Monday, January 09, 2006

Knwoledge Management & Organizational Culture

Of the three components of knowledge management - people, processes and technology - the most important is undoubtedly people. Why? Because creating, sharing and using knowledge is something that is done by people. Processes and technology can help to enable and facilitate knowledge management, but at the end of the day it is people who either do it or don’t do it. A number of organisations have learned this through bitter experience. Of those companies that led the way in the early days of knowledge management, many focused primarily on processes and technology – to their cost. Having made significant investments in the latest systems, they then found that people simply did not use them and so the systems ended up being confined to what became known as ‘the knowledge management graveyard’. Since then, organisations have learned that it is people who ‘make or break’ knowledge management initiatives.
Why people don’t want to share knowledge - or do they? The two big makers or breakers: culture and behaviourHow do we make the changes?Cultural change is not just a knowledge management issueResources and references
Why people don’t want to share knowledge – or do they?
There is a traditional view that knowledge sharing is not a natural act and that people need to be coerced or cajoled into it. In fact why not take a few moments right now to think about some of the values, attitudes and behaviours in your organisation that constitute barriers to seeking, sharing and using knowledge? For example:
‘knowledge is power’
‘I don’t have time’
‘I’ve got too much real work to do’
‘that’s not my job’
‘you’re just using other people’s ideas and taking the credit’
‘I want to do things my way’
‘this is how it’s always been done’
‘I’d like to help, but my manager won’t like it if I waste time doing things for another team’
‘that’s not how we do things around here’
‘I don’t trust them’
‘are you telling me how to do my job?’
‘I’m already suffering from information overload’
‘we’re not allowed to make mistakes, let alone admit to them, share them or learn from them’
‘don’t bother others by asking them for help, work it out for yourself’
‘you should already know all the answers’
‘it’s just another management fad; if I ignore it, it’ll eventually go away’
‘what’s in it for me?’
These are just a few! However it may surprise you to learn that there is also a view that knowledge sharing is in fact a very natural act and that we are already doing it all the time. If you take a few moments to watch people both at work and at play, you can see the evidence daily: in corridors, by the coffee machine, on the phone, by e-mail, at the pub, etc – people are freely sharing knowledge all the time. Similarly, knowledge management consultants have reported that in their experience of working with a range of organisations, people want to share. They want to make a valuable contribution to their organisations, they like to see their knowledge being used, they want to help their colleagues, and they want to learn from others who they trust and respect.
So why does the ‘people’ aspect of knowledge management tend to be such a challenge for most organisations?
Because our organisational cultures get in the way; they give rise to, and reinforce, behaviours that inhibit knowledge sharing. Most of us in the Western world have been trained to believe in individual effort and competition, and this from an earlier age than you might realise - remember at school how knowledge sharing was called cheating? Since then, our working environments have largely perpetuated this way of thinking. We compete for jobs, salaries, promotions, recognition, status, power, budgets and resources, always believing that if someone else has something then there’s less of it left for us. Put simply, we have been trained not to share.
Awareness of this is the first step to overcoming it. It is important to understand that we all carry this kind programming and we all need to take responsibility for unlearning it and rethinking our old philosophies. Contrary to popular belief, experience is increasingly showing that people are generally willing to share, but they need a supportive, encouraging and safe environment in which to do so. Sadly, most organisational cultures have some way to go before they can claim to provide such an environment.
The two big makers or breakers: culture and behaviour
Essentially there are two key aspects of ‘people’ that you will need to address when introducing knowledge management into an organisation: organisational culture and individual behaviour. The two are inextricably linked.
Organisational culture
Effective knowledge management requires a ‘knowledge sharing’ culture to be successful. What exactly is organisational culture? The short answer is that culture is ‘the way we do things around here’. A more complete answer is that an organisational culture is a set of values, beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that are deeply held by the people in an organisation. They influence the decisions people make and they ways in which they behave. In organisations that recognise only individual achievement, people are rewarded for their personal knowledge and have no incentive to share it. In a knowledge sharing culture, people can be rewarded for individual achievements, but are also recognised and rewarded for their knowledge sharing and contributions to team efforts. Key characteristics of a knowledge sharing culture include the following:
top leadership sees knowledge as a strategic asset and provides incentives and support for knowledge management processes;
the organisation focuses on the development and exploitation of its knowledge assets;
tools and processes for managing knowledge are clearly defined;
knowledge creation, sharing and use are a natural and recognised part of the organisation’s processes, not separate from normal work processes;
groups within the organisation cooperate instead of compete with each other;
knowledge is made accessible to everyone who can contribute to it or use it;
rewards and performance evaluations specifically recognise contributions to, and use of, the organisation’s knowledge base;communication channels and a common technology infrastructure enable and enhance knowledge management activities.
