Diagnosing cultural barriers to \ knowledge management
David W. De Long and Liam Fahey Executive Overview
Organizational culture is increasingly recognized as a major barrier to leveraging intellectual assets. This article identifies four ways in which culture influences the behaviors central to knowledge creation, sharing, and use. First, culture—and particularly subcultures—shape assumptions about what knowledge is and which knowledge is worth managing. Second, culture defines ihe relationships between individual and organizational knowledge, determining who is expected to control specific knowledge, as well as who must share it and who can hoard it. Third, culture creates the context for social interaction that determines how knowledge will be used in particular situations, fourth, cuifure shapes the processes by which new knowledge—with its accompanying uncertainties—is created, legitimated, and distributed in organizations. These four perspectives suggest specific actions managers can take to assess the different aspects of culture most likely to influence knowledge-related behaviors. This diagnosis is the critical first step in developing a strategy and specific interventions to align the firm's culture in support of more effective knowledge use.
Obviously, there is a set of tools, such as Lotus Notes, intranets, etc., which you need to be knowledge-based. But technology is only 20 percent of the picture. The remaining 80 percent is people. You have to get the culture right. —Roger Chaddock, associate director, Computer Sciences Corporation^ What's happened here is 90 percent culture change. You need to change the way you relate to one another. If you can't do that you won't succeed.2 —Bob Buckman, CEO of Buckman Labs As we roll out our knowledge system, we find we lack a culture that supports collaborative work because people view knowledge as a method of securing their job. So they're reluctant to share. The culture is a huge problem. —Chief knowledge officer, global engineering firm A growing number of executives, consultants, and management theorists have proclaimed in recent years that knowledge now constitutes the major source of competitive advantage for organizations.-' This knowledge-based view of the firm 113
argues that creating, organizing, and using knowledge assets are the essence of what firms do. Their effectiveness in these activities, relative to the competition, determines performance.'* Heeding this counsel, many firms have launched major programs to manage knowledge better, and it is increasingly common to see titles such as chief knowledge officer and knowledge manager in organizations. Without a doubt, knowledge management has become an important topic.^ But the efforts of many companies to manage knowledge have not achieved their objectives, and there is a growing sense of disenchantment among executives about the practicality of trying to enhance organizational knowledge. Our research in more than 50 companies pursuing knowledge management projects (see Appendix) revealed that organizational culture is widely held to be the major barrier to creating and leveraging knowledge assets. And our interviews also revealed that, while most managers intuitively recognize the importance of culture, they find it difficult or impossible to articulate the cultureknowledge relationship in ways that lead to action. To effectively diagnose the fit between their existing organization and knowledge management objectives, managers need frameworks to help ar-
Academy of Management Executive
ticulate how culture affects their unit's ability to create and apply knowledge. Only then can they design strategies to either adapt to the culture or try to reshape it to support the firm's knowledge management objectives. The purposes of this article are to demonstrate the importance of the cultural perspective on many of the...