The Strong Effects of the Soft Factors of Knowledge Management
(T-Systems International, Germany
(T-Systems International, Germany
Abstract: Knowledge culture is one aspect in corporate culture.
It describes, how knowledge is identified, acquired, developed, distributed,
used and retained. There are tree levels with which the culture can be
described: basic underlying assumptions, norms and values, artifacts. Based
on this description it is possible to analyse the current culture and define
measures to change it towards a more knowledge oriented culture. A survey
on the wm03 had shown, that in most organization still exist an overlap
or an ambivalence which is characterized by non-knowledge-oriented culture
elements. For the change of culture the tools that are developed for cultural
change must be adapted for the specific needs of knowledge cultural change.
Keywords: Knowledge Management, Corporate Culture, Leadership
Categories: A, H
"Acquiring a feeling for one's own corporate culture and its influence
on managing knowledge is, in our opinion, a very important step for the
introduction of effective knowledge management" write Gilbert Probst,
Steffen Raub und Kai Rombard, in what has become a standard in the field,
"Wissen managen"1 ("Managing Knowledge").
In a study by the Institute for e-Management regarding knowledge management,
the main topic was knowledge culture.2 Over half of the Top
1000 German companies and Top 200 foreign companies confirm that a knowledge
culture plays a decisive role in how employees think and behave relative
to knowledge. In contrast, it is very difficult to describe what knowledge
culture is and how it is expressed within the organization.
Knowledge culture is not only restricted to companies, although that
is the focus here, but rather extends to society as a whole. The value
of knowledge, the treatment of it and the framework, among them the acquisition,
the preservation and the use of knowledge, influence to what degree knowledge
is used for developing and ensuring the viability of the company and, by
extension, the entire society.
2Institut für e-Management e.V.: Trendthemen
im Wissensmanagement, Köln 2001
2 Definition of Culture
Culture is often described using indiscernible, intangible or complex
terms. This suggests that what we understand by culture is difficult to
grasp. There is no standard definition of the word "culture".
Edgar Schein suggested the following definition for the term "corporate
"Culture is a pattern of basic assumptions - invented, discovered,
or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of
external adaptation and internal integration - which have worked well enough
to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the
correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems."3
Culture is not simply a characteristic of our society, in companies
or groups, but it also has an important function. Culture gives humans
an orientation regarding how to act in specific situations. It thereby
reduces the multiplicity of possible behavioral alternatives to one, which
has proven to work satisfactorily based on collective experience. According
to Deal and Kennedy, therein lies the benefit of a strong corporate culture.
"A strong culture is a system of informal rules, which clearly states
how people should generally behave. If employees know exactly what is expected
of them, they will lose little time in deciding how to act in a certain
Each of the definitions emphasizes different aspects of the term "culture".
By investigating various definitions of culture, we identified the following
characteristics of culture:
- Culture is a product of people's collective social thinking and behavior
- Culture puts pressure on its members to conform
- Culture enables people to successfully navigate through society
- The characteristics of culture, as opposed to the concrete behaviors
themselves, determine these behaviors. The corporate culture supercedes
the individual who shaped the culture and outlasts their tenure at the
- Culture is an immaterial phenomenon that can only be described by characteristics
such as values, symbols, heroes and stories
- Culture is manifested in the language, standards and behavior patterns
of the social organization with their roles and rules, work and business
structures and technology
- Culture has an influence on how the members of the community think,
feel and act
- Culture determines behavior and orients its members regarding which
behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate in a specific context
- Culture unites successful behavior patterns on a meta-level and is
further developed by the experiences of its members. Culture cannot be
developed according to a plan.
4Deal, T.E. und Kennedy A. A.: Corporate
Culture zitiert nach [Ba97] S.70
- Culture must be experienced and learned by new members.
- Culture is a differentiating factor in relation to other people.
A general term for culture that refers to the entire society becomes
more specific within a work organization. A company creates a community
by virtue of its legal structure, in which one becomes a member by signing
a contract. Although this is not expressly described in the employment
contract, a signature means that one accepts the culture of this community.
