Leadership in a Knowledge Management Global Corporation

Many global corporations have cells or divisions that are knowledge management entities. Usually, knowledge management entities are R & D units that function as organizations within organizations. An example is the Change Management Team (CMT) of the Diageo Corporation, the world's largest alcoholic drinks corporation. Duncan Newsome heads the CMT. It is the opinion of Paddy Miller (2001), who studied the team, that Newsome's refreshing management style is responsible for the success of the CMT. Newsome is a past master at metaphor management, a style that goes down well with the academically inclined, research-oriented personnel typically found in knowledge management entities. He uses analogies found in the writings of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to convey how he expects the members of his entity to function.

The metaphors that appropriately describe the CMT revolve around religious or mystical cults: for example, describing the managers of the CMT as missionaries trying to get their clientele to accept a new paradigm or perspective. The perspective can be so fundamentally new that uninitiated clients can form a hostile coalition against the missionary managers of the CMT. This is the challenge with which knowledge management entities worldwide grapple. Knowledge management personnel and managers have to believe so strongly in their innovation or newly formulated perspective that they are able to withstand the pressure of opposition from their clients. And generally , the clients are managers from other divisions of the global corporation. Once the clients are convinced of the proposed innovation's utility, they become converts.

A second characteristic defines the head of a knowledge management entity in a global corporation: he or she often heads a virtual team. There is a limit to the extent to which personnel can get to know each other. Communication by e-mail and videophones has to substitute for face-to-face interactions. The team may be globally dispersed, so that even when conferences are arranged, it may not be possible to assemble all members together. Newsome led his virtual team by ensuring that considerable trust and rapport existed among members. He evolved a flat structure, making it easy for members to relate to each other as equals. He made it clear that being a trustworthy team member was a requirement of the job and not optional. He used peer evaluation to assess whether members were working in ways that won the trust of all others. However, CMT members needed the trust and professional camaraderie that existed. They were comforted by the thought that there was always somebody they could e-mail or telephone for professional support. Newsome himself was like a father figure who made himself available to his team wherever they happened to be in the world. On one occasion, he flew to Copenhagen from London to help a CMT manager prepare a presentation she had to make to a sponsor. He was viewed as a team coach rather than a traditional leader. People could receive as much coaching as they wanted, but only if they asked for it. They could adopt the position of understudy if they so desired, and learn by doing while an experienced guide provided feedback. There were few rules in existence apart from the fact that trust should exist between all CMT members.

Some more information about the CMT is being given here to throw light on Newsome's leadership style. The CMT's members lived in any place they wished and then commuted to work on projects, even if the commute entailed travelling to another country for the week. For instance Alan McFarlane, one of the CMT's managers, lived in Barcelona but worked mostly in London. He commuted every week to London at company expense. Candy Mackay lived in London but worked in Seoul and had earlier worked in London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Each project a manager from the CMT worked on typically lasted for four months. To enable the managers to spend time at their home base, while working at another location they usually had four-day weeks. This meant that managers could fly in to work on a Monday morning, and fly back home on Thursday evening. The company paid for them to stay in a hotel or flat. Partners could fly down for the weekend at company cost, if a manager did not want to fly home. This meant that the CMT's knowledge managers could live in an 'expatriate bubble'. Personnel who work in the knowledge management area tend to be 'close' as people, and may not be oriented towards displaying intercultural skills.

According to Newsome, given the geographically dispersed nature of the team, e-mail was the powerful glue that held the members together. For managers working in the area of knowledge management, being able to ' converse ' with each other on a routine basis frequently is important, because they find it difficult to interact with people outside their sphere of expertise. To quote Newsome, 'e-mail can be used as a cry for help when you need help. It is a kind of an anchor keeping you in the team when you are away on assignment.'

A CMT manager observed , 'The team is brought close together by one-liners about a certain topic. It gives a great feeling of togetherness... Even though we could be thousands of miles apart we are never alone.' Another manager said, 'I have e-mailed from hotel lounges and airports. I have shocked people with my ability to collect e-mail within 15 minutes of arriving at a place.'

There are problems with increasing camaraderie in a geographically dispersed, intercultural team. In June 2001, the entire CMT congregated in Amsterdam for a conference, and engaged in a group exercise called 'Lost at sea', where they had to pretend they were in a lifeboat. They had to collectively decide what life or death decisions to take. The group exercise proved to be a fiasco, with the CMT unable to function as a team, let alone a cohesive team. A CMT manager remarked, 'Some people were ignored. People talked over each other. There were lots of egos involved.' Another member concluded, 'We provide mutual support, but that does not make us a team.'

What has been reported in the previous paragraph appears paradoxical. However, that is not really the case. Managers of knowledge management entities are often lone rangers who can work with others only up to a certain point. They often prefer to work alone, to the extent that is possible. At the same time, they need affirmation from peers or guides when times get rough professionally. They want like-minded people with whom they can banter. In other words, they prefer to work alone, while being able to draw on the support and professional resources of trusted others whenever necessary. Newsome has striven to cater to this in his CMT.

The CMT emerged as a knowledge management entity whose members were highly motivated. This is commendable given that managers may be working by themselves thousands of miles from their nearest team member.

Those with the responsibility of managing knowledge-based organizations in an intercultural context will benefit from designing and developing new and relevant leadership systems. Knowledge management is a new and emergent area of research, as is testified by the paucity of literature on the subject. The interface of knowledge management with intercultural management is an area that is so new it has yet to be studied extensively. In this book, based on the interviews we have conducted and a perusal of whatever literature exists, we suggest that transnational corporations adopt an experimental approach to leadership. This would allow appropriate and effective modes of leadership to evolve . What we recommend is that the leadership of a knowledge-based transnational corporation be permeable, by which we mean that it be capable of accepting inputs from employees lower down. There is a two-way flow of inputs. This becomes more of the essence when the composition of knowledge managers is multicultural. Permeability allows knowledge systems to be open to different paradigms of thinking.

Ultimately what will count in terms of leadership is the extent to which a leader displays the capacity to learn and unlearn. A leader of a knowledge-based, transnational corporation must keep learning and unlearning not only about knowledge and its management, but also about leadership.

Intercultural Management
Intercultural Management: MBA Masterclass (MBA Masterclass Series)
ISBN: 0749435828
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 98
Authors: Nina Jacob

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