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Corollaries to the laws of knowledge management

The six "laws" of knowledge management lead on to three further corollaries:

Knowledge sharing is at some point confused with IT - We don't know of any organization trying to share knowledge where at some point building the knowledge sharing program has not been confused with building an information management system. Successful knowledge organizations have learned that building web sites and offering knowledge management IT tools neither create nor transfer knowledge by themselves. They have discovered that employees will stop visiting these web sites or use these IT tools if a community of practice is not bringing credibility and contributing content. IT tools are made to facilitate knowledge sharing among users. They can constrain the emergence of a sharing culture by imposing complex technical requirements. Unfortunately, some organizations never learn this. They continue to solely pursue IT-based approaches long after they have been shown to be unproductive, sometimes continuing in a dysfunctional mode for years.

Middle-management resists. -- Knowledge sharing strategies are usually attractive to forward-looking chief executives who are anticipating efficiency gains, quality improvements and innovation. It is equally appealing to front-line employees who see the value in carrying out their work. When a knowledge sharing culture takes roots, employees seek solutions among their peers across traditional organizational boundaries. They stop looking solely up to their managers to solve their problems. Middle-managers are often less enthused. In knowledge sharing, the role of managers changes from control to facilitation and mentoring. It is not therefore surprising that middle-management often resists such changes. This is a widespread phenomenon observed when introducing knowledge sharing in an organization. Middle managers have often built their lives and careers on mastering the hierarchical pathways of organizations. They can feel threatened by the emergence of new non-hierarchical work flows which no longer require command-and-control management behaviors. Communities of practice are indeed less orderly than hierarchies and it takes time for middle-managers to understand that maintaining order can advantageously be replaced by facilitating and cheer-leading knowledge sharing initiatives.

Vibrant communities of practice attract new talents - The rapidly evolving knowledge economy is creating greater mobility among skilled workers. Companies are competing for these workers as never before. Those organizations that nurture communities of practice and let passion permeate the workplace offer a work environment more attractive to the best talents while retaining the knowledge workers they already have. Conversely, those that resist building communities can end up with a work environment with little interest to their employees and unattractive to new talents, whatever compensation packages are offered.

The combination of the six "laws" of knowledge sharing and their three "corollaries" opens new perspectives.

In organizations sharing knowledge, we see evidence of a virtuous circle emerging. Knowledge is shared. Communities are nurtured. The head and heart are integrated in the workplace. The process leads to greater economic productivity. Where this is occurring, organizations are more efficient and effective by offering an environment that builds employees satisfaction and loyalty.

At the same time, we see organizations that are trapped in a vicious cycle. Rigid hierarchical organizational structures prevent the sharing of knowledge, and undermine existing “natural” communities. Top-down approaches de-motivate the workforce and lead to the growth of bureaucracy, depleting the social capital of the organization. The organizations find it difficult to innovate, or how to get out of the vicious cycle.

In some organizations, both phenomena - the virtuous circle and the vicious cycle - are simultaneously happening in different parts of the organization.

The phenomenon appears to be global. These transformations are occurring initially in those parts of the global economy where email and the Web have reached the greatest penetration. This enables the formation and rapid growth of global communities. Knowledge sharing principles, however, are inexorably making their way across the entire global economy.

A wider and deeper understanding of these trends would enable the virtuous circle to occur sooner and faster than it otherwise would. This would avoid counter-productive efforts to promulgate and reinforce ever-more tightly engineered hierarchical structures with all their attendant problems.

Co-authors: Michel Pommier, Lesley Shneier, Stephen Denning

Reference: See Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000.

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