Jensen’s 1998 article Communication or knowledge management? highlighted the developing kinship between organizational communications and knowledge management as a balm for mounting employee frustration.
The following essay analyzes the state of organizational communications and knowledge management as of 2010. The bond between these two disciplines, such as Jensen predicted, has cooled considerably, if indeed it ever did truly form. Reasons for this distance include the dynamic and often fractious relationship between communication, knowledge management, organizational structure and organizational culture. Prompted by what Bill Jensen, president and CEO of The Jensen Group characterized as a misinterpretation of roles on the part of organizational communicators, Jensen’s 1998 article Communication or knowledge management? highlighted the developing kinship between organizational communications and knowledge management as a balm for mounting employee frustration (Jensen, 1998). Jensen’s article highlighted an excessive focus on change announcements and context setting materials amongst organizational communicators at the time and a dearth of “clear, effective, useful day-to-day information and sense making” (Jensen, 1998). Employees seek “help in making sense of, using, and leveraging the information around us” Jensen argued (Jensen, 1998).
“We’re seeking the ability to navigate through change for ourselves, but just too much information is buzzing past us to do so” (Jensen, 1998). Jensen urged communicators to shift away from the busy work of “key messages” and “town meetings” and focus more on “performance information” deemed pertinent to employees making decisions on the ground (Jensen, 1998). Jensen proposed a union of communication and knowledge management as the solution; in his words, communication and knowledge management are “very similar,” however knowledge management remains “more disciplined about capturing, organizing and tracking what we need to make decisions” (Jensen, 1998). Jensen defined knowledge management in 1998 as composed of “two basic disciplines: facilitating dialogues [and] organizing data for operations use;” Jensen lamented the absence of both disciplines from communication practice of the time (Jensen, 1998). The following essay analyzes the state of organizational communications and knowledge management as of 2010. The bond between these two disciplines, such as Jensen predicted, has cooled considerably, if indeed it ever did truly form. Reasons for this distance include the dynamic and often fractious relationship between communication, knowledge management, organizational structure and organizational culture which Jensen’s jocular and rosy call to action appears to have overlooked.
Everything that happens or doesn’t happen in an organization begins and ends with that organization’s culture. Given that organizations operate according to a hierarchy, the effectiveness of organizational communications remains wholly dependent on the communication skills of its leadership (Anaeto, 2010). Similarly, the overall vision and utility its leadership ascribes to organizational communications and knowledge management affects the perceived value of each by the organizational culture as a whole; if organizational communications and knowledge management receive only lip service from the leadership, they will be largely disregarded by employees. Similarly, if both organizational communicators and knowledge management professionals compete for credibility within an organization, employees receive conflicting information that serves personal interests, or worse, may feel “awash in so many change initiatives” (Abrahamson, 2004). Organizational communications undermines and in some cases damages knowledge management when the organization’s leadership either sees no value in it, or lacks the skills to implement it on the highest level of organizational culture. Organizational culture goes beyond language and communication materials, and how an organization’s culture understands (or doesn’t understand) knowledge management will be the determining factor in the overall success of communication. The bias for or against a union of organizational culture and knowledge management appears often in the “language that people use in their everyday conversation with other employees as well as formal organizational documents and communications” (World Bank, 2010).
It is important realize, as Anaeto (2010) astutely observes, that “it is difficult for culture to develop, survive, extend and generally succeed without communication. It follows therefore that when we talk of an organizational culture, we are looking at what is happening in the organization in terms of communication” (Anaeto, 2010). Organizational communications in essence communicate organizational culture both explicitly through employee communications, and implicitly through codified cultural assumptions about “how things are done around here,” and more to the point, “how people get ahead in this place”. Organizations themselves develop their own code of spoken and unspoken language, which typical ties in deeply with job security, promotion and financial reward.
Tacit knowledge, the elusive content of employees’ minds that Jensen called “what we know but [have] not yet ‘captured’ in script- or database-format…is still best transferred during…communication. It’s estimated that 50 percent to 95 percent of transferred knowledge…occurs during oral communication” (Jensen, 1998). This may be true. However what is missing from Jensen analysis is the fact that an organization’s culture will necessarily affect the flow and availability of said tacit knowledge during oral communication. Underlying organizational culture assumptions drive communication.
