Organisation : Creating an Information-Sharing Culture

Stephen M. Dent, founding partner of the consulting firm Partnership Continuum, Inc., is an award-winning organizational consultant working with such clients as USWEST, Inc. Northwest Airlines, AT&T, GE Capital Services, the U.S. Postal Service, NASA, Bank of America and Exult.  He lives in Minneapolis MN.  


 e-mail or phone (1) 612 375 0323

We've been hearing a lot in the news lately about the need for our government's intelligence agencies to share information. A recent congressional report cited the lack of information-sharing as a major factor behind the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

To prevent future terrorist attacks, federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies are forming historic collaborations. At the core of these new partnerships is a free exchange of knowledge and ideas about suspected terrorist activities. Many of these agencies will be talking with each other for the first time. Previously, such sharing wasn't part of their organizations' culture.

Stuck in Smokestack Mode

To be successful, businesses, too, must create a culture within their organization that promotes the exchange of knowledge and ideas among individuals and departments. Achieving that free flow of information requires letting go of the 19th-century industrial business model (where wealth is built on tangible commodities) and embracing the new 21st-century information-age model (where wealth is built on gathering information about new ways of satisfying customer needs).

Unfortunately, too many businesses today still look--internally, at least--like the old industrial, or "smokestack," industries. Their "smokestacks" are the isolated "silos" that make up individual departments within their organization such as marketing, engineering, or human resources. These departments act independently, without sharing information or ideas, whether strategic, tactical, or technological. As a result, the entire organization suffers.

So how do you create a healthy information-sharing culture within your organization, one that will give your company a competitive edge? By developing a better understanding of why information-sharing is so important to businesses today; of what causes internal information-sharing to shut down; and of how a systems approach is crucial to getting the information flowing again.

Information Is Exponential

One of the powerful truths about information is that it is exponential. In other words, if you have information and I have information, together our separate pieces of information can equal more than two.

Think of it in terms of a jigsaw puzzle. One piece of the puzzle doesn't give you much of a clue as to what the puzzle is about. But when you put two pieces together, you begin to see the pattern emerge. That pattern then leads you to the next piece that needs to be added, and the next. The more pieces of the puzzle you put together, the more quickly you're able to envision the whole picture and know with even greater precision how each piece fits into the overall design.

Business information works exactly the same way. One piece is only a starting point. With each new element of information, you're able to see more clearly the emerging patterns and move more quickly and precisely to make wise--and profitable--business decisions.

The free flow of information within your business can give your company a powerful competitive edge. But--and this is very important--your employees will only share their knowledge and ideas if you've created an internal culture that allows them to do so.

When the System Becomes Poisoned

One of the biggest obstacles that leaders must overcome is seeing their business as a series of single events. Businesses are more like living organisms. The health of that organism depends on how employees interact with each other. Without good interaction, employees will not share information--and the company will suffer.

Say, for example, that a conflict occurs between two managers. The company's leadership expects the managers to resolve the conflict in a "businesslike" manner and to focus on the "job." But this type of "brush-the-problem-under-the-carpet" approach doesn't usually end the conflict. As a result, the tension between the two managers filters down through the organization and poisons the company's environment, inhibiting the sharing of important information not only between the two individuals, but also between their respective teams.

Such a seemingly small episode can seriously harm an organization, especially if the conflict is allowed to be resolved using a win/lose outcome.

Let's take a closer look at how the organization is harmed: When people are in conflict, they are rarely comfortable revealing their feelings about the underlying issues that led to the conflict. Nor do they feel comfortable giving others feedback, especially if the other person is in a position of power. Trust within the organization quickly diminishes, making any future interaction between the parties even more difficult.

So a small conflict can grow like crabgrass, infiltrating an organization and creating an environment that shuts down communication and the sharing of ideas. Remember: In the Information Age, information is the raw material that gives businesses their competitive edge.

Each day without open internal communication is a day of lost business opportunity. Why? Because today's news is tomorrow's history. Knowledge and information have a shelf life, and if they're not used while fresh, they quickly go stale.

If you fail to communicate and use information while it's relevant, you will lose the advantage that the information offered you. That's why it's so imperative that your organization's environment be receptive to building the kinds of internal partnerships that allow information to flow freely and without inhibition.

A Systems Approach

The importance of creating internal partnerships has never been more critical. In the past, when teams of employees worked in conjunction with each other on assembly lines, they really didn't need to share high levels of knowledge. They were challenged with just working on a task together.

In today's information- and knowledge-based enterprises, the level of sharing information is more intimate, requiring people to have higher levels of interpersonal skills. Those skills don't come naturally to everyone, as most managers know. Nor is there only one skill that people need to learn for internal partnerships to work.

Ensuring a free flow of information within an organization requires a systems approach. You can't work on only one problem area--improving employee feedback, for example--without also working on others, such as building trust and developing comfort with change. Information will stop flowing unless all areas of the system are addressed.

That's where Partnership Continuum's Six Partnering Attributes™ can be of tremendous help. Developing these interconnected attributes--Self-Disclosure and Feedback, a Win-Win Orientation, Ability to Trust, Comfort with Change, Comfort with Interdependence, and Past/Future Orientation--can enable your organization to resolve its internal conflicts in a healthy, positive way.

The results can be stunning: A free, open flow of information and ideas within your organization--and a new and exciting competitive edge.

Copyright 2003 by Stephen M. Dent. All rights reserved.

Partnership Continuum, Inc.

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