Thirteen ways the physical environment shapes knowledge management

Knowledge management (including its creation, transference and storage) within an organisation is now widely considered to be one of the primary drivers of a business’s sustainability. Driven by changing demographics, businesses are recognising the ways in which valuable knowledge is lost when employees leave the organisation, including when they retire or are made redundant in response to changing economic conditions. Geyer, an Australian design practice, is just one organisation that has undertaken important research to understand the role of the physical environment in knowledge management.The aim of the research was to explore the kinds of environments and their attributes (if any) that could support the management of knowledge in an organisation. The research also aimed to expand the focus of existing knowledge management literature; from information technology to workplace design.

The research was based on an online survey, and a series of workshops undertaken in Australia between November 2009 and March 2010. The survey measured various aspects of the relationship between knowledge and space including the perception of knowledge creation, transfer, storage and ownership. A total of 94 responses were received from Australia (72) and overseas (22). The three most represented industries were engineering/design (31%) followed by finance (18%) and property (10%). A total of 34 people from legal, management, finance, mining, government and education attended the face-to-face workshops.

The research produced thirteen lessons:

1. Space as a time-saving tool:The ability to observe and hear co-workers provides an opportunity to learn, even when those teaching do not have the time to instruct. Spaces that foster learning by observation (e.g. open plan layouts) mimic the attributes found in a playground, where children learn by observing others. Open-plan environments were desired by time-poor organisations that struggle with finding the time to formally transfer knowledge.

2. Organisational structure:The structure used to transfer company and industry knowledge is usually different from the one reflected in organisational charts, and often more complex, sometimes taking years to understand. Complex and secretive organisational structures of some (especially large) organisations were identified as a factor in knowledge transfer.
The literature refers to the scientific theory of complexity, to suggest that organisations naturally emerge out of the interaction of individual agents without any top-down control. Understanding this structure is important because knowledge is best transferred through naturally constructed structures, rather than top-down defined hierarchies. Given the adequate space and freedom, individuals will naturally organise in unpredictable ways, to adapt and, through experimentation, rise to higher levels of performance. In fact, not only does learning stimulate this process, but this self-organisation appears to be a learning process in itself.

3. Mentoring: Participants singled out mentoring as one of the most successful vehicles for transferring knowledge. Mentoring is defined as an individual having regular dialogue with, and receiving advice from, a more experienced member of the organisation relating to the individual’s job and career development. Mentoring programs, especially those in the legal, accounting and financial institutions, often expand to provide guidance and introduction to new contacts and networks. Space does not only allow people to learn from their mentors by observation as described above, but the literature suggests most mentor-learner relationships are accidental and do not arise from a formally constructed management development scheme where mentor and learner are deliberately paired. The physical space could assist by providing environmental conditions that help shape these relationships.

4.Technology and knowledge management: Participants identified the role of technology mainly as a repository of data, as well as a channel of delivery. On the latter, blogs, social networking and video were identified as useful methods currently used in some workplaces, as an emerging means to transfer data. This tendency is expected only to increase with the tech savvy emergent workforce. However, one participant mentioned in-house wiki-like environments, designed to share information, were often forced and over time then abandoned.

5: Size matters: The size of the organisation was identified as a factor influencing the role of technology in KM. Large companies have procedures documented, and rely more on technology to transfer information, whereas small companies typically do not; however, people are usually more willing to talk face-to-face. It could then be said that large companies share information, whereas small companies share knowledge. The dependency on technology to transfer knowledge increased with company size, with bigger companies having geographically dispersed locations.

6. Acquiring knowledge: Survey respondents considered experience – over self-learning (second) and formal training (third) – as the main source of knowledge they use in their job. Similar results were obtained during workshops; this is supported by the literature, which suggests that most professionals learn through work experience.
However, the literature also supports the idea that there is no limit to the ways by which workers learn informally in the workplace. Interpersonal observations and communication are seen by many workers as a critical vehicle for learning effectively in the workplace (see mentoring above). This is very much based on the workers’ belief that they will learn ‘tricks of the trade’ faster by observing an expert rather than finding out information for themselves.
Preceding research in Australia suggests up to 70% of workplace learning is informal and not part of any formal corporate effort. This tacit knowledge is transferred through the daily interaction of a diverse mix of people and events, as well as through mentoring. These findings may lead to revisiting the need for training rooms, and considering the whole organisation as a training environment instead.

7. Transfer and Storing Knowledge: Most of the respondents (82%, n=94) considered knowledge was best transferred through social environments rather than technology. Almost all respondents (88%, n=94) strongly agree (48%) or agree (40%) that knowledge in their organisation resides with people rather than a web page or IT system (n=94). This aligns with comments made that organisations can only store data since information and knowledge reside in peoples’ minds. Space still holds characteristics that are valuable in knowledge management, and that cannot be replicated by technology.

8. Knowledge leakage: The challenge of storing knowledge(not information) means people will walk away with it when departing an organisation (as they take their minds with them). While intellectual property laws limit the use of this knowledge, they do little to prevent the loss of knowledge experienced by the company. The latter is reflected by most respondents(81%, n=94) strongly agreeing (23%) or agreeing (58%) that people leaving the organisation pose a critical loss of knowledge.

9. Knowledge as a product: Almost all respondents (93%, n=94) strongly agree (50%) or agree (43%) that knowledge is an asset in their organisation. A slightly smaller percentage (84%, n=94) strongly agree (48%) or agree (36%) that knowledge is considered a competitive advantage at their organisation. Knowledge is increasingly becoming the only ‘product’ that organisations can commercialise, because organisations can no longer charge for information that is now commonly accessible through the internet. Thus, organisations need to change their services to commercialise knowledge, not information.

