Creating a Knowledge Sharing Capability in the Malaysian Cultural Context
In this article, based on data collected in 2006, the authors provide an overview of Malaysian work culture and identify the issues and challenges with creating a knowledge sharing capability. Malaysia has a population of approximately 25 million people comprised of a diverse ethnic and racial mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian people. Each community has its own identity, beliefs and traditions and in an organisation this diversity creates obstacles to creating a knowledge sharing capability as cultural values are reflected in the workplace by individual employees. It is important that these values are understood by managers of change as it impacts on the ability to influence and create the incentive for change in work practices and behaviours.
Malaysia has set as its major goal the achievement of developed nation status by the year 2020. Such commitment requires a high level of capability at economic and social levels, and knowledge management, amongst other business practices, has been adopted in a number of Malaysian organisations to help achieve this major goal. However, research and general perception is undecided as to how successfully knowledge management practices have been integrated into business practices. It is generally recognised that cultural factors play an important role but this observation has not yet been applied sufficiently in practice.
In this article we discuss important cultural aspects of Malaysia from a broader societal and organisational context in order to highlight what managers need to know in order to implement knowledge management practices successfully. Factors that contribute to the complexity of Malaysian cultural diversity include those of ethnicity, religion and educational background. As a function of this cultural diversity, we argue that any organisational change initiatives, including knowledge management, must carefully consider the need of the individuals and groups that comprise the population and cultural disposition of organisations.
The data supporting this article is derived from an empirical study conducted on a leading financial institution in Malaysia (FinInst). The main focus of a larger research project is an examination of the supporting Knowledge Management enablers introduced by FinInst, namely Information Technology Infrastructure, Organisational Structure, Human Resource Practices and Leadership/Context Setting in order to detect the reasons for why they have fallen short of creating greater knowledge management awareness, readiness and desired results. Results reported here are part of the larger study and are limited to the consideration of variables associated with cultural diversity and the impact of these variables. The general question the larger study addresses is, “How can knowledge management be successfully achieved in the cultural context of Malaysia?” The specific issue discussed is, “What are the key cultural variables that can promote successful knowledge management in FinInst as one example of a Malaysian organisation?
This data is used as a source of information to corroborate themes that have emerged from the broader body of literature drawn from the disciplines of Management Science, Knowledge Management and Malaysian cultural studies.
The Formation of Knowledge Management in Malaysia
Existing literature provides no universal definition of knowledge management, which is in keeping with the fact that there is no agreement as to what constitutes knowledge in the first place. However, for the purpose of this article, knowledge management is defined as the use of technology, organisational strategies and culture to enhance management and leverage human knowledge.
Studies in knowledge management underscore the inseparable relationship between knowledge management and organisational culture. Where the causes of knowledge management failure have been examined, inadequate consideration of organisational culture is identified as a barrier to success. This is further supported by studies that recognise that traditional organisational cultures and systems may create major barriers to successful knowledge management. Cultural factors that have received considerable attention are information systems, organisational structure, reward systems, processes, people and leadership.
For example, a study of 195 Spanish firms that analysed how organisational culture affects knowledge management, organisational learning and, ultimately, the performance of the firm, concluded that most organisations lack a culture that supports collaborative work because people view personal ownership of knowledge as a method to ensure job security. As a result, employees were reluctant to share information and knowledge—an important tenet of knowledge management.
Most Malaysian organisations are in the initial phase of formal knowledge management implementation, and knowledge management is widely practiced in the education sector, government–owned organisations and government departments and agencies. The reasons behind the introduction of knowledge management are due to the Malaysian government’s policy initiative, the Knowledge Based Economy Master Plan, introduced in September 2002. However, it needs to be said that most of these initiatives are technology based. In this general context, FinInst is generally considered a pioneer because it embarked on becoming a knowledgebased organisation in October 2000.
Studies on knowledge management in Malaysia are limited and often merely describe its existence and how it is related to competitiveness, organisational factors and employee attitudes. However, to our knowledge, there is no study that examines an organisation’s approach in establishing knowledge management practices, or once adopted the appropriateness and effectiveness of the practices in the business environment.
Empirical data was collected by means of a survey instrument distributed to FinInst staff in June 2006. Twenty–eight knowledge management officers were also enlisted to help encourage staff participation. By submitting their responses online anonymity was ensured.
