Absorption And Application Of Management Knowledge

Gerhard Fink,

Absorption And Application Of Management Knowledge

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Absorption and application of management knowledge The impact of cultural and psychological factors on knowledge transfer activities is of particular concern to the knowledge management community and the wider community of management scholarship. It is no exaggeration to say that both in research terms and in general practitioner understanding this issue is vaguely understood. The five contributions in this Special Issue of JMP give a very clear picture of the complexities of cultural and psychological factors as constraints on perceiving, capturing, interpretation and implementation of management knowledge. In the recently published special issue on Global Transfer of Management Knowledge for The Academy of Management Executive (Fink and Holden, 2005) we could note that the transfer of management know-how from any cultural base is seldom straightforward and that it can take a long time: even years. Indeed, the more detailed and thorough the preparation, the less likelihood of intractable problems. Part of the preparation involves the nature of the knowledge and recognition that the transfer process itself is part of the knowledge received. Thus, design of the transfer process to suit recipients and potential beneficiaries is of vital importance. It is essential to explicitly build cultural empathy into the management of international operations so as to handle vagaries of specific interfaces. Whilst it goes without saying that any successful act of knowledge transfer requires the fullest possible understanding of local and regional contexts, we observed that part of this understanding can involve special forms of empathy. For example, if the transfer of management know-how involves uniform procedures, which by headquarter managers in power are mostly considered to be “rational”, local or regional management is likely to establish its own informal subsystems and routines. This occurs not as an act of defiance, but as an attempt to modify those procedures so that they are better received at the local end. If headquarters cannot supply solutions that serve the needs of subsidiaries, the management role of headquarters has to be questioned. The fact that the authors of this special issue for JMP were required to discuss knowledge transfer from the point of view of both absorption and application meant that by building on recently published literature they were able to highlight subtleties and nuances that appear to be disconcerting in practice, yet so far considered to be of minor significance to KM researchers. One such issue concerns the language barrier, a habitually undervalued and misunderstood influence on cross-cultural knowledge transfer in specialist literature composed by authors whose native language is English. The contribution by Andrei Kuznetsov and Hanna Yakavenka, “Barriers to absorption of management knowledge: some evidence from the post-Communist era”, exposes a rarely considered aspect of the transfer of Western management know-how to former socialist countries now coming to grips with the market economy system. Their study of the absorption of management knowledge through the channels of higher education in Belarus reveal how a complex mix of factors influence the quality of the transfer process: the variable openness of professors to this knowledge and their equally variable ability to handle it in English, the limitations of suitable textbooks as well as attitudes and behaviours lingering from the communist period. What emerges is a picture in which Western management knowledge is transferred without much adaptation of content. But, as this knowledge is assumed to have proven its high validity in Western societies, the material is translated more or less literally into Russian. Nevertheless, as Kuznetsov and Yakavenka report, 40 per cent of their sample of Belarus professors are unhappy with the overall style of the texts and question the validity of translations. The authors make it clear that the transfer of management to Belarus is based on Western assumptions about the universal validity of that management knowledge and the availability of sufficient absorptive capacity locally to make the process efficient. The reality is rather different. The case study shows that the massive sums of money from European and other international sources to support the transition from communism to the market economy in the more easterly lying socialist countries of Europe have, even after 15 years, only partially succeeded as an exercise in international transfer of management knowledge. Kuznetsov and Yakavenka call for an intensification of knowledge transfer “through increasing its interactive component by providing channels for direct interaction between educators in the newly independent states and the West”. This may at first glance sound impracticable, but their solution may well be the only one which in the medium term has the best chance of raising local absorptive capacity. Without applying this solution the outlook suggests a perpetuation of well-meaning, but fatally misguided knowledge transfer efforts. The contribution by Kuznetsov and Yakavenka is close in spirit to the article by Christopher Kayes, Anna Kayes and Yoshitaka Yamazaki. In their article “Essential competencies for cross-cultural knowledge absorption”, these authors highlight