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Knowledge Management Task Force Guest Editorial: Realizing the Knowledge Sharing Organization – Easier said than done?

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Realizing the Knowledge Sharing Organization – Easier said than done?

Steffen Soulejman Janus

Much has been written about Learning Organizations and the role of knowledge and learning for organizational effectiveness over the years. And while more and more companies are seeing knowledge and learning as an important success factor for their business, it is often less integrated into organizational structures and processes in the public sector. In the US, notably the US Army and NASA, to name only two, have recognized the power to tap into the brains of their work force to build on and replicate experiences, and avoid mistakes from the past. Both organizations are systematically using knowledge and learning for individuals, teams and larger entities to operate more effectively. When talking to public sector officials in developing countries often one gets a shoulder shrug or, when lucky, polite interest. After all, people are busy with drafting or implementing policies and staff resources are a scarce commodity, not to be used for “fancy knowledge management strategies.”

But gradually the perception is changing. More and more senior managers of organizations are realizing that they can’t continue with business as usual. At the World Bank’s Organizational Knowledge Sharing (OKS) program we have worked with dozens of organizations from across the world over the past years. And while organizational profiles, mandates and capabilities have vastly differed from organization to organization, they all shared four types of challenges.

First, there is the issue of lack of coordination and innovation. Many managers we worked with noted the typical problem that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. Departments worked in silos and often staff were working on similar challenges without benefitting from collaboration across departmental boundaries. When organizations don’t make use of their collective brain power they miss out on synergies and reduce their ability to innovate. A second issue was continuous brain drain and lack of sustainable use of tacit knowledge. Faced with heavy staff rotations, hiring away by the private sector, and retirements, ministries and national as well as subnational agencies were in a constant spiral of training and retraining to just keep afloat. As a third point senior managers noted the importance of scale. Solutions created in one place, while possibly very valuable for others, simply didn’t travel to other places fast enough. Many times, they never made it beyond the location for which they were initially developed. Finally, most organizations tried to overcome the problem with putting in place technical solutions: websites, intranets, document management systems and other IT platforms.

Not surprisingly, we couldn’t find a single example of an organization where the implementation of a technical solution at the core of a knowledge sharing effort made a significant difference for organizational performance. The platforms were either not used by those for whom they were intended, or the initial enthusiasm quickly faded out as day-to-day routines took over again.

So, what did make a difference?

For organizational knowledge sharing and learning to become transformational, I propose four major factors for senior managers to consider for tangible change through systematic knowledge sharing.

  1. Inclusiveness: Involve everybody (yes, everybody). Unfortunately, there is a tendency to anchor knowledge and learning solely in either IT or communications departments. Some more advanced organizations may have a staff learning unit which houses all learning efforts. And while I am a big believer that those departments do play a central role for knowledge and learning efforts, they should never be its sole owners. Organizational learning, like any organizational change process, needs to be owned by those who use it or need to contribute to it, in other words: by everybody. Giving a task to one unit kills the buy-in from the get-go. Instead, managers should strive to make the effort everybody’s goal and attach accountabilities to achieve individual and departmental targets.
  2. Championing: Senior management needs to be heavily engaged. Successful change processes need to be championed at the very top and shared goals should cascade down through mid-management to staff. Senior managers need to walk the talk: if the team at the helmet is not actively sharing with the rest of the staff, the change effort will not be credible. Cultural transformation starts at the top. To get additional momentum, managers can identify champions and early adopters across the organization. If opinion leaders are celebrated, they can take others along the journey. It can be particularly useful to get the sceptics on board: More than once I have seen the biggest nay-sayers emerge as the most prominent proponents of knowledge sharing and learning, once they were truly involved in the effort.
  3. Incentives: Make me want to do it. Organizational change is foremost driven by changed behaviors of those who are associated with the organization. And behavior change is driven by extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Most people are not against knowledge sharing and learning, but often powerful disincentives prevent it from happening. “What if I share my solution with my colleague – maybe (s)he will get the next promotion instead of me?” Staff are often asking. Such natural fears need to be addressed. Managers who want to change the organizational culture need to get into its engine room, and change some of its well-established habits, processes and recognition mechanisms. One easy way to start: celebrate sharing and collaboration. After all, who doesn’t like a tap on the back by their colleagues or boss?
  4. Integration: Solutions for organizational knowledge sharing and learning should address a set of concrete problems. Having a fancy IT system in place may get you some brownie points in the short-run but is not guaranteed to get adopted by its intended users in the long-run. Whatever the solution you will come up with, it needs to be practical. If new processes and procedures are perceived to be yet another burden on the shoulders of staff, they will quickly go the path of gradual extinction. The best way to achieve this is to fully integrate knowledge and learning into core operations. If learning becomes part of a day-to-day routine, it is more likely to be relevant and timely. Structured training has its merits, but is a distinct activity that takes me away from doing my work which I need to catch up with once I return to my desk. An insightful conversation with an experienced colleague on the way to visit a client, or a chat in the cafeteria may be just as powerful and possibly more effective.

Easier said than done? True, but like in any change process, a clear strategy, good communications and sound execution will yield results. Turning an organization into a knowledge sharing and learning organization is a never-ending journey and there will always be something to improve. Yet, it is time to get a head-start on tackling some of the issues mentioned above. I have seen remarkable organizational transformation through systematic learning from experience in the most unexpected places and adverse environments. The good news: Knowledge sharing and learning are not expensive. But they do require dedication and perseverance. Those who are truly committed to the goal will ultimately succeed.

Steffen Soulejman Janus works in the World Bank's Global Practice for Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Development where he manages and supports innovative social development and decentralization projects. He conceived and developed the World Bank’s offerings of organizational knowledge-sharing methods to public sector institutions and senior management teams across the world. Throughout his career at the World Bank he managed various work programs and teams dedicated to Knowledge Sharing and Learning. Steffen, who received a masters degree in business administration from Columbia University, was an initiator of the African Platform for Development Effectiveness and is a board member of the Global Development Learning Network. He is the author of the handbooks Becoming a Knowledge-Sharing Organization and Capturing Solutions for Learning and Scaling Up.