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gari jenkins


A lot of people are getting very confused about this notion of ‘culture’ but it is a simple and powerful concept and one that needs to be understood by those undertaking knowledge management initiatives. Understanding it is the first step towards realising the benefits of better ways of working.

Again and again, in conversations with organisations that are approaching knowledge management for the first time, the issue of cultural change is brought up. Potential users of knowledge management techniques rightly feel that this is one of its key elements, but they are often on the receiving end of some very unhelpful advice in this respect.

Too often have I heard the pundits say things like: “it’s to do with the culture....you have to change the culture...it’s not about IT, it’s about culture.”  But they never say what this ‘culture’ thing is, nor what it needs to be changed for, nor how to change it; and they also draw a false line between IT and ‘culture’. These points deserve to be addressed.

Firstly, lets not forget that the notion of ‘organisational culture’ is a metaphor: It is as if organisations were like countries or races of people that had a history, a philosophy, a means of government, art and a way of life that was their own. In this respect ‘culture’ means ‘everything’ - it is a holistic concept.  So, saying that the problem is ‘the culture’ doesn’t reveal anything - it’s like saying the problem is everything. It is everything that is shared within the organisation - which is to distinguish culture, a social phenomenon, from the psychological phenomena which are to do with individuals.

Various writers have likened organisational culture to an onion with layers.  For instance: There is an outer, visible layer that contains the things you can outwardly see such as people’s behaviours and actions, the working environment and the signs and symbols in it (who has the trophies, who has the big desk and so on).

Then there is a middle layer which contains those aspects of the organisation that you could perceive if you did some analysis - things like the processes, systems and behavioural norms and rules of the organisation. The IT is obviously a part of this layer, supporting the processes and systems.  Choices made about IT (for example, centralisation vs. decentralisation) are important facets of the overall culture and reflect the organisation’s wider belief system.

The innermost core of this onion contains the central values and beliefs of the organisation - which may be different to the purported values in frames on the office walls.  For example, the professed value “we honour the innovator” might not be borne out by the reality - dingy old offices and low pay for the R&D department.  Real values come out through the way the organisation structures and arranges itself (middle layer) and how it acts and behaves (outer layer). Disconnects between actual and purported values are the source of a great deal of organisational stress.


 A cultural onion

That deals with what culture is, but what, then, is the most desirable form of culture for knowledge management? Once you have a model such as the one above you can begin to discuss and set targets for the individual aspects of it.  For example, a behaviour you might like to see might be “people re-use and build on existing work rather than re-inventing the wheel”.  This might point out the need for some kind of system for storing and retrieving work (for example, designs). In this way, by analysing the elements of culture, it becomes possible to create a vision of the ‘perfect’ culture in all its aspects.

Two essential facts need to be borne in mind here, though: One, the fact that nobody will shape their organisation entirely for knowledge management needs, nor are they likely to embark on a cultural change programme solely for knowledge management reasons; and two, one size doesn’t fit all - there is no ‘off-the-peg’ answer for knowledge management because it deals with core competencies, which should always be distinctive to each organisation.

Having made these caveats, though, it is possible to set some general targets.  Organisations should adopt values such as teamwork, innovation and sharing.  They need the processes and systems that will support knowledge work: knowledge creating, capture, dissemination, application and exploitation and also learning. It is possible to develop such a vision by making statements about what the ‘ideal’ organisation would be like and what it would be like to work there, for example: “the organisation recognises knowledge contributions as well as sales”.  You can then test the gap between this desired state and the actual state where it may the case that the only people to get awards were the sales force.

Achieving the cultural targets set by knowledge management can be and should be part of the overall organisational development programme, which will probably also embrace other aspirations such as become more customer-focused and so on.

The third and final major question is: “How do you change the culture?”. I have seven points to make about this - the missing of any one of which would be a sin. Firstly, you need leadership.  Management and champions need to ‘walk the talk’ and demonstrate the new values and behaviours they want to instil. Many change initiatives fail at this first hurdle. Senior management can be slow to recognise that they are part of the problem and that they need to change as much as anyone else. Point two is communication.  This is the easy one that many change initiatives get ‘stuck’ in.  It is necessary but not sufficient on its own. Some kind of formal change process, a ‘rite of passage’ such as a workshop that everyone must pass through can be useful. Remember that communication needs to be two (multi-)way too.

Point three is to measure the before and after effects of any cultural change initiatives undertaken.  There are various cultural assessment tools available for this, most of which are in the form of impressions surveys. Point four is obvious but often missed: change something! Something needs to actually change since talk alone wont do. It may be a new bonus scheme or a new computer system.  People wont believe there has been a change, no matter what you tell them, unless there has been - and they will be right! You cannot directly change the values, norms and behaviours themselves, even though you would like to.  So the maxim is “change what you can, influence what you can’t”.  You can change the systems, structures and rules; you can change the symbols and the workplace. By changing what you can change you can influence changes in areas such as behaviours that you can’t directly manipulate. Knowledge management will, for most organisations, probably demand new processes, systems, policies and roles, so there is plenty of scope here.  For example, in the case of knowledge management there may need to be new tasks to formally address the capture of lessons learned, or there may need to be changes to the staff appraisal and reward systems to take account of their role as ‘knowledge workers’.

Point five is motivation.  Understand people’s motivations and why they think and act the way they do. When  you understand the real drivers of their beliefs and actions you will know what to do to shift impressions and so realise the desired behaviours. Point six is involvement.  Involve those people who will be most affected by the changes in working them out and implementing them since they will know more about it than you and, by involving them, you gain their acceptance and support. Point seven is time; changing attitudes and behaviours takes time and will need reinforcement and persistence over a prolonged period. People’s natural tendency will be to slip back into old, familiar ways.  Most change involves some pain (for example, transferring you old files into the new computer system).  People need encouragement (or coercion) to get over this.

So, culture is a holistic concept but it can be analysed. The IT is just one part of it - not a thing apart from it.  Once you have analysed it you can measure it and set objectives for it that make sense in terms of knowledge management. You can then apply this model in a process of cultural change management. Understanding the basic model and how it can be applied is the first step in fostering the knowledge culture. 


Change Mgt

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