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Sticky Knowledge - Book Review

1 August 2011

Dr. Moria Levy

The book "Sticky Knowledge: Barriers to Knowing in the Firm," written by Professor Gabriel Sazolansky in 2003, elucidates his doctoral thesis from 1995, a seminal work in the early era of knowledge management. Sazolansky's research, acknowledged with a prestigious award, explores the challenges associated with knowledge transfer within an organization.


The research cohort included renowned companies such as Xerox and AT&T, and noteworthy observations indicated that pioneers in knowledge management practices, such as Chevron and Texas Instruments, adjusted their methodologies based on insights gleaned from the study.


While the book aims to connect academic research to the business realm, its scholarly style, filled with quotes from various studies, statistical analyses, and more, can make it occasionally challenging to read.


The book covers several key topics, including:

  1. The Sticky Knowledge Challenge

  2. The Significance of Stickiness to the Organization's Performance

  3. Predictive Factors

  4. Steps in the Transfer of Knowledge

  5. Factors Predicting Stickiness at Each Stage

  6. Practical Conclusions


Despite the book's vintage, the enduring nature of organizational dynamics suggests its continued relevance. It remains a valuable resource for gaining insights and learning from the presented ideas. For a comprehensive understanding, it is recommended to peruse the entire book.

Happy reading!


The Sticky Knowledge Challenge

The concept of stickiness was unfamiliar until I encountered it in the book, transcending its initial literal connotation that invokes images of children engaged in creative pursuits. However, the study delves into a different realm, not exploring this literal imagery but focusing on the transfer of knowledge within organizations, especially the challenges associated with conveying experiential knowledge or best practices. Conventional hurdles in communicating best practices, often attributed to factors like jealousy, lack of incentives, insecurity, prioritization issues, resistance to change, and commitment gaps, are typically rooted in motivational aspects. This study on stickiness introduces an alternative perspective, emphasizing reasons intrinsic to knowledge itself, prompting a reevaluation of the stickiness of knowledge.


So, what exactly is this stickiness?

The concept of stickiness denotes immobility, incapacity to move, and incompatibility. In the strategic management literature, stickiness is linked to apathy. According to one interpretation from the Oxford English Dictionary, stickiness characterizes social situations marked by unwillingness, stubbornness, and unpleasantness. The concept aligns closely with its literal meaning: sticky knowledge is resistant to dissemination and reluctant to expand, making it challenging for organizations to transfer it from one unit to another. As it turns out, insights tend to be sticky.


The Significance of Stickiness to the Organization's Performance

An organization's performance mirrors its ability to consistently apply superior knowledge before competitors can replicate it efficiently and effectively. Organizations' competitive edge is often attributed to their utilization of templates or work examples derived from their experience.


In this context, stickiness signifies the presence of factors that impede sharing, diminish learning, and consequently hinder the attainment of a competitive advantage.

Predictive Factors:

The anticipation of a stickiness problem within an organization can be foreseen by analyzing various characteristics in knowledge transfer. These predictors encompass factors related to both the transferor and the recipient, as well as those associated with the connection and context:


Factors related to the transferor:

  1. Incidental significance of knowledge: Explanation: Individuals may intentionally utilize knowledge while neglecting its original meaning or due to a lack of awareness. This results in a substantial gap between the source and the product, between norms and actual conduct. Organizations exhibiting this characteristic are more likely to encounter knowledge transfer difficulties.

  2. Lack of proof of the usefulness of knowledge.

  3. Lack of motivation of the transferor.

  4. Lack of reliability of the transferor.


Recipient-related factors:

  1. Lack of motivation of the recipient.

  2. Lack of absorption capacity of the recipient.

  3. The inability of the recipient to remember and maintain.


Related Factors in Connection and Context:

  1. A futile organizational context (no context for knowledge).

  2. There is no good enough (tedious) relationship between the moralist and the receiver.


These identified factors provide insights into an organization's potential challenges in transferring knowledge.


Steps in the Transfer of Knowledge

There are four critical stages in the transfer of knowledge. Recognizing these stages is crucial because the challenges present at each stage vary, as detailed in the next section.


These stages encompass:

  1. Initiative: Commitment to the initiative is linked to the challenge of identifying opportunities for knowledge transfer and the difficulty in recognizing the action potential based on this knowledge. At the start of this stage, a significant milestone is the awareness that there is knowledge to be transferred, with a potential difficulty being an unreliable source of knowledge.

  2. Implementation: The actual transfer of knowledge is the focus of this stage. A notable milestone at the beginning is the decision to transfer knowledge, with potential difficulty involving gaps (in communication/culture) between the transmitting and receiving entities.

  3. Acceleration: This stage marks the initiation of utilizing the transmitted knowledge. A milestone at the start is the first day of using knowledge, while a potential difficulty may involve encountering problems (many/complex) when attempting to apply the new knowledge.

  4. Integration: This stage involves integrating knowledge into the unit that received it. A milestone at the outset is the satisfactory performance in the use of knowledge in the receiving unit, with a potential difficulty in managing challenges related to the routinization of knowledge.


These stages underscore the complexity of the transfer process, extending beyond mere technical transfer.


In addition to the lateral study, the researcher closely examined three organizations to delve deeper into these stages:

  • Rank Xerox: Focused on the Initiative Phase.

  • Banc One: Explored the phases of Implementation and Acceleration.

  • CENTEL: Investigated the Integration phase.


Factors Predicting Stickiness at Each Stage

One of the study's objectives was to investigate the factors predicting stickiness at each stage. The results yielded some partially surprising findings:


Firstly, it became evident that there are dominant factors, not necessarily the ones one might expect, and their influence as predictors varies across stages.


Secondly, certain predictive factors contributed to stickiness, increasing it in some stages while reducing it in others. An example is an unmotivated recipient, which diminishes difficulty at the initiation and integration stages but increases it during the implementation and acceleration stages (Note: This finding aligns with existing research literature that corroborates and provides potential explanations).

Lastly, a partial discrepancy existed between managers' perceptions of difficulties and the study's results. Managers rated factors that were found to be second, third, and fourth in importance (with the last two significantly lower). Surprisingly, they believed that the most significant predictor of stickiness was the lack of motivation on the part of the recipient, a factor found to be much less significant in the study and one with reversing meanings.


The three most significant predictors of stickiness identified were:

  1. Lack of absorption capacity of the recipient.

  2. Incidental significance of knowledge.

  3. Not a good enough (tedious) relationship between the moralist and the receiver.


Practical Conclusions

In every knowledge transfer, it is essential to comprehend the stages, understand the factors predicting difficulty (stickiness), and prepare for them accordingly. It's crucial to recognize that addressing the stickiness of knowledge involves more than just motivating the transmitter and the receiver, particularly acknowledging that the significance of knowledge can undermine its effective transmission.


When selecting a pilot group, choosing the most enthusiastic group about receiving knowledge is not advisable. Enthusiasm aids in the initiation and integration stages but hinders progress in the intermediate stages. The researcher suggests opting for a group that is enthusiastic but to a lesser extent or selecting two groups—one passionate and one less so.


Another noteworthy conclusion from the study is the facilitation of knowledge transfer, especially when there is agreement, support, and commitment from senior management. These elements significantly contribute to addressing the challenges raised.


Numerous organizations have adjusted their knowledge management programs based on these conclusions. It is unquestionably worthwhile to consider these insights as well.

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