The company is understood in such a way as a culture system, which develops
its own, unmistakable conceptual and orientation models which shape the
behavior of the members and the operational functional areas in invisible,
but nevertheless very effective ways. Culture acts as an invisible controlling
element in the organization. To a certain degree it unifies and makes coherent
people's thoughts, feelings and behaviors. However, the members of the
organization can only rarely label and describe the culture. One lives
in it, but hardly reflects upon it. Culture develops from co-operation.
It is the result of company history.
2.1 Knowledge and the Culture of Knowledge
It is as difficult to define knowledge as it is to define culture. Depending
upon their approach and the questions they pose, practitioners and scientists
define the term differently.5 Nevertheless
it is common to distinguish the levels of written symbols, data, information
and knowledge. The transition from one level to another is viewed as an
enrichment process. Written symbols become data through syntax rules. Data
is then able to be interpreted within a context and thereby becomes information.
Information becomes knowledge when various pieces of information can be
cross-linked and used in a specific topic area.
Collective knowledge can develop only if the individuals in a company
share a common context. Culture as a collective model of basic assumptions
only guarantees that knowledge can be generated within a company. If this
common culture did not exist, then the organization would not be able to
adapt to changes.
The term "knowledge culture" goes even beyond that. It is
an invisible control element related to how knowledge is treated. Susanne
Prediger defines it in this way: "the fraction of these collective
attitudes, capabilities and behaviors, which relate to knowledge, is called
the knowledge culture of the company."6
The most widely recognized representation of the process of generating
knowledge within a company is the description of the core processes of
knowledge management according to Probst. It describes, how knowledge is
identified, acquired, developed, distributed, used and retained.
The type of culture has an impact on how people in the company think,
feel and act; what kind of values, rituals and stories about knowledge
2.2 Levels of Culture Description
The approach to defining the concept of knowledge culture not only shows
that this is a phenomenon which is difficult to grasp. For the analysis
and change culture it is however necessary to find a framework with which
the culture can be described. A starting point for this is the following
three-level model developed by Edgar Schein.
6Susanne Prediger: Universitäre Wissenskultur
im Multi-Kulti der Disziplinen, Darmstadt Februar 2002
- Basic underlying assumptions: these are the unconscious assumptions
that the members of an organization have regarding their culture. There
are statements of belief , unconscious perceptions, thoughts and feelings.
They cannot be seen, only felt. Their descriptions have therefore a strongly
- The second level are the company's norms and values. These usually
exist in written form. However they have a very general and theoretical
- The third level are the Artifacts: These have to do with visible
structures and processes. Corporate culture and knowledge culture can be
simultaneously seen in the company's artifacts..
Figure 1: Levels of cultural description
Schein suggests that the following elements can be used to describe
- Observed behavior: language, customs, traditions
- Group norms: standards and values
- Espoused values: published, publicly announced values
- Formal philosophy: mission
- Rules of the game: rules applying to everyone in the organization
- Climate: the way in which the group members interact
- Embedded skills
- Habits of thinking, acting, paradigms: shared knowledge about how to
- Metaphors or symbols
Knowledge culture can be described by answering the following questions
which are based on the above elements:
- Observed behavior: Which tradition or which traditions exist
in the company regarding the handling of knowledge? How do people communicate
when they require knowledge from others or want to pass on knowledge? Are
there specific idioms or terms?
- Group norms: Are there formal or informal rules, which promote
transferring knowledge or using others' knowledge?
- Espoused values: How is knowledge positioned within the official
value system, that is written down in guiding principles or examples? Do
explicit statements exist?
- Formal philosophy: Is knowledge explicitly mentioned in the
- Rules of the Game: Is the treatment of knowledge formulated
in the official company rules? What unofficial rules have developed?
- Climate: How do team members interact with one another while
they are developing knowledge?
- Embedded skills: Which abilities do the employees have to acquire
knowledge? Are they aware of the sources of knowledge? Which abilities
do they have to document knowledge? How well can they convert implicit
knowledge into explicit knowledge?
- Habits of thinking, acting, paradigms: What are their implicit
rules about appropriate behavior?
- Metaphors or symbols: Are there metaphors or symbols related
to knowledge? Which stories are told about dealing with knowledge?
