Creating a KS Culture

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Creating a Knowledge Sharing Culture

Please note there is a redundant page at Creating a KS culture - We need to get the most up to date one and delete the other one.


The issues around creating a knowledge sharing culture often come up in different threads on KM4Dev, which validates the fact that this topic is central to the concerns of members. Two threads dealt more specifically with culture. The first, intitled "Sharing knowledge in inclusive and exclusive arrangements" was introduced by Marc Steinlin of Helvetas in August 2001. The second thread, "Cultural setting and inter-organisational experiences" initiated by Ben Docker of UNSSC in January 2003, was actually resuscitated a couple of months later by Tony Prior of IRG. The existing FAQ - which can be found below in Detailed description - was updated using the content of these discussions.


Knowledge sharing, culture, organisational culture

Detailed description

What are the cultural factors that affect KS?

Here are some of the organisational culture-related factors that can affect or constrain knowledge sharing:

  • Existing mutual trust or openness to share, which can be related to the size of an organisation (smaller tends to have a higher trust level, presumably because of personal, face-to-face interaction)
  • Whether there is a common purpose already defined and a common identity around this purpose
  • Whether KS is seen as directly useful or appropriate to one's work (i.e. win-win)
  • The extent to which an organisation embraces teams, teamwork and collaboration as a way of working
  • The nature of the professionnal or career relationship (i.e., consultant vs staff), especially in public sector organisations
  • The extent to which an organisation does its own work, or outsources much of the thinking and implementation via grants and contracts
  • Whether an organisation deals with research, where peer review and sharing (at some level) is culturally supported
  • The extent to which an organisation is results-focused in the short term versus long-term, which can make it easier to introduce KS techniques

How can an organisational culture be created that enables knowledge sharing?

Organisational cultures that enable knowledge sharing tend to evolve, rather than change overnight. It is rarely a logical linear process. It is often messy and takes a long time. The key is creating space, i.e. mechanisms and incentives, encouraging people to share, rather then hoard knowledge. The ultimate goal is to invent the management discipline of collaboration and knowledge sharing. The process should be demand driven – responding to an internal or external need for improved knowledge sharing – rather than just a “good idea” dreamed up by someone in the organisation. External pressure from clients, donors or partners can be a critical factor - internal and external alliances are essential to drive the process. It is important early on to create the space for informal exchange, to try to remove the organisational barriers to knowledge sharing and encourage internal champions to try out some new ideas. Small KS pilot projects can be a good way to stimulate cultural shifts. These living examples of improved KS within an organisation are often the most effective way of convincing senior managers of its value. Establishing a holistic approach to KS throughout an organisation may require a major change process, which will require the support and active involvement of senior management. This may include:

  • Review - and develop shared - organisational Vision, Mission, Objectives and current Programmes that embed KS
  • Intensive internal and external consultation, possibly including external consultants
  • Continuous communication to all staff (management included) through various routes (meetings, workshops, seminars, publications, and on the web)
  • Training and capacity development
  • Reorganisation - KS seems to work better in Matrix organisations
  • New personnel policies and practices that enable, encourage and provide incentives for KS

KM4Dev Discussions

First thread:

  • In his initial posting, Marc Steinlin proposes the distinction between an "exclusive" knowledge sharing arrangement ("closely linked to the concept of some kind of formal or informal institution or community, where people consider themselves as related members... a fundamental precondition for the creation of a feeling of trust, loyalty and a feeling of belonging together") and an "inclusive" arrangement, where "knowledge (or information?) is also shared with a wide public, not only some sort of "members" but it should be made accessible for "everybody". He argues that the two follow different "laws" (and must develop different concepts, tools, skills, etc.) and that mixing them up will create confusion. Marc feels more inclined to share knowledge in an exclusive arrangement, where he has more personal contacts with the members.
  • One member feels that the purpose of the group might be more important than the "exclusive" vs "inclusive" distinction. He even somewhat contradicts Marc with his example of chat rooms on the Internet, where large groups of people who have never met personally are exchanging in an open, informal way. But Marc has his doubts whether bonds that are formed online can be as strong as face to face established ones.
  • The difference between the two is highly correlated to the level of trust in the group. The danger of exclusive arrangements is that they can become too cosy and that too much "mutual reinforcement of ignorance occurs". The danger with the inclusive ones is that it is difficult to get to the trust levels needed to promote true sharing, though having a passionately held common objective can obviously help.
  • For another member common identity is what's important, but doesn't think that this is in the end about inclusive and exclusive. He thinks that the focus should be on the rules of the game, i.e., through moderation or facilitation. This helps greatly to promote mutual trust and a culture of openness. But this may have little impact if people do not perceive KS as a win-win game.
  • All these elements are part of a continuum which is distinguished by the following factors: Trust, Commonality of Purpose, Identification, and Usefulness.