what they call “seven thematic competencies for [cross-cultural] absorption”, all of which focus on the central task of building relationships and the often underrated importance of transferring complex ideas into other countries. For them knowledge absorption is a form of information processing, in which foreign language capability plays a key role not only as a means of cross-cultural communication, but as facilitator of learning in foreign environments. This is an important observation, highlighting that a lack of foreign language competence – a distinctive attribute of US and UK managers – is in turn a barrier to the acquisition of the all-important contextual knowledge, which is a source of insight for unravelling ambiguity. Of particular value in the article by Kayes, Kayes and Yamazaki is their Figure 2, which is a graphical representation of their key ideas. This model draws an important distinction between new and extant knowledge, between knowledge that is acquired from the outside and processed from the inside. They then represent knowledge processing in four modes: gathering, generating, applying and organizing. We commend this model as an important variation and extension of the famous Nonaka/Takeuchi model as it puts emphasis on absorption and application of knowledge from external sources and has potential as a conceptual instrument for capturing significant cross-cultural detail. This article then reminds us that the temptation to see international knowledge transfer solely in terms of strategic power relations has serious disadvantages: that this perspective does not take account of the complexities of relationships between individual people who together form a community of practice or who in, say, a merger, are expected to find common cognitive ground with each other – and find it difficult when, as is frequently the case, the process of merging becomes unhinged. Kayes, Kayes and Yamazaki focus in part on the role of expatriates, whose role of knowledge mediators between corporations and distant subsidiaries and markets is becoming increasingly examined in the management literature. As the authors point out, the literature suggests that all too often expatriate managers find “it easy to isolate themselves from the host culture”. This issue concerning the gap between expatriates and the local business community is taken a stage further by the authors of our third contribution, who shift the focus from expatriate managers to “foreign employees being managed at host country operations.” In their article “Forms of host country national learning for enhanced MNC absorptive capacity” Charles Vance and Yongsun Paik build on the well-established finding that: “past research . . . generally has failed to identify important contributions that can be made by host country nationals to promote the effective transfer of knowledge throughout the multinational organization.” On the basis of an empirical investigation involving 51 managers as informants in 49 different MNC foreign subsidiaries with home bases in France, Japan, Germany, Korea, USA and UK, the authors identify 12 categories of learning needs among host country nationals. Their investigation suggests a picture of top management detachment and aloofness vis-a`-vis their host country employees, a reluctance to consult and trust these colleagues. They argue that, unless these employees are empowered to receive expatriate knowledge and know-how, their absorptive capacity remains underused and that MNCs need to consider forms of in-company training to align the strategy of the company with the potential of those employees. The open gaps between detached and aloof headquarter managers and expatriates, on the one hand, and their respective host country counterparts, on the other, stress the need for a conversationalist disposition amongst managers and the need to put emphasis on “rational” and “non-rationalist” elements of active discourse. In their article on the increasingly important African management concept of Ubuntu Karsten and Illa put strong emphasis on the role that both language and discourse play in transmission of management knowledge. A traditional sender-receiver model, e.g. that of Gupta and Govindarajan (2000), considers knowledge management as a set of objective messages. The intrinsic merits of these messages and characteristics of the potential adopters are considered to be the sole contributors to the success of its transfer. Such a perception supports the view that strategic implementation of management concepts through power relations is dependent on the capability of key managers to persuade their subordinates to accept a management tool without a mutual understanding of its merits. By contrast, the African concept of Ubuntu makes us realize that for the validity of a management concept it is not enough to focus on its propositional truth. With reference to Habermas’ concept of pathos, logos and ethos, Karsten and Illa emphasize that the knowledge contained in a management concept has to be understood in terms of its rightfulness and truthfulness. Ubuntu strives beyond a purely strategic management approach based on power in order to embrace the way company members interact and share experiences. It recognizes labour as human and not just as a piece of property that is valued by market forces. As such it helps to bridge the gap between official and unofficial organisational cultures. By integrating in management actions the three validity claims of