By Sunil Sharma
As the information age unfolds, more and more of what people buy, sell and do has knowledge as its raw material. Yet unlike traditional raw material, which is inspected, warehoused, bar-coded and audited, corporate knowledge is scattered, hard to find and prone to disappear without a trace. If those scattered bodies of knowledge can be brought together, then the people who use them can work faster and better. What a utility knows has become as important as what a utility does.
An article in the London Financial Times, dated Feb. 21, 1996, began with a story about an oil company that was about to mount a seismic survey in the Gulf of Mexico. In the nick of time, an executive remembered that the company had not only surveyed the area before, but had also drilled some inconclusive wells. The individual’s memory saved the company £10,000,000-the cost of the survey. But how often does this happen? Why wasn’t the person involved earlier in the process? Why did he eventually speak out? How did he know?
Anyone with even a passing interest in the arena of knowledge management knows that a “knowledge sharing culture” is the crucial element. This usually prompts nods of agreement, often followed by scratching of heads and the question: “So how do we do that?”
Culture is the mantra. It is the most important aspect of any knowledge management initiative. As so many businesses have discovered, the perception that knowledge is power is not easily overcome. The natural inclination of employees at every level in almost every organization is to hoard knowledge. Knowledge is still seen as power and is often compounded by organizations valuing, for example through the recruitment process, what individuals know. Commonly, employees say, “Why should I share what I know when I’m being paid to know what I know? Who’s benefiting, me or somebody else? And, anyway, what’s in it for me?” As Figure 1 shows, almost all barriers to effective knowledge sharing are people based.
Culture versus Technology: The Big Fight
Implementing technological tools to facilitate knowledge sharing is often viewed as the single most important factor in leveraging knowledge in organizations. The idea of workplace portals with an effective mix of structured and unstructured access to knowledge can help the process a great deal. Implementation of technological tools, however, can get out of hand. The threat of analysis paralysis and information overload is very real. Technology should act as a facilitator for knowledge management, but there is a great danger that access to the technology becomes the issue, rather than access to knowledge. After all, an old organization plus new technology equals a very expensive old organization.
Creating the desire to share is far more important. As Figure 2 indicates, without the right environment, any attempt to encourage effective knowledge sharing will ultimately prove futile.
What are the key elements of the cultural environment? How are they identified? Once they’re identified, how is their status assessed and how is their performance monitored? In addition, how does a utility know which solutions will work within its culture? How are the risks of failure or success objectively assessed?
These levers are often defined as “the way things are done around here.” Even in a rapidly changing corporate world, employees get used to doing things in certain ways. Once a utility has an understanding of these levers and how they impact knowledge sharing, it is in an enviable position of truly being able to exploit and leverage its knowledge assets. It can only do so, however, once it accepts that “the way things are done around here” needs to change. An organization’s willingness, readiness and acceptance that it must change are fundamental to successful knowledge management.
Measuring to Succeed
How does a utility identify and then measure the health of these levers? Is it possible to create a measurement framework for culture that can be used to assess the impact solutions may have on creating a knowledge sharing culture? The key is to use diagnostic tools, such as Organization Transitions from Verax to ask diagnostic questions.
Organization Transitions is a diagnostic tool that quantitatively assesses the state of all key performance mechanisms impacting a knowledge sharing culture. The results provide an insight into the gap between what is desired and what is actually happening. Figure 3 provides an example of a high-level executive summary, which is graphical and quantitative. Most importantly, the summary provides a measure or guide to successful creation of a knowledge sharing culture.
Using this diagnostic tool, which is based on universal behavior dimensions (i.e. ways of doing things), the model can be used to describe an organization’s knowledge sharing culture style. It helps identify the barriers, optimally performing and enhancing elements that impact knowledge sharing. It not only provides information, but also points clearly and specifically to what needs to be done. Furthermore, it clearly shows the relationship between how things are done and the results achieved. It also provides a correlation between the key elements described above and other outputs such as compatibility between groups involved in mergers or integration, customer service, organizational effectiveness and quality.
