Loose hierarchies for knowledge management

Knowledge-sharing practices are highly contextual. I have seen this with clients in multiple locations, across national borders. This makes sense when you consider that knowledge sharing is deeply personal as well as social, so it reflects the larger culture and the particular workplace. A 2011 study (via David Gurteen) concluded that even in the same company, knowledge management practices are different (note that the authors define Ba as shared context in motion).

Each subsidiary, although part of the same corporate group and including the same functional teams, displayed very different patterns of KM and organizational features. The regression model showed that different organizational factors – especially Ba, work styles, and organizational control – were responsible for the resulting KM profiles of each local office: formal Ba in the U.S. office, clear objectives in the French subsidiary, formal Ba in the Chinese branch, and a self-directed vision in the Japanese head office.

Source: A study of knowledge management enablers across countries, by Rémy Magnier-Watanabe, Caroline Benton & Dai Senoo, in Knowledge Management Research & Practice (2011) 9, 17–28 (PDF).

This need for contextual knowledge management practices aligns with the advice of Snowden & Kurtz who recommend “loose hierarchies & strong networks” in complex environments, as shown in this image by Verna Allee.

cynefin networks verna alleeSo, for large organizations, not only will no single technology platform meet all your knowledge-sharing, collaboration and cooperation needs, but no single approach will either. While there is a need to create a balance between individual and enterprise
knowledge-sharing tools, there is also a need to balance the needs of the central organization with those of external locations. In our distributed economic world, this is workplace reality.

With loose hierarchies and strong networks as a guiding principle, departments need to have the ability to try out different KM practices and see how they work in their unique contexts. Of course, this flies in the face of standardization of processes and the search for best practices that have been drilled into management heads for the past century. For knowledge management today, industrial management just won’t cut it.

industrial management

2 Responses to “Loose hierarchies for knowledge management”

  1. angelica_laurençon

    Thanks Herold for this clear contribution.

    You are perfectly right: Knowledge management has to be smart, soft, liquid in order to convert & convince the individuals to share their knowledge with the others. People are sharing their knowledge in an informal context, but not in a formal context, i.e. at work, inside an organization.

    Strong and tough structures generate stress, fear and distrust. That’s the big mistake of many managerial strategies today and the failure of sustainable open innovation processes.

    In many organizations the new collaborative tools which could generate innovation, ideas, connectivity, and a sort of wikinomics, like wikis, web-based online platforms are installed, but remain empty shells because the co-workers, colleagues, don’t want to “open their last little competitive advantage.”


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