Over the past two decades, many articles have been published about the concept of culture and how to create one that works.
What is needed for a knowledge management culture to work successfully? The biggest problem facing knowledge management programs is that there is no magic formula applied to an environment to obtain the right balance of values, beliefs, and structure to create a perfect knowledge management culture. Each organization is different, and thus they face a set of unique challenges that must be overcome to become successful in adopting knowledge management. What’s important is to know what to look for and how to overcome the problems that your organization uniquely faces. This article explores the most common challenges and provides some potential strategies to overcome those challenges.
Culture Challenge #1: Knowledge Management Adoption Occurs on Multiple Levels
In an organization, knowledge management practices exist at four different interconnected levels: the individual, teams, cross-functional teams, and organization-wide. To develop a successful knowledge management culture, the organization must create a culture for creation, sharing, and leveraging knowledge at all levels. The complexity of getting buy-in and adoption across a matrixed organization is mind-boggling. Point solutions (buy-in from one individual or team) only goes so far in the successful adoption. The individuals or teams quickly exhaust the knowledge resources in their immediate vicinity but do not benefit from shared knowledge across the organization.
To solve this challenge, an organization must start at the top and create a knowledge strategy that explicitly places knowledge management at its core competency for success. Executives must build compensation, performance, and cost models to ensure successful adoption and management of the KM practice. When your knowledge management practice hits a barrier to adoption, and it will, the corporate-wide strategy will serve as a guiding factor to focus the organization and dedicate the resources to keeping the KM practice at the forefront of the business.
Culture Challenge #2: Knowledge Management is not Just an IT Process and Competency
It is no longer adequate in today's environment to view IT and the business as separate competencies. Each depends upon each other to be successful in creating a successful business value chain. Knowledge management is a strategic imperative that spans across all business lines and functional groups. To build a successful KM culture, the organization must buy in to using the information to drive innovation within the business, not just operational efficiencies in business and IT processes.
When building a successful KM practice, the organization must quantify and establish targets for operational efficiencies, improved products and services, improved customer satisfaction and loyalty, and agility and innovation. The focus cannot be solely on using knowledge internally but instead on creating a culture that looks inward and outward for knowledge-driven value and success.
A knowledge management practice that is fully integrated across the business will provide a rich repository of information that can significantly improve the bottom line.
Culture Challenge #3: Lack of Knowledge Management Compelling Purpose
If you survey employees within a company environment, responses are likely to vary significantly when it comes to the topic of "What is knowledge management?" and "Why do we need to focus on knowledge management?" Most employees have a basic understanding of what knowledge management is, but fewer have a good understanding as to why it is.
When an organization launches a knowledge management practice, leaders need to develop a compelling principle that everyone understands and connects the goals of knowledge management to business outcomes. While understanding the individual "what is in it for me" is essential for adoption at the employee level, a broader connection to how knowledge management can significantly benefit the business is even more critical. The organization must continue to reinforce that knowledge management is not only focused on operational efficiencies, but also on a broader product improvement and innovation strategy.
As part of a knowledge management practice adoption, leaders should develop a compelling purpose statement that connects knowledge management to the business. The value of knowledge management is greater than just an individual's contribution.
When the organization strives to implement knowledge management at the strategic level, the compelling purpose reflects more than only operational goals; to engage knowledge workers at all levels, a compelling purpose will help keep everyone focused on the long-term value, while also encouraging support for the near-term improvements.
Culture Challenge #4: Overcoming the Belief That Knowledge Is Power
In a rapidly changing environment, it is easy for an individual to hold on to the belief that their knowledge and experience increases their value to the organization. Additionally, to drive business results, leaders often create a competitive environment where different functional units try to outperform other teams. When knowledge is not freely shared at all levels but is instead viewed as "owned" by the individual or team, communication breaks down, and information flow is dramatically impacted. Another difficulty with "knowledge is power" is that you may or may not observe or uncover this cultural challenge. Knowledge hoarding is difficult to observe, especially if it is tacit knowledge that only exists in an individual or team. Attempts to move tacit knowledge into written explicit forms are often met at great resistance.
Two things influence the cultural challenge of "knowledge is power." First, establishing values within the organization that focus on sharing knowledge. These values should then be measured and managed to create an environment of accountability. Well-defined corporate values and accountability go a long way in moving away from “knowledge is power” to an environment where sharing drives business results.
