27 May 2007

Asking the right questions to assess an Organization’s culture.

Nirmala Palaniappan (or Nimmy as she seems to like to be called) an experienced KM professional with Wipro based in India, wrote a post on Bob Sutton’s blog comments, and spotted a very good comment by one of Bob’s readers (in fact it is one of the best comment to a blog post I’ve seen) Wally Bock, a leadership consultant ( ). His comment was in response to a question asking what are the questions to ask employees of an organization to get a feel of the dominating internal culture. Wally suggests the following 3 questions:

  • What kind of people gets promoted around here? The behavior and performance you reward is what you'll get more of.
  • What "bad" behaviors are tolerated here? This is good for patterns of behavior.
  • What kinds of stories do people tell each other? Stories are the carriers of culture. Beware if all they tell are "dumb boss" stories. Understand that service is a value if what you hear are "heroic service" stories.

Reading these excellent questions, I realised that answering them would give you a hint whether the culture is conducive to knowledge sharing or not. In other words, whether the 16 syndromes are present or not.

For instance, when promotion depends more on whom you know above you in the hierarchy rather than on your achievements, experience and competences; this would indicate a lack of trust, constant political games and most probably a highly hierarchical structure.
When the tolerated bad behaviours include selfishness to meet personal objectives, it would indicate strict Job Description framing, lack of availability of experts, rewards only for individual achievements, and only short-term objectives.
When the stories often speaks of ‘them’ versus or against ‘us’ for example, highlighting the differences between groups/departments/teams within the organization; this would tend to indicate a culture of information silos with poor communication/collaboration between them. A general lack of awareness of useful internal knowledge that people could benefit from is also very likely in such a context; and probably the groupthink effect is frequent as well.

Also recently, an APQC newsletter directed me to an article written by Susan Elliott Blashka about a presentation Nimmy gave during the APQC’s May 2006 KM conference. Nimmy’s KM toolkit is very interesting and I might write about it in another post. However, I will here highlight the list of questions she suggested for helping a company assess its capacity to leverage knowledge though capture and dissemination:

<<… Asking the following questions, Palaniappan said, can help a company gauge its capacity for explicit knowledge capture:

  • Do we know what we know?
  • Are our practices, structure, processes, and systems well known and easily accessible?
  • Do we look toward the past and capture our learning?
  • Do we know who’s who?
  • Are we able to recognize patterns in our business?
  • Do new employees get into the groove quickly?
  • Does our workflow consider knowledge needs?
  • Do we have processes and tools to manage our knowledge artefacts on a continuous basis?

She posed other questions that relate to explicit knowledge dissemination and utilization:

  • Do our systems work together? Are they integrated?
  • Do we find ourselves reinventing the wheel?
  • Do we use the knowledge that we capture? Do we leverage technology to retrieve and access knowledge?
  • Does the organization get together and learn? Does the organization work together—sharing and collaborating?
  • Are there sharing mechanisms in all our knowledge-intensive processes?
  • Does the workflow consider knowledge needs?
  • How easy is it to find and utilize information?
  • Is there consistency in the performance of functions across the organization?

[…] To determine the state of an organization’s tacit knowledge capture, Palaniappan said, individuals must ask themselves:

  • Do our people policies and practices emphasize learning, sharing, and teaching?
  • Does the organization spare the time to stop, think, and learn?
  • Is it easy to find and access people (experts)?
  • Does the organization have listening and questioning habits embedded in its culture?
  • Is “retiring work force” a serious challenge?
  • Does the organization operate primarily in the area of consulting and knowledge-intensive services?

And for the last category, tacit knowledge dissemination and utilization, Palaniappan presented the following questions:

  • Does the organizational culture emphasize trust, win-win, and excellence and innovation through collaboration?
  • Are like-minded people or people with similar interests able to locate and work with each other?
  • How fast is the organization learning?
  • Do people make time for mentoring and thinking and learning together?
  • Does the organization know who needs whom?
  • Are roles defined based on knowledge needs? Is succession planning knowledge-focused?
  • Does the organization understand its knowledge requirements to a significant level of detail?
  • Is the captured explicit knowledge under-utilized?

Using Nimmy and Wally’s questions, we should be able to assess fairly well how conducive to knowledge-sharing an organization’s culture is. This strengthens my view that in order to successfully make an organization become knowledge-driven, one must start by addressing the internal culture. The early introduction of new tools and technologies should only be to support this necessary cultural transformation. Furthermore, the less conducive to knowledge-sharing an organizational culture is, the more the drive for change must come from the Organization’s leadership.

Peter-Anthony Glick


At 9:55 PM, Anonymous Wally Bock said...

Thank you for your kind words. Among my questions I urge you to pay most attention to the one about stories. Listening to an organization's stories is a quick way to learn a lot about their culture.

One thing I like about Nimmy's list of questions is that it includes "soft" questions about sharing and mentoring. Leadership, engineering and technician are far more of apprentice trades than we often credit and personal contact and informal disucssion are often key channels for wisdom.


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