Knowledge Management Spotlight: Why Leaders Matter for a Culture of Collaboration

Lauren Trees's picture

In part two of our interview with Alice MacGillivray, she talks about why leadership is critical to a culture of collaboration. In part one of this interview, she talked about boundaries, leadership, and use of edge-effect. Alice MacGillivray, Ph.D., is a management consultant who works at the intersection of knowledge management, complexity, and leadership. Alice co-designed and directed the first MA in knowledge management and has published and presented at international conferences on KM and leadership topics. You can read her wrote at her blog 4KM.net and follow her on Twitter @4KM

 Alice MacGillivray

APQC’s 2014 Knowledge Management Conference, focusing on the theme of “Improving Business Results Through Engagement & Collaboration,” will be held April 10-11 in Houston, Texas.

APQC: You have a great blog post where you were very passionate in saying KM is not top-down. You mention that, when people need knowledge and answers, they probably aren't going to a tool or repository. They will seek out an actual human being.   Does the a culture of collaboration begin with great leadership at the top or grassroots below where people are getting stuff done?

Alice MacGillivray: Well, first let me clarify the point about knowledge management not being top-down. There are several things behind that generalization.  KM work is—in my view—primarily about human connections, relationships, and resulting synergies. It involves curiosity and trust and a desire to improve. There are many intrinsic motivations in that sort of work, and you cannot legislate those things from the top. In the absence of pushes from other directions in the organization (bottom-up, middle-out, edges-in and so on), the best you will get from top-down is compliance.

That said, organizations do not make much progress with knowledge management unless they have top down support.  Senior leaders are very influential.  An executive who clearly and explicitly values knowledge and expertise—and models those values in his or her work—will open doors for knowledge flow and enhanced collaboration, decision making, and innovation.  It would be foolish for a cautious, career-focused manager to put much emphasis on KM if top-down direction does not support such values, strategies, and practices. There might be a few good communities of practice in such a climate, but I have never personally seen learning from such communities flow easily into their home organizations; their knowledge and innovations tend to get stuck within community boundaries. In my experience with clients, some executives are extremely supportive of knowledge management (though they may use different framing and terms).  They tend to be bright, ambitious—for themselves, their organizations, and their staffs—good listeners and networkers, and have enough experience to realize that some of the standard practices they were “raised on” in a less complex world aren’t delivering as planned.  In other words, they are systems thinkers and change agents.

With regard to your comment about people going to people to build knowledge, I want to give credit to the work of Robert Cross, Andrew Parker, and Steve Borgatti.  It is one thing to speak from experience and common sense, but it is wonderful to have thoughtful scholar-practitioners do serious research to explore elements of knowledge management.  Although they maintain the personas of neutral and objective scholars, they are tackling some important and controversial issues. For reasons I wish I fully understood, there is a huge temptation in organizations to invest most knowledge management resources in repositories.  I wish I had a dollar for every million invested in repositories that sit quietly waiting, just in case the content is needed. I recall being invited to view a high-end knowledge repository of a large well-known company that had won a prestigious prize for their KM work.  After the tour guide entered search terms, there was a very long pause before a list came up.  The guide opened the top file (again, a very slow process), which happened to be a PowerPoint presentation. There were no metadata about the context or why it had been prepared and presumably presented. There was no feedback and no way of asking questions. The tour guide said this hadn’t been a great example, as he didn’t know the presenter or how knowledgeable she was on the topic.  We went on to talk about other things.

That “tour” gave a concise snapshot of common repository problems: lack of 1) context, 2) links to business priorities, 3) trust, and 4) opportunities for dialogue and re-contextualization.  I’ll describe one of many examples of Cross and Parker’s work, in this case collaborating with Borgatti and Prusak. They published their results in a paper called: “Knowing What We Know: Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks.” They recognized that collaboration and innovation are critical, and that technology alone does not yield the successes we need. They interviewed 40 managers for this study; all the managers had recently completed successful projects. The managers were asked to describe where they got information that was central to each project’s success.  They wrote: “these managers overwhelmingly indicated (and supported with vivid stories) that they received this information from other people far more frequently than impersonal sources such as their personal computer archives, the Internet or the organization’s knowledge management database.” 

