In the culture cluB
Over the years, I have found there is a certain trajectory to KM conversations. They start with the ‘hard’ stuff: serious conversations about systems, technology and processes. Brows are furrowed, notes taken, and earnest debate is conducted around the relative merits of search tools, DMS, taxonomies, metadata and workflows. Recently a new kid on the block – AI – has started to muscle in on the conversation – although often no one speaking is overly confident about who they are, where they’ve come from, or, indeed, where they’re going. All this to solve what is a deceptively simple question: how do we share what is locked up in our individual heads with the rest of our organisation and beyond?
And it is only when the conversation stutters to a close that someone wearily adds: “And then, of course, how do we create a knowledge-sharing culture?” Now, this question is problematic for several reasons. First, what exactly is an organisational – and, more particularly, a knowledge-sharing – culture? We talk about it frequently but rarely reflect on what exactly it involves. And how does this culture vary across our offices, practice areas and functions? As Max Boisot, one of the most perceptive writers on KM, notes, “Culture operates at many levels of aggregation”.
Secondly, we can no more ‘create’ a culture than we can unerringly foretell what might happen in a particular city over a given weekend. Both are complex systems made up of multiple players, prone to act in unpredictable ways. We may cultivate the conditions from which a particular culture might evolve, but we cannot determine the outcome. Our organisations are organic, not mechanical systems. And in the world of culture, two plus two does not always add up to four.
So, the question of culture is one we should raise at the beginning of the conversation. There is nothing ‘soft’ about culture. Indeed, it asks the hardest questions of all. But for those seeking enlightenment, there is help at hand. The 2018 ISO standard on KM grapples adroitly with the concept of a knowledge management culture. It describes how such a culture reflects the extent to which people invest time in reflecting and learning; freely offer their knowledge to others; feel comfortable asking for advice; and place value on acquiring new knowledge through experience. Pragmatically, the standard also details the factors that influence KM culture: trust, leadership behaviours, customs and diversity. This is sensible guidance that, in my experience, distils the stuff that works in practice. Yes, culture may be nebulous. Yes, it may be a catch-all for every organisational woe. And, yes, it may appear daunting. But culture does matter, and as ISO 30401 notes, there are actions we can take that may “steward it towards the desired state”. So, in this particular culture club, it’s not always a miracle you require. Sage advice from an international standard may sprinkle its own magic.