Changing organisational culture – an overwhelming challenge?

June 15, 2010 | Manuel Flury | SDC Experiences |


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By Manuel Flury
SDC’s  “Knowledge Management and Instutitional Learning” Evaluation (2009) was clear about it: Metrics, process orientation, a knowledge framework will bring SDC forward in “sharing and learning”. In addition, a somewhat mysterious term reappears: “incentive”. We know a lot about what “incites” collaborators to share, to ask questions or not to do so and we and up saying: It needs a cultural change. Who shapes the organisational culture in this direction and what triggers such a dynamic? In the discussion among the Knowledge Management for Development Community in July and August 2009, Nancy White proposes to build on innovative people that might trigger new ways of learning in the organisation and have support from the managers. In the same spirit, Steve Glovinsky suggests to work with tuned-in decision-makers to get Knowledge Management institutionalised to an extent that new managers won’t have the chance “to mess things up”.

The evaluation concluded bluntly: SDC is not yet a learning organisation. One Saturday morning an old friend of mine and experienced consultant for SDC in knowledge management and knowledge sharing-issues called me immediately after having read “page 2″ of the evaluation. “I am frustrated! After 10 years of advising, suggesting, consulting no major change is to be seen!”

To become a learning organisation, SDC needs to change fundamentally: framework, incentives, metrics. Interviewing experienced colleagues it became, however, as well clear to us: Knowledge Management and Knowledge Sharing are on the agenda of SDC, “knowledge” is being perceived an asset for future activities beyond concentrating exclusively on technical knowledge in selected sectors. However: The way from raising (broad) awareness – the Dare to Share Fair, CoP training courses, Story telling, Tool kit – to actually sharing experiences in a systematic manner is still a major challenge ahead. The operational work follows other logics and rules than to participate spontaneously in cross-regional and cross-thematic sharing and learning. And most important as to how I experience SDC and its collaborators: SDC might not share and learn at the level of the overall organisation but at the level of country offices and regional programmes the collaborators do so.


Lucie Lamoureux stimulated the discussion in the KM4DEV community with the following words:

“It is amazing (and humbling to us all) to think that after 7 years of working in KM and IL, it still needs to be explained internally. Also fascinating that the recommendations point to more structure (framework, incentives, metrics) for KM and IL. And I always thought SDC should be commended for not “boxing in” KM à la log frame! In any case, would love to hear what others think!”


In a nutshell, the discussion turned around leveraging the energy of people and supporting innovative people that lead the way.


Pete Cranston’s interest is in identifying drivers for change, to focus on how to strengthen those drivers and at the same time to activating overcoming the barriers. There is energy around the people and forces pushing for change that can be leveraged to address the barriers. New ways of working challenge the “comfort zone” of the prevailing culture. Vaneeta Singha suggests (1) to initiate mainstreaming “knowledge work” in calling people from “all corners of the organisation” to present their way of learning and (2) to demonstrate the value of knowledge management in selected key actions (“flagship actions”).

And Nancy White proposed the importance of people who are trying to live their lives in a new way, to have these innovative people that might trigger new ways of learning in the organisation have support from managers. Furthermore, Nancy recalls a story of a food company in Brazil – one  of the largest in the country, that moved from traditional management to structuring all their  work on an Appreciative Inquiry approach. They shut down the company 3-4 days a year for  everyone to fly into a central location and reflect on past assets and dream their next  year’s future together. The CEO found a path to igniting passions (is this incentives?) of individuals to the shared goals of the company. The company has since grown and thrived. What changed? How did this leader find the courage and insight to take this leap? The “orientation” provides the momentum for reflection, connection, conversation and for “knowledge engagement”.

Following up on Nancy’s contribution, Christina Merl mentions that passion means giving collaborators the feeling that their stories are welcome and taken seriously.

Steve Glovinsky reconfirms the transformational nature of knowledge management: staff are talking to each other directly, professional peers share among themselves. This contradicts a classic bureaucratic mindset to think in terms of hierarchy. When managers find out that their staff are talking to each other directly they can get nervous. Managers don’t deal with knowledge, they deal with information (in order to make decisions). When they want knowledge they ask their underlings to get it for them. Steve suggests to work with tuned-in decision-makers to get KM institutionalised to an extent that new managers won’t have the chance “to mess things up”!


Focusing on the original question, all three, Riff Fullan, Sebastiao Mendonça Ferreira and Carl Jackson are cautious promoting “cultural change” as this might be an “overwhelming challenge” or “looking into past achievements”.

Riff Fullan proposes to find ways, to maximise shared ownership (of goals, tools, relationships, etc.)”. Carl Jackson calls for a re-framing and actively re-constructing an “organisational society” with a future oriented agenda. Sebastiao Ferreira puts people and changing their “cognitive habits” (even despite organisational culture) in the centre.

Taking up Riff Fullan’s plea for ownership at various levels, which is key to the promotion of such things as motivation, heart, incentives, innovation, Sebastiao Ferreira rightly asks: Are the challenges SDC is facing currently not strong enough for creating the need of re-learning among its staff? And he continues on putting attention on how people are understanding SDC’s mission and concrete challenges. Riff Fullan proposes elements such as designing of institutional change processes which are highly participatory and the introduction of tools and approaches in iterative and reflective ways.


A final insight of this discussion I got: “Creating meaning, perspective and motivation for change”. At present, SDC is undergoing major changes in the context of a series of re-organisations. Whereas full operational responsibilities will henceforth be decentralised and delegated to country offices, major support functions (such as HR/Staff development; internal controlling/audit; IT; external communication) are being centralised in the form of shared service centres and controlling units at Ministry level. SDC’s future mission is subject to permanent debate and is being re-balanced around global challenges, domestic interests and solidarity with the populations in poor regions of the world. Knowledge management in such an (organisational) environment is supposed to participate in creating meaning at the level of missions, objectives, orientations as well as tools, processes, rules and regulations. As innovative people are the ones to explore and to pursue new ways, let managers associate with them in order to create meaning, perspective and motivation for change among the many.


Comments to“Changing organisational culture – an overwhelming challenge?”

  1. Manuel Flury says:

    Congratulations on this new initiative –a very courageous way of sharing. It has been a pleasure to start my day by reading your blog reflection on SDC way forward- inspiring and familiar to our IFAD setting! Since you supported us we have had a first conclusion of integrating KMI supported by the management team –however many of your reflections about change, support for innovators and the role of managers in that ring a bell- it is as though they least favour the levelling of sharing to be direct(peer-to-peer) and much more horizontal-obviously putting those in the drivers seat that know. I look forward to further exchanges through this blog.
    Willem Wefers Bettink, IFAD, 16 June 2010


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