Barriers in intercultural knowledge sharing

    Learning’s from an international plant engineering project

    16. Mai 2011 von Ines Kaps

    Fast reaction to changing customer requirements and the profitable exploitation and management of existing knowledge is becoming a competitive advantage for companies. In order to manage knowledge, employees need to be willing to share their experience first. Cultural differences in terms of the communication style (explicit or implicit communication in low or high context cultures) or perception of risk or power often hinder people in sharing their knowledge. Trust is therefore a key dimension in knowledge sharing. Hence these barriers may hinder people in understanding each other’s knowledge and experience. Cultural trainings, adapted processes and meeting styles that meet the different requirements of high- and low-context cultures can improve the outcome of international projects. Systems and processes may support knowledge management initiatives but the key drivers are building trust and commitment and highlighting successes and results of these initiatives (e.g.: a faster development of a customer solution).

    This articel was also published in Open Journal of Knowledge Management, Issue III/2011.

    1    Introduction

    A UK based research company, that is part of an international engineering company (approximately. 400 employees) holds more than 350 patents, whereas its German based mother company (ca. 32 000 employees) holds around 55 000 patents (Kaps-Mladenoff, 2009). The approaches of exploiting this tangible knowledge differ, amongst other factors, due to the different perceptions of risk in setting up companies. Setting up a business in Anglo-Saxon Countries is less bureaucratic than in Alemannic countries (based on the author’s experience of setting up businesses in Germany and UK).

    A German based plant engineering company struggles to present and unfold the knowledge of an international project team in order to efficiently complete the project. The understanding of the predominantly French and German project team of what was said and meant is different.

    These two examples show, that knowledge management is a very broad topic from using the individual’s knowledge to perform a task to exploit a tangible patent. Hence knowledge management can be aligned to a specific role within a business, such as a knowledge management department, it can be in the hands of human resources that is responsible for the development of people’s capabilities and competences through trainings or it can be linked to IT. Here knowledge management or often more precisely document management is focused on implementing processes and systems for capturing what is written. In some companies, knowledge is managed in innovation and research departments where experience and insights create new technologies, patents for example.

    Knowledge can be described as being intangible, fluid, personal, elusive, and invisible and ever evolving (Gorelick, 2005). Consequently knowledge management is a framework that uses systems, processes, people and a culture that manages this intangible asset. Organisational knowledge management focuses on supporting employees so that they can use what they know (Widén-Wulff, 2007) for realising the organisation’s objectives.

    This framework is embedded not only in a company’s culture, where trust and learning are key elements influencing employees’ readiness to share their knowledge, learning’s and errors. A company culture does not stand on its own, but it is influenced by the culture of the county and by the individual cultures of the employees. Figure 1 shows the interdependence of people, processes and systems embedded within a culture.
    Knowledge Management Framework
    The figure also shows, that the major factors in knowledge management are people and processes. IT systems play a minor apart but can support implementing holistic solutions.

    Culture has an influence on all three elements. On people, when it comes to the awareness of cultural differences; on processes, when it comes to following processes strictly and on systems when it comes to accepting new technologies. Cultural barriers in knowledge sharing can be seen in these areas.

    2    Culture and Knowledge Sharing

    Among others, Edward T Hall, Geert Hofstede and Alfons Trompenaar have developed concepts to analyse the differences of cultures on international levels. These concepts shortly described in the next part highlight key elements of two cultures: the French and the German culture that are important for an international plant-engineering project.

    2.1    Concepts of cultural analysis

    Hall’s ( differentiation of high and low context cultures has two specific areas the focus on communication and information: “Overtness of messages” and the “use of non-verbal communication”. Table 1 links the factors overtness of messages and use of non-verbal communication to the high- and low-context cultures.


    High-context culture

    Low-context culture

    Overtness of messages

    Many covert and implicit messages, with use of metaphor and reading between the lines.   

    Many overt and explicit messages that are simple and clear.

    Use of non-verbal communication

    Much nonverbal communication

    More focus on verbal communication than body language

    Table 1: Hall on High and Low Context Cultures:

    These two dimensions have a very direct influence on how people share and communicate their knowledge. High-context cultures may use stories and metaphors in explaining a learning situation whereas low context cultures may uses tables and figures for underlining arguments. Non-verbal communication may require regular physical meetings for developing relationships and exchanging information whereas the focus on verbal communication leads to written emails and phone calls.

    Example: An international plant engineering project team has two project directors: a French and a German. These two directors communicate in different ways. The French project director communicates more verbally and between meetings with key stakeholders, whereas the German project director writes status reports supported with detailed task lists and project plans. Depending on the stakeholder’s culture these two approaches are perceived as either too vague or too detailed.

