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Cultural resistance to KM persists

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Cultural resistance to knowledge management (KM) is still a major impediment to organizations embracing KM, according to research conducted in 2012 by Elana Zeide and myself, as well as by Nina Evans. To gain more insight, I developed a KM cultural resistance survey, and received responses from 84 different organizations in the United States and abroad in June 2012. Those surveyed included industry, government, academic and other not-for-profit organizations. This article will highlight some of the issues  and results that emerged from the survey.

Learning and knowledge sharing proficiencies

In the first question, participants were asked if learning and knowledge sharing proficiencies are part of the employee's annual performance review. Sixty-one percent responded "no," and 39 percent said "yes." See downloadable charts. The reason for asking that question was to see whether people are formally rewarded for exhibiting knowledge sharing behaviors. If so, that might help reduce some of the cultural resistance to KM because it could show that the organization is placing value on and promoting knowledge sharing. So, even though most organizations surveyed don't formally include learning and knowledge sharing proficiencies as part of the employee's annual appraisal review, they might be using various recognition and awards to promote a continuously learning culture in their organization.

Rewarded skills

To learn what specific knowledge sharing proficiencies were rewarded or recognized by those organizations that did so, the most frequent responses were:

  • learning, mentoring (e.g., applies learning to improving processes);
  • teamwork;
  • excellence;
  • collaboration ("shares knowledge and expertise" as a specific activity);
  • ability to collaborate and communicate (e.g., collaborates well with others creating usable processes and products);
  • outreach (regarding knowledge sharing to customer groups);
  • interested and inquisitive;
  • identifies and applies best practices to improve outcomes;
  • manages content effectively;
  • virtual collaboration under "engagement and collaboration" (including building professional networks, information sharing and leveragingcollaborative networks);
  • leadership of communities of practice/interest; and
  • designing and promulgating knowledge capture of analytical tools (measured by successful transition to enterprise capabilities).

For those that didn't use learning and knowledge sharing proficiencies as part of an annual performance review, the typical reasons given were:

  • lack the organizational maturity to engage at the moment;
  • don't have enough time, people and money to reprioritize;
  • leadership and cultural changes associated with line-of-sight issues;
  • KM has not matured to become a culture and behavior in the organization;
  • lack of understanding among supervisors of the importance of KM;
  • no consistency in enforcement or how they are applied by each manager;
  • knowledge sharing not valued;
  • KM not a top priority;
  • lack of awareness on the part of the senior leaders;
  • compliance varies with amount of interest the practice group leader places on it;
  • KM not a part of mainstream workflow;
  • reluctance to add to work profiles and workload;
  • senior management resistant to requiring staff to share knowledge—would rather just encourage sharing;
  • embed in other business processes; and
  • see KM as an "overhead" and "process" that do not directly contribute to the mission.

Centralized versus decentralized

Part of the cultural resistance to KM could stem from how it is positioned in the organization. We asked the survey respondents to indicate whether their KM function was more centralized or decentralized. Sixty percent said decentralized, and 40 percent indicated centralized. Both approaches could be effective. A decentralized approach could allow KM to permeate the organization on a wider basis, if there are appropriate resources (both people and money) to foster and leverage those KM activities. On the other hand, a centralized KM function could garner the necessary resources as a separate budget item and might show KM as a key function, instead of being partitioned into dispersed elements throughout the organization.

Related to that decentralization/centralization issue, when asked about the strength of the "grapevine" effect (in terms of the informal social networks) in the organization, about 69 percent responded strong, and 31 percent indicated otherwise. That could relate to the preponderance of organizations having a decentralized KM function. It might promote greater dispersion of the knowledge, which would tend to increase the grapevine effect of employees being tapped in.

Grapevine effect

Respondents gave the following main reasons why they felt the grapevine effect was strong or not strong in their organizations:


  • because of the absence of a formal internal communication function, and it is human nature to want to know;
  • bad news always travels fast within any organization;
  • informal social networking is the culture here;
  • have a very relationship-focused culture (as opposed to a process-focused culture);
  • one-third of the staff is geographically dispersed, which means that multiple communications channels are used to share news, information and ideas;
  • connectivity valued for job performance; and
  • trust exists.

No-employees are not tapped in

  • too many stovepipes,
  • culture and behavior issue,
  • knowledge hoarding and urban legends (it's always been done that way),
  • resistance to change (people are afraid to change),
  • lack of interpersonal and organizational trust, and
  • insufficient time to be disseminated among the ranks.

Knowledge sharing-related factors

From the research, knowledge sharing is often related to such factors as interpersonal trust and respect, reciprocity, shared values, convenient knowledge sharing mechanisms and senior leadership commitment to KM. To further explore those areas, the survey asked about how the respondents viewed those factors in their organization. Based on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), the most frequent responses were:

  • interpersonal trust and respect—8 (about 30 percent);
  • reciprocity—8 (about 21 percent), but 20 percent indicated 5 (neutral);
  • shared values with colleagues—5, 7 and 8 (all at about 17 percent);
  • convenient knowledge sharing mechanisms—4 (about 20 percent); and
  • senior leadership commitment to KM—3 (about 19 percent).

Based on those responses, senior leadership commitment to KM and having convenient knowledge sharing mechanisms were the most troublesome in the surveyed organizations. Certainly, they are critical elements for KM to be successful.

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