Chapter 5: Knowledge Management and Intercultural Management

Case Study: IBM

International Business Machines (IBM) was once known almost exclusively as a manufacturer of computer hardware. It now plays an influential role in the design of cutting-edge computer components , as well as in the design of software solutions. The IBM Training Laboratory in Zurich, Switzerland, is one such think-tank wing of IBM. In the 1980s, this laboratory came up with two Nobel prize winning breakthroughs. Gerd K Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer were awarded a prize in 1986 for their invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope, and Georg Bednorz's and K Alex M ¼ller's discovery of high-temperature superconductivity in ceramic materials won them another in 1987. Brilliant thinkers at this Zurich facility pursue their creative endeavours in a relatively sheltered world.

And yet, remarks Dr Philippe Jensson of the IBM Training Laboratory, 'IBM, in spite of the fact that it is multinational, still largely behaves like an American company.' By this, Jensson means that knowledge creation and knowledge transfer are accomplished in the English language. This is a characteristic feature of transnational knowledge management companies. In IBM, and at its Zurich Research Laboratory, the research scientists think in English. The entire knowledge creation and management chain is linked by the common denominator of English. The assumption that implicit knowledge transfer can occur is an important consideration at IBM. That its scientists are English thinking and English speaking promotes this occurrence.

A growing body of research shows that knowledge generation and transfer are successfully facilitated when they are managed. They are not random activities. An organization where knowledge management is successfully achieved is 'skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights' (Gavin, 1993). Effective knowledge management is particularly germane in such organizations because today, dedicated teams of scientists and not lone rangers achieve technological breakthroughs. The composition of these teams is heterogeneous in more ways than one. In the first place, team members hail from different technical areas of specialization and work disciplines. Additionally, they come from diverse cultures.

This is the case with the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich, where there are researchers from 27 different countries . Jensson is currently a member of a team constructing a database about the collaborative relations the laboratory has with universities in Europe and the Middle East. The team has engaged in a staggering amount of travelling and use of modern telecommunications facilities to interact professionally.

This constant interacting is characteristic of how the laboratory engages in knowledge generation. The knowledge generated during the course of a year is shared at the annual conference organized by the IBM Academy of Technology. Only the 300 top brains of IBM attend the annual conferences.

One reference point connects most of the top brains of IBM Worldwide, and almost all the foremost researchers at the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich. These researchers have at some time in their lives gone to the United States and obtained either doctoral or postdoctoral qualifications there. They therefore share common academic training and a common knowledge base. Philippe Jensson, for example, studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1972 to 1976, and obtained a PhD in computer science. He also worked for two years in Austin, Texas, from 1986 “87. At the IBM Training Laboratory, a knowledge tool all researchers understand and use is Lotus Notes collaboration software.

The University-IBM Relations Database was developed for use by IBM researchers worldwide. Its team comprises a scientist/researcher from each of Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The team has been in existence since April 2000. Its members are members of IBM's University Relations Team Worldwide. This team coordinates the variegated associations IBM has with premier universities around the world. The team has also had a few transient members. These were IBM employees who were deployed to it to learn a line of operation different from their own. It is the IBM philosophy that people be temporarily assigned to jobs different from their own so that they are exposed to different lines of work. Employees with technical expertise are sent to business units to become familiar with management practices. Likewise, managers are sent to divisions manned entirely by technical experts.

The University-IBM Relations Database contains exhaustive information about the universities in Europe and the Middle East with which IBM has an association. The association could be of any of four types. The first pertains to sales- related matters. IBM sells a considerable amount of hardware to universities. The second type of association is concerned with recruitment. IBM recruits quite a few PhD holders from universities. The third association refers to collaborative research work. The IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich undertakes joint research work with scientists from universities. The fourth association concerns the various endowments IBM bestows on universities for the hiring of experts, or the purchase of computer hardware and software. The database is classified by country, by university, by department, by professor , and by the partner in IBM. If an employee at IBM is interested in a particular research endeavour at a European university, he or she can use the database to ascertain if that university has an existing association with IBM. The database developed for Europe and the Middle East has proved so successful that it has been replicated in the United States for IBM's Research Laboratory in New York.

