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A Knowledge-Sharing Culture

To achieve this level of knowledge sharing, we had to change our whole style of operation. Like most companies founded right after World War II, we started out with the straightforward command and-control organization that came naturally to the people involved. For many years, we did very well. When customers presented issues too complex for individual customer representatives to resolve, we passed the problems to a team of experts with the required specialized skills. We would fly these highly educated people (most were Ph.D. chemists, microbiologists, or engineers) around the world to teach others what they knew and pick up new knowledge as they went. It worked, but it was a costly and timeconsuming process for acquiring and transferring knowledge.

In the early 1980s our customers began demanding faster and faster solutions. Our expert team couldn’t move fast enough or cover enough places to meet the customers’ rapidly changing needs. We had to speed up our problem-solving process still further, and it became clear that we could not do it by having our people travel more or by hiring more people. It had become a physical impossibility to meet our needs by relying on face-to-face meetings.

In essence, we could no longer depend on the sequential world of command-and-control to provide the speed our customers demanded. What we needed were horizontal cross-connections that would link our experts, wherever they happened to be, to our people working on customer problems, wherever they happened to be and whenever they happened to need solutions. To move to this networked organization, we found that we had to develop a whole new basis for dealing with one another, taking advantage of the then-new technology of online interaction to set up “open space” meetings on the network across time and space. This allowed people to raise any issue at any time and for others to provide whatever suggestions and solutions occurred to them at that moment. It was a dynamic system. The whole thing was chaotic enough to worry those of us who’d grown up with the orderly predictability of command-and-control, but it got the job done much faster.

It also led us to begin to break down our organizational silos— to question the relevance of our long-established departmental structures in our new marketplace. This process is ongoing, and we’ve come to realize that an organization positioned for the future will have to be organized around knowledge —how to create it, share it, capture it, and apply it—rather than around structures and processes. Once everyone in the company is in the network for the business at hand, it takes only a slight shift of thought to open the way to an organic organization. To achieve this organic organization requires major culture change, but it comes more and more easily as individuals learn to assume responsibility for making things happen for themselves.

We’ve continued to grow and thrive for over 20 years with the new system. In the process we’ve worked out these essential principles for successful knowledge sharing:

· Focus on the most critical need of the organization.

· Your systems should support your strategy.

· Build trust by emphasizing fundamental virtues rather than values.

· Share knowledge and best practices.

· Solve customer problems rapidly.

· Allow associates to solve the problems they encounter without interference by management.

· Inject customer feedback into the new product development process.

Building a Knowledge-Driven Organization, by Robert H. Buckman McGraw-Hill © 2004

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