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Knowledge management in a global environment

1 October 2012
Michal Blumenfeld Sagi

There's an old joke that explains the difference between a European Heaven and a European Hell. Both are run by the same countries manning the same positions. The only difference is which country is manning which position. The positions are: Managers, Engineers, Cooks, Policemen and Lovers. The countries are: Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany and Britain. You don't have to know the rest of the joke in order to guess who was assigned which position where. All you have to know is the common stereotype of each country. Relying on these stereotypes can be tempting when we are managing knowledge in a global environment.

Although every stereotype is based on a certain truth, they cannot be used as a reliable source of information. For example, the face that one has heard that Germans are efficient hardly counts as "background research concerning local culture" when dealing with a company's German branch.

In 1995, Marshall McLuhan coined the term "The Global Village". Since then, technology has evolved, culture has changed tens of times, the internet and social networks have all rapidly minimized the village. Suddenly, the village became merely a global puddle. Yet, perceiving the world as a tiny global village can be harmful or at least insufficient when managing the Knowledge of an international organization. Although there are many global common denominators, we should always take into consideration the resources required in order to learn and understand the role the local culture plays. A false understanding of the local culture along with its specific sensitivities, yielding an irrelevant or harmful knowledge management solution, can lead to failure of the whole project.

Who are we working with?

This is an essential question that must be answered when we are requested to provide knowledge management solutions for any organization, and it becomes a critically important one when dealing with global organizations. If this global organization has branches in different countries, this question is actually composed of three stages. We must ask: What is the organizational culture? What is the local culture? We then must define the relationship between the two. Sometimes, there is a contradiction between the organizational culture and the local culture. When managing this organization's knowledge, we must consider this relationship and act accordingly.. In an ideal situation, a knowledge management situation can even assist in settling the conflict between the two cultures.


Organizational culture VS Local culture

Let's assume we created a sophisticated English-based portal, which (theoretically) fulfills the knowledge needs of the organization's workers sufficiently. What if in the local culture, workers are accustomed to information being streamed top down by an authority or expert via email or phone call. In these cases, workers usually have little access to the internet and most workers speak only basic English. This will probably result in our portal, amazing as it may be, remaining unused by any local workers. In order to prevent mistakes of this sort, We must ask: what are the elements we should take into consideration when creating our adjusting a knowledge management solution for a local community?

Let's assume we're working with a large global organization. Even if we did figure the cultural organization out, we must remember that local culture is equally dominant, if not more dominant, than organizational culture. We must therefore consider this solution might not fit other communities or branches of the same organization (at least not 'out of the box'). It might succeed in Germany yet fail in France.

In order to ensure success in all communities, it is recommended to first and foremost consider the following major challenges:

  1. Language: Interacting with English speaking workers can mistakenly lead us to believe all workers are fluent.. This actually does not assure all workers (edge workers included) are equally articulate.

  2. Openness to change: In some cases openness to change is integral to organizational culture. Nevertheless, this does not assure it is equally implemented everywhere. It is safe to assume local culture more influential than organizational instructions. Cultures differ in their openness to technological change.

  3.  Double ice: a KM consultant's inability to work face to face, create interpersonal, unmediated and see in person how business is handled, is joined by the difficulty to speak a foreign language, sometimes foreign to both workers and consultant.

Optional solutions and tips

  1. It is important to conduct cultural background work. For example, you can consult someone who has a firsthand experience of this culture. This person can offer tips, do's and don'ts.

  2. Locate a local contact to commit to the project. An insider can mediate the knowledge management solution as well as assist in locating knowledge leaders and in the implementation process.

  3. As part of the background research, find out what level of English is spoken in the organization or used in the organization. If the organization claims that the workers speak English yet you suspect this isn't the case, it is recommended to initiate an introductory conversation in order to put their English to the test.

  4. Alike any knowledge management process, there is great importance to charting needs via surveys and questionnaires, video conference focus groups, etc. Besides identifying needs, another purpose of this introductory process is to create familiarity and trust. It is essential to reach a respectful, non-threatening relationship fully intending to assist the workers in overcoming their challenges. Being far from the "mother ship" (the organization) may convey a false feeling of superiority. Remember: we are here to assist, not command.

  5. In case of a substantial time difference which minimizes the time available for working together, it is recommended to gently inquire if workers are available for conversation outside of the conventional work hours. In some cultures, not every question should be answered explicitly. In this case, an explicit question may be considered rude. Furthermore, we must check if the answer we were given is correct/serious or merely polite.

  6. Different communities require different levels of effort invested in the implementation. We can assess this level only after we understand what the conventional work methods are and whether they are traditional or simply habits, i.e. how much does this organization rely on hierarchical structures and knowledge sharing? When we have answers to these questions, we can construct a gradual plan. Also when implementing, there is no need to force solutions onto the organization assuming they fit it, rather adjust the solution to the local culture.

  7. Tailoring the solution according to specific needs, thus, for instance, if many users find using English difficult, we can offer them a solution that integrates a limited format of a local portal (beside the global portal). A process of prioritization can result in the fulfillment of the most urgent needs.

  8. Tutorials and accessibility. The organization can benefit from tutorials conducted in the local language, even when discussing English-based knowledge management solutions.

Every implementation of a knowledge management solution is a long, complex process. it should be noted that an international knowledge management solution is even longer and more complex, and as such deserves the appropriate funding and resources. Just like assigning someone the wrong position can make a thriving paradise a living hell, so can understanding the cultural factors and addressing them appropriately can make the difference between the project's success and its failure.

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