When culture and worldviews clash, even a well-planned initiative to transfer knowledge can get bogged down and fail in the key stages of relationship-building and information exchange. Fascinating new research by Professors Anca Metiu, ESSEC Business School, and Mira Slavova, Warwick Business School, draws upon the farming communities of rural Ghana to highlight the role of rituals in effectively facilitating knowledge transfer.
Knowledge Transfer: Learning from smallholder farmer rituals in Ghana by Tom Gamble and Anca Metiu. Related research: Relational Work and the Knowledge Transfer Process: Rituals in Rural Ghana, Mira Slavova and Anca Metiu, Organization Science, https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2021.1441
Knowledge transfer – or the transfer of knowledge – permeates the business world daily. From upskilling workforces to cross-functional projects, to effectively managing international mergers and acquisitions.
When teams and organisations succeed in transferring knowledge it can create huge benefits, increasing organisational efficiency and expertise, paving the way for reliable product innovation, boosting performance, and achieving long-term competitive advantage.
The complexity of transferring knowledge
But transferring knowledge is complex. For in order to bridge the gap between ignorance and consciousness, unknowing and knowing, people and companies need to communicate sometimes large – and sometimes complicated – volumes of concrete information, as well as facilitating this with relational work that creates links between the various participants.
To great extent this may be helped by what is called boundary objects or boundary-spanning agents. For example, previous research has highlighted the effectiveness of objects to ease or even nudge opposite parties towards knowledge or even different behaviours. Seating arrangements in a meeting, for instance, might encourage open dialogue if the chairs and tables are positioned in circular or oval form rather than in rows reminiscent of a schoolroom. Diagrams or pictures, as in the well-cited example of a draftsman wanting to transfer knowledge about semi-conductors to an audience of engineers, technicians and assembly-line staff, is another good example of a boundary object.
As for the latter – boundary spanning agents – these are usually people who act as types of go-betweens, either objectively conscious of both parties’ way of seeing things, or experienced in dealing with multicultural contexts or conflict resolution. Professional mediators are a good example.
When well-planned knowledge transfer goes askew
But even well-thought out initiatives to transfer knowledge can go askew and fail to bring benefit if the different participants in the exchange have a different worldview. That is, a different way of seeing reality and interpreting or understanding information that can stem from their cultural or professional background, values, beliefs and assumptions. It even influences behaviour.
An example from the business world might be of two managers – one Italian and one British. Both might have a genuine interest in building trust in order to work together, though blockage may arise in that the Italian manager believes it is first important to talk and get to know his co-worker before starting to work; whereas the British manager might believe that it is important to start to work immediately – for it is work itself that fosters trust.
In the merger and acquisition scenario, differences in worldviews can effectively torpedo a subsidiary’s efforts to adopt, acquire or adjust to the new cultural environment of the headquarters firm it has just been bought by. In the worst case, this can lead to loss of time and additional costs, and at worst negative feelings and assumptions that could sour working relationships for decades.
Knowledge transfer tends to lack in relational work
Previous research has indeed shown the importance of the process of knowledge transfer and its various facilitating factors: it requires informational and relational transactions, objects and settings to encourage these, and people that can span differences and bring sides together around discussion.
However, boundary objects, even boundary-spanning people, have been shown to have a limited effect in enlarging the scope for information exchange and relationship-building between differing geographies and cultures. This is particularly true of the context of agricultural development in Africa. Not least, because a large amount of our understanding of knowledge transfer has been undertaken with a western, technical approach in mind that brings professionals from various corporate and institutional functions together.
In addition, in contexts when worldviews are at odds, relational work becomes primary. Thus, much of the knowledge offered by governments and NGOs being science-and-market based while traditional African worldviews revolve around community cohesion and helping others with disregard for financial benefit. This is where the importance of rituals and symbolic actions kick in – a dimension to understanding knowledge transfer that has so far been overlooked and that Profs. Anca Metiu, ESSEC Business School, and Mira Slavova of Warwick Business School, shed new light on in their recent, top-ranked research.