And just as interesting is the work done by Borgatti and the other team members to help us visualize the networks and communities that underlie those seemingly rigid organization charts.  Yet—in my experience—some managers seem reluctant to think through a network lens. I have seen several experienced managers who are nervous about the implications of this work.  I often imagine how interesting it would be to monitor current and potential resilience, agility, and innovation through network analysis work, and I know a few organizations do that, but it is rare.  We remain more comfortable with the illusion of order and control and machine metaphors such as staying on track and leveraging resources. So if we launch a training initiative, we are more inclined to say that 2042 employees took the course than monitor changes in the social network maps in relation to ongoing application of learning. Organization charts show structure, order, and clear boundaries. But I pose the question: Is that the best way to work with knowledge as a key asset?

APQC: If collaboration is critical but less common than it could be for knowledge generation and sharing, what do leaders most commonly overlook when it comes to building a culture of collaboration?

Alice MacGillivray: I’ve not seen research on this, but my sense is that they may overlook the artificiality of many boundaries.  At least in our dominant Western cultures, we have been taught to take things apart, compartmentalize, label, simplify, and measure objectively.  We have invested so much in these ways of thinking and acting that it is difficult to know how to do things in other ways. The scenario we just talked about—a machine-like organization chart contrasted with a less-known social network model—is one example.  Even in recent months I’ve heard of people getting in trouble because they communicated or collaborated (ethically and with good intent) with the person in the box beside them on an org chart, rather than going up the chain, across, and down the next chain to that person. 

Our reward systems are built around artificial boundaries.  We have probably all seen examples of units working independently within a company, and perhaps meeting or surpassing targets, yet the entire company or organization might have done better if they had collaborated. 

Our communication systems are built around artificial boundaries.  Almost weekly I see examples of people thinking they understand each other when they are using terms in ways that make sense only in their “silos.”  One of my faux pas was after spending time with scientists and reading the work of Karen Knorr Cetina, where she found that physicists working in the field of high-energy physics were psychologically drawn to collaboration, in contrast with microbiologists who were not. Different disciplines have different cultures. Later that week I was in a meeting with human resources professionals who were curious about why parts of their organization were less collaborative than others.  I mentioned the high-energy physicists and microbiologists, and one person replied that made perfect sense, as people with high energy tend to reach out to learn new things.  That story sticks in my mind, because I couldn’t find a way to bridge the communication gap and maintain the energy of the room, despite my being a professional with such things.

Our practice systems are also siloed. Perhaps some APQC members have been unfortunate enough to have dealt with a family illness where a surgeon says one thing, an allergist something else, a nutritionist something else, and so on, and it has taken a huge amount of effort to get specialists talking with each other to eventually determine an accurate diagnosis or effective treatment.

Perhaps most importantly, our egos and identities become associated with artificial boundaries.  We see this a lot with mergers and acquisitions. We see it with nation state boundaries and with hierarchical boundaries.  Part of the baggage of being human is to feel proud to be part of Group A, which is clearly better than Group B.  But what if respecting Group B led to the growth and success of both groups?

So my key point is that all of these boundaries are social constructs. Yes, they can have important implications. No, we can’t always toss them aside. But I am amazed that leadership development rarely even touches on boundary work. Gerald Midgley calls “boundary” the central idea in systems thinking. Our colleague Kurt Richardson (a physicist) talks about the fact that boundary assumptions usually go unquestioned, resulting in flawed understanding, flawed decisions, and flawed actions.  Even by raising our awareness of boundaries, recognizing them as human and social creations, and reflecting on their ethical implications and their impacts on effectiveness, we could improve knowledge work in our organizations and communities.

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