This paper examines the organizational evolution and structure of a large
Keywords: Knowledge management, Non-profit sector, International development, Communities of practice
One school of thought regarding encouraging innovation and supporting new ventures contends that the best way to nurture innovation and new product development in an organization is to create separate business units, even separate companies, shielding the new venture from the current business (Christensen & Overdorf, 2000). Others (Day & Wendler, 1998) suggest that our very conception of organizational structure needs to change and to encourage innovation we should integrate various external entities into our processes, including networks (Cross et al, 2007; Rizova, 2006), suppliers (Dyer & Hatch, 2004), users of products and services (von Hippel, 2005). However, there is also much to be said for keeping innovations and new ventures close to the core of the organization, to benefit from organizational economies of scale allowing new venture managers to concentrate on innovating. The tensions, however, between localized project-level entrepreneurship and innovation on the one hand, and organization-wide knowledge management and coordination, on the other, can be a constant managerial challenge.
Organizational Development And Culture
Social Change International (pseudonym, hereafter:
Two distinct cultures evolved at
In many ways, the organization has evolved to resemble a new venture
incubator. As projects are born and
developed and new contracts are won, staff can be transferred internally and/or
hired externally to fulfill project roles.
Sometimes as projects fade out, either for failure to obtain continued
funding or simple shifts in the interests of funders, staff then move to other
The Changing Environment In The 1990s
During the 1990s, the organization experienced a period of massive
The 1990s also brought change to the non-profit sector in the
Restructuring The Organization
Initial evaluations of the effectiveness of the restructuring give good marks for the exchange of information and knowledge within centers. Some centers did not see a significant change in their daily functioning as certain projects were already strategically grouped together, while other centers were created by linking projects that had not previously worked together. The fundamental operating principle of centers as the client-facing, entrepreneurial-focused entities remained true. While center staff either continued or began to work together as a result of the restructuring, exchange between centers, however, continued to be a challenge.
Challenges To Organizational Learning And Knowledge Sharing
Organizational economists contend that markets motivate and hierarchies
coordinate and that the fundamental challenge in an organization lies in
reconciling these tensions and establishing a workable combination of the two
(Day & Wendler, 1998). Most
organizations oscillate along this continuum from individual, project-centered,
market-driven initiatives to organization-centered, centrally controlled,
Organization-wide knowledge management objectives, however, are more
difficult to understand. Few staff
members or center-level managers would disagree with the need to share
knowledge and encourage learning in the organization. They recognize
The entrepreneurial-knowledge management tension is further complicated by
It is clear from private sector consulting and professional services
firms’ experiences that continual professional development, internally
and externally, is essential to success.
Therein lies an important paradox in the non-profit world.
Developing A Strategy For Knowledge Sharing And Organizational Learning
Faced with this organizational history and culture and the tension between
maintaining a decentralized entrepreneurial culture and implementing an
organization-wide knowledge sharing and organizational learning strategy, any
plan must respect the balance between both ends of the continuum. It would be easy to fall into the trap of
viewing the project-focused culture simply as an obstacle to knowledge
management—when in reality this project-focused culture and the
accompanying innovation and entrepreneurial drive was one of the
organization’s strengths and a true source of competitive advantage. At
Set against this backdrop,
Initially, the knowledge management initiative introduced the concept of
communities of practice which was met with great enthusiasm among the
staff. Ideas for cross-cutting
communities were proposed by staff members themselves and some initial meetings
took place and work plans were developed.
Six months after their introduction, however, participation was low. Some of the feedback received from
participants noted that it was extremely difficult to make a long-term
commitment to these communities.