The answers to these questions, represent a first description of the
contents of a knowledge culture. One reaches a further level of description,
if the respective characteristics are differentiated according to breadth
and depth. Breadth refers to the number of employees whose behavior can
be influenced by the culture. Depth refers to how firmly the coworkers
are convinced of the culture.
Therefore one can speak of a strongly or weakly expressed corporate
culture. Strongly pronounced corporate cultures are characterized by the
fact that their elements shape the employees' behavior, that a large number
of employees have accepted the culture and that it is firmly embodied in
the value system of the employees.
Knowledge culture is but one component of the corporate culture, focused
specifically on knowledge is managed. Subcultures exist alongside the corporate
culture, e.g. management culture, service culture etc. Knowledge culture
has a two-way relationship with each subculture. On the one hand these
cultures support handling knowledge and on the other side support the knowledge
culture of the subcultures. In this way, an appropriate management culture
can promote the exchange of knowledge, by making openness and transparency
central values. On the other hand a good knowledge culture can support
the service culture, by promoting the exchange of experience and knowledge
among the service employees. The following picture shows the relationship
among the three description levels described here.
Figure 2: Three different way to describe culture
Often it appears that the description of the company's knowledge culture
is not consistent, but in itself contains contradictions. Some of the most
common contradictions are:
- We train our employees well, but do not let them use their knowledge
- We learn the most by working on projects, but do not pass on the experience
- We have an expert for every question, but very few people know how
to find the expert
- We document everything thoroughly, but we cannot access our stores
- We hire only the brightest people, but lose them after three years
to the competition
- We know everything about our competitors, but very little about ourselves
- We demand that employees share their knowledge, but keep secrets to
- We cooperate in order to learn from others, but do not know what our
2.3 Paradigm Change
These contradictions reveal that in many companies a paradigm change
in knowledge management is taking place. New models of knowledge management
that spring from the strategic requirements are needed. However, even when
a new model is introduced, the previous model remains alive in the minds
of the employees. The high efficiency of hierarchical organizations existed
in their specialization, both in the kind of the tasks accomplished, as
well as in the specialization regarding design, production and controlling
of production. Knowledge exchange was, if at all, only necessary within
a level of specialization. Knowledge acquisition was primarily an individual
matter. Collective knowledge acquisition was rather the exception. Specialization
determined the value of the work. The cultural framework was structured
in such a way that it promoted individual knowledge acquisition.
At the end of the 20th Century however a fundamental paradigm change
in industrial production took place. Hellmut Willke examined this change
in several case studies which are documented in his book, "Systemisches
Wissensmanagement" ("Systemic Knowledge Management"). He
describes the change as follows: "To the degree that knowledge-based
organizations manufactured superior, intelligent products and services,
the usefulness of industrial work organized according to Taylor's philosophy
declined. The scientific work model was replaced by the knowledge work
model, in which the work content and organizational structure of work are
defined. While the classic professions made a contribution as individuals
or in small teams, the new knowledge work is done in large, complex, geographically-dispersed
and, in extreme cases, global organizations.8
In parallel with the change in organizing work, comes a need for changing
the way knowledge is managed.
When we talk about knowledge culture today, we usually mean a change
of the knowledge culture toward collective knowledge acquisition. Signs
of such a culture are whether:
- knowledge is freely shared or carefully guarded,
- knowledge is made accessible,
- knowledge is passed down throughout the organizational levels,
- the employees are allowed to acquire knowledge,
- knowledge is important within the company,
- making an effort to increase knowledge is valued,
- employees have a positive attitude toward learning,
8[Wi98] S. 3
- the organization tolerates errors and is open to new thoughts, ideas
- communication is encouraged and employees are rewarded if they pass
on their knowledge and continually strive to acquire new knowledge.
3 Summary of Knowledge Culture and Conclusions
At the WM 03 we conducted a survey of the participants regarding the
current status of the knowledge culture. The results are not representative
for an overall view, however they show the present trend. The corporate
culture values related to knowledge orientation are shown in Figure 3:
Figure 3: Knowledge oriented culture
What is remarkable about the knowledge-oriented values is that only
a few are pronounced. In particular, one notices a difference in the success
orientation of the company and success orientation in the knowledge culture.