    Trompenaar’s dimensions on ‘Inner-directed vs. Outer-directed’ can be linked to Hall’s low and high context culture where high context cultures would say that “thinking is the most powerful tool and that considered ideas and intuitive approaches are the best way” (implicit and non verbal communication) ( to achieve results. This means also that ‘Outer-directed’ cultures (low context cultures) are seeking data in the outer world.

    Hofstede’s power and uncertainty dimensions can also be seen as major influences on communication and information sharing. Cultures with a high power distance factor (e.g.: France 68 of 100 points) prefer centralized and top-down approaches, whereas low power distance companies prefer equality (e.g.: German 35 of 100 points) ( Uncertainty avoidance can be seen in the extent of rules and bureaucracy that a culture establishes to deal with unfamiliar situations. Hofstede also suggests that uncertainty-avoiding cultures express their emotions more openly than uncertainty accepting cultures (e.g.: France: 86; Germany: 65).

    Example: The project organisation in an international plant engineering projects is hierarchical on the French side, where the French project director is involved in detailed decisions, whereas the project structure on the German side is a matrix structure where the project director is involved in high level interest conflicts due to the matrix structure.

    These three approaches of analysis suggest that culture has a major influence on how people deal with communication, information hence knowledge.

    2.2    Cultural challenges in knowledge sharing

    Implicit and vague emotional communication versus explicit and precise information – linking classical cultural stereotypes to these statements one could easily use France versus Germany (Pateau, 1999).

    On the one hand one could imagine an eloquent project manager who manages very hierarchical and top-down. Key information and decisions are discussed at business lunches after having developed a solid relationship over a period of time. On the other side a precise engineer who is familiar with organizational matrix structures. Decisions are made in very detail-focused meetings.

    The experience of these two employees may be very valuable for the company or a project. They may even depend on each other’s knowledge, nevertheless they don’t understand each other. Hence 4 areas can be identified as key challenges:

    • Communication Style: how explicit and precise is the communication or does one need to understand the context to read between the lines
      • Example: The French project director is interested in understanding the context of a problem and all possible dependences. These talks often take place at the coffee machine or at lunch. The German project director is interested in precise details of the current problem. This information is mainly exchanged in organised meeting.
    • Organisation / Power: how acceptable is knowledge exchange across hierarchies
      • Example: A clear hierarchical structure is important in France whereas a matrix structure is genuinely accepted in Germany.
    • Language: besides cultural topics on communication, misunderstanding and the reluctance to share knowledge can be based on simply not knowing how to express oneself
      • Example: The French language is descriptive whereas the German language is more precise. This can be seen in the different TV advertisements of cars, for example. A French car advertisement is more about emotion (e.g. Peugeot) whereas a German car advertisement is more about technical functions (e.g.: VW).
    • Trust: without a culture of trust within a company and across country cultures no one will share learning’s or other valuable stories for continuous improvement processes or simple successful project implementations. Trust is a key basis to overcome uncertainty.
      • Example: the way of building trust is different in the two described cultures. In the plant engineering project trust is developed in personal meetings where the French side is focussing on building a relationship over a long period whereas the German side seeks for reliable expertise and facts.

    A culture of trust enables knowledge sharing and learning. Trust has an effect on greater creativity, commitment, professional satisfaction, and better performance both of individuals and of the organisation (McKenna, 2002). By rewarding behaviour and competences of knowledge sharing and learning organisational change will be supported. Clear communication and the engagement of the management team are essential so that the employees follow the company leaders. Ignoring the cultural aspect will make the implementation of a new knowledge management concept obsolete.  

    3    Conclusion and Suggestions

    Successful knowledge management is becoming a critical success for companies. An effective knowledge management is a holistic framework that considers the interconnections between systems, processes, people and culture and is not only concentrated on input factors such as trainings but also on measurable output factors such as the application of new knowledge and innovations. Enabling the change from passive knowledge capturing to active knowledge sharing, both needs a focus in increasing trust within a company and an attractive bonus and reward system for employees. International and intercultural differences challenge the exchange of knowledge but can be diluted by a strong level of trust.

    3.1    Implications for the element ‘People’

    According to Maister (2001), companies increase their financial profitability if their staff is highly motivated and satisfied. These companies use their internal knowledge to improve solutions and react fast to customer requirements. Therefore companies should focus on the people side of knowledge sharing by building relationships and trust via providing regular face-to-face meetings that are an integrated part of the business process.

