Knowledge sharing and cross-boundary collaboration in an European Union social research organisation

    Is cultural diversity a key factor?

    16. Mai 2011 von Barbara Schmidt-Abbey

    One challenge for knowledge sharing in a multi-national, multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder ‘polyphonic’ organisation consists in uncovering and communicating underlying mental models. This observation is illustrated by examples of knowledge sharing experiences in one supra-national organisation referred to as a case example – the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

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

    Some assumptions about ‘cultural diversity’ as a factor for knowledge-sharing in Eurofound, a European Union ‘tripartite’ social research organisation:

    ‘Cultural diversity’ in the context of this European Union multiple stakeholder social research organisation can be observed to be rather multi-layered and fluid – an ever-changing ‘cultural diversity kaleidoscope’ rather than a static picture, which does not lend itself to easy classifications and certainly not to easily transferable ‘recipes’. Traditional anthropologic concepts of ‘culture’ appear to be of rather limited explanatory power in this operational context. The specific organisational context is the contingent within which the unique mix of factors contributing to or hindering the sharing of knowledge in a multi-cultural organisation in the widest sense.

    Knowledge management in cross-cultural organisational contexts

    Whilst the body of knowledge management literature is broad-ranging and continually growing, there appears to be a persistent lack of robust research of the multi- and cross-cultural dimensions of knowledge management. This is somewhat surprising, particularly compared to a continued (but perhaps somewhat receding) focus on technological aspects of knowledge management on the one hand, and a quite large body of literature in other disciplines of management and social science which deal with cross-cultural issues. This particular inter-disciplinary combination of the aspects of knowledge management and cross-cultural management and its implications is however still relatively underdeveloped in the literature, as can be experienced when searching management literature database for this combination of keywords.

    In the last decade, a number of attempts have been made in the literature to advance these issues further, but it appears that the expected breakthrough has yet to happen (for example, see works by Holden, 2001, 2008 and 2010). However, a comprehensive analysis of these developments, as well as an exploration of the management literature on ‘culture’ and cross-cultural management’ is outside the scope of this article, and could be subject of a separate literature review.  Omissions of arguably relevant articles in this body of literature are a deliberate limitation for the purpose of this article, as its focus is on using a real-life example case to explore some assumptions and observations. Further research would undoubtedly be necessary to come to conclusive evidence.
    Of particular interest in focus of this article is the application of knowledge management in multi-cultural, supra-national organizational contexts.
    C. Ringel-Bickelmaier and M. Ringel (2010) have recently written about knowledge management in international organisations, in which they describe the knowledge management approaches taken by international organisations such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the European Union (EU) institutions. In common with other multinational enterprises, international organisations are formed by ‘highly diversified staffs’, which implies that ‘an effective knowledge management approach needs to take into account possible cultural barriers to knowledge sharing’ (De Long and Fahey, 2000, quoted in Ringel-Bickelmaier and Ringel, 2010).

    Ringel-Bickelmaier and Ringel observe that in general, specific provisions for managing cultural diversity and dealing with cultural aspects in knowledge sharing do not seem to be in place in most of the organisations they studied. These general observations from the reviewed literature provide the background to exploring the case of one particular European knowledge organisation as an example.

    Experiences of knowledge sharing and cross-boundary collaboration – case example of “European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions” (‘Eurofound’)

    About the organisation

    Eurofound, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, is a European Union (EU) agency, one of the first to be established, to work in specialised areas of EU policy. 1    

    Eurofound was set up by the European Council in 1975 to ‘contribute to the planning and design of better living and working conditions in Europe’. Its role is to provide information, advice and expertise on living and working conditions, industrial relations and managing change in Europe, for key actors in the field of EU social policy on the basis of comparative information, research and analysis, on the themes of employment and working conditions, work–life balance, industrial relations and partnership, and social cohesion. As a ‘tripartite’ agency, its key target audiences are EU policymakers, social partner organisations (employers and trade unions) at EU level and in the 27 EU Member States, and national governments.  2

