Friday 10 September 2010

KM and the three cultures of management

In his article “Three Cultures of Management: The Key to Organizational Learning in the 21st Century”, Edgar H. Schein of the MIT Sloan School of Management describes three cultures of Management he believes are prevalent in organisations.

The walls between these cultures can form impenetrable barriers for knowledge and learning.

His three cultures are as follows
  • The Operator Culture evolves locally in organizations and within operational units. It is based on human interaction and high levels of communication, trust and teamwork. The focus is on getting the work done efficiently. Operators know that the world is unpredictable and that sometimes you have to use your own innovative skills to bend the rules.
  • The Engineering Culture is found in the designers of products and systems. The engineers are driven by utility, elegance, efficiency, safety. They are looking for systems that work well, all the time, and ideally without operator intervention.
  • The Executive Culture is the set of shared tacit assumptions that CEO's and their immediate subordinates share. This executive world view is built around the necessity to maintain the financial health of the organization. Executives think in terms of control systems and routines which become increasingly impersonal. Executives feel an increasing need to know what is going on while recognizing that it is harder and harder to get reliable information, which drives them to develop elaborate information systems alongside the control systems.
There is a good history of effective Knowledge Management when it comes to peer-to-peer knowledge sharing within communities, but knowledge sharing up and down the hierarchy and across the communities is notoriously difficult. Partly this is due to the inequality of power in the hierarchical relationship, so that knowledge exchange becomes complicated by power exchange. However partly it will also be due to the barriers between the engineering, operator and executive culture.

We have already seen some excellent examples of ways to break the operator/engineer barrier. Many of the major projects we have worked with recently have involved operators in the engineering design stage of the project, often with massive benefit. The operators can merger their experience with that of the engineers, to design systems that not only are elegant, but are also practical to work with. They know when a compressor needs to be resited to allow maintenance access, or where a bend in a pipe would introduce turbulence.

But how do we introduce a similar dialogue with the executive?

Nancy Dixon has some suggestions in her blog, and they revolve around open and facilitated conversations that cross the hierarchy, and cross the peer levels. This is relatively new territory for knowledge management, but may be the only way to start to bridge these three entrenched organisational cultures.

Sooner or later, KM has to step out of the communities and out of the peer to peer networks, and has to cross the three cultures of management, if true organisational learning is to be delivered. Let us know underestimate the cultural difficulties of doing this!

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