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Leveraging Knowledge Management in Transnational Corporations


Leveraging Knowledge Management in Transnational Corporations

Transnational corporations often find that they encounter complex problems which, if not appropriately tackled, have serious consequences. Quinn, Anderson and Finkelstein (1998) have described a transient configuration of knowledge management specialists that they call a spider's web. A spider's web can work well for transnational corporations searching for high-quality solutions to complex problems. A spider's web allows specialists located in different cultures to contribute to the solution of complex problems. It also allows a complex problem to be broken down into facets, and each facet assigned to a particular specialist for his or her consideration. This is efficacious for problems which are so multidimensional no single specialist could have all the expertise necessary for solving them.

The spider's web has several interesting features. First, it is a virtual configuration. Second, the configuration assumes some of the features of a networked structure, since lateral communication may be necessary to put together a final, integrated solution. Third, it is used to solve a problem quickly, after which that particular spider's web ceases to exist. Fourth, the spider's web comprises specialists from different disciplines. Fifth, it involves bringing together specialists from different cultures.

Knowledge sharing may or may not happen among a disparate group of specialists. There are some policies that a transnational corporation can pursue in order to facilitate knowledge sharing. One is to link promotion and compensation to the extent to which specialists are perceived by their peers as collaborative. Each specialist is evaluated by every other specialist in the spider's web in the form of a confidential report. If a particular specialist is consistently assessed as being uncooperative by his or her peers on a spider's web, it is concluded that he or she is not a team player, and he/she is penalized accordingly.

An important factor that contributes to the success of spider webs is technology. Electronic, voice and video data banks enable multicultural, multidisciplinary workforces to come together for specific purposes in a highly focused way. Various types of software enable specialists to build knowledge bases and then quickly and efficiently analyse those bases. There is software that enable specialists in a spider's web to engage in knowledge building and sharing in an interactive fashion. There is software that enable specialists to identify and locate sources of knowledge. Often the existence of advanced technology results in the retention of knowledge managers by a transnational corporation. They get used to the technology and are unwilling to move to corporations that cannot offer the same technology.

Quinn, Anderson and Finkelstein (1998) cite Andersen Worldwide as a corporation that has connected 82,000 personnel in 76 countries. It has done this with the help of a system called ANet. The ANet centres on getting specialists to contribute to electronic bulletin boards. These electronic board transactions are supplemented by voice and data exchanges.

Knowledge specialists who work in one particular discipline or in one particular location may develop a sense of elitism which makes them unwilling to form collaborations outside their narrow field. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is often difficult to assign credit for individual intellectual contributions when the final output has been pieced together from various contributions. Another factor that acts as a deterrent to knowledge sharing across disciplines and cultures is lack of respect for specialists from other domains. If such feelings are widespread and deeply entrenched, efforts to constitute knowledge groups may cause resentment and eventually prove to be counterproductive.

Technology is being updated at such a rapid rate that an innovation millionaires buy at the time of its invention falls within the reach of the middle-classes in just one decade. Thurow (1999) notes that the reporting system Peter Arnett used to cover the Gulf War in 1991, comprising solar cells and satellites, cost US~$500,000. In 1999, the same system cost just US~$4,999. Without the solar cells, the system cost only US~$1,999.

According to Davis and Meyer (1999), software should be upgraded constantly until it is able to perform all kinds of diagnostic and analytical tasks. They cite the example of the work Mercedes Benz is doing in this regard. Mercedes Benz was developing a system that can be installed in a Mercedes Benz car to diagnose and record the state of health of that car. The moment it detects a flaw, it automatically connects with a Mercedes dealership. The dealer then contacts the owner by telephone, and suggests that he or she call in to have the defect corrected.

GE Medical has a similar system in place. This transnational corporation not only sells a particular type of medical equipment called the MRI machine, but also keeps track of the functioning of the MRI machine's hardware over the Internet. GE Medical also creates patient records digitally for the convenience of its consumers, as part of the service it offers with the sale of an MRI machine. Time Magazine (2001i) reports that it is the objective of the CEO of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, to ensure that 20 to 30 per cent of GE's revenue comes from knowledge-based competencies.



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