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Articles: intellectual capital management

Building a knowledge sharing culture
Author: Jerry Ash

A review of a workshop held in March 2000 for members of the Florida Society of Association Executives (FSAE)

Framing the Needs of Knowledge
Changing to Manage the Knowledge Asset
Governance, Organization and Management
Staff and Membership
Profession and Alliances

Framing the needs of knowledge

Jerry Ash summarized the significance of the KM movement, including these key points:

  • Associations have lost their locks as purveyors of knowledge and information.
  • Meanwhile, knowledge has become the primary asset of most association members.
  • Consultancies now compete with associations in assisting members in the knowledge chase.
  • But what is this stuff called knowledge? One KM advocate has said:
    • "A collection of data is not information."
    • "A collection of information is not knowledge."
    • "A collection of knowledge is not wisdom."
  • Human intellect converts collections of data, information and knowledge into wisdom.
  • Knowledge, then, is information that has been found or created, processed, distilled and packaged by the human mind.
  • Organizational knowledge (documents) account for only a fraction of an organization's knowledge base. Humans possess the vast majority of knowledge and they are the original source of all documented knowledge.
  • A knowledge worker is one who processes knowledge and converts knowledge into real value.
  • Knowledge users (not workers) do not add value and aren't to be confused with knowledge workers.
  • The need for managing human knowledge gives new perspective to the value of the human resource.
  • People are the real assets, not just tools for manipulating assets.
  • These dynamics lead to a shift from command and control asset management to human resource leadership.
  • Knowledge management, then, is the practice of managing an organization's knowledge work and its knowledge base through leadership in an entirely new environment..
  • To successfully mine knowledge, an open environment is necessary to encourage knowledge sharing and the collaborative pursuit of knowledge.

Changing to manage the knowledge asset

These fundamental changes in assets and environment require matching changes in the way we manage. The shift from ownership of knowledge (individual or corporate) to sharing knowledge cannot occur unless cultures are changed at every level of the organization.

Cultures aren't born; they are created. Our cultures are products of the social environment we have been in - in this case, the fragmented professional and work environments of the Industrial Age. These cultures are not in themselves the problem but, rather, the red flags marking the underlying problems.

Within this context, the examination of the cultural roadblocks to knowledge sharing can paint a picture of the deeper issues involved.

Governance, organization and management

Because of the short time-frame, the FSAE workshop considered cultural problems in the first three categories at one time - governance, organization and management.

Participants focused heavily on governance, revealing a combination of micro-managing boards and subservient staffs. It was a typical picture of the traditional top-down culture of the linear organizational structure where power flowed from the board room to the executive suite and beyond. Decision-making followed the same path.

Also typical of a top-down culture was a sense that the "best" or "most important" ideas were the ones demanded by a board of directors or by member through needs surveys.

But who can distinguish between member "wants" and member "needs?" And, are members of the board of directors truly typical of the membership they have been chosen to represent? Or is the rise to leadership testimony to the fact that they are exceptional members, not typical?

These questions are not new. But in the knowledge-based environment, they are even more critical. Micro-managing boards and leaders with personal agendas were always a problem; but, in the Knowledge Age, they can cripple the association's ability to quickly adjust to the changing competitive environment. Likewise, association executives who blindly follow the directives of boards and surveys miss the opportunity of synthesizing the wants and needs of the membership into wise directions.

But participants wondered how they could "buck the board." Answer: Be both a leader and a follower, maintaining a balance between what you are told to do and what you need to do. Ash, who is himself a former state senator, believes the most ineffective public servant is the one who waits to see what the polls tell him.

One participant, who represented a healthcare field, described her board as one engaged in policy governance and her association as one that was strategically managed - continuously -not annually or every three years, but all the time. Such a "heads up" style of governance and management can only exist where governance, organizational structure and management operate in a system of decision-making that couples responsibility and authority together. Many associations have a decision-making process that is so convoluted that they simply cannot respond quickly enough to new challenges and new opportunities.

The same participant reported that her members did understand knowledge work and did encourage her association to take the steps necessary to improve as a knowledge based, knowledge managed association. Another participant, whose members were engaged in professional sea changes in their own field, echoed that same sentiment.

It does seem that association constituencies which are engaged in research and development, medical or scientific activity, education or a changing market place are easiest to move toward a KM culture. But within those memberships with KM savvy, there are traps set by those who know just enough "to be dangerous." It is imperative that today's association executive have a clear understanding of the principles (even the contradictory visions) of knowledge management. There is no cookie cutter solution and no individual (no matter how knowledgeable about KM) has all the answers - each KM initiative must be custom built to fit the requirements of every organization. More importantly, the KM plan needs to be developed collaboratively by all levels of the organization to assure buy-in. KM is, after all, a grassroots activity.

