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Breaking down borders with KM: Why is it so difficult?
Monday, 25th June 2012
With all the tools at our fingertips, sharing information across international borders should be easy. So why is it such a headache?
Globalisation continues its onwards march, with multinational and global companies continuing to grow where their markets take them.
Sharing information across borders has never been so important nor, theoretically, so easy. With the internet, social networking tools and VoIP, collaboration should be simple. VoIP and, more specifically, Skype have made expensive international phone calls a thing of the past, and Facebook can be updated from pretty much anywhere with a phone signal. Technology is a great enabler, with emerging markets awash with internet cafes and rocketing rates of mobile use.
So if we can do it in our personal lives in such an easy and fluid way, why does it become tricky in the enterprise? There are three key barriers to consider when trying to improve international knowledge sharing:
1. Trust and familiarity
People collaborate and share with people they trust. Trust develops from positive, ongoing relationships. It is much easier to build a such a relationship with somebody that you spend regular time with on a face to face basis. Virtual teams and virtual meetings keep travel costs down, but the loss of visual clues and body language on conference calls can hamper good communication.
Tip: It may be a hideous management term, but it’s a great idea to invest "face time" with important customers, stakeholders or virtual teams at the start of the relationship.
It's an obvious point, but language differences can considerably impact people's ability to share information.
Documents can be translated, but for some regions it is critical that any translations are considered from the creation of the document. For example, a document written with a European government as the audience would have a different emphasis compared with a document written with the Chinese government in mind.
Translation can also be costly, so this needs to be built into budgets if it is an ongoing requirement.
English may be your business language, but how does that work with internal social networking tools? Will people be pushed into using English if it's not their native language? Such a requirement will impact the natural flow of conversation so essential to creating a lively and open social media environment.
If people do use their native language, they will inadvertently create language silos, and potentially useful information will be hidden.
Note: Enterprise social media is still relatively new so the jury is out on this one. Watch this space for more observations.
3. The bottom line
Some global companies are truly global, with a single profit and loss account. Others are made up of a collection of companies at the country or regional level under a single umbrella brand. In the latter scenario people will tend to put the profitability of their local company before that of the organisation as a whole. This is unsurprising as it will impact their annual appraisal performance, and the immediate reactions of their line managers and peers.
There is little incentive to collaborate cross border if you are going to see the cash hit somebody else's bottom line . Whizzy tools and carefully constructed behavioural change programmes won't stand up against this kind of internal competition.
This is a structural issue for leadership to tackle. Freeing subject matter experts from a local P&L can help to ensure that the use their expertise where it is needed, rather than where they happen to be based.
Converse: What do you think? Can individuals truly think globally?
By Sarah Dillingham
Sarah Dillingham has a long track record in delivering successful knowledge management programmes. Her background includes City professional services and central government. She is fascinated with the way that people interact with technology to collaborate (or not!) and the growth of mobile.
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