01 June 2009

Is sharing knowledge really desirable (question asked on Linkedin)

I recently asked on Linkedin my question comparing two extreme organisations in terms of knowledge sharing processes posted here on 26/04/09 (see all the 14 responses here). More respondents chose company B model (with knowledge sharing). A significant number went for the “it depends” option and a still significant number chose company A model (no knowledge sharing). I do not of course consider this as a quantitative survey but I would like to think that the respondents are a meaningful qualitative representation of managers thanks to the very nature of the medium used: the Linkedin professional networking site. In any case, I was not attempting to obtain a “true” representation of manager’s opinion but more an idea of the proportion choosing model A and what their arguments would be.

For all intent and purposes, I view the company A and “it depends” answers in the same larger group of managers that do not consider company B as the best choice all the time.

Arguments given for company A by the ones who chose this model are:

1. It is more organized for achieving the company’s goals by having people more focused on their department’s/team’s objectives.

2. Sharing of information between teams/departments strictly limited to what is needed for the operational work flow/supply chain, or in other words, “share [the information] needed to do the job – no more no less”.

3. It prevents information overload.

Arguments given for company A by the ones who opted for a split decision are:

4. Does well in a “best cost approach” (as opposed to “best product/solution approach”).

5. Suppose their offering is functional—it satisfies basic, unchanging needs and has a long life cycle, low margins, and stable demand. (Think paper towels or light bulbs.) In this case, you need an efficient supply chain—which minimizes production, transportation, and storage costs. So model A is better suited for “labour (Production and Manufacturing)” Industries, where employees are not expected to rely much on their thinking abilities.

6. It is a question of size and this model does well in large companies.

Let me now analyse each of these arguments:

1. Why would a model B company be necessarily better organised for achieving the company’s goals? Why is it that the vision of letting people freely share knowledge is often assumed to generate mess?With adapted formal processes in place, you can very effectively and efficiently enable knowledge sharing flows in an organised way, all in line with the strategic goals. Google is a perfect example of this as it has a second to none knowledge sharing culture and is definitely not a “chaotic organisation”.

2. This argument is from another age I believe. It describes the organisational models of the industrial age. We have moved on to a knowledge economy when intangible assets must increasingly be considered to accurately value a company. Managers can no longer dictate over time what information – and even less knowledge – is strictly needed for each operational role to be competitively efficient and effective. In a model A company, by the time managers adjust the information flows in reaction to the market, it is often too late and damage is done with the competition already ahead. To be ahead of the competition, you need to be proactive and therefore enable – at the level of the individual - fluid and adaptive knowledge flows internally as well as with with external stakeholders.

3. When I speak of knowledge in model B, I mean "knowledge", not information. Therefore, the argument of information overload does not hold water. Employees will only seek/share the knowledge they ask for/consider valuable. This is not about having full access to an encyclopedia of (mostly irrelevant) information. Even employees in a model A company can have access to it via the internet for instance!

4. A company with a “best cost” strategy such as Easyjet, the successful low-cost airline, does not imply a top-down structure with isolated teams and departments asked to only do their predefined job. Easyjet incidentally promotes a knowledge-sharing and learning culture where it is assumed that every tasks can always be improved by each individual for the benefit of all his/her colleagues (and ultimately the benefit of the company) therefore improving efficiency and reducing costs further. See below what Easyjet expects of its employees (from Easyjet recruitment website ):

  • Pushing yourself to constantly develop and learn from every opportunity
  • Sharing knowledge and ideas with colleagues
  • Seeking feedback
  • Displaying a positive attitude that contributes to an enjoyable working environment
  • Communicating your intentions clearly and positively

5. I can agree in principle that in a labour intensive industry (as opposed to a knowledge-based industry) employees are less expected to think and hold valuable knowledge for the company. But this does not mean they never do! If a factory worker works out a better way to use a machine for his/her repetitive tasks, wouldn’t it be valuable to the company that this knowledge be shared with all the employees using the same machine, even if their factory is on the other side of the World?

6. My example of Google earlier already negates the argument that a large company operates better in model A. And there are many more successful large companies with a knowledge sharing culture such as Toyota, BHP Billiton and 3M. In fact, I would argue that the bigger the company (in number of employees) the more valuable knowledge it potentially holds so the more benefits it can obtain by leveraging it.

Having said all that, we are still left with the disconcerting fact that the majority of companies today still gravitate closer to model A than model B. If leveraging organisational knowledge makes so much business sense, then why isn’t it already widespread and becoming the norm?

I think the answer to this question lies more with organisational culture stagnation than with operational or strategic considerations. For most companies senior management, enabling knowledge sharing or not is not about success but more about losing management control and power. In my 2 blog posts on “organizational cultures not conducive to effective leveraging of knowledge” (first here then here ) I listed 20 common cultural traits inhibiting knowledge sharing. You should find a lot of these traits fitting well with any companies closer to model A you are familiar with. Conversely, anyone familiar with companies more in line with model B should not recognise these traits as typical of their culture.

So now, are these “model A” organisational cultures to last? For a while yes but some factors will (hopefully) slowly do away with them such as:

  • Generation Y taking over the board room. This is about the necessary top-down leadership to instigate a knowledge-sharing culture, probably lead by the generation of managers who grew up with the Internet.
  • Information Systems increasingly integrated and pervasive that facilitate (and reduce transaction costs of) information access and expertise localization.
  • An increasingly mainstream acknowledgement of the direct relationships between success and knowledge-focused organisational cultures.
  • Social media spreading inside the company. This is the bottom-up pressure for enabling a similar level of knowledge sharing at the workplace that people have at home.
  • Or more simply, going out of business as a result of being out of touch with the Knowledge Economy.