Survey questions were designed to cover broad topics such as processes, learning and innovation, knowledge goals, people and workplace, leaders, technology and information management, culture and working styles, and the current status of knowledge management. In all, 489 valid submissions were returned representing 30% of the FinInst population. The results of the survey were used to compare and validate themes relating to cultural diversity emerging in the literature review. These identified themes were used as the framework for comparative discussion of the behavioural aspects of the various ethnic groups. These themes are: religion, ethnic community, relationships, hierarchy, education sociopolitical, cultural setting, initiative, business focus, performance management and motivation.
Knowledge Management within the Malaysian Context
English is the common language spoken in most organisations and there is a tendency in Malaysian organisations to rely heavily on management and behavioural theories imported from the west. There is limited knowledge of how imported values or concepts such as self-esteem, self-actualisation and empowerment fit into the current work environment. As a result many of these concepts are received in a cultural vacuum as there is no frame of reference in the existing structures in Malaysian organisations to situate them. This creates challenges to business managers who are trying to achieve
institutionalisation of ‘best practice’. A major enabler of cultural convergence in Malaysia therefore is through the adoption of English as the common language.
In today’s ‘globalisation era’, collaborative learning, knowledge sharing and institutional networking across borders have become enormously important to policy-makers, managers and ordinary citizens. Therefore, it is important to be able to select and adopt the most appropriate concept from European, American, Japanese and, the most recent, Chinese styles that would suit the organisation or work culture.
Not only is the cultural environment framed by ethnic/racial diversity, it is also characterised by a trend over the past 20 years for Malaysians to be educated in a western culture. The impact of this is that Malaysians who have been exposed to overseas education may express more liberal values and demonstrate a Western-educated outlook. Each generation of Malaysians is exposed to a new set of westernised values, which are communicated through the media, Internet and contacts with foreigners in educational institutions and at the workplace. However, many of those who are in positions of power and authority to make decisions at the workplace tend to be much older, who can be either locally or foreign educated, and more conservative in outlook, i.e. they were trained and received their education from working with colonial management practices. Further, we need to consider the imperative for change as Malaysia strives towards its 2020 goal of achieving developed nation status. To that end, the adoption of improved business practices is recognised as a necessity, for example, management based on meritocracy.
Due to a race riot in 1969, a New Economic Policy (NEP) was formulated by the Malaysian Government with the objectives of helping Malays enter the world of business and commerce which has long been associated with the Chinese. However, many nonMalays felt that the NEP was a form of discrimination as they would have to sacrifice more in order for the Government to achieve the objectives and have to accept the fact that any gain by the Malays will be at their expense in the short term.
Interestingly, the survey found that there is a FinInst work culture rather than a mix of sub-cultures based on ethnic identity. However, although ethnic preferences of behaviour by Chinese, Malay and Indian staff were identifiable they were not seen as significantly implicating the overall work culture.
Knowledge Management Challenges in Malaysia
Our study has found that the main barriers to the implementation of knowledge management initiatives in Malaysia is the reluctance of people to change, reluctance to share knowledge, failing to update information, lack of skills and expertise in knowledge management, and lack of time. For FinInst, the barriers are mainly related to communication, awareness, lack of understanding and prioritising.
Some descriptions that depict common elements of an unhealthy corporate culture in many Malaysian organisations relate to management attitudes and behaviours that have a negative effect on knowledge management. For example, one will hoard knowledge in fear that if shared someone else will benefit from it to gain promotion or recognition.
In Malaysia, knowledge management in its broader, social and cultural aspects is still in its infancy as a management discipline. As a starting point, knowledge management needs to be clearly identified and employees need to understand their role within a knowledge based business. In this development, leaders play a vital and important role to ensure that knowledge management is implemented and pursued.
Malaysian organisations must put more effort into building trust through motivation and encouragement by creating and supporting open and honest communication to all irrespective of ethnicity. To create such a culture there should be a common vision and shared values. By practicing these shared values people in organisations will understand each other better to strive towards a common goal.
Malaysia is a diverse society with people from different cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Identity and tradition influence interactions in the workplace. It is therefore important to understand the different cultural backgrounds and to be sensitive to these in dealing with work related issues.
Our study of the literature and FinInst has found that there are a number of cultural variables that impact on the behaviours of individuals which in turn impact on the effectiveness of knowledge management.
