Talk to Strangers
Knowledge@Wharton has published an article that should be of interest to people in organizations where knowledge is the main product. Do Talk to Strangers: Encouraging Performative Ties to Create Competitive Advantage. It’s a study of professional service firms that touches on how organizations in which a simple phone call or desk visit to other colleagues, no matter how distant either physically or on the org chart, are some of the best at managing knowledge and, in turn, generating new ideas. It’s common sense, of course, but we all know how tough it is to effectively transfer information around large groups.
What they do well, says [Sheen S. Levine, a Singapore Management University professor], is move knowledge around effectively, taking the company’s entire accumulated know-how and gathering it quickly to a single point to create a solution for a client. “The question was, how do they manage to do that? It can’t be easily documented in manuals, because valuable knowledge is tacit and customized to each client’s needs,” says Levine. Moreover, he notes, in a large firm, there is no way someone can know everyone else who works there. “Even the most social person can’t know every employee personally, especially because many of these firms are large and global, and have turnover rates of more than 25% a year. Plus, each team commits to a level of client confidentiality, so they can’t divulge extremely specific details about a case.”
In spite of all that, Levine observes, some firms are very good at sharing knowledge. “The data suggest that yes, people do turn to their immediate officemates for advice, but the major indicator of a firm’s knowledge transfer ability is whether its employees routinely call upon distant colleagues — people unknown to them — for information, after a wide search. Those are performative ties,” he explains.