The importance of rituals in knowledge transfer
Referred to as one of today’s greatest challenges, the knowledge transfer of modern farming techniques to improve both yields and income among the traditional farming populations captures a gamut of challenges for study. Combining datasets with in-the-field reporting and research, Profs. Metiu and Slavova chose to accompany NGOs and governmental teams from the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) for 61 days and see how things worked – or failed – among the smallholder farmers.
In terms of context, the farming communities and development bodies had a largely different understanding of agriculture. For the government and NGOs, it represented a business venture with financial returns, whereas for the farmers agriculture formed part of their identity and way of life, with ancestral practices and the notion of community welfare running deep. MoFA employees provided a spanning role, possessing scientific knowledge, yet conscious – and sometimes sharing – the farmers’ cultural identity, values and customs.
With several hands-on experiences to draw from, notably an intervention in the small, rural village of Agaasi near the border with Burkina Faso, Metiu and Slavova were able to analyse the crucial role of rituals in the knowledge transfer process, thereby highlighting the following findings.
Firstly, rituals – involving seeking out the village chief, the giving and accepting of gifts, eating together, paying respects to a deceased member of the community, using fables and storytelling, and even secular prayers before and after transferring knowledge – were found to bracket – or set aside – differences due to opposing worldviews. In fact, these different ways of seeing the world were generally seen as opportunities to connect rather than block, leading to a subsequent stage of pragmatic exchange of agronomical knowledge.
Rituals also led to collaboration, especially those of gift-giving and opening and closing prayers, with MoFA employees triggering the ritual by offering their audience an invitation. Often, the knowledge givers were able to skilfully interweave information on farming and production during ritual-infused encounters, which further helped to create a collective sense of collaboration in order to move forward to formal instruction.
Third, rituals between the various parties enabled new knowledge on agricultural techniques and alternative worldviews to be presented in a way compatible with the farmers’ worldview. Given the strong oral tradition of the farmers, this knowledge was packaged and vectored through fables and storytelling often during group gatherings and public events in the village. This led to instilling a sense of compatibility between different ways of seeing the world and, specifically, the role of farming. Subsequently, knowledge transfer was enabled. For example, a government employee used fables to first highlight the benefit of frankness, and secondly to then emphasise the importance of self-reliance and business mindset.
The knowledge transfer kit for Africa and beyond
As in other complex change processes – when tradition is confronted by the new – Profs. Metiu and Slavova assert that their study enabled them to confirm that knowledge transfer is best undertaken through a mix of relational and informational work. However, their research specifically brought to light the fascinating role of rituals in facilitating and triggering these.
These findings – that both tangible and symbolic means through rituals need to be mobilised in knowledge transfer – are not only useful for western organisations working in Africa. They can also serve the context of teams and projects, mergers and acquisitions beyond the continent.
To return to the opening example of the draftsman using illustrations for his audience of engineers and technicians, the success of the initiative also relied on his symbolic actions – attending meetings to understand his audiences’ concerns, among them. And companies too, are rife with rituals – both negative when intended to keep employees muzzled, and positive when used to diffuse conflict, learn new skills, and encourage innovation and performance. These might come in the form of salutes, pledges, praise, or team-bonding exercises to name but a few.
All in all, the lessons learned from the Ghana experience point to secular rituals such as visits from top management and public events affirming common values and vision having the potential to span differences, diffuse conflict, and encourage positive dialogue. One would like to think that this lesson ends with a reciprocal gift – receiving agricultural techniques to improve their world, the smallholder farmers of Ghana offer us in turn an insight of how their rituals may bring benefit to ours.
- Link up with Profs. Anca Metiu and Mira Slavova on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Why and when do employees hide knowledge?
- Discover ESSEC and Warwick Business Schools
- Apply for the ESSEC GMBA and the Warwick MBA.
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.
- ESSEC Business School, France-Singapore-Morocco
- FGV-EAESP, Brazil
- School of Management Fudan University, China
- IE Business School, Spain
- Keio Business School, Japan
- Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa
- Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
- Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.