A Tale from IBM

How do you encourage knowledge sharing?  At the recent NetIKX meeting Paul Corney spoke about his views on the link of knowledge sharing to aspects of ‘space’ in relation to this question. Not aliens and starships; rather picking up the issues of how you organise appropriate physical space. I have heard Paul talk on this topic before, but he brought plenty of new information to the table. 

One quote he provided, from a recent questionnaire reply, seemed to sum up the views of many people who have suffered boredom and frustration. Q: Where is the best place for knowledge sharing? A: Not in meetings! People suggested that a better answer to this question could be at a kitchen coffee point or perhaps at the water cooler, although I don’t think this image suits these cold, rainy British days.  Certainly informal spaces that form hubs where people can cluster together, without being bound by the formality of work roles, have always been important places to allow communication to flow

This reminds me of the story of John Akers, the IBM CEO who is famous for presiding over a period of dramatic loss of profitability. He noticed that after a merger with another organisation, staff were spending much more time away from their desks, and could be found chatting in the kitchen or other non-work spaces. He fired off a furious memo requiring everyone to get back to working hard at their desks. But then, it was pointed out to him that conscientious staff had not suddenly developed a taste for time wasting. They were making the best use of opportunities to talk with their new colleagues. This ‘wasted time’ spent chatting was an essential part of sharing knowledge that helped them merge their work together. The CEO had to climb down. By doing so, he let staff in the newly merged entity learn to work successfully.  But it was not to help Mr Akers. He was removed from his position of CEO in 1992, as IBM’s profits continued to fall!

In my research, I spent time in an organisation that had a strategy focused on knowledge management as a key to successful delivery.  But a decision was taken was to close the canteen, which had been the main area for cross-organisational communications at their headquarters. It was deemed too expensive – but many people who worked there felt that the organisation suffered from ‘silo working’ where people in different teams, on different floors. rarely mixed. This negatively impacted on their work, so who knows what value to the organisation was lost when the canteen disappeared?

This meeting will be followed by one in March that looks at knowledge sharing from the perspective of incentives to staff and so will identify a very different approach. On the one hand it could be claimed that providing appropriate space for people to gather and talk will allow people to find ways to share relevant knowledge from their natural dedication to deliver better work. Or do we need to be given incentives to do this? Would that be wise – or manipulative? The next NetIKX meeting will hear Steve Dale pick up this theme and take the lead in a discussion. 

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