    Knowledge management in Eurofound

    The task description for Eurofound derived from its mandate in its founding regulation makes it quite clear (although it is not described as such) that Eurofound de facto is a knowledge management organisation: Eurofound is tasked with sourcing, producing, transforming and communicating knowledge pertaining to its subject domain (improvement of living and working conditions in Europe), and ensuring these results are available for its key target audience of EU policy makers. For this to succeed, a range of organisational, structural and contextual enabling factors need to be in place, and barriers need to be overcome for effective knowledge sharing to take place. Whilst this is true for any organisation, the mix of factors that constitute the barriers to sharing knowledge is specific to Eurofound.
    A rather unique feature can be found in the specific character of Eurofound as a ‘tri-partite’ agency, which affects all aspects of Eurofound’s work and the context within which this takes place, making it a ‘polyphonic’ organisation composed of several different ‘voices’ on a topic (see Kornberger et al, 2006 for the concept of polyphonic organisations).

    Eurofound is governed by a Governing Board consisting of representatives from employers, trade unions and governments from all 27 EU Member States and at EU level. This multi-stakeholder makeup illustrates an aspect of ‘cultural diversity’ rather rarely referred to in the reviewed literature – that of multiple voices concerning the same issue, which by nature encompasses different views and different ‘knowledges’ (epistomologies) on a broad range of topics, which need to be reconciled and served. It is in this aspect that Eurofound faces it greatest knowledge management challenges. With view to its core tasks, some innovative tools to address this aspect of ‘polyphonic diversity’ have been developed by Eurofound over its three decades of practice. A particularly relevant example for the subject of this article is the example of the “Foundation Seminar Series” (FSS). 3

    The example of ‘Foundation Seminar Series’ as a tool for sharing knowledge and experience on social policies amongst European actors

    As part of Eurofound’s tasks to facilitate debate, the aim of the “Foundation Seminar Series” (FSS)  project is to provide opportunities for knowledge-sharing that could facilitate a better decision-making process in European social policy and help social actors at national level to meet the goals of the European Union’s ‘Lisbon Agenda’ (until 2010), and its successor, “Europe 2020” . The FSS in its present form has been in existence since 2004 and is currently running its seventh edition. The specific objective of the FSS is to compare national situations in relation to the chosen seminar topic with European objectives and the views of employers, trade unions and representatives of public bodies. Through the FSS, Eurofound implements one of its central tasks, to contribute to shared knowledge and experiences in its domain of ‘improving living and working conditions in Europe’, across the EU Member States, by offering representatives of the social partners and public authorities an opportunity to discuss European social issues and deepen their understanding of the implications at national level. ‘Tripartite’ representation is the key element for a successful and sustainable debate at national level. Therefore, representatives of the unions, employers' organizations and governments of the EU Member States are invited to participate in the two-session seminars dedicated to a specific topic. Topics covered by consecutive FSS seminars over the years included “Age and work” (2004), “Sustainable and flexible work organisation” (2005), “’Flexi-curity’ and employability (2006), “Youth and work” (2007), “Developing workers’ skills” (2008); “Maintaining employment in times of crisis” (2009-10), “Skills development in Europe – challenges and actions” (2010-11).

    The overall learning process is spread throughout four steps, as illustrated in Figure 1:

    Figure 1: Foundation Seminar Series structure and learning process
    1. [Month N - 2]: Assembling ‘national tri-partite teams’ from ca 10-12 EU countries for both sessions: national teams are composed of representatives from ‘Social Partners’ (Employer and Trade Union representatives) + national government = invitees to Foundation Seminars.
    2. [Month N]: 1st seminar session (typically in spring): background papers, topic presentations, mapping European trends, initiating networking, setting of assignment task on national policies and contexts.
    3. National teams collaborate on assignment tasks to prepare a joint presentation on national policies and experiences at 2nd session workshops and debate.
    4. [Month N+5]: 2nd seminar session (typically in autumn): presentations by national tripartite teams of their assignments to the other national teams: national situation presentations and company examples; discussions
    5. Post-event networking amongst participants and practitioners and further  knowledge sharing between participants.

