Knowledge Management Requires Cultivation, Not Commands

Published: March 12, 2008 in Knowledge@Emory

David Bray knows about government, technology—and emergency response. On September 11, 2001 Bray, then the information technology chief for Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), was scheduled to brief the CIA and the FBI on what the CDC would do if a bioterrorism event happened. Of course, that morning meeting never took place, lost in the chaos of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bray and members of his program remained alert and ready for several weeks after that fateful day, despite the fact that during an annual review earlier that year, bioterrorism in the U.S. was not considered a threat serious enough for significant funding. “By and large, Congress had said our program was a Cold War relic,” explains Bray, whose background is in computer science and biology and who has a long history of working for the U.S. government. “But when 9/11 happened, we stayed on alert until early October, and then flew on October 3, 2001 to McLean, VA to brief the Intelligence Community about CDC’s role in bioterrorism response. The next day, October 4, the first case of anthrax showed up.” As a result, Bray and many of his CDC colleagues remained on alert the last few months of 2001.

Talk about being in the center of a storm. Bray’s experiences on the front lines of bioterrorism, occurring at a time when it was a genuine danger to national public health, influenced the course of his life. Bray realized that observations he had made of the organizational response during those turbulent times were building-blocks for further, more thorough research on knowledge management strategies in organizational hierarchies.

“I saw several instances where this workforce of 1.2 million government workers, not counting contractors—which is probably another 800,000—had significant disconnects. In fact that’s what the 9/11 report specifically comes out as saying: the United States did not connect the dots across multiple agencies,” explains Bray, currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “There were times with our program where we knew something at the trench level, tried to pass it up the hierarchy, but unfortunately it never got anywhere. Events like Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, anthrax, occur in part because organizational structures in which we trust, particularly for government—but also for most large businesses—aren’t built to respond quickly to turbulent environments,” contends Bray. “And now, in part because of globalization and also because of technology, things can change so quickly half a world away.”

In his paper “Exploration and Exploitation: Managing Knowledge in Turbulent Environments,” Bray, along with Goizueta co-author Michael J. Prietula, a professor of information systems and operations management who also researches responses to disasters, develop a theoretical model about knowledge management in organizational hierarchies. Bray extends an existing model of exploration and exploitation to consider the context of multi-tier hierarchical firms faced with environmental turbulence, and then considers whether a knowledge management system that enhances knowledge exchanges across the organization alters the ability of the organization to match the conditions of a turbulent environment. Bray’s model considers different management approaches, such as a bottom-up cultivation strategy or a top-down command-and-control strategy.

“We wanted to explore whether having a top-down or bottom-up strategy would help or hurt organizational hierarchies when faced with environmental turbulence” says Bray. “We specifically were testing the idea that while top-down hierarchies may be great at command and control and maintaining internal control and reality, they’re bad at addressing a changing outside environment; a change in the marketplace, a change in competition, or an emerging national security threat.”

Bray’s research finds strong evidence that top-down hierarchies that stress command and control are ineffective in managing knowledge in turbulent environments because they decrease a hierarchical organization’s ability to maintain accuracy with its outside environment. “As you add tiers to the top-down hierarchy, you’re actually creating fragmentation in the communication pathways within your organization,” notes Bray. “And this fragmentation is also creating delays where somebody in Section A of your organization may know something that’s relevant to people in Section B, but it’s got to go up the hierarchy and then back down the hierarchy. That’s really bad if you’re a top-down hierarchy because important insights might not percolate up the hierarchy. For organizations wanting to adjust to an outside reality, be it marketplace or changing customers or security threats, top-down hierarchies hurt.”

Bottom-up hierarchies, however, where knowledge and information are passed along from the firm experts—most notably those on the front lines—can be very effective. Managers are crucial to this process in that they must encourage the cultivation of expert insights and the dissemination of knowledge through the organization. “The trick is to get that expert ‘edge’ of your organization to pass its insights to the rest of the organization, particularly to attentive managers,” explains Bray, citing the example of Sermo, a Boston-based company that operates a web-based community for physicians from hospitals around the country. The physicians are encouraged to share knowledge and rate the usefulness of their peers’ information. “Sermo’s a great example of a bottom-up informal organization where managers actually listen to the insights of expert reports, in this case physicians across the nation, and when they hear something interesting or an expert insight, that insight is passed up the organization’s structure as an important bit of knowledge to consider and to share.”

Bray points out, however, that empowering people who are directly involved with a task or project to share and aggregate their knowledge is seldom a managerial priority in most organizations. “Managers find a bottom-up approach threatening to their own jobs,” notes Bray. “They are taught instead to direct, control, and manage.”

Bray stresses that managers need to employ the equivalent of organizational “gardening tools” and learn to cultivate knowledge and insights from their employees, rather than manage people in a top-down fashion through command and control. “Recognize that you don’t always have the right answer,” says Bray. “As a manager it’s more about cultivating those who work with you as your reports; cultivating their insights and rewarding good insights and passing them up. It really is about how you make managers more cultivators and gardeners of experts—as well as reward managers who take on this role of cultivators. As a manager, your goal is to keep the garden free of weeds, nicely bordered, vibrant and healthy, and ideally you want your people to become the best and the brightest in the organization. As an organization, you want to reward such managerial behaviors.” Remember the example of Sermo, suggests Bray, where physicians are coming together in a safe, closed, anonymous space and gaining something of value that’s much greater than any one of their organizations can do. Most organizations addressing turbulent environments want what’s embodied in Sermo’s tagline: Know more. Know earlier.

“Exploration and Exploitation: Managing Knowledge in Turbulent Environments,” represents a subsequent version of an earlier draft which won “Best Paper” in the knowledge management track at the International Conference on Information Systems. This paper is the first of three research papers that Bray has prepared for his doctoral dissertation, which he successfully defended on March 7th, 2008. In the other two papers, Bray applies these theoretical conclusions to examine empirically how human behavior in an actual field setting hold up in real-world, government agency conditions. And in fact, he says, they do.

“In turbulent environments, cultivation—not command-and-control—wins every time,” says Bray.

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