The APQC Blog

Why Your KM Culture is Failing (It’s not What You Think)

So the question is: “Culture or structure?” Now many of you may have heard the phrase, or its variant, something like: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If that’s so, then certainly at the very least culture must be having structure for lunch then.

My take on this is that even if both are true: 1) it’s not always a fait accompli, and 2) it’s not always a good thing. Or more to the point, just because it can be true, doesn’t mean it should be. Clearly, we all know that corporate cultures (and even more importantly, corporate micro-cultures) make their worlds go ‘round. The short hand lingo and acronyms, the behavioral norms, and even the organizational history all play an important—and often expectation setting environment—that permeates the daily activities of an organization.

So what’s the big deal? Well, for me it’s the fact that both culture and structure are needed if there’s to be real, consistent, enterprise-wide knowledge sharing going on. It’s like the old standardized math test problem: culture is required, but it’s not sufficient. Similarly, structure is required, but it’s not sufficient. How does an organization get the best of both worlds then? (sorry for the cliché) It does so by creating structure that takes advantage of its existing culture. What does that mean? Well, it means that you can’t change culture by attempting to create a knowledge sharing environment, but you can change knowledge sharing through the use of culture.

Carla and Cindy give more specific advice here if you’d like to read up on some tried and true ways to make the latter happen.  For me, it’s an acknowledgement that corporate culture is what shapes the organization, and it’s not going away any time soon—or ever. It also means that any change designed to create structure shouldn’t be done in mind with “throwing out the baby with the bath water” (sorry for the second cliché). Think of it more like judo, where you use strengths of your opponent to your advantage. In this case the opponent is any barrier to knowledge sharing.

What does this look like in real life then? Well, knowledge sharing is going on all the time in organizations. It’s just that the “organization” doesn’t know it or internalize it. That’s because the sharing is one-to-one, or one-to-a few, or at best a few-to- a few. The organization may get some short term gain from this culture of knowledge sharing, but in the long run it goes the way of, and with the people, and the organization ends up with amnesia. Make it as easy for people to share with each other on the record as it is to share off the record (clichés #3 and #4 I guess).

Don’t know what people want to know but can’t find it? Ask them (they’re already asking each other). Don’t have processes for people to share? Create them (they’re already doing it as easily as they think it is). Don’t have mechanisms for them to do it efficiently like through IT enablement? Get them (the knowledge is hidden in peoples’ email already anyway). One last thing, and it spans any organizational culture (I’ll call it individual culture): answer the “what’s in it for me,” or WIIFM (mercifully, cliché #5 and the last one—for now).