Therefore, before diving into technology for technology’s sake, or adopting a solution that seems, in principle at least, to address the issue, it is important to undertake a diagnostic assessment of the impacted environment. Diagnostics can provide a vivid, graphical, quantitative view of cultural barriers and compatibilities. Diagnostics also provide a baseline from which to re-measure and quantify the chosen solution’s impact. They also put organizations in a position to start to quantify and establish a baseline for knowledge sharing.
Once a utility is in a position to understand the key elements, and the gap between the current performance and the desired state is identified, it can move to the next step-to put together a plan of action. At this juncture, it is worth considering why such initiatives fail. A recent A.T. Kearney survey revealed that 17 percent of initiatives fail to improve company performance and more than 63 percent fail to sustain improvements over a period of time. A rather humorous list of reasons makes it easy to understand why people impacted by change feel negative about it:
- Creating a planning circus-dozens of coordination teams slowing progress and diluting accountability.
- Content-free conversations-lots of hype and more questions than answers keep people from being focused and energized.
- Emulating barnyards-titles, hierarchies, etc. take precedence over accountability and clear roles, resulting in barnyard chicken behavior.
- Turtles on fence posts-decisions about people become political and are based on individual political capital, causing past qualifications to shortchange company performance.
- Rewarding wrong things-the focus tends to be on formula and administrative neatness, while the real objectives can often be lost and alignment with value drivers is not communicated or incentivized.
- Culture and values-trying to merge culture by osmosis as opposed to identifying and addressing culture differences early.
How the Top Guns Plan
Being cognizant of the items listed above allows a utility to look more clearly at how top performers have created sustainable, high-performance knowledge cultures. This can be done by:
- Creating a compelling case for change.
- Having strong leaders who set and maintain the pace.
- Mobilizing employees to drive through the change.
- Managing an integrated change program more effectively.
- Sustaining performance through a measurement system.
- Improving key processes and exploiting technology appropriately.
Once these criteria are established, it is time to take a tentative look at the solutions that may help sustain a high-performance, knowledge-based culture.
Performance coaching for leaders and managers is one solution. More and more, leaders and managers must be able to coach their staff to sustain and support a knowledge sharing culture. Performance is a function of motivation and ability, and the analogy to the sporting world cannot be stronger than when asking the question “Is your team a team of stars or a star team?”
Performance coaching is a fully comprehensive and systematic process that enables organizations, teams and individuals to create and sustain high performance levels. Performance coaching improves performance not just by working on skills and knowledge, but by motivating individuals and improving attitudes and other personal competencies.
Communities provide another context for knowledge sharing. Communities are people who are linked together by common interests, needs, locations or organizations with a desire to collaborate and share their knowledge. Two particular areas of interest are community of interest and incentives.
Community of interest is a low structure community based around the interest and passions of its members. It is this environment that drives discovery, innovation and thought leadership, and also allows for self-development of employees.
Incentives cover both rewards and recognition. As for the distinction between rewards and recognition, Aubrey Daniels, a leading authority on performance management, explains it best, “You reinforce behaviors and reward results.” The guidelines for effectively rewarding and recognizing employees are simple. It is important to match the reward to the person and to match the reward to the achievement. It is also important to be timely and specific.
According to a recent study by Dr. Gerald Graham, professor of management at Wichita State University, the most powerful motivator is personalized, instant recognition from managers. The top five motivating techniques were found to be:
- Managers personally congratulate employees on a good job.
- Managers write personal notes about good performance.
- Managers publicly recognize employees for good performance.
- Managers hold morale-building meetings to celebrate successes.
Other informal rewards can be created around no cost recognition, low cost rewards, communication, cash substitutes or gift certificates, merchandise and recognition items or activities.
To effectively manage knowledge, a utility must create an environment where the desire to share knowledge improves its performance. This requires not just looking at technology, but examining performance-bearing mechanisms that truly drive the creation and sustainability of a knowledge sharing culture.
Sunil Sharma works for EDS. This is the first in a series of essays regarding knowledge and its issues. If you’re interested in receiving forthcoming articles (or in obtaining a copy of the full text of this article) please e-mail Mr. Sharma at firstname.lastname@example.org.