    • Trainings: inter-cultural trainings can increase the awareness of cultural differences. People who know about the different communication styles and power differences can adjust their approach in communication and project management. This would help high-context cultures to express their knowledge and to become more explicit by getting to know the requirements of low-context cultures. These would learn reading between the lines and asking concrete questions to become more explicit answers.
      • Example: For the international plant-engineering project this would mean, that project meetings would include regularly business lunches to build relationships and to have the forum to understand the context and interrelationships. On the other side project reports would be implemented for the whole team but the detailed levels would be reduced. Therefore the requirements for both cultures, French and German can be addressed.
    • Trust: Building trust is a basic element for exchanging knowledge and needs to be developed by rewarding people when sharing knowledge and taking openly about errors they have made and by highlighting success stories when sharing led to fast learning and better results.
      • Example: regular feedback meetings are used to analyse projects and to highlight mistakes, improvements and successes. These and the above described meetings are key elements to build trust within the team and the company across cultures.


    3.2    Implications for the element ‘Processes’

    In an ideal situation processes and systems would enable employees from high and low-context countries to share their knowledge either using little structured forums and meetings for story telling (high context) or detailed forms for describing a situation (low context).

    • Regular communication: Success stories that communicate the outcome and benefits of the knowledge sharing will enhance the willingness to be part of the knowledge-sharing champions.
    • Lessons Learnt: regular improvement meetings that aim to
      • analyse projects critically in order to search for innovative solutions of current problems,
      • improve products and processes,
      • integrate customer feedback and highlight
      • best practices can support the culture of knowledge exchange and learning.

    Rewards and appraisals should also be linked to knowledge sharing objectives so that is it clear for every employee that management takes this topic seriously. Moreover management needs to be a strong role model and show clearly how it is sharing knowledge across cultures (walk-the-talk).
    Example: The international plant engineering company implemented lessons learnt meetings and processes within the sales and project execution process in order to learn directly from current projects. It involves people across functions to get a holistic view on a contract, for example. What implications on purchasing, site management and development has a specific section of the contract?

    3.3    Implications for the element ‘Systems’

    Technical solutions can support knowledge sharing initiatives by developing and implementing knowledge sharing platforms. Of course, these platforms need to be open to give employees the possibility to share and access knowledge they need to perform their role.  

    • Culture related requirements: Translation processes or integrated dictionaries may diminish languages problems. Ideally the entry point and the search function are customised to the different ways of working with IT systems in high- and low- context cultures. Of course the search result needs to be the same.
    • Unstructured communication forums: blogs, wikis and discussion forum will support high-context cultures in express their knowledge in a less detailed-driven way.
    • Structured databases: Clearly structured databases and feedback forms will play to low-context cultures in collecting explicitly their knowledge.
    • Security Settings: The system may lessen hierarchies and matrixes by less strict internal security setting.

    Nevertheless any knowledge management system can only support the change to a knowledge sharing culture but can never be the single source for knowledge management.

    Example: The international plant-engineering company uses the implementation of a new information and document management system to drive the knowledge sharing culture. Here the implementation of the new system is the driving force. By intense change management and communication during the project people can express their requirements and their needs to get information from other departments. By presenting these findings, the employees were able to see, that their requirements of sharing knowledge were similar across functions and cultures. A modular implementation approach (project by project and department by department internationally) enabled the communication of regular success stories. Proven evidence of knowledge sharing successes supported the slow development of a knowledge sharing attitude across cultures.

    4    Literature

    • Davis, A (2006): ‘Management Development through self-managed learning: the case of West Sussex Country Council’, in Development and Learning Organisations, Vol 20/Nr 4
    • Gorelick, C and Tantawy-Monsu, B (2005): ‘Performance through learning and knowledge management is the critical practice’ in The learning Organisation 2005 /12/2
    • Hall:  (accessed on 5th March 2011)
    • Hofstede (2011): (accessed 5th March 2011)  
    • Kaps-Mladenoff (2009): Critical Success Factors in Patent Commercialisation MBA Theses at the Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK
    • Maister, D H (2001) ‘What drives profits in consulting firms?’ In Consulting to Management, June 2001
    • McKenner, P J, Maister, D H (2002): ‘Building team trust’, in Consulting to Management, December 2002
    • Pateau, J (1999): ‘Die seltsame Alchemie in der Zusammenarbeit von Deutschen und Franzosen’, New York, Campus Verlag 1999
    • Trompenaar:  (accessed 5th March 2011)
    • Widén-Wulff, G and Suoma, R (2007): ‘Utilisation of Information Resources for Business Success – The Knowledge Sharing Model’, in Information Resources Management Journal, 20(1) 2007
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