I joined Arup's global rail business in 2007...
Resources / Knowledge management: a question of trust
At a recent conference, one participant described knowledge management as ‘the conscience of the organisation’ and that ‘effective knowledge management depends on a sense and a synergy of moral obligation by employer and employee’.
For me the key element in this employer-employee relationship is trust. From experience, knowledge management thrives in organisations where there are high levels of trust between people within the organisation.
If there is trust then you don't have to have as many manuals, checkers and counter signatures. People want to sign their work as craftsmen and to receive the credit as well as an acknowledgement of responsibility for that work.
People also desire to share knowledge of that success and if they feel comfortable, then they can also share their failures. I read recently that the World Bank hosts ‘Failure Fairs’ highlighting why a project didn’t go as well as expected. These fairs provide a forum for sharing the lessons from a failure and helps colleagues to learn from another’s mistakes.
In Arup we carry out knowledge reviews which try to capture what went well as well as what didn’t go well and these are captured and forwarded to the skills networks. Crucially, people have confidence that highlighting an area for improvement will not be used as an attack on them.
In a Japanese owned business I worked for in the UK there were a number of Japanese managers who had relocated to the UK. Junior managers received knowledge transfer from their seniors who saw it as a moral duty to pass on their learning – to leave the organisation and the people in it better than they found it.
Competition was at a reduced level between the participants and co-operation was the key to winning the respect of your peers in the group. This moral obligation meant that knowledge management was not seen as a tick box compliant exercise, but a part of being an employee at whatever level in the organisation.
The group was quicker in sharing knowledge and learning from mistakes because individual participants had confidence in their group to treat their mistakes with respect and in confidence, which reduced the fear element or loss of face. The key factor that emerged from these meetings was the trust generated by them. People talked and brought different experiences to the room, both positive and negative, which led to more tacit and experiential knowledge being discussed and absorbed by participants.
If as a group people are sharing and talking about knowledge through their experiences, then this can be the starting point for people to ask unorthodox questions, experiment with new ideas and ways of working in a safe setting before they expose a creative idea to the organisation.
People naturally want to share knowledge. But organisations tend to place barriers in their way. Examples include not providing a time allowance to reflect and review work and to share and gather experiences from that work, to help improve the final product and to provide the ability for the organisation and its people to learn, adapt and evolve to meet a client’s current and future challenges.
If the organisation removes these barriers, people have to invest time in their own personal knowledge management and to recognise that their success is derived from being a sharer, not a hoarder of knowledge throughout the myriad formal and informal networks that exist in today’s organisation. This sharing of knowledge, along with a high standard of work, should form part of their appraisal, both formally and informally, by managers and their peers during their time in an organisation.
Organisations struggle with the legacy systems of command and control and need to recognise that today’s knowledge worker is different from the old production line worker.
Organisations shouldn’t look to shrink people’s autonomy when they arrive in the office, they should be looking to encourage them to circulate and re-configure their portable knowledge to investigate and provide solutions to the complex challenges that the world is going to provide.