Organisational cultures run deep; the older and the bigger the organisation, they deeper they will tend to run. Which brings us to the question: to what extent can we change organisational culture? There is some debate about this, but the common view is that culture can be changed, but usually not without a great deal of time and effort. Think about the last time you tried to change somebody’s mind about just one thing: multiply that by the number of people in your organisation then add to it the cohesive power of shared beliefs, and you begin to get an idea of the task at hand. In other words, taking on the entire organisational culture at on go is simply not feasible. The good news is that there is another approach: individual behaviour.
Individual behaviour
If knowledge management is new to an organisation, it requires changes in individual behaviour. Individuals must be encouraged to incorporate knowledge management activities into their daily routines. This includes activities relating to seeking out knowledge when they have questions or problems, finding and using existing knowledge rather than reinvesting the wheel, sharing their own knowledge, learning from others’ experience and helping others to learn from theirs.
While people’s behaviours are largely a function of the organisational culture, they are easier to see and to identify as ‘makers or breakers’ - enablers or barriers - to knowledge sharing. This is best approached from the context of your current objectives, issues and the day-to-day work of your employees. By changing the way people behave and by showing them new ways of working that can make their jobs easier and more successful, you can not only change their behaviour, but also affect the underlying cultural assumptions that drive people’s behaviour in the first place. In other words, people learn best by doing, rather than being told.
Of course for individual behaviours to change in a sustained way, there needs to be a conducive organisational culture, which brings us back to the earlier point that the two are inextricably linked.
How do we make the changes?
Assuming that people will generally share knowledge if the barriers and disincentives to doing so are removed, then you can seek to bring about lasting changes in both individual behaviours and organisational culture by:
Focusing on changing individual behaviours first
Understanding the barriers to knowledge sharing and seeking to eliminate them
Introducing policies and practices that enable and encourage knowledge sharing
Understanding your organisational culture and working within it rather than against it, while gradually working to change it.
Here are some approaches and issues to consider.
Culture – work with it while you work towards changing it
If the people in your organisation hold a fundamental belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness, then immediately launching a peer assist programme might not be the best way forward. If people prefer to seek information from other people, then loading endless documents into knowledge databases is unlikely to work. And if people feel that they are not allowed to make mistakes and that to admit to mistakes might be dangerous, then you may need to wait until this has started to shift before introducing after action reviews. In other words, if you pit yourself against the organisational culture, you are fairly likely to lose. Far better to work within it, at least initially, and then seek to change it from the inside.
For example, you might have something you feel is good practice that you want to share, but people in your organisation have a ‘not invented here’ attitude and your good ideas have been ignored in the past. Instead of trying to sell your idea, ask for help to improve your practice. You may well find that not only do you receive plenty of input to help you improve it further, but others are suddenly more interested in finding out more with a view to applying it – because they have contributed to its development.
Lead by example
Actions speak louder than words. Nobody likes to be told to change their behaviour by someone who is clearly not exhibiting that behaviour themselves – and rightly so. Good leadership is key. Even if leaders are supporters of knowledge management, they still might need some coaching. Knowledge seeking and sharing behaviours may well be as new to your leaders as to everyone else. They need to be shown the way, and then be seen to be leading the way. For example, do leaders openly and actively share knowledge about what they are doing, where the organisation is going, what their plans for the future are, how things are financially? Do they gather knowledge from a range of people throughout the organisation as part of their decision-making processes? Do they seek honest input and feedback from both staff and patients? Do they listen, and where appropriate, do they act on it?
As well as leaders, middle managers are also very important in knowledge management. For most people in an organisation, the person who most affects their day-to-day work is their line manager or supervisor. These managers are often evaluated on how their individual section or department performs which means that the focus of their attention may not be on the bigger picture. Like senior managers, middle managers will most likely need some coaching to change their behaviours.
Finally, don’t forget that you, as a knowledge management change agent, will need to lead by example too.
Align rewards and recognition
As with any change, whenever people are asked to do something differently, they need a good reason: what’s in it for me? If people believe they will benefit from sharing knowledge, either directly or indirectly, they are more likely to share.
When looking at reward and recognition, remember that different people are motivated by different things: some by money, others by status, some by knowledge, others by freedom etc. A good reward system will recognise this.