    In terms of knowledge sharing, the FSS can be described as the building of temporary tri-partite ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1999), by bringing together multiply diverse teams to work together on the set topic and tasks over a longer period. Through thisprocess (typically spanning a period of six or nine months for the entire four step process), members from the different groups from several EU countries (employers, trade unions, and governments, and at times, company representatives) are brought together to exchange practices in their respective country with teams from other EU countries.  The tripartite members from each country have to form a ‘national team’, and must work together on their respective assignments which they must present jointly at the second session (some months after the first session).
    The following tables illustrate the structure and multi-national and multi-stakeholder interactions within the framework of the Foundation Seminar series:

    Figure 2: Composition of representation of collaborative team members working on FSS topics (example)


    National governments (ca 12 participating countries)

    National Social Partner representatives (ca 12 participating countries)

    European level Social Partner organisations

    Companies (presenting good practice case examples)

    Ageing and work

    Flexible work organisation

    Youth and work

    Skills development of workers

    A recent ex-post evaluation of Eurofound’s 2005-2008 work programme (Centre for Strategy and Evaluation Services, 2010) has looked at the Foundation Seminar Series as a case study, with predominantly positive results. This evaluation provides evidence about the effectiveness, utility and sustainability of effects of the Foundation Seminar Series, and some of its findings are useful to be reinterpreted under the perspective of FSS as an instrument for knowledge sharing across national and political ‘borders’.

    Knowledge sharing results and outcomes:

    Through the FSS collaborative knowledge sharing and learning process, ‘cultural diversity’ is addressed at two separate levels:

    1) tri-partite collaboration in the same national context:  by bringing together the three ‘sides of industry’ (employers, trade unions and governments) at their own national level in a ‘national team’ to jointly work on the assignment for the second session. This constellation means that the participants in the national team typically hold divergent and often even opposite views on the matters under discussion, especially employers and trade unions. For example, when preparing the national situation assignment for the FSS seminar on ‘ageing and work’, the trade union representative of ‘Country A’ is likely to approach the assignment from a trade union point of view, emphasizing what is important in the national debate for the unions – for example, emphasizing the working conditions of older workers. The employers’ representative on the national assignment team for Country A by contrast may emphasize the productivity and company performance aspects of employing older workers.  The government representative of Country A may bring the perspective of the effect on the social security system and pension provision in the country, and the policy implications the national government of Country A advocates from that perspective. Oftentimes, the trade union and employers’ representatives in particular in a given country would normally encounter each other on opposite sides of the table in their day-to-day work, for example in collective bargaining or other negotiation situations, and their interactions with each other (personally or through the organisations they represent) would typically hold and express opposite views, and may assume rhetorical ‘positioning’ in discourses with each other.
    Through the joint collaboration on the FSS assignments as a national team, participants often find themselves in a new situation: with the objective to jointly present and explain the situation as seen by their sides in their own country to their counterparts from several other countries, the participants have to learn to go beyond their usual ‘stances’ in their interactions with each other, and to work together as a team for the purpose of the assignment. As a country team, they have to work through several stages of team forming, see Tuckman (1965): ‘forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning’). Whilst this collaboration will of course not mean that they relinquish their positions and points of views, they have achieve a different level of discourse with each other from the background of having to jointly explain their country specific circumstances to other national ‘tripartite’ teams. As part of the ‘storming’ phase, an externalization and challenge of each other’s ‘mental models’ (Senge, 1990) would inevitably occur, resulting eventually in some sort of shared ‘mental model’ in the ‘norming’ and ‘performing’ stages - at least in order to arrive at a joint presentation of their respective different views on the topic for the purpose of sharing the results of their collaboration with the other national teams at the next session.

