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Cross-Cultural Knowledge Transfer

Cross-Cultural Knowledge Transfer



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Research Article 
Why Cross-Cultural Knowledge Transferis a Form of Translation in More Waysthan You Think
Nigel J. Holden
* and Harald F. O. Von Kortzfleisch
Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, UK 
Business Research Group on Innovative Technologies, University of Cologne, Germany
Knowledge transfer is often likened to acts of translation. It is argued that translation is a veryrobust analogue of knowledge transfer and that theory provides insight into cross-culturalsharing processes. Three issues which affect the quality of translation and, hence, knowledgetransfer are highlighted: ambiguity, interference (intrusion from one’s own cultural back-ground) and lack of equivalence. Other terms from translation science, which can serve as auseful reference for knowledge management experts, are discussed: translation as a network-ing activity, process and end-product quality, levels of accuracy and constraints on the produc-tion of good translations. A new concept is introduced to the knowledge managementcommunity; namely convertibility, which refers to the perceived utility of a knowledge sourceand the availability of domain experts to reveal its import to final users. Two models repre-senting knowledge transfer as translation are presented, the second of which incorporatesNonaka’s SECI model. Copyright
2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Knowledge management is becoming increasinglythe management of the transfer of knowledge gen-erated by cross-cultural teams (Bertels and Savage,1999). As Doz and Santos (1997) have correctlypointed out, this ‘involves the management of knowledge in a single administrative system, butresiding in a dispersed and differentiated loca-tions’. When we specifically consider the interna-tional or global transfer of knowledge, then, asBresman
et al.
(1999) have noted, with respect tointernational acquisitions, the lack of personal rela-tionships, the absence of trust and ‘cultural dis-tance’ all conspire to create resistance, frictions,and misunderstandings.The literature on mergers and acquisitions pointsin the same direction. In a study of 121 acquisitionsin other EU countries by UK firms, Schoenberg(1999) demonstrates that ‘firms’ ability to success-fully transfer functional knowledge consistentlyfalls short of their expectations’. For example, inthe key function of marketing he found that ‘while79% of acquirers who sought ‘‘some or more’’knowledge transfer from the acquired firm, only63% attained this level’. This observation is consis-tent with the conviction that ‘a significant source of dissatisfaction in organizations today is the poorstructures and networks for mediating and diffus-ing knowledge, values and experience within theorganizational environment’ (Claes, 1999).These initial comments in turn reinforce the con-viction that cross-border—hence cross-cultural—knowledge transfer can founder, among otherthings, on what Szulanski (1996) calls ‘the arduousrelationship’ between the source of the knowledgeand the recipient. All this suggests that knowledgemeasurement, which aims to place a value onknowledge management work from one or moreperspectives, may be especially difficult in
Knowledge and Process Management Volume 11 Number 2 pp 127–136 (2004)Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/kpm.198
2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
*Correspondence to: Nigel J. Holden, Nottingham BusinessSchool,NottinghamTrentUniversity,BurtonStreet,Nottingham,NG1 4BU, UK. E-mail: nigel.holden@ntu.ac.uk
cross-cultural settings because, as Venzin (1998)has noted, knowledge is ‘generated in different lan-guage systems, [organizational] cultures, and[work] groups. If the context changes [e.g. culture],knowledge also changes.’Davenport and Prusak (1998) are at pains topoint out that ‘knowledge sharing must be encour-aged and rewarded’, while Harvard BusinessSchool’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter (quoted in
, 2000) emphasizes that knowledge workrequires ‘a new style of management that is moremagnanimous’. Management, she says, ‘has turnedinto coaching and encouraging, rather than order-ing and directing’. And this development forces‘managers and leaders
. . .