10. Knowledge ownership: In legal terms, knowledge acquired while working for an organisation belongs to the organisation (IP Australia 2010).However, 36% of respondents consider the knowledge they acquired while working at their organisation to belong to them, as they ‘own their mind’, but would not be able to use it for commercial purposes.

11. Knowledge sharing and competitive advantage: The literature highlights that efforts to deploy KM systems are frequently hampered by employee reluctance to share their experience. In some instances employees do not realise their experience is valuable to others, and in other instances there may be a sentiment that holding information is more valuable than sharing it. Some employees are competitive by nature and may be more inclined to hoard than share knowledge they possess; and as a consequence the interest of the individual clashes with that of the organisation.
While the majority of respondents (53%) believe internal competition does not hinder knowledge sharing (n=94), the question registered the most divided response of the study. Roberts (2009) based on Stiglitz (1999) highlights knowledge is different from other commodities due to its scarcity-defying nature. ‘Consumption’ of knowledge is not subject to -rivalry in that knowledge is shared and the gain of the consumer (recipient) does not diminish the stock of the supplier. Therefore, the value of knowledge does not reside in its scarcity, but in knowing something that the competition does not. If people perceive their peers as competition, knowledge will not be shared.

12. Trust:“Trust amongst employees is paramount for knowledge transfer”, said one participant. The concept of trust surfaced as a key ingredient in the ability to transfer knowledge within and across organisations. This is very important in KM because it improves the belief in information (creates knowledge) and it enables voluntary cooperation (knowledge transfer).
Participants felt having a personal connection with a co-worker resulted in a greater opportunity to communicate and align purpose, which led to a greater ‘trust factor’ – something they believed was critical for knowledge transfer. However, trust is hard to build in today’s environment. Issues of trust in inter- and intra-organisational relationships have changed due to changes in the social structure, economic exchange relations, virtual working and the relations between people – which are looser. When relationships between people become casual, temporal and more virtual, a paradoxical consequence can be experienced where trust is needed to enhance cooperation, and at the same time, fewer cues are present to build trust upon. Space plays an important role in providing an environment to read the social cues needed to build trust.
Moreover, personal connections in the workplace result from being in close physical proximity to others, working closely together on a project or task. The physical layout of the workplace and type and style of work-setting plays a role in making these connections easy to maintain.

13. KM and FM: Research results highlight the importance of space as a knowledge management tool. However, for this to be the case, the relationship between space and knowledge needs to be taken into consideration at the operational and strategic management level of the facility. The lack of metrics equivalent to those available for Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE), for example, make the measurement of how well (or badly) space supports knowledge a challenging and subjective task. Further exploratory research could contribute to the identification of space parameters that affect knowledge management, which eventually could evolve into evaluating protocols.

Conclusion
Organisations are increasingly starting to recognise that technology based competitive advantages are transient and that their employees’ knowledge is possibly the most sustainable advantage they have. However, this competitive advantage is being compromised by retirement and redundancies. Capturing and documenting critical knowledge prior to a person departing the organisation is challenging, particularly if leaving was not their choice. In addition, transferring knowledge through employee interaction has become a key focus of organisations that are increasingly looking to identify opportunities for knowledge transfer.

Today, the management of knowledge in organisations is led by technology. However, technology is limited to the storage and transfer of data; knowledge can only exist in people’s minds, and it is best transferred through a social context. Research was undertaken to better understand the role of space in supporting the management of knowledge in organisations. Findings suggest that despite its passive nature, space plays an active role in the creation, storage and transfer of knowledge. This could imply the best tool that organisations have to manage knowledge may be their workplace.

For organisations to use space as a knowledge management tool, the relationship between space and knowledge needs to be taken into consideration at the management, operational and strategic level of the facility. Designers and facility managers should ensure the decisions taken to meet the occupant’s comfort levels and achieve environmental targets also enhance the capability to transfer knowledge within the organisation.

This research identifies trust as a key ingredient in knowledge management. Trust helps people transform information into knowledge (as it justifies a belief) as well as facilitates the willingness to transfer knowledge (people will not share knowledge if they do not trust the recipient). Space plays a crucial role in providing the social cues required to build trust. Casual spaces (e.g. breakout areas) remove the formality and expectations of formal spaces (e.g. meeting rooms) and allow people to connect in a more relaxed, human way that builds trust.
The research highlights the limitations of technology as a knowledge management tool. In general, respondents identified technology as a repository and transferrer of data; however, respondents preferred face-to-face interaction to transfer knowledge. Moreover, experience and tacit knowledge were highlighted as the most important types of knowledge in organisations. Considered difficult to digitise, these are better transmitted by behaviour and perception.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Work&Place

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Dr. Agustin Chevez is currently a lecturer and researcher at the Faculty of Design at Swinburne University of Technology He combines industry practice with academic research in the field of design. Agustin’s interest in the relationship between people, space and technology saw him pursued a PhD on the evolution of workplace architecture as a consequence of technology development at RMIT University. Following its completion, Agustin joined the research and workplace strategy team at Geyer, where he undertook research on design topics as well as developed workplace strategies.
Laurie Aznavoorian is a partner and Workplace Leader at the design consultancy Geyer. Laurie is committed to promoting space as a business tool and has a proven history in developing innovative approaches to the briefing and design process, customised to address business demands, brand and company culture.

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