Here it was asked whether knowledge management activities in the organization
are rewarded. Here there are only 10 % positive answers as opposed to the
100 % positive answers regarding corporate culture. The values innovation,
flexibility, openness of communication and the sense of responsibility
are pronounced in managing knowledge. This lines up with the values in
the company's culture profile. During knowledge-related cooperation, speed
and quality orientation are noticeable in that they are pronounced both
in the positive, as well as in the negative ranges of the scale. Here probably
two culture elements are effective.
Figure 4 shows to what extent the culture value appears in visible written
word, stories, rituals and language.
Figure 4: Artifacts of Knowledge Culture
In organizations it is rather uncommon to tell stories about knowledge.
This results in few positive as well as negative answers regarding the
question about stories related to managing knowledge. The clearest indication
of how well knowledge management is anchored in the culture is the language.
The predominant positive answers related to positive language characteristics
and the predominant negative answers related to the negative elements of
speech make this clear. There is a balance between knowledge-oriented behaviors
and behaviors that do not promote knowledge. The knowledge culture is most
difficult to discern in rituals. The behaviors that do not promote knowledge
still prevail. Rituals regarding knowledge management are rather the exception.
Figure 5 below shows the determinates for knowledge culture.
Figure 5: Hard Facts of Knowledge Management
All organizations make knowledge-based products. On the other hand the
spreading of knowledge management tools is relatively limited. Here there
are only 46 % positive responses. The explicit implementation of a knowledge
organization in the form of a free-standing organizational unit is rather
the exception. The negative responses are clearly pronounced here. However,
many organizations have incentive systems for knowledge management. Several
responses were possible regarding the organization structure. The organizational
units have rather combinations of organizations. Hierarchical organizations
have an overlay of projects or networks. A hierarchical organization structure
is the most common form. Here only one quarter of the survey participants
indicated that they work explicitly in a non-hierarchical organization.
Altogether the positive responses regarding knowledge culture were somewhat
over 50%. This means that the topic of knowledge culture has not yet become
a dominating culture element in the company. The prevailing attitude toward
knowledge-oriented and non-knowledge oriented elements is rather ambivalent.
The results of the survey point out the fact that the establishment of
knowledge culture has begun and its initial effects can be seen. However
there still exists an overlap or an ambivalence which is characterized
by non-knowledge-oriented culture elements.
For the change of knowledge culture it is important to know which elements
of culture supports knowledge management and which do not. Based on the
results of a survey there must be defined measures that support the positive
elements and establish platforms for changing the more negative elements.
There are many methods an tools that can be use for a cultural change process
like a dialog about knowledge culture in interactive meetings, real time
strategy change conferences or appreciative inquiries. They can be adapted
for the specific need for a change of knowledge culture.
Consulting methods like those of the Fraunhofer Institute9
or Arthur D. Little10 are examples for
such an approach. On the other hand there must be implemented structures,
like tools for knowledge management, communities of practise and incentive
systems which make it nccecary to have an other knowledge culture in the
every day live.
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corporate knowledge behavior, in: Ulrich Reimer, Andreas Abdecker, Steffen
Staab, Gerd Stumme (Hrsg.): WM2003: Professinelles Wissensmanagement -Erfahrungen
und Visionen, Bonn 2003
[Ba97] Bate, P.: Cultural Change, München 1997.
[BH97] Bea, F.; Haas, J.: Strategisches Management,
[Fi] Finke, I.: Verhaltensänderung und Motivation
für Wissensmanagement, in: Ulrich Reimer, Andreas Abdecker, Steffen
Staab, Gerd Stumme (Hrsg.): WM2003: Professinelles Wissensmanagement -Erfahrungen
und Visionen, Bonn 2003.
[PRR97] Probst, G.; Raub, S.; Rombardt, K.: Wissen
managen, Wiesbaden, 1997.
[Si01] Simon, H.: Unternehmenskultur und Strategie,
Frankfurt am Main, 2001.
[Sc95] Schein, E.: Unternehmenskultur, Frankfurt
/ Main, New York, 1995.
[Wi98] Willke, H.: Systemisches Wissensmanagement,