Friday 23 October 2015

3 cultures of management and how they affect KM

In his 1996 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.

Classic John Cleese sketch
The walls between these cultures can form impenetrable barriers for knowledge management and the flow of knowledge.

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.
I was reminded of this distinction recently when talking with a knowledge manager who had attended a meeting at the Institute of Directors, where all the talk had been about corporate governance, sustainability, personal development, endurance, growth and the like. Nothing about knowledge.

There is a good history of effective Knowledge Management within the engineering and operator cultures, and also some history of knowledge management involving both operatrs and engineers. 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.

However there is far less history of the effective use of KM at executive level, or even of KM crossing the boundaries from Engineering to Executive.

Perhaps this is because we too seldom apply KM to the really big strategic issues?

We assume that Knowledge is something that applies to the tactical levels of operators and engineers, and forget that senior managers are knowledge workers as well, albeit working at a strategic level. 

As I have argued in my blog post "Who are the Knowledge Workers", this is not the case.

Senior managers can easily be engaged in KM. The senior level knowledge capture we did for mergers and acquisitions at BP and Mars, for example, involved the VPs, the chief legal counsel, the company presidents etc.  It is possible to use KM to address issues such as growth, endurance, sustainability and governance. The executive culture may see organisations in a different light, but still need to learn,

Set your sights on the senior level. Make a case for KM solving their problems, and helping illuminate their decisions. You will find that this opens many doors for you.

Contact us for advice on strategic-level KM.

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