An interesting aspect of the University-IBM Relations Database Team (for Europe and the Middle East) is that much of the interaction between team members is dyadic. For instance, in February 2001 Jensson met with team members from Germany at the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich. They spent an entire day planning and strategizing about the database team, and another entire day developing the database. In April 2001 Jensson went to Italy and Spain and met separately with the database team members from those countries. Both were all-day meetings, devoted exclusively to taking the University-IBM Relations Database forward. The team members have found that by discussing their work in pairs, they benefit and gain several insights about the data building process. Members believe that conducting meetings in pairs is more fruitful than having all six database team members convene. Any breakthroughs achieved through dyadic work are immediately communicated to other team members.

Building the University-IBM Relations Database to the level of sophistication it has today has required the database team members to liaise extensively with IBM employees. Jensson comments:

Working on the Database has made me take the initiative in networking with people I did not know before. Earlier, I had been accustomed to having my work associates take the initiative in approaching me... But I have a greater appreciation now for the process of knowledge transfer. Networking and binding with people is necessary for the accumulation of knowledge. Knowledge that we must have for our work and which we must share with others, that they can use for their work.

Networking with people on a one-to-one basis is an important aspect of the work culture at the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich. In many instances, the resulting synergy has led to a sharing of knowledge bases, and joint research work. This joint research work has in turn led to the generation of new knowledge. An example is an invention by Nobel laureate Gerd Binnig and Peter Vettiger working in tandem, in early 2001. The two used to play soccer together. After playing soccer, they would discuss their research interests and ongoing work. They found they were both interested in developing commercial applications for micromechanical devices. By pooling their know-how, they complemented each other's thought processes, and accelerated the pace at which they designed a new, efficient tiny semiconductor. Binning brought his action-oriented , 'let's make it work now' knowledge generation approach to complement Vettiger's preference for rigorous and meticulous long- term planning.


There are three aspects to knowledge management in an intercultural context, suggested by the experience of the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich.

Close personal contact amongst researchers facilitates the juxtaposing of knowledge bases

At the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich, the researchers who work together on a project work closely together. All the researchers learn from their associates on a project, imbibe some of their thought formulation processes, and in turn influence their modes of thinking. This is important for creative problem solving. Otherwise , researchers working on their own can get into ruts in their way of thinking. There can be multiple ways of thinking and approaching a problem. Suppose the following simplified research situation is considered : researchers are attempting to contain a disease. One researcher tries to make human beings immune to the viruses causing the disease. His contemporary focuses on destroying all carriers of the disease. Another researcher seeks to engineer the environment so that the disease- causing germs are annihilated in the atmosphere, before they reach people. The eventual means of combating the disease discovered by the researchers may be inspired by all three approaches.

This has been the experience of the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich. Like the example given earlier of the Binnig and Vettiger joint research, mention must be made of the contributions of Ute Drechsler and Urs D ¼rig. These two researchers challenged Binnig and Vettiger's approaches by bringing their own knowledge bases and thought processes to the research effort. Drechsler's preferred way of thinking and working was to plough ahead and overcome obstacles whenever they presented themselves . D ¼rig was accustomed to thinking deeply, and perfecting his mental models. This diversity in thought processes fostered a cross-fertilization of ideas, and ultimately, the creation of new knowledge.

Such cross-fertilization of ideas through the collision of diverse thought patterns has also occurred in the University-IBM Relations Database Team. Here, diversity was discernible not only because of varying thought processes, but also because members came from different ethnic origins. The member from Germany had a robust technical background. This background manifested itself in his aspiring for more perfection than other people would insist on. When Jensson worked with this German, he found himself paying greater attention to detail than would otherwise be the case. Jensson himself preferred not to get too bogged down by details. He liked to focus on the big picture rather than spend too much time ironing out quirks . However, being part of the research team, he appreciated the power of learning from associates. He therefore kept an open mind when working with his German counterpart on the team and learnt from the latter. He also tried to impress on his German counterpart the importance of not losing the forest for the trees.