Second thread:

  • In order to stimulate the sharing of experiences specifically regarding inter-organisational KM, Ben Docker asked a few questions:
1. On Cultural Setting: Does an internal KS culture solicit an inter-agency KS culture? and, What techniques have been used within the development community to produce cultural shifts, through attitude and behavioural changes across organisational boundaries?
2. On Cross-agency activites: What examples exist on the institutionalisation of cross-organisational KS activities? What has worked? and what lessons have been learned?
  • Lucie Lamoureux addresses the issue of KS champions within organisations that can also help build bonds cross-organisationally. Just as within organisations, where a good way to create cultural shifts is by "doing" (e.g. by tackling a small pilot project such as a thematic network or CoP), she thinks cultural changes across organisations also occur in small but deliberate ways, thanks to champions who believe that KS and collaborating is the only way to work. She cites Peter Ballantyne's approach, which he summarizes in a later response (see Example in Application).
  • Ben Docker likes the "bottom-up approach", where small KS effort precipitate the wider growth of trust as it 'spills over' into a larger organisation. But he still has difficulty seeing how this approach could be applied in an inter-organisational setting if there isn't a pre-existing KS culture within each organisation. He thinks perhaps there are structural barriers that prevent it and that inter-organisational KS should strive to put mechanisms in place to overcome these barriers and enable KS.
  • Tony Prior feels that calls for cultural change tend to reflect wishful thinking by those who chafe at the status quo, rather than a listing of radically practical steps that are 1) legal 2) cost-effective and 3) acceptable to those who need to change. He lists a series of factors that affect KS (see Detailed description). But he agrees that the best examples of KS - and especially of CoPs - seem to be within, and not between, organisations. He reflects on the specific constraints that public sector organisations tend to pose, with their bureaucracy, rules and behaviours that tend to discourage mainstreaming KS. In that sense, consultants can be in a better position to share knowledge, being least "bound" to an organisation by the nature of their contract.
  • Brian Foster agrees that as a consultant is "least-bound" to organisations and is used to transmitting experience and best practices across boundaries (though there are always questions about client confidentiality). On the question of concrete steps to change culture, he feels that top management driving it is essential, and that you that you have to grab the attention of the whole organisation, even if just trying to change one part of it. He thinks this is doable through a large group intervention methodology such as Dannemiller/Tyson (see Example in Application).
  • Barbara Weaver Smith also proposes a methodology to help accomplish cultural change (see Example in Application).

Example in Application

  • Barbara Weaver Smith's contribution on COLLABORATIVE PLANNING FOR ECONOMIC REGIONS, in which she defines the cultural characteristics that seem to get in the way of progress and how changes in these characteristics could facilitate new ways of looking at the world. Smith Weaver Smith has developed this methodology to help grassroots coalitions acheive cultural change.
  • Brian Foster uses the Dannemiller/Tyson [1] change approach, which "stresses working through microcosms of all stakeholders, or choreograph a change decision-making process involving the entire population of an organization, in real-time". This was the approach used for the meeting at the Javits Center in New York, where several thousand people, at mixed tables, worked on designs for the World Trade Center.
  • Peter Ballantyne (formerly at IICD) tries to embed knowledge sharing within the organisations where he works but also seeks to make sure that inter-agency sharing efforts are developed jointly from the start:
"At IICD, I insisted that no knowledge sharing project or initiative be implemented by IICD alone. There must be an external collaborator or partner, preferably several. If there are no external partners, we don't do it. This tries to get the incentives right. In this and previous jobs, I have been lucky to be able to find ways to co-host or host events, seed fund, network, or otherwise nurture processes that bring potential and actual partner organisations together to share knowledge and to collaborate. In many cases, the collaborations that resulted did not actually involve my organisation - but it contributed to our mission and helped to establish its reputation as a neutral broker and facilitator. We should therefore not be afraid to invest in KS processes and spaces where ideas can emerge."
  • While at Tearfund, Paul Whiffen made sure that the organisation was clear on Mission, Purpose and Objectives. They do this "by asking what the Mission / Values of the organisation are, then what Key Activities and Goals we try to deliver to achieve them. This then makes Knowledge and Information exchange / storage more focused, more brief and more value-adding. Otherwise, it's tempting to have a general reflection all the time which while stimulating and interesting in the short term doesn't take things forward in a very concrete way".

Debates and Related Questions

  • Is there an issue of culture between disciplines, especially in regard to IT and its uses in KM?
  • Can inter-agency networks or communities be effectively cultivated if there is not a pre-existing KS culture within each organisation?
  • Are personal acquaintance and a smaller sized group necessary to have a more trusting culture?

Related FAQs

Cross-organisational knowledge sharing

Further Information

Some key contacts on creating a KS culture:

  • Brian Foster, Eriksen,Faulkner,Foster, foster(AT)
  • Tony Prior, IRG, TPryor(AT)
  • Paul Whiffen, paul.whiffen(AT)

Links & Web Based Articles

  • Creating a Knowledge Sharing Culture, by David Gurteen. First published in Knowledge Management Magazine Volume 2, Issue 5, February 1999. [2]
  • Creating a Knowledge-Sharing Culture, by APQC. Best practice report: Executive summary and key findings, 1999.[3]
  • National Electronic Library for Health (UK). Specialist Library, Knowledge Management. Developing the KM Environment: People, 2005. [4]

Original Author and Subsequent Contributors of This FAQ

Lucie Lamoureux

Date first offered/Revisions

November 24, 2005

FAQ KM4Dev Source Materials

[5]Original "Creating a KS Culture" FAQ

Raw material - Thread 1

Raw material - Thread 2