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April 05, 2006

The KM Benefits of Having a Higher Purpose

I don’t have statistics to prove it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that people working at organizations devoted to missions other than (and arguably higher than) making money share knowledge more readily than employees at companies that emphasize the bottom line.

My colleagues and I have looked at knowledge programs at the World Bank, NASA, the navy, and MITRE, among other entities devoted to reducing poverty, advancing science and space exploration, and contributing to national security. Although these organizations have their share of territoriality and competitiveness, their missions do seem to encourage people to share knowledge and cooperate more readily than they would without a sense of a shared worthy purpose. My conversations with experienced NASA project managers suggest that knowledge sharing happens most fully and readily when project leaders keep the value and excitement of their shared mission in view and appeal to that inspiring goal to help resolve disagreements and overcome crankiness and suspicion.

There is a lesson here for for-profit companies. Knowledge workers are unlikely to devote time and talent to knowledge management activities if the only articulated purpose for those efforts is to save money for the corporation. The CEO and CFO and major stockholders may be inspired by those dollars, but most employees aren’t. In many cases, though, profit-making companies can also legitimately invoke a higher purpose to support knowledge sharing—perhaps scientific discovery or the public benefits of their products or services or even pride in the quality of work accomplished. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are unquestionably profit-making ventures, but most researchers are driven (and driven to seek and share knowledge) by the goal of discovering drugs that cure diseases. For them, profits are a byproduct of a scientific and humanitarian achievement.

People who are proud of their work are more likely to offer what they know to people they think of as colleagues in a shared journey toward a worthwhile goal.

Posted by Don Cohen on April 5, 2006 06:10 PM | Permalink

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