Larry Prusak is a researcher and consultant and is the founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Knowledge Management (IKM). His area of expertise covers knowledge management, change management and business strategy. Larry has lectured at the Harvard Business School, M.I.T., New York University, the University of California Berkeley, the University of Southern California, the Wharton School, Copenhagen Business School, Monash University (Melbourne), Queens University (Belfast), Tel Aviv University, and Victoria University (Wellington).
Knowledge Transfer and Sharing
When the knowledge management movement was first gaining adherents in the early 1990s, it became clear that there were three principle activities that, in various combinations, were being undertaken by these adventurous organizations. In spite of all the technical and process changes that have occurred from those days to now these three themes still dominate knowledge activities in almost all knowledge projects and processes throughout the world. These can be summarized as Knowledge development, Knowledge retention and utilization and Knowledge transfer and sharing.
When asked about what would seem the easiest of these three activities to execute, the answer is often given as knowledge transfer and sharing. After all, what could be simpler than sending a document or having a call with a colleague and transfer your knowledge to someone else? However, the truth is quite a bit different. It turns out that this is often the most difficult activity to do effectively or efficiently.
It’s interesting to see why this was a surprise to many researchers and professors. Economists assumed that if someone or some group in an organization knew something, then that knowledge was easily available to anyone else in the organisation who had a legitimate need to learn it. Therefore, little research was done on this subject until the mid-90s. And even now this assertion of frictionless transfer with little or no transaction costs by rational actors who act in the general interest of the organization is a common assumption made by practitioners as well as by many business school and economics professors.
However it is not true. If everyone in an organisation knew or could find out everything possible in their organisation, their productivity increase would spur a very large increase in profitability and efficiency in all areas. Clearly this has not happened and is unlikely to happen in the near future. Let us look at why this is so.
Here are the main obstacles to knowledge transfer and sharing that stand out as being the most prevalent. These are in no particular order and, while they are quite common, different firms in differing industries will encounter these challenges to different degrees.
Unlike information which is codified, stable, and easy to interpret, knowledge is strongly contextual and has meaning to the recipient and the sender or speaker depending on their own cultural understanding. This makes knowledge more culturally dependent and therefore more “sticky”… meaning it tends to stay where it is generated. This is because language, cultural norms, and ways of interpretation are local phenomena that can change with locations. This is why the sort of working knowledge we are discussing here is quite a different thing than an algorithm, an equation or blueprint, or a formula.
When I did some research on this subject with a large global pharmaceutical firm, our team found that in global organizations the global time differences worked against rapid knowledge transfer of any sort. Often researchers would be put off if the person they wanted to work with was halfway across the world, so they went in search of someone closer to them geographically and accepted a sub-optimal answer in exchange for a speedy reply. This is little commented on, but a very frequent occurrence.
Finding Who Knows What
In most large firms we have worked with as knowledge consultants, employees noted that they could not find who knew what and how they could get in touch with them. There have been many technical fixes offered for this problem but nothing has been consistently accepted by a consensus of firms. One problem is that employees who have been at an organisation for some time always develop their own networks of knowledge informants and thus become wedded to their networks and aren’t too interested in finding new sources. New employees are left to use systems that are incomplete, not often kept up to date, and can rarely encompass the exact nature of what a person knows.
Another factor is the effort it takes to negotiate with a person you believe to know what you need. Everyone is very very busy in this age of hyper-competition, so it can’t be expected to ask someone to spend time helping you without an immediate payback. And allied with this is also the fact that you may get a response that is useful but not exactly what you need so you need to spend time interpreting or modifying or asking the sender to elaborate on what they have sent. All of this takes time and effort and adds to the friction of knowledge transactions. However, there are some ways that organizations can mitigate these constraints and have been proven to work in many circumstances.
Organizations that spend small or even large fortunes on technological or physical infrastructures rarely consider social infrastructures – which are far less costly and can be even more effective for promoting knowledge transfer and sharing. Here are some prominent examples:
Spaces: Japanese knowledge researchers have given us a word: BAA, which means a space where common meaning is developed. This can be a physical space, a technical or cyber space, or even a psychic space. People are far more likely to respond to a knowledge request from people they have met beforehand. So live (or virtual meetings) have much to offer beyond the act of exchanging information. New networks can be formed, discoveries can be made about what others know, and your own knowledge networks can be greatly enlarged.
NASA: Meetings such as these which had many open, formal and informal conversation spaces was a hallmark of NASA’s knowledge program and helped considerably to make their knowledge program world class.
Novartis: Recently, Novartis re-built many of their buildings in Basel, Switzerland on knowledge principles with many open spaces with coffee spaces with many opportunities for employees to relax and talk with one another in the midst of their work stations. These symbols and signals sent by senior managers give tacit permission for employees to build their connections in making knowledge sharing and transfer much more available with less friction.
Knowledge is profoundly social and clumps in groups such as networks, communities and teams. The more you meet and develop trust with others you can tap into these new networks and expand your own knowledge asset base dramatically.
MeetinVR’s take: Knowledge tends to stick in silos, and these silos tend to form around shared practices and epistemic cultures – manifested in the form of divisions of labour within an organisation. To facilitate the flow of knowledge, competitive organizations must coordinate knowledge across these divisions by connecting their global teams using technology that allows them to tap into the firm’s entire social network. In practice, globally distributed teams can use digital tools that are honed for remote collaboration such as enterprise social networks (ESNs), virtual collaboration tools and digital workspaces. Expand your team’s communication toolbox and try MeetinVR today.