation as a whole.
- The NIH company has a culture that rewards individual technical expertise and knowledge creation over knowledge sharing. The key business driver is to develop innovative and unique products and the focus is on invention. The culture makes people feel awful if they borrow someone else’s idea, so they do not want to incorporate knowledge from others.
- The Babel company workers do not have a common view that can serve as the basis for effective knowledge transfer. In many cases the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. There is no coherent terminology set to articulate processes and performance.
- The by-the-book company considers documented explicit knowledge all they need for knowledge transfer. The company relies solely on explicit rather than tacit knowledge. The trouble with this approach is that most of the critical information that most organisations need can not be codified as explicit.
- The bolt-it-on company believes you can add knowledge management responsibilities on top of current work processes and hope to get results. It is almost impossible to create new results by superimposing additional work on top of the old way of doing things.
The CEO of Buckman Laboratories, Bob Buckman described the three critical factors in knowledge management as being: “Culture, culture, culture.” Buckman Laboratories was selected as one of the ‘best knowledge management practice’ organisations by several leading knowledge management authors (O’Dell and Grayson, 1998; Davenport and Prusak, 1998; Dixon, 2000) and a benchmark study by the American Productivity and Quality Center (1999). Organisational culture represents the organisation’s history, unwritten rules, and social traditions that affect the behaviour of everyone in the organisation. It is the underlying beliefs that influence the perception of actions and communications, while these beliefs are difficult to articulate. O’Dell and Grayson call it ‘the unseen hand’. If the employees of the organisation usually share and collaborate, then it is easy to implement knowledge management. But if people tend to hoard knowledge, then any knowledge management application will not be able to change employees’ behaviour. People and culture are the keys to effective knowledge management and knowledge transfer because sharing knowledge is a social activity; you have to connect people who are willing to share their tacit knowledge. Once people start sharing with one another, it becomes a reinforcing cycle. People who want to help each other and share what they know establish communities of practice. Effective knowledge management demands changing traditional jealousy and competition into collaborative culture. Communities of practice with people willing to share will gradually promote collaboration and effective knowledge transfer.
The DON is moving forward with this collaborative culture. Another example is provided in the Computerworld article by Gary Anthes (2000), ‘Charting a knowledge management course’, in an interview with the knowledge manager of the US Pacific Fleet, Lieutenant Commander Judith Godwin. The Knowledge Home Port is the Pacific Fleet’s intranet, offering easy cross-functional communications with tools for threaded discussions and chat-room capability. According to LCDR Godwin: “You don’t go there to search; you go there to collaborate.” Threaded discussions leave recorded exchanges that provide a good way for new personnel to learn about a topic and its history. This messaging is enhancing radio communications among ships at sea, which can be garbled and intercepted. Personnel can now easily collaborate and they have reported initial savings of 18,000 staff hours per month.
Careful planning is necessary to create the momentum for changing an organisation’s culture toward collaborating, knowledge sharing and transforming organisations into knowledge-centric organisations. Bennet (1999) emphasised the importance of what she calls event intermediation when the DON held its Y2K Virtual Town Hall meeting: “We, as humans, work and strive to create change with only slightly visible results, then some event occurs that connects all this prior activity, the understanding of change jumps to a new strata of recognition and the entire plain of behaviour shifts upward to a new starting point. This pattern recurs again and again throughout history.” Knowledge Fair 2000 was the pivotal event that connected all the prior activities. The entire DON has shifted to a new starting point. The department is now at a higher level in the journey towards knowledge-centricity. Similar opportunities will be provided periodically to reach the next plateau and keep up the momentum. The next knowledge fair is already being planned for May 2001 as an e-business knowledge fair, connecting these two initiatives and demonstrating that e-business and knowledge management synergistically go hand in hand. This event promises to generate even more excitement, energy and enthusiasm as knowledge sharing continues and DON becomes a learning organisation.
1. A. Bennet, ‘The Virtual Town Hall: Vehicle for Change’, CHIPS: Dedicated to Sharing Information, Technology, Experience (Fall 1999 Issue, Department of the Navy, Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic, Norfolk, VA)
2. T.H. Davenport & L. Prusak, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 1998)
3. N.M. Dixon, Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrives by Sharing What They Know (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 2000)
4. C. O’Dell & C. Grayson, If Only We Knew What We Knew: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice (The Free Press, New York, 1998)
5. G. Szulanski, ‘Exploring internal stickiness: Impediments to the transfer of best practice within the firm’, Strategic Management Journal, (Vol.17, pp 27-43, 1996)
Moonja P. Kim is currently on a one-year rotational assignment at the Department of the Navy (DON), Chief Information Officer (CIO) as Special Assistant to Deputy CIO for Enterprise Integration, Knowledge Champion. Her permanent position is Chief of the Business Processes Branch at the Construction Engineering Research Laboratory of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. She can be contacted at: email@example.com