    2) Engaging with diverse national practices in other countries: This collaboration in the national teams prepares the next level of dealing with ‘diversity’ – that of different practices between different EU Member States, where a different layer of ‘team learning’ is accomplished. At the second seminar session, the different national tri-partite teams present their country situation in relation to the seminar topic to the participants from the other countries. From the juxtaposition of very diverse country situations (e.g. on ageing and work), participants gain a broader appreciation of the diversity of national contexts and policy options across Europe, and by comparison with the situation in other countries are able to re-evaluate their own countries’ situation, and (possibly) see their own partisan position from a different perspective. Reported feedback from FSS participants4  suggests that oftentimes, social partner participants are often more empathic to the viewpoints expressed by the ‘opposite’ social partner representative in a different country. For example, a trade union representative from Country A may express more understanding of the employer representative’s position from Country B than he/she may have towards an employer representative from their own Country A.

    Evidence of effectiveness of FSS for knowledge sharing

    The evidence base is not sufficiently broad enough to draw final conclusions on the knowledge sharing effectiveness of the FSS, and is currently largely relying on the 2010 ex-post evaluation where the FSS was included in the survey and features as a case study, and further anecdotal evidence provided in interviews with the project leader. Further research would need to be conducted to draw more reliable conclusions on how effective the knowledge sharing in the FSS actually is, and what the critical success factors would be.  

    However, there is some evidence in the 2010 ex-post evaluation which confirms that FSS participants do find the seminars ‘highly useful. They frequently share the information and apply it to their work at the national level.  Some examples of participant feedbacks are quoted in the evaluation report, for example: “I find it useful to discuss the issues with the representatives from both sides, employers and trade unions, and from other EU countries and learn what is going on there”. (Ex-post evaluation, p. 61). 

    The aspect of knowledge sharing in the FSS has also been addressed in two questions in the ex-post evaluation survey: the question “have you shared what you have learned through the seminar(s) with colleagues?” has been answered positively by some 48%, saying that they have done so ‘very’ or ‘quite’ often, where the extent of sharing tended to be relatively high amongst employee organisations and lowest amongst employer’s bodies. About 40% of respondents had applied what they have learned during the seminars to their work either often or sometimes, where the FSS seemed to be most useful to Government representatives (Ex-post evaluation, p. 60).

    According to reported feedback statements by individual participants collected by the FSS project team, the participants in the national teams develop a higher level of understanding of the other parties’ position through the externalization of their mental models, and deeply held assumptions and beliefs. The collaborations also have a reported longer-term effect: a survey of FSS participants in the ex-post evaluation (2005-2008) has revealed that 80% of participants of the 2008 FSS were still ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ in contact with their fellow participants from their own country for professional purposes over a year after the seminar, and this was still the case for over 63% for the participants in the earlier FSS seminars (Ex-post evaluation, 2010, p. 62).

    Despite no conclusive evidence being available at this point, there may be  several factors which could be involved in effective knowledge sharing taking place across national and cultural boundaries in the context of the FSS: There may be a less pronounced preconceived ‘view’ of the ‘other side’ from another country (as they are not likely to be in a negotiation situation with these participants) (less ‘stake’ is involved); possibly Country B has some policies implemented at national level which may be looked at favourably by the trade unionist from Country A. Whatever the explanation (which could be explored in further research), the views of participants collected to date is predominantly positive, as evidenced by the ex-post evaluation of Eurofound’s 2005-2008 work programme.  