As a management practice, knowledge management does not stand alone but is supported by strategy, technology and culture, and if there is an implementation failure one or more of these three support systems are inadequate. A key implication for knowledge management is that organisations need to develop a strategic perspective towards introducing a
knowledge sharing culture. In any organisation, employee involvement is a must and is an important precondition for knowledge management success. In addition to sharing knowledge, employees must first of all trust each other; but such an environment does not currently exist in many organisations in Malaysia as there is perceived bias regarding particular ethnic groups.
The Road to Knowledge Management Success
Any change brought about by knowledge management will have to be tailored to accommodate the Malaysian work culture. Many western change concepts do not easily fit the current Malaysian work environment because their prime assumptions are broadly conceived ‘western’ values that do not take into account the specificities of Malaysian (work) cultures. For any change to be successful, the cultural phenomena we discussed in the preceding pages must be considered. Further, it is essential to get the support from the Chief Executive Officer and other senior managers to expedite change for the whole organisation. This is consistent with other findings reported in the knowledge management literature.
Knowledge has always been the catalyst towards the economic development of developed countries and this insight needs to be translated towards achieving Vision 2020. Organisations in Malaysia need to realise that knowledge resources are essential to their development, and that the contribution of Malaysian knowledge workers is central to achieving Malaysia’s 2020 goals.
In this article, we have drawn attention to some of the specific cultural features in the Malaysian context that have to be considered in order for companies to create a sustainable knowledge sharing capability. Such attention is an important precondition to build knowledge management from ‘the ground up’. Success in knowledge sharing is dependent on understanding the nature of organisational culture and the assumptions and behaviours of the various individuals and groups that characterise that culture.
2012: FinInst’s Knowledge Management Update
In 2012, the scenario has evolved as FinInst realised the need to create its own work culture depicting identical values to be practiced by its employees. Among others, the shared values include trust, collaboration and striving for excellence, which are keys for developing a knowledge sharing culture. These values were introduced to have a competent workforce that practices them moving towards FinInst realising its vision of becoming a knowledge-based organisation.
In realising its mission, one of FinInst’s enabling factors towards becoming a knowledge-based organisation were the Human Resource Practices. The aim of which is, to produce knowledge workers. Scholarships were awarded to excellent students to be educated overseas and this has changed the mindset and work behaviour of the Generation Y segment. In the near future, there is a likelihood of the work culture transforming with the adoption of westernised management practices. i
Extracted from The International Journal Of Diversity In Organisations, Communities And Nations,Volume 7, 2007, pp 77 - 86.
Jasbir Singh is an experienced practitioner of knowledge management and was one of the first to be appointed as a Knowledge Management Officer when Bank Negara Malaysia embarked into becoming a knowledgebased organisation in 2000.
His passion for knowledge management led him to pursue a PhD programme in knowledge management with the University of Melbourne. Jasbir Singh’s research focused on how to develop knowledge management practices in Malaysia. Jasbir Singh holds a Bachelor of Social Science (Hons) from Universiti Sains Malaysia, a Master of Economics from Universiti Putra Malaysia and a Doctor of Philosophy from University of Melbourne.
Jasbir is a Research Associate in the Centre for Organisational Learning and Leadership, Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne, Australia.
Dr. Rod Dilnutt is the Managing Director of William Bethwey & Associates, a specialist knowledge and change management consultancy. He has over twenty five years' experience as a consultant and is retained by many blue chip organisations in the private and public sectors across the Asia Pacific region and beyond. Rod holds an MBA Doctorate in Knowledge Management and as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne where he lectures and participates in postgraduate and faculty research programmes.
Professor Gabriele Lakomski is best known for her critical work on leadership and organisational learning in both public and private sector organisations, and includes the study of organisational culture and change, emotions and decision-making, and the training of managers and administrators. Her research programme includes the analysis of Knowledge Management as a new tool for managing organisational development and change.
A member of the Academy of Management (USA), Professor Lakomski served as an executive member of the Academy’s Management Education Division. She was a Senior Editor of Organisation Studies, and is a member of a number of editorial boards of education and management journals, including Management Learning. She also serves as Director on the Board of Directors of St. Michael’s Grammar School in St. Kilda. She resides in Melbourne.