Well-defined corporate values and accountability go a long way in moving away from “knowledge is power” to an environment where sharing drives business results.
Second, the knowledge management program team needs to be carefully identified to ensure that the KM practice has the right skills to support and champion the organizational change. Ideally, these are staff members who already have strong collaborative working models and share knowledge freely with others. The organization can identify and engage staff who are eager, willing, and able to champion the knowledge management practice, and overcome organizational challenges using social network analysis.
Cultural Challenge #5: Ambiguous Responsibility and Lack of Accountability
It is common practice for an organization to go through restructuring efforts to drive improvements in business results. While the idea of “shaking things up” can result in new innovative ways of thinking, it often leaves individuals to wonder what is expected from them in the new organizational structure.
When responsibility is not well defined, it leads to significant inefficiencies within organizations. Workers are often engaged in work that is duplicated within other teams, or worse, yet the shakeup results in critical work placed on the back burner with no one taking responsibility.
In a knowledge management culture, it is critically important to create a clear understanding of individual, team, and organizational knowledge management responsibilities. Additionally, it is imperative to hold the organization accountable for upholding those responsibilities.
When building a knowledge management practice, it is crucial to create an organizational structure that makes the creation, sharing, and leveraging of knowledge easier – utilizing cross-functional processes where knowledge sharing is integrated into the work performed at all levels.
In addition to creating a collaborative structure, it is also essential to clearly define roles and responsibilities where knowledge is a core focus and not just identified as "additional responsibilities." The organization must create an environment that establishes expectations for performance and job responsibilities where knowledge management practices are defined, measured, and continuously improved across individuals, teams, and the organization. A balanced performance model that tracks progress and results will help everyone stay focused on the knowledge management objectives and create an accountability culture.
Culture Challenge #6: Limited Knowledge Management Skills and Competencies
To successfully establish a knowledge management practice, staff at all levels need to have the knowledge and skills to successfully support knowledge creation and knowledge sharing, and understand how to create and manage a knowledge management practice.
Do not assume that staff at all levels will have the necessary skills to support the KM practice. Critical skills required include the ability to communicate both in knowledge creation and to improve information flow across the organization. Staff also will need analytical skills that help with both problem solving and evaluating the KM practice for possible improvements. Everyone’s role within the KM practice will dictate which skills will be required for success.
For a knowledge management practice to be successful, the organization should develop training plans that address all levels - customer or end-user, individual, teams, and cross-functional teams. Training should include both basics about knowledge management and advice on how their position contributes to the organization's overall KM success. Formal training programs also reinforce the idea that knowledge management is a strategic initiative supported fully by executives who are ready to invest in the people to ensure that skills and competencies are acquired.
Become a Culture Detective
At the beginning of an adoption program, you may face specific challenges, only to develop new ones as the adoption progresses. There is no magic formula which will create the right environment for knowledge management practices to be successful. Leadership must develop a "detective"-like ability to use metrics and observations, and to solicit feedback to identify cultural challenges and develop strategies to overcome them quickly.
This task may seem even more complicated if the corporate culture is in direct opposition to what you are trying to achieve with the knowledge management culture. Changing the culture of an organization does not just happen because there is a change in strategic direction, but if executives and management engage in an organizational change strategy, changing to a knowledge management culture is possible.
Even the most successful knowledge management practices begin to wane after a while as the organization becomes complacent. The biggest counter to complacency is measurable and quantified business results. When an organization can see tangible results for the knowledge management practice, leaders and managers are more likely to invest the appropriate resources to ensure continued success. And remember, changing a culture is something that requires buy-in and participation across all levels.
Julie L. Mohr is a dynamic, engaging change agent who brings authenticity, integrity, and passion to practitioners worldwide. Through her books, articles, speaking, consulting, and teaching, her purpose is to spark change in the world with thought-provoking dialog and interaction on topics of authentic leadership, business strategy, knowledge management, organizational culture, and innovation. Julie has a B.S. in computer science from The Ohio State University and an MaED from the University of Phoenix and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Management and Organizational Leadership in Information Systems & Technology from the University of Phoenix. She is an ITIL Expert, Certified Help Desk Director, and Certified Governance IT Professional. She is an HDI Business Associate and teaches training and certification classes for service and support professionals. Visit her website, and follow her on Twitter @JulieMohr, YouTube, and LinkedIn.