Staff and Membership

At first, discussing staff and membership together (for the sake of time) didn't seem to make much sense. But, in fact, staff and volunteer members together represent the greatest storehouse of knowledge the association has.

Participants were asked to consider whether the operational structure and the job descriptions of their organizations were conducive to knowledge sharing and involvement in the "big picture." Or, were the departments or functions isolated from each other in guarded turfdoms? Were individual jobs narrowly defined and were performance evaluations based on prescriptive job descriptions?

"Well, yes," one participant admitted, "but we have to do that for legal reasons."

The evil of a job description is not in the existence of the job description itself, but in when it is written and in what it says. Job descriptions are usually written before the hire and the recruiting process looks for the candidate that fits neatly in the box. Right away, the job description limits the potential of the new hire. Then, performance evaluations center on the restrictive language of the job description. So, even if the new hire brings more knowledge and experience to the table than was required or revealed, s/he is discouraged from sharing it. Suggestion: Collaborate with the new hire in rewriting the job description after the hire. You might be amazed at the difference (of the description and of the job performance).

Restrictive job descriptions are major cornerstones in the foundation of those so-called "information silos" which are so counter to the knowledge revolution. Departments or functions become "turfs" and knowledge workers avoid stepping on each other's turfs. The U.S. Department of Labor reported the results of a study last year which showed that the average worker uses less than 30 percent of what s/he knows in the course of carrying out his or her job. It's small wonder in light of the previous discussion.

While some think the issue of work culture is that employees won't share knowledge, the underlying cause is the way we organize work. Job descriptions need to be written to require employees to have or get "the big picture" and participate regularly in interdisciplinary initiatives. They should be judged as much on what they did outside their cubicle as they are on what they did in it. Doing what they were expected to do is of much less value than doing what they could do in an open cross-functional culture.

The same philosophy can be just as rewarding in membership relations, particularly in the use of volunteers and committees as unpaid staff - which is what committees should be used for. There's enough "governance" at the board level. Sure, the board may appoint special committees to help the board with its work, but remember what that work is - policy governance, not management.

Working committees need to be collaborative in nature and include both volunteers and staff - as equals, not with staff subservient to the members but as "co-workers." After all, the working committee is (should be) a gold mine of knowledge from which innovative new ideas can flow. But if they are like most traditional association committees, they probably receive a restrictive charge from the governing board that is just as debilitating as the individual job description. (By the way. Boards should not make political appointments to work committees. Let the staff search for the most knowledgeable members.).

Profession and Alliances

Time limited our discussion of the cultures of profession and alliances as likely roadblocks to knowledge sharing. But earlier discussion did reveal that some of the participants enjoyed memberships that were somewhat aware of the paradigm shift from Industrial to Knowledge Age.

What we weren't able to discuss, is whether the professions they represented continued to be in the corporate world of "company secrets" and "competitive strategies" that interfered with their associations' efforts to facilitate collaborative searches for new solutions to new problems within the professions they represent.

Surprisingly, among the world's heaviest and most competitive industries, collaborative thinking has been at work for over 20 years. Best practices and benchmarking have led many of the Fortune 500 companies to conclude that they can collaborate and compete at the same time; and, with greater success than they would in isolation.

But in the association world, many leaders have been frustrated by memberships that could not think together due to the culture of competition and the fear (excuse) of anti-trust. The next time someone loads his nay-gun with "anti-trust," go do your homework. See what has been accomplished these past 20 years through interactive enterprise without getting in trouble with the Feds.

The same cultural problem exists with potential alliances. Associations do compete with other associations -- some professions are fragmented into dozens (in some cases hundreds) of specialty associations that fight fiercely for their independence. Even non-competing associations find little time (or benefit) in forming alliances with other associations. And, what about alliances with non-associations?

The Knowledge Age ushers in a seamless society. All the walls are tumbling down as the Internet creates a global economy and changes the way we do business at every level. Disintermediation (cutting out the middle man) adds to culture changes that require collaboration and alliances within and across professions.

So -- is your association positioned to facilitate collaboration within and across professions? Is it part of your strategy for change? Or are you still stuck in the old view of the world?

Jerry Ash is Senior Counsellor, The Forbes Group and
Chief Executive, Association of Knowledgework
Article used with permission