Knowledge Sharing in design firms

Maron Demissie, one of the students in the Masters of Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern, has just completed her Master's Capstone project (thesis) entitled, "The Quest for Increased Knowledge Sharing Within Design Firms."  Looking through her summary, I'm sorry I wasn't her advisor.

From her conclusion:

Collaboration should be seen as the actual path to innovation. With each client project, team members work together to produce a prototype or model of the intended design scheme. This is considered a preliminary vision of an innovation, embodied in some shape or form that can be shared (Leonard & Swap, 1999). Basically the prototype is an expression of the shared knowledge within a project team. Since the quality of the prototype and eventually the level of innovation achieved in the final design is so heavily dependent on the degree of sharing within the project team, significant changes must be made internally within organizations. This includes minimizing any barriers to knowledge sharing and transforming your organization into one that encourages the free-flow exchange of ideas. Such approaches will help to prepare it as it enters the newly developing competitive landscape.

Looking beyond the organizational level, hints of this realization are already being addressed in the greater architecture community. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) provides 26 different Knowledge Communities, which are "groups of people who share common challenges, opportunities or a passion for a given topic, and who collaborate to deepen their understanding of that topic through ongoing learning and knowledge sharing." These formal communities not only indicate the need and importance of addressing knowledge sharing within architecture and design firms, but I would recommend them as a useful starting point for firms interested in bringing the ideas presented in this paper to life.

Maron surveyed and interviewed people in a variety of design firms, and based on this research and background material found thirteen barriers to and fourteen promoters of knowledge sharing.  She divided these over the individual, group and organizational levels, as shown in the extended entry.   It's interesting to see this division show up in her capstone, as this is one of the central themes I use in discussion of knowledge management projects in the course I teach.  As she notes, these barriers and promoters aren't a surprise.  Her point is that when the going gets tough, teams that lose the ability to share tend to forget the promoters and enhance the barriers.

If you'd like a copy of the paper or want to get more details about the project, please contact Maron Demissie directly.

Level Barriers Promoters
Individual
  • Knowledge before transfer
  • Ignorance
  • Cognitive differences
  • Locked-up tacit
  • Effective member selection and training
  • Collaborative relationships
  • Location
  • Time and places established for transfer
Group
  • Lack of understanding among members
  • Silo groups
  • Interdivisional jealousy
  • Knowledge is unique to the group
  • Common knowledge effect
  • Cross-pollination
  • Awareness of expertise
  • Knowledge and debriefing workshops
Organization
  • Knowledge is power
  • New ideas met with harsh judgment
  • New knowledge use is not rewarded
  • Intolerance for mistakes
  • Knowledge vision exists
  • Customs
  • Exhibits dimensions of caring
  • Non-hierarchical approach to sharing
  General promoters
  • Self motivation
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Tools

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