11.2 Managing knowledge
In various ways, all the cases in this book deal with the issue of knowledge in GSW . In the Sierra case, we describe how managing knowledge in a GSA concerns the development, transfer, interpretation and use of knowledge by a ˜community of practice . We have described how knowledge transfer is related to products, processes and practices and can then be further analysed through the lenses of encultured, embedded and encoded knowledge. Related themes of knowledge and power are discussed in the Gowing case. Knowledge was centrally implicated in GlobTel s relationships and reflected in the negotiations around the issue of standardization. Further issues of ˜professional and ˜organizational knowledge and their implications for communication were discussed in the Japanese case in chapter 9.
Transferring knowledge about practices ( encultured knowledge ) is problematic , as it tends to make sense only in local contexts, thus making the instrumental perception of a seamless transfer unrealistic . At Sierra, ICTs (such as videoconferences) were largely unable to bridge the ˜community of practice between the staff in the UK and the India centre , which existed largely as separate entities despite Mitra s best efforts to transplant the standardized UK way of working in India. The Japanese companies were confronted with various knowledge-related issues, because of their different approaches to knowledge as compared to the Indian side. In the Japanese companies, knowledge tended to be created through an experience-based learning described as ˜organizational knowledge . This knowledge tended to rely on tacit, often undocumented, knowledge built up over a long period of time of working in the firm. The Japanese found it difficult to communicate this form of knowledge to the Indian companies which by contrast adopted a ˜professional approach to knowledge which was relatively more explicit, relied less on tacit knowledge and more on documentation and formalized methodology. This led the companies to adopt different business models and associated communication strategies for managing knowledge in the GSA.
In GlobTel s case, the different knowledge focus arose from the different domains of operation. GlobTel, being a telecommunications company, focused on a ˜product-based knowledge relating to telecommunications. In contrast, MCI, like the other Indian firms, relied more on a ˜software service knowledge concerned with software skills and project management capabilities. These different frames of reference raised significant challenges on issues such as attrition. Telecommunications product knowledge typically takes many years to develop as compared to the software service knowledge acquired through short- term courses and experience of few projects. Indian software engineers were thus ready to leave and move on to another project and technology after about a year. GlobTel viewed this problem of attrition as extremely serious, and could not quite understand why the Indians left so quickly especially compared to their own long tenures (sometimes even 10 “15 years).
Reflecting on knowledge transfer challenges, the Sierra management in hindsight felt that only highly structured work should be sent offshore, as that would involve minimal communication. This insight supports typical offshore models that favour the outsourcing of relatively structured projects (McFarlan 1995). However, GlobTel moved up the value chain to more sophisticated work being carried out offshore supported by large-scale standardization, mature project management processes, extensive similar experience of running GSAs and significant financial investments. The use of ˜straddlers and onshore “offshore teams containing a mixture of personnel from ˜both sides supported the process of knowledge transfer. While it was possible for a large firm like GlobTel to make significant investments to deal with the challenges of distance, for example in the extensive use of expatriates , a small firm like Sierra could not make the same level of investments.
The Japanese case in chapter 9 shows the importance of improvisations in relation to knowledge transfer. Individuals on both sides improvised extensively in an attempt to reach an understanding on the requirements, such as making modifications in the structure and contents of email messages and in making selective use of ICTs. These improvisations are critical and reflect the motivation structures and flexibility that managers must develop in making knowledge transfer in GSA more effective. To move beyond simple coding, development staff need to work towards developing realistic and shared expectations. The GSA knowledge transfer process should be perceived as one of learning, collaboration and improvisation, as compared to the utopia of seamless knowledge transfer, where specifications can be sent to the ˜black box , and code magically received back in time and on budget. Such unrealistic expectations, as emphasized through the case of Sierra, will lead only to frustration and disappointment.
In developing a perspective and implications for knowledge transfer, the questions that reflective managers need to consider are summarized in box 11.1.
What types of knowledge is it important to transfer (products, processes and practices; encultured, encoded and embedded knowledge)? Where can shared understanding be achieved and what might be the barriers?
How feasible and realistic is it to transfer certain aspects of knowledge (given the complexity of work and culture)? What alternative forms of transfer can be developed?
What methodologies and approaches are relevant and feasible (global standardization, local autonomy, structured approaches) to support transfer processes?
How can ICTs be used to augment knowledge transfer processes? What are the limits of the ICTs and what other approaches should be used?
How can a cost effective blend of offshore and on-site staff be developed?