Knowledge Management's Social Dimension: Lessons From Nucor Steel
Anil K. Gupta and Vijay Govindarajan
Unless an enterprise generates new knowledge and pumps it
efficiently throughout its network, it will soon be playing
tomorrow's game with yesterday's tools.
How are companies facing that challenge?
Many rely on an information-technology infrastructure; but no matter how
sophisticated, it is not the key to effective knowledge management.
Success, say the authors, depends more on the social system in which people operate
- the social ecology of a company.
- drives people's expectations,
- defines who will fit in,
- shapes individuals' freedom to pursue actions without prior approval, and
- affects how they interact with both insiders and outsiders.
Focusing on Nucor Corp.'s success in the 1980s and 1990s, the authors
suggest that it was the company's social ecology that contributed to it becoming one of
the most efficient steel producers in the world. Through effective management of
knowledge, Nucor developed and constantly upgraded its main strategic and proprietary
competencies: plant construction and start-up know-how, manufacturing-process expertise
and the ability to adopt breakthrough technologies earlier than competitors.
With financial incentives to improve efficiency, operating personnel
developed exceptional mastery of manufacturing processes. And Nucor's
employee-oriented practices led to high retention.
For example, in recessions, a "share the pain"
program prevented layoffs through a shortened work
week that affected everyone equally - and built loyalty.
Nucor's social ecology also allowed excellence in the tasks associated with sharing and
mobilizing knowledge: identifying opportunities to share knowledge, encouraging
individuals to share knowledge, building effective and efficient transmission channels,
and convincing individuals to accept and use the knowledge received.
Routine measurement and distribution of performance data helped uncover opportunities to
share best practices. Pay incentives for work groups instead of individuals were
instituted to reward sharing. Nucor also passed along unstructured knowledge through
face-to-face communication in plants that were deliberately kept small and through the
transfer of people among plants.
The authors explain how others can maximize knowledge sharing by setting stretch goals,
incentives, cultivating empowerment, equipping every unit with a well-defined
"sandbox" for experimentation - and
cultivating an internal market for ideas.
It's a difficult challenge. But its very difficulty means that companies tackling it
successfully will have a competitive
advantage that rivals cannot beat merely by buying the same software.
Anil K. Gupta is a professor of strategy and global e-business
at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in College Park,
Maryland, and a visiting professor in the Standford Technology Ventures Program.
Vijay Govindarajan is professor of international business and director of the
Achtmeyer Center for Global Leadership at Dartmouth College's Amos Tuck School of Business
Administration in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Contact the authors at: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org . "
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