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Is It Possible to Change a Knowledge Management Culture Without Addressing Organizational Culture?

Jul 21, 2014
Sarah Dimick
Sarah Dimick
Research Associate
Technology and Innovation

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”1 Time and again, we see that when trying to implement organizational changes of any kind, culture is absolutely crucial. From the adoption of new technologies to a firm's ability to innovate more broadly, the established culture within organizations has the power to make or break any organizational shift.

Given the trump card that organizational culture holds, I was struck by the approach presented by Raouf Naggar, head of strategic development at the Hydro-Québec Research Institute (IREQ), this past June in Montréal. At the Conference Board's Executive Meeting of the Council for Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM), Mr. Naggar presented IREQ's approach to managing ideas in an environment and culture that in the past would typically work against sharing ideas. This is essentially due to the nature of its R&D activities and to the possible competition between researchers to obtain projects.

Hydro-Québec's challenge is somewhat unique, given the size and nature of the organization. It is the only electric utility in North America to have a research centre the size of IREQ. With a mandate to provide solutions and value for Hydro-Québec, IREQ receives a yearly average of $100 million toward its innovation projects and employs approximately 500 people (compared with 20,200 employees at Hydro-Québec).

IREQ uses a Stage-Gate process to manage innovation. While this works effectively for the ideas that make it into the Stage-Gate process, it does not tap into the value of those ideas that are left or tossed out along the way. These lost ideas are tangible assets.

Mr. Naggar and his team are interested in capturing those lost ideas in a reservoir where they can mature over time and be periodically revisited. Building this reservoir in a culture that, in the past, hasn't shared ideas easily is an immense challenge. Instead of taking the organizational culture head-on, they have strategically focused on the motivations of their employees and the communities in which they share and collect ideas.

By building a value proposition for each stakeholder to share their ideas, the team is addressing the question of individual motivation and hopes that more ideas will be put forward. Mr. Naggar and his team have identified areas of motivation for four types of employees:

  • Entrepreneurs—Their goal is to obtain projects and contracts; their reward is success and recognition.
  • Researchers—Their goal is the advancement of science and technology; their reward is new knowledge.
  • Innovators—Their goal is to create value by making new ideas become reality.
  • Ideators—Their goal is to look for and create opportunity from existing knowledge and beyond.

In recognizing these value propositions, IREQ has taken the first step toward encouraging idea sharing. Other strategies it has employed include minimizing the effort required for sharing and encouraging sharing gradually through small communities.2

This concept of sharing through communities is key to the idea-management process. Some of the communities emerge organically as teams that have worked together over extended periods, whereas others are assembled to think through issues, such as future needs and early ideas. Three larger communities have also been built to focus on the topics of asset management, smart grids, and energy and eco-conservation.

The vision for IREQ is to have a strong community of communities that work collaboratively to manage, test, and develop good ideas. This would be a drastic shift in an organization whose culture fostered idea hoarding more than idea sharing.

The presentation left me wondering: Is there an effective way to change behaviour in large and established organizations? Can changing the value proposition to focus on motivators and community building work to shift the behaviour while sidestepping the monumental task of changing the culture in this or other large and established organizations?

IREQ is at the beginning stages of this process of drastically shifting organizational culture. The Institute's efforts to establish communities and motivate idea sharing through tapping into employees values are a work in progress that, if successful, will gather, store, and work to develop countless ideas that have the potential to improve the business.

1  This phrase was originated by the late Austrian-American management consultant and author Peter Drucker. See Torben Rick, Organizational Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, June 11, 2014.

2  Raouf Naggar, “Managing Knowledge and Ideas,” Council for Information and Knowledge Management: Knowledge Management Summit. Conference held at Montréal, June 25–26, 2014.

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