In seeking to create and sustain a knowledge sharing culture, you will need to address your organisation’s formal rewards that are embedded in your human resources policies and practices including salaries, bonuses, promotions etc. Most organisations’ formal reward systems still reward individual effort and knowledge. To create a culture that supports knowledge creation, sharing and re-use, you will need to recognise and reward those behaviours. However some practitioners recommend focusing on informal rewards and recognition in the initial stages; they suggest that seeking to change formal reward structures very early on in the process could be damaging as you might lose the support of people who feel threatened. While the first behavioural changes are taking place, people need a safe space to learn and readjust without being assessed or penalised.
Informal rewards and incentives need not be financial, nor need they be complicated. A number of studies have shown that one of the most effective incentives is simple recognition. For example, you might decide to personalise knowledge: "John Broadbent’s Guide to Winter Capacity Planning" or "Camden NHS Trust’s Booking Process". This simple approach can increase the credibility of the knowledge, thereby increasing its likely use, and also make those who created and shared it feel valued and credited.
Be sure that you reward only valuable knowledge – knowledge that is actually used. Organisations who have offered incentives to staff to submit documents to a database or other knowledge system have often ended up with systems full of worthless information that nobody uses. Similarly, do not just focus on rewarding people who share their knowledge. This is only part of the knowledge equation. At the end of the day, you are seeking to encourage people to use and reuse knowledge, so reward the user for reusing and building on existing knowledge rather than wasting time and energy reinventing the wheel.
Make knowledge work part of everyone’s job
Of all the reasons people have for not sharing knowledge, not having time is one of the most common. People are too busy with ‘real work’. Knowledge work needs to be recognized as ‘real work’ – an integral part of everyone’s job. People need time to seek out knowledge, to reflect, to share what they know, to change the way they do things based on knowledge and learning received. They need to know that these activities are regarded not only as acceptable, but important, by the organisation. By making knowledge sharing a formal part of people’s responsibilities, using it in job descriptions, and incorporating it into performance appraisal processes, you can clearly demonstrate the importance of knowledge work and begin to lay the foundations for a real knowledge culture.
Develop relationships
People share things better with people they know and trust. If people don’t share personal relationships or mutual trust, they are unlikely to share knowledge of high value. Similarly, whether or not people seek out and use the knowledge of others depends if they know and trust the source of the knowledge. People also generally prefer to learn from their peers than from managers telling them what to do. And studies show that people will more often than not prefer to contact someone they know for information before searching a knowledge database.
While you cannot shift an organisational culture to one of openness and mutual trust overnight, you can make significant progress by helping and encouraging individuals and teams to form new and better relationships. As organisations get bigger, people get busier, and technology creates increasingly ‘virtual’ ways of communicating with each other (across the internet, by e-mail, via videoconferencing etc), opportunities for developing relationships can seem few and far between - unless you make it a deliberate strategy.
While early practitioners of knowledge management focused on technology, the current view is that the greatest value can be realised by building relationships and connecting people with people, using tools such as communities of practice, peer assists, learning events, coaching and mentoring, and others.
Educate people about what is involved and skill them to do it
Given that most of us have not been educated or trained to share, often we don’t share simply because we don’t know how. In many cases people simply don’t realise what they know, or they don’t realise the value of what they know. Even if they do, they may not know with whom to share or how to share what they know.
As with any other behavioural change, you need to show people clearly what is expected of them and what is involved, and then give them the skills to do it. You need to show people what creating, sharing and using knowledge looks like – both in general terms, and specifically within your organisation. You may also need to show them what exactly you mean by ‘knowledge’. Knowledge can seem very conceptual, at least to begin with; it is not always obvious to people what it is they need to know, what they currently know, and how that might be useful to others.
In short, you need to train people in knowledge management skills. Educate them about what knowledge is valuable, how to create it, find it, evaluate it, share it, use it, adapt it, reuse it etc. Ensure that essential communication skills are also looked at. For example, knowledge sharing works better if people develop active listening skills. Active listening is where people spend time understanding what the other person really means, instead of focusing on what their own response will be and queuing up to speak. Another important skill in knowledge sharing is giving and receiving feedback – both positive and ‘negative’. Challenging another person’s beliefs or approaches in a way that causes neither offence nor defence is not always easy, nor is receiving such a challenge. Similarly, many people feel equally intimidated about both giving and receiving compliments and praise.
You will also need to ensure that people have enough information about the context in which they are working; for example, to effectively seek and share knowledge, people need some understanding of organisational strategies and goals, of the interrelationships between different functions and teams in the organisation, of what knowledge is most valuable to the organisation, and how it can be used to best effect.
