To The Transfer of Best Practice Within the Firm"|
G. Szulanski (Strategic Management Journal, v. 17, Winter 1996,
The ability to identify and transfer knowledge within a firm is
emerging as one of the most important management issues of the late
1990ís. Evidence from fact-based management methods such as TQM,
benchmarking, and process reengineering suggests that there are
often surprising performance differences between units within firms.
In this article, Szulanski seeks to explain why companies find it
difficult to transfer knowledge, in this case "best practices,"
A "best practice" is one that is performed in a superior way in
some part of an organization and is deemed better than alternate
practices used by or known to the rest of the company.
Stages in the Transfer Process
- include all events that lead to the decision to transfer the
practice such as discovery of both the need and the knowledge
within the firm, can take months of information collection and
- resources flow between recipient and the source, social ties
formed, efforts to make knowledge transfer less threatening to
- begins when recipient starts using transferred knowledge, much
time spent identifying and resolving unexpected problems, performance
- begins after the recipient achieves satisfactory results with
the transferred knowledge and the use of the knowledge becomes
routinized, the new practice loses its novelty and becomes institutionalized
Origins of Internal Stickiness and Results of Study
There are many factors that influence the difficulty of knowledge
transfer ("internal stickiness). They fall into four categories.
To test the relative influence of these factors, the author analyzed
data from eight companies that describe 122 best practice transfers.
(The three factors that the author found to be most important are
highlighted and boxed)
of the knowledge transferred
knowledge is easier to transfer than others. Itís difficult
to transfer practices that have a high proportion of undefinable
knowledge due to the tacit human skills involved, collective
nature of the information, or idiosyncratic features of the
context in which the knowledge is put to use (that is, when
there is ambiguity about why or when a practice works well).
that does not have a proven track record will be harder to
of the source of knowledge
of motivation - may fear losing ownership, privilege, resent
not being rewarded for sharing success
- Not seen
as reliable, trustworthy, knowledgeable
of the recipient of knowledge
of motivation - the "not invented here" syndrome
of ability to value, assimilate and apply new knowledge successfully
to commercial ends (called "absorptive capacity").
of persistence to make it work instead of giving up and reverting
to status quo (called "retentive capacity")
of the context
versus barren organizational context - a fertile context is
one that facilitates the development of transfers while a
barren one hinders the gestation and evolution of transfers.
Some factors that differentiate the two are their formal structures
and systems, sources of coordination and expertise, and how
they frame behaviors.
relationship between unit - if the communication between
the source and recipient units is fluid and the overall relationship
is "intimate," the transfer will go more smoothly than if
the relationship is laborious and distant.
Summary and Implications
The three factors the author found to be the greatest impediments
to internal transfer, causal ambiguity of the knowledge itself,
lack of absorptive capacity of the recipient, and an arduous relationship
between the source and recipient, are all knowledge-related barriers.
In contrast, conventional wisdom on why knowledge is hard to transfer
within firms has focused almost exclusively on motivational barriers
such as interdivisional jealousy, lack of incentives, lack of buy-in,
resistance to change, lack of commitment, etc. The results of this
study indicate that the difficulty firms have in transferring knowledge
may be less because organizations do not want to learn and more
because they do not know how to. Therefore, firms may want to consider
devoting resources to develop the learning capacities of organizational
units, fostering closer relationships between units, and systematically
understanding and communicating practices.