to be open to beingtaught things by their employees’. For peopleinterested in extending those issues from parochialsettings to inter-organizational cross-cultural inter-actions on the grand scale—that is, after all, what across-border merger or acquisition is—the scene is being set for new cross-cultural behaviours. Of course, the cross-cultural transfer of knowledge isnothing new. As a practice it goes back centuries.What is new is the study of the cross-cultural trans-fer of knowledge from a knowledge managementperspective. And a feature of this newness is alack of conceptual tools and guiding notions togain deeper understanding.Schoenberg (1999), for example, in a study of cross-border acquisitions in the EU by UK firms,has concluded that ‘we still know little regardingthe relative ease of implementation of differenttypes of knowledge transfer and resource sharing’.Yet these observations are not entirely true. Thereis one area of the cross-cultural transfer of know-how which has received a considerable amount of attention in the form of academic research publica-tions, project reports and journalistic articles. Thisconcerns the transfer of Western managementknow-how to Russia and other former socialistcountries and republics of the USSR.
This mammoth crusade of enlightenment, costingWestern governments, funding agencies and foun-dations millions of dollars since the collapse of theBerlin Wall in 1989, has almost been a spot lesson inhow
to transfer knowledge. A number of authors have noted that the misconceptions of edu-cators about local learning styles and expectationsas to the value of the know-how in particular cir-cumstances have been non-productive and there-fore a substantial waste of money (
,1993; Hibbert, 1990; Holden and Cooper, 1994;Holden
et al.
, 1998; Jankowicz, 1994; Lee
et al.
, 1996).Significantly, we now find authors who are writingabout these processes from a knowledge manage-ment perspective (e.g. Husted and Michailova,unpublished, 2000; Hollinshead and Michailova,unpublished, 2000). Hollinshead and Michailova(2000), in study of transfer of management know-how to Bulgaria, note that both educators and trai-nees need to undergo a process of learning and
learning ‘if ‘‘a bridge’’ is to be created betweenEast and West’ (added emphasis).This is an important insight—an insight of thekind that is not likely to emerge without directexperience in training processes and a sympathytowards local socio-cultural conditions (see Camiahand Hollinshead, 2003). Creating a knowledgetransfer system (such as a management trainingcourse) using that insight would be intellectuallyvery demanding; but using a knowledge transfersystem
it would not be likely to convincelocal people ‘of the long-term benefits of theWestern market-economy system or of the ab-solute desirability, let alone superiority of the Wes-tern way of life’ (Holden, 2001). For knowledgemanagement researchers who want evidence of how arduous relationships between the source of the knowledge and the recipient negativelyaffect knowledge transfer, let them take thenext plane to Moscow, Kiev or Bucharest. Whatall this suggests is that there is ample knowledgeabout the implementation of knowledge world-wide; the problem appears to be how to tap thisknowledge so that organizations do not—oftenunwittingly—reinvent the wheel in their interna-tional operations.All in all knowledge management authors andpractitioners have problems integrating the impactof ‘culture’ as a theoretical construct and as anempirical reality (Holden, 2001, 2002). No wonderthat Gupta and Govindarajan (2000) argue withspecific reference to the challenges of knowledgemanagement in international business, that ‘con-ceptual work in this area is still in the early stagesand empirical work is almost literally at the stage of infancy’. The problem is: where can the knowledgemanagement community go for insights that canhelp theory-building, on the one hand, andpractice enhancement, on the other? This paperproposes a completely unexplored, yetpotentiallyhighly fertile source of analogy and conceptualenlightenment: namely, the science and practiceof translation. Translation, it may be said, is byfar the oldest universal practice of conscientiouslyconverting knowledge from one domain (i.e. a
RESEARCH ARTICLE Knowledge and Process Managemen
128 N. J. Holden and H. F. O. Von Kortzeisch
language group) to another. We are going to arguefirst that translation as a practice is a valuable ana-logy for knowledge transfer.
