The concept of a “corporate culture” has been a management consideration for a long time, and it was many years ago when I first began to give attention to the connection between the already-in-place corporate culture (in the classic sense of “corporate,” as in pertaining to or related to any group) and the organization’s functioning as a “knowledge culture.”
And that distinction between “corporate” culture and “organizational” culture is important. From my point of view — especially with my focus on knowledge services and the management of intellectual capital in the larger organization — it doesn’t matter how we designate the culture. The type of organization doesn’t matter. When we speak about knowledge services and building and implementing a knowledge strategy, our thinking has to do with any type of organization, regardless of whether the organization is part of the profit sector as a business, or if it is a non-profit, a not-for-profit, a volunteer organization, or even an NGO or government agency.
Of course “corporate culture” is defined. One of the most useful definitions I’ve found comes from the magazine Entrepreneur and the magazine’s “Small Business Encyclopedia,” a cozy reference that calls the corporate culture “a blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time.” The Entrepreneur definition continues:
Whether written as a mission statement, spoken,, or merely understood, corporate culture describes and governs the ways a company’s owners and employees think, feel, and act. Your own business’s culture may be based on beliefs spelled out in your mission statement. It could consist in part of a corporate symbol, like the rainbow-colored apple that symbolizes Apple Computer. Whatever shape it takes, your corporate culture plays a big role in determining how well your business will do.
As we work with knowledge strategy development, we drill down deeper. Why? Because one of the questions most asked is “How can we change the culture here?” Or, more directly, “What can we do to make knowledge sharing better in our organization?” Many people, ordinary knowledge workers and executives alike, are frequently on the look-out for advice about how to build (or if built, how to strengthen) the management of intellectual capital and — to take the effort to its logical result — how to establish (or re-fresh) the organization as a knowledge culture.
So I take the Entrepreneur definition and I re-work it, in knowledge services terms. First of all, I try to define just what it means to tackle the development (or enhancement) of a knowledge culture within the organization. In much of my work I’ve identified a number of attributes that stand out in any organization that functions as a knowledge culture, and three seem to head the list: in a knowledge culture, the people who make up the larger body of stakeholders — the knowledge workers in Peter Drucker’s famous and now nearly ubiquitous descriptor — are committed to transparency, collaboration, and collegiality. In other words, they are committed to working with one another, recognizing that in being open and transparent with each other, in collaborating with one another, and by interacting in a collegial framework, not only will their own success come easier, their contribution to the larger organizational success will be effectively realized with less friction and a more mutually supportive way of doing things.
There are other attributes, too, that come into play. These were first published — I think — in my centenary history of the Special Libraries Association published seven years ago (SLA at 100: From “Putting Knowledge to Work”® to Building the Knowledge Culture: The Special Libraries Association 1909-2009). That book is no longer in print, so the list was re-worked in Chapter One (“Building the Knowledge Culture”) of Knowledge Services: A Strategic Framework for the 21st Century Organization, published in 2016.
Here, then, are the critical essentials of a knowledge culture, an organization that I like to think of as “knowledge-centric”:
- Strength in collaboration (with no disincentives to collaborate).
- Respect for and support of the integrity of the knowledge process, with an emphasis on transparency (except in clearly defined situations requiring proprietary discretion or security), honesty, and trust.
- Focus on the larger organizational role and the benefits for the larger organization (not on individuals or individual departments).
- Professional allegiance to the organization or enterprise; allegiance to an external influence, such as a profession or a school of thought or a political, religious, or social philosophy, is secondary.
- Enthusiasm for information technology and communication in the knowledge development, knowledge sharing, and knowledge utilization (KD/KS/KU) process.
- Respect and enthusiasm for knowledge services as a management and service-delivery methodology.
- Respect for the intellectual foundation of the effort; the intellectual quest is not disdained.
- The recognition that intellectual capital is an essential and critical organizational asset and that KM – however defined – is a legitimate functional operation in the organization (St. Clair, 2009).”
It’s not enough, though, simply to identify and list the attributes of the knowledge culture. For those of us who work in the organization’s knowledge domain, we must also understand — and recognize — that everyone in the company doesn’t have our close-at-hand experience with knowledge development, knowledge sharing, and knowledge utilization (that “KD/KS/KU” we speak about so often). We also have another job, and that’s to raise awareness about the value of knowledge and how knowledge is used for the benefit of the organization. That’s when we bring in our expertise for — to put it in more managerial terms — building the business case for shifting the organization to a more knowledge-centric framework.
And since we know that many senior management, c-suite types have been exposed — at least superficially — to knowledge management, having heard “about” KM and knowledge services, there might already be a sense that the company or the organization could be “doing” something with knowledge services. The only problem with that situation is that, with their larger leadership and organizational management responsibilities, these executives are not — nor should they be expected to be — particularly expert at getting the knowledge-sharing framework moving.
That’s when the knowledge strategist — as the organization’s knowledge thought leader — takes over. These organizational knowledge specialists can do it. They are the experts and they can lead the awareness-raising effort. And they begin by figuring out how to get the ear of an executive or company leader, in order to establish his or her interest in the value of knowledge and how knowledge is used in the organization and — not to be dismissed lightly — how knowledge sharing affects organization behavior and organizational effectiveness. Then, having linked the benefits of the company’s intellectual capital to the company’s success, the knowledge strategist moves forward, in effect building the business case for knowledge services.
The knowledge strategist takes four particular steps:
- Find a sponsor. The knowledge strategist figures out a way to establish a relationship with a reliable KM/knowledge services champion or advocate. Hopefully someone in or near the C-suite, the knowledge services sponsor should be a person who understands the risks of approaching KD/KS/KU too casually. Once the knowledge strategist has that person’s confidence, he or she makes it clear that they can help move a strong knowledge services framework forward. But the knowledge strategist needs the sponsor’s help.
- Talk about the company’s KD/KS/KU vision. The knowledge strategist will make special effort to speak about knowledge sharing with anyone who will listen – and if there isn’t a vision already in place, they bring the subject up.
- Identify the company’s information and knowledge gatekeepers. It’s the knowledge strategist’s job to identify who “owns” knowledge services. Regardless of what type of organization it is, someone or some group of people have responsibility for knowledge sharing (either nominally or stated specifically).
- Ask what future planning is being done with respect to such hot-button topics as information governance, privacy and security, big data (and strategies for dealing with big data), compliance and risk management, and the like. All of these issues — and many more — have to do with the company’s approach to KD/KS/KU, and it is the knowledge strategist who has the expertise management needs for ensuring the success of the KD/KS/KU process.
Finally, once the relationship with the sponsor has been established, a supplementary step can be taken, a step that — if I’ve succeeded — will strengthen the knowledge strategist/sponsor relationship and lead to a wider understanding of knowledge value in organizational behavior. I was honored to be asked to contribute an article to the Summer 2017 (Issue 85 ) of Leader to Leader, the award-winning journal published by the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute. The journal is specifically designed to address challenging issues all executives face and, in particular, to “discuss new strategies for competition and cooperation across all sectors.” My task with the article, titled “Knowledge Services: Your Foundation for Building the Twenty-First Century Knowledge Organization,” was to provide organizational managers with advice about how to incorporate knowledge services into their organizations as they prepare for the future. I do this by describing how knowledge sharing is better implemented through knowledge services. I also seek to set up specific roles — with respect to knowledge services — for both the organization’s knowledge strategist and its leaders. The article is available directly from the Hesselbein Leadership Institute and in most research, academic, and large public libraries through the Wiley Online Library.