Trust in the workplace (Part 2): Knowledge management

A rapid review of knowledge management (KM) reminds us that knowledge and knowing are not equivalent.  This tension has been amply explored by a number of diverse thinkers and will be shared in the following paragraphs.

Their subtle, yet profound insights contradict the glossy assurances made by too many IT vendors pushing the “latest pipes-and-pumps” KM wonder; the latters’ sub-text typically is: “Build it and they will come!”

No surprise then that many KM capex (mis)adventures have also disappointed.  It is generally acknowledged that an organisation’s culture largely determines its ability to learn.  So let’s (re)visit this collective phenomenon…

What about the culture!?

“Cookie-cutter” solutions to organisational challenges ignore context. This is why they usually fail.  It is thus critical to know where the people are at in organisations.  The concept of Organisational Culture offers us this understanding.  This culture encompasses the beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of an organisation.  It is all about how things get done around here.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones have provided a simple, yet powerful picture to comprehend organisational culture. They employ a matrix with two dimensions:

  • Sociability
  • Solidarity

Sociability is the amount of camaraderie among members of the organisation.  Here members are more like friends than just work colleagues.  They tend to spend much time in face-to-face communication, sharing ideas, and sustain a high level of unspoken mutuality; there are no “strings” attached…

High sociability has many positives like, free sharing of knowledge and high team spirits. It can have disadvantages too, like disagreement or criticism being avoided so as not to upset others.  Under-performance from colleagues is thus often allowed to continue unchallenged.

Solidarity is a measure of the members of an organisation to pursue shared goals, regardless of personal relations.  Even if members don’t know each other, a clear commitment to shared goals will draw them together to act in concert.

High solidarity has many positives like a robust response to external pressures and other organisational crises and very little accommodation of slack performance.  But it also has drawbacks.

These lie mainly in a take-no-prisoners attitude and merciless tussles for resources.

When the above two dimensions are “cross-cut”, a revealing 2×2 is generated of the four faces of culture: Goffee and Jones point out that no particular quadrant is inherently superior; it simply shows how an organisation styles itself to cope with its environment.

But fragmented cultures (even when they are positively manifested) are meagre benchmarks for organisations with more pressing delivery time-frames (a few years instead of some decades).  Knowledge sharing is not a luxury, but a necessity in such modern organisations.

Layering more perspectives onto the Goffee/Jones model

Maish Nichani has done an astute meta-overlay on the Goffee-Jones (G-J) model, with respect to efforts by organisations implementing knowledge management.  He super-imposes several complementary models onto the definitive G-J culture model, by projecting additional views, such as those touching on trust, process and style.

1. Trust and knowledge sharing

Trust is known to be a great enabler of knowledge flows.  In “Trust and knowledge sharing: A critical combination”, two kinds of trust that shape knowledge sharing are posited:

Benevolence-based: belief that an individual will not harm another even when given the opportunity to do so – i.e. not expecting to be given the wrong information.

Competence-based: belief in another to be truly knowledgeable in their subject area – i.e. seeking and trusting only those who are the competent.

2. Organisation work and knowledge sharing

The iconic Xerox researchers, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, also pushed for the distinction between process and practice.  They challenge us that “there’s a large gap between what a task looks like in a process manual and what it looks like in reality”.

Practice: what actually takes place on the field. This rich, real-world arena contains a great deal of tacit knowledge.

Process: what can be codified into rules and procedures. This is how the world is supposed to operate.

3. Learning and Knowledge Strategy

These HBR-worthy authors also present two dimensions for managing knowledge based on the work practices of an organisation. They are:

Personalisation: This is a people-to-people approach. Here the focus is to link people with others and to foster networks and community of practices. Great faith is placed on informal knowledge sharing.

Codification: This is a people-to-documents approach. Here the focus is on populating databases with best-practices, case-studies and how-to guides to aid people in their daily work (in extremum = just-in-time performance support). Reusable ’knowledge-objects’ is the mantra.

Which KM approach works best?

Nichani, who overlayed these four models (see the composite graphic below), advises:

multi KM

The best way to use this model is to first take a stance on which quadrant(s) your department or organisation fits into and then work your way through …and then make a case for the strategy for your initiative.

I want to be more direct.  Traditional KM methods are strong on the theme of weaving together codification, process– and expert-centric models.  This is found along the horizontal axis shown in the matrix diagramme above.

Although this may be necessary to achieve KM success, it is not sufficient.  It is essential to also weave in the social dimension (the vertical axis).  This latter requirement is due to at least two major complications in KM:

  1. Sharing is effectively annulled in low-trust environments
  2. The most valuable knowledge is tacit – it cannot be readily codified but can be slowly shared

And there’s the catch-22!  Encouragingly, world-class organisations have long made peace with this inconvenient truth.  And hence willingly made the large investments in fostering the poorly understood, but potentially very valuable, people-to-people mingling process.

They also do not normally equate this particular outlay as building social capital, but this is what they are strongly contributing to.

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