truth, rightfulness and truthfulness, a conducive and collaborative atmosphere can be created that serves the urgent need for interconnectedness, conviviality and harmony in workplaces. We are especially pleased to be able to publish this very timely paper in the light of the world focus on the plight of Africa. As African countries are drawn more and more into the global ecomonic system, the role of Ubuntu is likely to grow rather than diminish, as it will become a key element in the management systems of African organisations. The analogy with Japan is instructive. Japan did not become a global player by the Westernisation of its management systems, but rather through its resistance to them in order to protect Japanse companies saw as their culturally ordained instrinsic strengths. We can expect that Africa will exploit Ubuntu in a similar way. That interconnectedness, conviviality and harmony in workplaces, mentioned by Karsten and Illa, cannot be achieved straightforwardly nor within a short period of time is impressively demonstrated by Nancy Napier on her ten-year experience with Knowledge Transfer in Vietnam: Starts, Stops and Loops. At first there was a very brief period of smooth and unchallenged flow of explicit and simple textbook knowledge from foreigners to Vietnamese professors. Then the process came to an abrupt halt, as the Vietnamese started to claim that “Vietnam was a special case”, resisting the foreigners’ lofty view of their management knowledge. For the foreigners this shift of behaviour was tough to accept. Time passed, and committed foreigners became familiar with the internal constraints of the Vietnamese system. Only then could they build trust and began to learn from the Vietnamese. As a result both sides could open up to each other again. The foreigners were no longer just mentors, but became colleagues. Intriguingly, the actual turning point was marked by an open confrontation between the Vietnamese and their foreign colleagues. This confrontation became possible only after the foreigners had become perceived as partners who were prepared to operate within the constraints of Vietnamese culture. Extending on her earlier writings and that of Holden (2002), Gupta/Govindarjan (2000) and others, Napier identifies four core elements as a framework of analysis: (1) stages of relationship; (2) participative competence – to be applied to senders and receivers alike about their ability, motivation and understanding of knowledge; (3) organisational atmosphere - between and within organisations on both sides; and (4) conduit conditions which facilitate the ease or difficulty of knowledge flows. We consider it worth highlighting a highly notable feature of Napier’s paper: namely its description of how radical system change in Vietnam induced a collective culture shock, which expressed itself in learned helplessness and scepticism about rewards to be given for personal efforts and achievements. It was frequently observed that it took 18 months up to two years before the Vietnamese were willing and able to take their own decisions. Similar “periods of unexpected initial resistance” were also observed in several case studies in the special issue in The Academy of Management Executive (Fink and Holden, 2005). Taking together all five articles in this special issue, which covers a geographic range across four continents, it is striking how the five sets of authors point to a failure on the part of “knowledge deliverers” – whether the West as a source of management know-how or a corporation handling relationships with its subsidiaries – to take account of attitudes, feelings and specific features at the receiving end. In the context of our articles such features range from the intelligibility and perceived value of Western management texts to a sense of affront in host country subsidiaries at not being trusted by top management in a remote head office. Either way the transfer of knowledge is rendered difficult. Self-esteem is damaged; absorptive capacity lies dormant As it happens, all five sets of authors contend that patience, training and human resource development methods are called for. This is of course easier said than done. The scope and specialisation of such interventions go far beyond what is customarily available in cross-cultural management education. Whilst that particular challenge goes unmet and possibly unrecognised, we must expect to live in a world in which knowledge sharing remains a great buzz-word, but is habitually compromised by a heavy-handed and frequently power-based approach to knowledge transfer. We have pleasure in commending this Special Issue to the readers of the Journal of Managerial Psychology. The invitation to edit or co-edit a special issue of an academic journal is an honour and requires hard work. Concerning the honour, we would like to thank Yochanan Altman, the outgoing editor of JMP, for inviting us to co-edit this Special Issue. We gladly acknowledge Nancy Rolph and James Werbel for their continued support and advice especially in the finalization phases. As for the hard work, our task has been made considerably easier thanks to the meticulous administrative support of Elisabeth Beer of the Europe Institute at Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. We express our warmest appreciation to her.
Gerhard Fink and Nigel Holden

Previously published in: Journal of Managerial Psychology, Volume 20, Number 7, 2005

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