It is striking to note that several authors refer to theact of knowledge transfer as a form of translation.They appear to mean this as a metaphor, but actu-ally translation in this respect is better conceived of as an analogy. By metaphor we understand an ima-ginative construct without literal applicability,while an analogy refers to a parallel phenomenon.It is worthwhile exploring the relationship betweeninternational knowledge transfer and translation because the two are very much the same thing!A good starting point for thisdiscussion are the fol-lowing observations. Hurn (1996) has referred tointernational management activity in terms of ‘trans-lating one’s own knowledge from one’s own culturalcontext’. In a similar vein, in a contribution in
HarvardBusiness Review
about knowledge management,Garvin (1988) has noted that firms must become‘adept at
new knowledge into new waysof behaving’ (Garvin, 1988; emphasis added). Dixon(2000), another US authority on knowledge manage-ment, has recognized that in knowledge managementas an activity ‘knowledge is
into a formusable by others’ (emphasis added). Nonaka (1991),the Japanese knowledge management guru, seesknowledge management as knowledge conversionfor the purpose of creating ‘common cognitiveground’; which is exactly what translation, a formof interlingual communion, is.Proceeding from here, we may say that transla-tion is indeed a kind of knowledge conversionwhich seeks to create common cognitive groundamong people, among whom differences in lan-guage are a barrier to comprehension. In this sensetranslation is a good analogy rather than a meta-phor for international (cross-cultural) knowledgemanagement. But more than that: translation inthe sense of transposing a text in one language interms of another is a notable form of convertingtacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Considerthe following text:Schu¨tzenpanzer und Lkw, die Munition, Essen-rationen oder Wasser geladen haben, Man-nschaftswagen mit Infanteristen, Kipplastermit Kies ziehen ihre Spuren durch die Wu¨ste.Dazu kommen Sattelschlepper, Kranwagen,Sanita¨tafahrzeuge.Es ist Donnerstag, nur wenige Stunden bis zumD-Day, dem Tag der amerikanischen Bodenof-fensive. Auch Captain Scott Figlioli ist auf demWeg zur Front, denn ohne ihn ko¨nnten auchdie mutigsten Ka¨mpfer in diesem Krieg nichtviel ausrichten.If you are a native speaker of English, the textabove is in a foreign language. If you do notknow the language in question, the content andmeaning remain largely tacit. We say
tacit because non-specialists may at least recognize thelanguage by virtue of some generally known fea-tures of the language: the length of some of thewords and the fact that a high proportion of thewords begin with a capital letter. But anyone witha minimum knowledge of foreign languages will beaware that the language in question is Germanowing to the high frequency of words beginningwith a capital letter. In German
nouns are capi-talized (except in texts such as advertisements andpoetry which deliberately employ lower-case letterspecial effect); no other European language adoptsthis practice.Furthermore,thereferencetoD-Dayinthetext,thestring of letters ‘-offensive’ and the close associationof the words
in the same clause allcould lead the perceptive non-reader of German toconclude that the text is about the Second WorldWar.Indeedonecouldgofurther anddate themajoreventanditslocationwhichthetextdiscusses:6June1944, D-Day, when allied troops landed on the beachesofNormandytorollbacktheGermanarmiesfrom Nazi-occupied France.The deductions are sound, but are mistaken because the text is taken from an article in theGerman news magazine
Der Spiegel
of 24 March2003 about the war in Iraq. All this supports thewell-known conviction among knowledge manage-ment specialists that context is everything. It isaxiomatic: if you do not understand the context,you will
misinterpret the embedded situa-tion to a greater or lesser extent.If someone had told us beforehand that the arti-cle was about the war with Iraq, then even withoutany kind of knowledge of German the perceptivenon-specialist could have deduced that CaptainScott Figlioli is either British or American (butwith a remote possibility that he might be a mem- ber of the small, token Australian contingent). Ashe did not appear in the text as
(Captain) Figlioli, we can be certain that he wasnot German. It might occur to us that Figlioli isan Italian name, but the Captain is unlikely to beItalian because (a) Italy has not committed troopsto the war and (b) Scott is a highly unusual Italianchristian name. It might be added that Scott isfar more common in the USA and the UK, so the
Knowledge and Process Management RESEARCH ARTICL
Cross-Cultural Knowledge Transfer 129

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