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How we deal with culture in KM

April 21, 2010

Knowledge Management is culture specific. How a group interacts, chooses to include and exclude members, how to express importance or trivia, how to give and receive are all topics that anthropologists have for decades studied and pondered. Anthropologists rely on informants and solid anthropology fieldwork requires that there are informants from a cross-sections of age, gender and status. To do otherwise results in some very odd perspectives on how a group operates.

In KM, there are these blanket statements like, ‘be sensitive of the culture when asking people to do these activities’. What do they mean by ‘be sensitive’? For me this means be kind, be understanding, be open to the unexpected, don’t judge a situation based on my ideas of right and wrong and don’t let myself be manipulated by someone claiming ‘this is how we do it here’. I have learned to be very careful when someone starts playing the ‘culture card’ and making an effort to explain how ‘we Cantonese, we Japanese, we Thai, we Suisse de Vaud, think, act, believe. When I have one informant I usually think it is highly likely they may be either over simplifying or trying too hard to present either the best or worse side of their group. KM people should be more careful about the ‘culture-card’ because many times there seems to be the interpretation of a KM approach or theory based on only one informant. One story is nice but I really want 100 stories before I start making any generalizations.

I’m suspicious of too much attention to cultural sensitivity in the workplace because it can lead to paralysis and inaction. Yes, we are all different but we do still need to work together and be aware of our differences is a more useful way forward rather than worrying about reconciling everyone’s point-of-view.

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