    Emerging conclusions

    From observations about the Foundation Seminar Series by Eurofound as a practice example of cross-boundary knowledge sharing on social policy topics across national boundaries within the European Union, it is becoming clear that there are a broader range of  ‘diversity’ factors in place with view to cross-national and cross-‘party’ knowledge sharing, which could be explored in further research from the knowledge sharing perspective, or future evaluations. They do point to the existence of ‘polyphony’ of different ‘voices’ and perspectives on the issues involved, and the FSS could be regarded as a practical example of managing this ‘polyphony’ through a ‘discursive practice’( as suggested by Kornberger et al., 2006).

    In the multi-disciplinary and multi-national context of a multi-stakeholder environment such as the ‘tripartite’ context in which Eurofound operates,  there are inevitably different intellectual and academic traditions and assumptions which influence knowledge, world views and ‘mental models’ of actors within it (see Senge, 1990) – consciously, or unconsciously. For example, different academic and/or political ‘schools of thoughts’ can clash with each other implicitly in the discourse about social policy topics: e.g., economists versus sociologists views, or ‘neo-liberal’ versus ‘marxist’ ideas can influence concepts (either factually, or suspected in the ‘opposite’ stakeholder view, especially along the employer/trade union divide in the ‘social partner’ context). In the worst case this can lead to taking polar ‘stances’ which are difficult or impossible to reconcile, at best, these differences can be made explicit, and thus communicable, which is the objective of the FSS.

    In terms of place of origin of participants in knowledge sharing contexts (e.g. the FSS), the respective national legal frameworks would appear to play a certain role in shaping individuals’ understanding of the relative role of specific concepts. For example, in some countries certain features of labour law and industrial relations are normatively defined as part of legislation, whereas in other countries the same topics may be subject to bi-lateral negotiations between the social dialogue parties, or in others, by sectoral collective agreements.  Expectations and knowledge of industrial relations concepts is therefore highly contingent on the reference point and national context. To remedy this, Eurofound also maintains an online ‘European industrial relations dictionary’5 of industrial relations terminology in use in the different EU countries, which helps to explain the specific meaning of industrial relations concepts in a specific national context to readers external to that country. Such taxonomic efforts can be useful support tools to draw on to assist the sense-making and unearthing of the underlying mental models in the FSS discourse situation.

    The structure and working method of the FSS has been proven effective to an extent, in that the available evidence shows some sustainable results as measured by continued contact with participants over time. The building of temporary ‘communities of practice’ to jointly work on an assignment with a specific purpose (presentation at a subsequent seminar session), and the subsequent engagement of the national teams with other national teams on the same topic appears to be effective to an extent, but further research could be usefully conducted to get more reliable data in order to make causal inferences.

    In the absence of such clear evidence, it can be assumed for the moment on the basis of the available data and observations that some critical success factors can be identified from the experience of the FSS:

    • Commitment from the outset by participants and their sending organisations to work on topics over a sustained period (it is requirement to commit to the entire duration of a FSS seminar and participation at both sessions and the assignment);
    • Effective facilitation by the organisers (Eurofound), supported by well established and respected external expert inputs to preparations, e.g.  background papers and introductory material (experts e.g. from European Commission, OECD, or Internal Labour Organisation etc.).
    • Facilitation and continued communication from organisers with participants during the assignment period is also important, to ensure engagement between sessions. The commitment to having to present national team efforts at the second sessions focuses participants’ contributions appears to be a high motivator for the national teams to work effectively, confirmed by the reported fact that every country team has so far ‘delivered’ on their assignment tasks.
    • Investments in terms of provision of appropriate venues and meeting facilities, and reimbursement of participants are seen as important success factors enabling commitment by the organisations. It could be tested further to what extent factors such as reimbursement are really necessary, or could be replaced by other intangible motivators.




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    • Centre for Strategy and Evaluation Services (2010): Ex-post evaluation of Eurofound – Four Year Work Programme 2005-2008, published online: [accessed 25 April 2011]. Case study: “Foundation Seminar Series”, pp. 58-62
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    4. Anecdotal evidence on participant feedbacks reported by FSS project leader, Isabella Billetta (19 April 2011)


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