As Anaeto (2010) asserts, “the language of the organization member is the key to understanding the organizational culture” (Anaeto, 2010). For example, in an organization that promotes competition and in fighting amongst its employees, tacit knowledge becomes personal leverage. As a result, all knowledge, tacit and otherwise, will be carefully guarded and managed and only shared strategically; in some cases jealously, and in other cases withheld altogether. The degree to which organizational communications can really be “managed” depends wholly on leadership buy in and support, since employees pattern their behavior, including their communication styles, based largely on their own perception of what type of communication succeeds in the organization (Anaeto, 2010).
Incentives for participating in knowledge management then hinges on its perceived value in the organization’s culture. In a team oriented organizational culture, where knowledge sharing occurs freely and the leadership rewards teamwork financially or through titles, then knowledge management will tend to be embraced. Conversely, in an organizational culture that values employee competition, communication and knowledge management activity will likely resemble more of a facade, since employees tend to share only that knowledge that furthers their individual goals as opposed to the goals of the organization.
The leadership of any given organization defines its culture, and an organization’s culture defines its communication approach (World Bank, 2010). This reality, though hinted at in Communication or knowledge management, Jensen downplayed significantly and somewhat naively: “it’s likely that there are many factors preventing you from shifting from communication deliverables to knowledge management practices. Leadership, technology, budgets, staffing or even bad hair days may be legitimate reasons you’re being held back” (Jensen, 1998). A leader who is an effective communicator can balance “needs to create strong interpersonal relationships and accomplish tasks, maintain a balance between order and chaos within the organization, and use rewards and punishments to motivate followers” (World Bank, 2010). In order for organizational communications to facilitate effective knowledge management objectives, communication and knowledge management must be presented as “clear elevating goal[s]” for employees, and not simply by the communications department or knowledge management specialists, but by the organization’s leadership itself.
“High performance teams have both a clear understanding of the goal to be achieved and a belief that the goal embodies a worthwhile or important result” (World Bank, 2010). The leader of an organization also sets its mode of communicating; the leader’s communication style of choice will influence the perceived value of knowledge management in the organization. If the leadership communicates the value of knowledge management through organizational communication materials such as key messages yet employees perceive no action or implementation as a result of knowledge management, it will be seriously undermined and in some cases disregarded entirely. Leadership also defines how communication occurs in the organization. In a centralized network “information is funneled through a small number of individuals within an organization,” and leaders tend to value a rigid hierarchy within the organizational structure (World Bank, 2010). In such cultures, organizational communications and knowledge management are likely to be in competition with each other for attention from leadership, nullifying any net impact of either discipline on employee’s desire for “sense making” (Jensen, 1998). Conversely, a “decentralized network exists when information is shared widely among and flows through many individuals within an organization” (World Bank, 2010).
On the whole these types of organizations “employ relatively flat hierarchies by relying on flexible emergent communication…develop flexible relationships with the network of organizations that go beyond the local country bound network…use information technology to coordinate units and members located in different geographic locations…[and] emphasize the use of autonomous, self-managing teams” (World Bank, 2010). Organizational cultures of this ilk likely support and nurture organizational communications, and knowledge management becomes a core value of organization’s leadership. In conclusion, Jensen’s vision of a working partnership between organizational communications and knowledge management can materialize only if and when the organization’s leadership encourages such a union.
Should the organizational culture place low value on communications and knowledge management, or if the organization’s culture remains deeply hierarchical and lacks the skills and interest to implement organizational communication and knowledge management as a core value of leadership, organizational communications will run the risk of discrediting knowledge management.
Abrahamson, E. (2004). Change Without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos and Employee Burnout. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press. Anaeto, S.
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(1998). Communication or knowledge management? Communication World, 15 (6), 44-48. Retrieved November 15, 2010, from http://proquest.umi.com.lb-proxy6.touro.edu/pqdweb?did=30201266&sid=1&Fmt=3&clientId=29440&RQT=309&VName=PQD World Bank.
(2010). Organizational communication. Washington DC: World Bank.
Retrieved November from http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTGOVACC/Resources/OrganizationalCommweb.pdf