The work association has proved to be a mutually beneficial one. Both feel that they were able to devise solutions to problems more quickly by not being preoccupied with the thinking and problem-solving approaches they normally adopt. Jensson opines that his German counterpart's preferred approach to knowledge management is influenced by his ethnicity . German scientists, managers and technocrats are described as being over-committed to perfection. This generalization may not be an appropriate label for all Germans. It was however true of the German member of the University-IBM Relations Database Team. To achieve perfection in his work, the German tried to bring reliability and predictability to his work methods . He did this by emphasizing planning and discipline. By working with Jensson, he began accommodating non-continuous and discrete workflows. Jensson, for his part, started maintaining a short-term (weekly) time schedule, to guide his progress. They were able to imbibe to some extent each other's work approaches, because of the basic chemistry between them. These factors acted in concert to enable knowledge generation in a collaborative environment.

The cultural influence was strongest in the case of the German member of the University-IBM Relations Database Team, which is why it has been chronicled here. The cultural conditioning of the other members did not exert such a dramatic influence. What is being stressed is that close personal contact among knowledge builders is a facilitator of the knowledge management effort. Close personal contact can contribute to a juxtaposition of knowledge bases. It can lead to scientists expanding their thought processes by imbibing processes used by their collaborators. This includes imbibing a thought process that has been culturally conditioned.

Communication of knowledge throughout the organization

The IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich, like IBM Worldwide, believes that knowledge available in one division of the organization should be accessible to employees in other locations. This prevents the unwarranted duplication of effort that ensues when people set about reinventing the wheel. The need for the speedy communication of knowledge soon after it has been generated is particularly of the essence for a global corporation.

A vital aspect in the communication of knowledge is its articulation. Articulation is the process by which knowledge is described and made explicit, and transferred through the use of 'writing, mathematics, graphs, maps, diagrams and pictures. In fact all forms of symbolic representation which are used as language' (Polanyi, 1962). It is also the process by which elements of knowledge diffused and scattered across an organization are assembled and stored in one place. The assembled knowledge is then codified, written out and presented in a logically cogent fashion. Sometimes, 'articulation pictures the essentials of a situation on a reduced scale, which lends itself more easily to imaginative manipulation than the ungainly original' (Polanyi, 1962). Imaginative manipulation leads to knowledge creation. But what is being emphasized here, which IBM recognizes, is that knowledge creation is dependent on the formulation and execution of knowledge articulation.

The University-IBM Relations Database is the outcome of an intercultural team's collaborative effort at knowledge articulation. IBM employees use the database extensively. All users are full of praise for it, since it offers convenience as well as easily accessible information. Such databases constitute part of the organizational capability to create, harness and manage knowledge. The fact that the University-IBM Relations Database Team is a multicultural one indicates that knowledge creation in global companies involves collaborative work between people from diverse backgrounds.

Diversity of knowledge bases is important for creativity. At the same time, the knowledge organization has to ensure that its researchers have some common reference points and operates within a shared paradigm. There are many ways in which common reference points can be established. Knowledge articulation is one of them.

The following is an illustration of what can happen if there are no common reference points when the knowledge transfer is made across cultures. During the Second World War, US shipyards were provided with British blueprints for the construction of Liberty freighters. Unfortunately, in the hundred years immediately preceding World War II, the engineering approaches of the two countries had followed divergent paths. The British emphasized design variety and innovation. US engineers preferred standardization and replication. As a result, by the 1940s the ship blueprints used in Great Britain were so different from those used in the United States that they could not be applied meaningfully by US engineers (example from JK Brown).

At the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich, diversity in knowledge bases is encouraged. There are mechanisms to ensure that the technical and cultural diversity inherent in knowledge bases leads to their juxtaposition. In addition to knowledge articulation, there exists an organizational culture where people are prepared to learn each other's knowledge bases.

The University-IBM Relations Database Team is interesting for two reasons. In the first instance, it was deliberately constituted for knowledge articulation. Second, the members learnt technical knowledge systems and imbibed culturally conditioned problem-solving approaches from each other.