Shortly thereafter, the knowledge management approach changed somewhat and gatherings and events were organized that minimized long-term commitment but still facilitated exchange between staff members. An example of such an event is the IdeaLab, a roundtable discussion group based on a book chapter or journal article and moderated by a staff member. SCI had always had a long tradition of lunchtime “brown bags” during which staff may present recent findings or results from their project work. However, these presentations usually attracted an audience that was already familiar with the project, its staff and their work. Furthermore, since these presentations tended to be one-way in communication, time for discussion and exchange was limited—true knowledge transfer across the organization was limited. IdeaLab, in contrast, was entirely based on discussion, with staff members proposing a crosscutting theme, such as “Notions of Leadership” or “Emotional Intelligence at Work”, along with one or two seminal articles. Participants read the article and participate in the discussion, with no inherent obligation to attend another. SCI’s experience with IdeaLab showed that employees tended to speak about their own project experience within the context of the discussion and staff members did learn about other SCI projects and people in this manner. This strategy was less focused on knowledge capture or transfer, although some knowledge transfer does occur, particularly tacit knowledge. IdeaLab fit well with SCI’s intellectual culture and the concepts discussed led to knowledge creation and the application of some of the management ideas in the workplace. The main purpose of IdeaLab, however, was to establish and reinforce connections between individuals, so that when a question or concern does arise in the future, a staff member will hopefully have more personal points of contact to access and thus reduce search time and transaction costs to locate an answer.
Program Groups provided an important point of leverage for knowledge management. Program Groups were broadly organized along thematic lines and were designed under the restructuring to play an internal coordination role. Yet Program Groups were close organizationally and relationally to the entrepreneurial centers, thus they represented a well-positioned, low-friction point of intervention for knowledge management initiatives. The first layer of group-level knowledge sharing involves the Technical Council, which is comprised of Program Group leaders and other members of senior management, including the President, the Executive Vice President and the Chief Management Officer. The Technical Council meet monthly for an informal session and for semi-annual half-day retreats to discuss development trends, technical issues, innovations, new management theories and any issues other than proposals, personnel or day-to-day management problems. Initial feedback from the Technical Council participants was overwhelmingly positive; senior executives welcomed the opportunity to strategize about the future and reflect on theory and practice with their peers shielded, at least momentarily, from the administrative weight of their work.
The strategy for explicit knowledge capture and transfer was also based on Program Group level interventions. Currently under development is a network model of “knowledge activists” in each group, one or two project staff who would be given the mandate to develop communication tools and products and organize knowledge dissemination activities specific and appropriate to the Program Group. This approach allows knowledge activists to remain close to the project work, where knowledge is used and created. It also increases knowledge management’s credibility since the knowledge activist is an insider and a respected participant in the local knowledge culture. Criteria for selecting knowledge activists are varied and there is no typical profile—some are new hires, others are veterans—one key is that they are chosen locally within the Program Group rather than by central management. Often the desire to acquire a vision ‘beyond project work’, to see the bigger picture of the organization’s impact is highly motivating. Another common characteristic is an interest in creating tangible, useful knowledge management tools and to apply them to diverse situations. A conceptual interest in knowledge management is helpful, but in this organization at least the focus on results that will actually be used in the field is most critical. The focus on tangible tools is also a way to avert potential challenges from managers who view knowledge activists’ KM work as an unnecessary distraction from “real” project work. Ultimately, the knowledge activist role could become a rotational position, for example, for one year or eighteen months, then passed on to a new knowledge activist within the Program Group. In this way, the tools and techniques for knowledge management can be spread throughout the organization. Furthermore, the group of five to ten knowledge activists across the organization forms a community of practice of its own to share knowledge about experience and expertise in the field.
In this paper a case study was set out that described one non-profit organization’s experience with an evolving organizational structure and the managerial challenges involved in encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, while institutionalizing an organization-wide knowledge management initiative. Developing a knowledge management program is a long-term endeavor and even our “knowledge about knowledge management” evolves and changes, but SCI’s experience does confirm that knowledge management must be culturally relevant. In an entrepreneurial culture, resistance to centralized coordination is a given. SCI is entrepreneurial on the one hand, and centralized coordination mandates a billing code culture that seems to stifle participation on the other—this can make implementing knowledge management seem next to impossible. However, cultural insiders, such as knowledge activists can help facilitate explicit knowledge management on a shoestring budget. On another level, individual staff members, whose personal motivations may differ from managerial motivations, can offer alternative points of leverage to help institutionalize knowledge sharing. While this case study has concentrated on evolving organizational structure, one of the lessons learned and a potential area for future research lies in identifying and leveraging individual motivations for knowledge sharing and as a critical element to knowledge management practice.
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Contact the Author:
Christopher Schultz, Associate Professor, University of Maryland University College, Graduate School of Management and Technology; Email: email@example.com