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Knowledge Sharing

by Peter Smith(ed.)
Knowledge Sharing by Peter Smith
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Knowledge sharing A number of months ago my notebook computer crashed, and given its ancient vintage, was not worth replacing. The first thing I did was to talk to friends who had gone through similar experiences, and of course I welcomed the opportunity wallow in the warmth of their commiseration. To make matters worse I had no backup disc, so my friends also advised me how to go about recovering files from my old hard drive. I’m not overly computer-technology literate, so this was daunting enough, but next I faced the challenging task of choosing a new notebook. First, I prepared myself by talking to local vendors about their products, and by checking books and reviews by acknowledged experts. Then I went back to share with my network details of the models that I had investigated. I had already decided on the particular notebook I felt would best fit my requirements, but in talking to my friends I was persuaded to change my mind and pick a different model. I purchased that machine and it is giving me excellent service. I don’t believe that this overall experience is all that unusual; indeed, I think it’s quite commonplace in regard to many of the problems that we face in life and work. Most of us welcome support in addressing our challenges, and seek the help and advice of our social networks in resolving them. The example shows that I do not exclude the use of databases, books etc. However, I do believe that intervention by familiar trusted social elements is essential for optimum knowledge sharing to eventuate. As I noted above, it is often this social element that provides the final, but most influential, recommendation in the decision-making process. This is because these members of a trusted network ensure the “safety” and “cultural fit” of the decision, whereas although other arms-length elements provide guidance, in the final analysis, they will probably seem too distant from the complexities of the local situation to be persuasive. For me, this episode defines many of the principles of “knowledge sharing”, and prompted the topic for this Special Issue. It got me wondering why, if we follow this process so frequently in our everyday lives, we do not follow it in our organizational lives? Well, as individuals in informal organizational communities we do! Unfortunately, we don’t formally recognize it, or attempt to address its ramifications as a matter of organizational policy and practice. Maybe it’s so commonplace that managers fail to see its utility, just like goldfish are said to fail to comprehend the need for the water in which they swim. Or maybe it’s just not technologically sexy enough. This is not a paradox that has gone un-noticed, and Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak have devoted an excellent book to the subject (Cohen and Prusak, 2001). They write: We experience work as a human, social activity that engages the same social needs and responses as the other parts of our lives: the need for connection and cooperation, support and trust, a sense of belonging, fairness, and recognition. But analysts still often see organizations as machines (for producing goods, services, or knowledge), or as an assemblage of self-focused individuals – free agents or “companies of one” – who somehow managed to coordinate their individual aims long enough to accomplish a task. As much as anything else, this disconnection between how people experience organizations and how experts describe them has prompted us to write In Good Company (Cohen and Prusak, 2001, pp. x). In talking about physics, David Finkelstein in his introduction to Gary Zukav’s “The Dancing Wu Li Masters” (Zukav, 2001, pp. xxiv) mused that there were thing-minded people and people-minded people, and that physics had become too scary for thing-minded people because it had become so “thing-less”. I have the impression that in organizations we have thing-minded managers, who are so scared any time an organization looks like becoming thing-less that they have the urge to make it people-less. Or maybe it’s simply that all of this emphasis on the importance of social structures is too new to have as yet penetrated organizational thinking. Well, in this regard, consider the following three excerpts from an article by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (Seely Brown and Duguid, 1991): (1) “Recent ethnographic studies of workplace practices indicate that the ways people actually work usually differ fundamentally from the ways organizations describe that work in manuals, training programs, organizational charts, and job descriptions. Nevertheless, organizations tend to rely on the latter in their attempts to understand and improve work practice.” The authors go on to examine one such study and argue that “ . . .conventional descriptions of jobs mask not only the ways people work, but also significant learning and innovation generated in the informal communities-of-practice in which they work. By reassessing work, learning, and innovation in the context of actual communities and actual practices, we suggest that the connections between these three become apparent. With a unified view of working, learning, and innovating, it should be possible to re-conceive of and re-design organizations to improve all three.” (2) “ . . . to understand the way information is constructed and travels within an organization, it is first necessary to understand the different communities that are formed within it and the distribution of power among them.” (3) “ . . . attempts to introduce ‘teams’ and ‘work groups’ into the workplace to enhance learning or work practice are often based on an assumption that without impetus from above, an organization’s members configure themselves as individuals. In fact, as we suggest, people work and learn collaboratively and vital interstitial communities are continually being formed and reformed.” Seely Brown and Duguid wrote these words in 1991, so I have only a slight hope that the contents of this special issue of The Learning Organization will soon significantly impact management thinking. However, the authors contributing to this special issue have most admirably clarified and updated the concepts and techniques for effective knowledge sharing, and as always I am optimistic that we are making a difference – after all, large oak trees do grow from little acorns. In our first article, Martyn Laycock presents an in-depth overview of the practical challenges and strategic significance of knowledge and knowledge-sharing in organizations. The roles of learning and networks are discussed, together with the value of collaboration in the development of sustainable competitive edge. Martyn illustrates these themes by examining the challenges three major organizations have faced in seeking to use learning and knowledge as sources of sustainable competitive edge. The second article is by Patti Anklam, Rob Cross, and Vic Gulas. With illustrations from the real-life story of MWH, a global engineering consulting firm, they describe organizational network analysis, and how it can be used to uncover communication patterns and reveal opportunities to get the right connections to the right people at the right time. They also describe practical initiatives and activities that an organization may adopt in concert with this analysis to ensure that knowledge is shared. Next Dave Snowden details issues related to ways social network analysis is currently applied, and argues for analysing community from an aggregation of function viewpoint rather than coalescences of purpose, and for a primary focus on identities rather than individuals. Dave further maintains that switching to an experimental approach he terms social network stimulation will promote voluntary formation of cross-silo informal identities, and generate learning within and about organisations. In our last article, Peter Smith links the success of an organization’s knowledge sharing strategy, and the strength of its strategic capabilities, to its ability to visualize relationship-networks among employees, and deal with patterns of positive or negative influence. Peter explores the importance of opinion leaders to knowledge sharing, explains how network visualization and analysis is applied, describes practical means for utilizing the influence-related information obtained, and references a number of case studies.
Peter Smith

Previously published in: The Learning Organization: An International Journal, Volume 12, Number 6, 2005

Emerald Publishing Limited; Read online
Title: Knowledge Sharing
Author: Peter Smith

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