Although this team operates at the cutting-edge, it is facing problems obtaining data from IBM employees for the database. Jensson's experience has been that typical employees are unwilling to take the time to articulate their own knowledge or experience, which can then be input to the database. Of all the countries contributing to the database, it was found that employees with IBM Italy were marginally more cooperative in contributing knowledge to the database than employees of other IBM locations. It is however not known why this is so, and to vouchsafe an explanation on cultural grounds alone would be to err on the side of simplicity.

Simultaneous membership in more than one work group

Jensson believes there are two reasons why he, like other members of the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich, feels comfortable working in the area of knowledge management with people from diverse backgrounds. First, he has been accustomed to this throughout his work life, and second, he belongs to more than one work team. Jensson's prime activities in 2001 comprised the work he was doing for the IBM Academy of Technology, and the University-IBM Relations Database Team. Both these work groups comprised researchers from different cultures. Thus working with multicultural teams is part of Jensson's ongoing work experience.

Knowledge management in an intercultural setting requires tremendous organizational support. Otherwise, collaborative research efforts might splinter, with only individuals from homogeneous backgrounds working together. Working interculturally also signifies working with people who have different approaches to thinking and subscribe to different intellectual paradigms .

Jensson, of the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich, designed the University-IBM Relations Database for Europe. It was operationalized by an intercultural team. The database is being accessed and used by IBM employees worldwide. It is regarded as a useful and appropriate contribution to knowledge articulation within IBM. And yet Jensson finds the effort of collecting necessary data for the database from colleagues an uphill task. To quote Jensson in this connection:

A database has utility, as long as it is up-to-date and current. So this whole thing about database maintenance is a major, major problem. It is more a problem of funding. Ideally, it would be good to have a few people paid full-time to populate the University-IBM Relations Database and then maintain it. But we just cannot afford that within our budget. So we do it as an evening job or a night job. As and when we have the time, we keep pushing it... Anyone in the IBM world who knows about the database and wants to contribute to it is free to do so.

Although the Database is widely used, a large number of IBM employees are still ignorant of its existence. These include researchers from Jensson's own laboratory. In the last week of March 2001, a researcher sent Jensson an e-mail about a new idea he wanted to implement: to construct a database with information about all the links the IBM Training Laboratory, Zurich has or had with universities in Europe. Jensson, of course, then took the opportunity of informing the researcher that such a database had been in existence for over a year.

The above example illustrates the complex nature of knowledge management. IBM actively encourages its researchers to collaborate interculturally. It encourages the bringing together of disparate knowledge bases. This has activated knowledge creation. The company has also encouraged knowledge articulation, which is an aid to knowledge creation. And yet, the knowledge that is articulated is not widely communicated across the organization and disseminated extensively. The extent to which knowledge is disseminated and made organization-wide reflects corporate culture. As Hofstede et al have pointed out (1990), R & D outfits differ strongly in their orientation towards knowledge dissemination . Some are strongly 'normatively oriented'. Others are more 'pragmatically oriented'. Their work suggests that corporate cultural differences do exist regarding the process of knowledge management.

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  1. What are the distinguishing features of the IBM Training Laboratory that have enabled it to manage knowledge cross-culturally?

  2. Given that Scandinavians have a predilection for working in teams, and the Japanese are primed for group problem solving, what are the synergies and limitations of Scandinavians and Japanese working together to articulate new knowledge?

  3. What are the differences between, one, trying to juxtapose knowledge bases originating from different cultures and, two, getting a culturally diverse group of managers to articulate new knowledge?

  4. What does the functioning of the IBM Training Laboratory have to say about the process of managing knowledge cross-culturally?

  5. What recommendations would you make to the IBM Training Laboratory so that it can increasingly include knowledge bases from ever more diverse cultures in its knowledge generation efforts?

  6. Describe the skill-set and mind-set of a proficient knowledge manager who is also operating in an intercultural context.

end example

Intercultural Management
Intercultural Management: MBA Masterclass (MBA Masterclass Series)
ISBN: 0749435828
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 98
Authors: Nina Jacob © 2008-2017.
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