Start early by building aspects of knowledge work into your organisation’s induction programmes. (Note: if you don’t have a formal induction programme, are there informal processes in place to ensure that new recruits get the knowledge they need to learn what they need to know?). Look at integrating aspects of knowledge work into other general training programmes: people learn and apply learning most effectively when knowledge work is seen as an integral part of their day-to-day job rather than a separate add-on.
Demonstrate the value
It is important that people understand the benefits of knowledge sharing on a number of levels: benefits to the organisation, benefits to patients, and benefits to them personally. The more you can clearly demonstrate these benefits, the more people are likely to be open to change. Be ready to answer the inevitable ‘why should I, what’s in it for me?’ question.
A number of studies have shown that by far the most effective incentive for producing lasting change is when the process of sharing knowledge is seen to be inherently rewarding, and is supported and celebrated by the organisation’s culture. If this is not the case, then any artificial rewards and incentives will have little effect. In other words, knowledge management should provide intrinsic rewards to the people who use it. For example, does a particular knowledge system or process enable its users do their job more easily, more efficiently or more effectively? Does it help them provide a better service to their patients? Do people receive greater recognition from peers as key contributors and experts? Is their work faster, more accurate, more rewarding?
This is the bottom line: if knowledge management helps people to do their work, and the organisation’s culture supports it, then people will most likely adopt it; if it doesn’t, then they probably won’t. And probably rightly so!
There are many ways to demonstrate and reinforce value, even in the early stages when knowledge management is new and the benefits have not yet been fully realised. Again, you can build a knowledge element into training programmes, using case studies and action-based learning to demonstrate the value of good knowledge sharing practices. Storytelling can also be a very effective tool here, as can creating knowledge ‘champions’ or ‘heroes’.
Create champions and heroes
A useful approach to showing people the benefits of knowledge sharing and to encourage them to change their behaviour is to create ‘knowledge champions’ and/or subject ‘experts’ dotted around the organisation. Every organisation has people who are naturally ‘knowledge savvy’ – that is just their way of doing things: they love to learn and to share what they know with others. Similarly, every organisation has its ‘early adopters’ – those who are first to change their behaviour and adopt new ways of working. Find these people and celebrate them as ‘heroes’; publicly recognise and reward their behaviour; encourage them to tell stories about what they did and what were the benefits. Create semi-formal roles that recognise this behaviour as a role model and allow these people to spend some time sharing their approach with, and inspiring, others.
Make it easy
Finally, remember that barriers to knowledge sharing are not just related to culture and behaviour. There are also barriers the relate to organisational structures and processes, and to technology. If you want people to change their ways of working, then you need to make it as easy and painless as possible for them. You need to identify, and as far as possible eliminate, these other barriers. Otherwise, even with the best will in the world, seeking and sharing knowledge may simply be more effort that it is worth for people. If technology is slow and unreliable, if different people use different systems and therefore cannot communicate or share documents easily, if structures promote hierarchies and internal competition rather than peer relationships and co-operation, if processes are highly task-oriented rather than people-oriented, then people will find knowledge sharing a challenge.
Similarly, when seeking to eliminate barriers and to introduce knowledge management tools, be sure to do so in a way that is integrated with people’s day-to-day working practices. A common mistake in knowledge management is to introduce technology and processes and then sit back and wait for people use them – "if we build it, they will come". If systems and processes are created in a way which is not integrated with how people actually work, then they will not be used. It is critical to include users in the development of knowledge tools so that this all too common and costly mistake can be avoided.
Cultural change is not just a knowledge management issue
A final word on seeking to change organisational cultures and individual behaviours: this is neither quick nor easy, but for effective knowledge management, it is not optional.
However, you should not expect knowledge management to carry the full weight of cultural change. Culture is critical to knowledge management, but it is equally critical in either enabling or disabling most other organisational processes. Cultural change is too big a task for knowledge management to take on alone. A better approach is to combine initiatives and present a common vision and focus that integrates knowledge management with overall organisational learning and performance improvement. This may well be all the more important in the content of the NHS, where people are already becoming ‘initiative-weary’. That being said, there is currently a tremendous opportunity to align knowledge management with the context of the massive transformation currently underway in the form of the ten-year modernisation programme set out in the NHS Plan. Delivery of the Plan will require change and transformation on a vast scale and on a number of levels throughout the NHS. Knowledge management is a natural partner to such transformation, as it will require major cultural change, new ways of working, and a strong focus on knowledge and learning. Strike while the iron is hot!