Frequent knowledge sharing in multicultural organizations

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Image: Frequent knowledge sharing in multicultural organizationsPromoting knowledge creation and knowledge sharing within organizations is an essential challenge in today's business environment. Knowledge sharing is argued to lead to better performance due to improved decision making and better coordination.

In practice, however, knowledge sharing has proven challenging. And if knowledge is not shared, the cognitive resources available within a group remain underutilized. This is particularly challenging in multicultural organizations where cultural and linguistic differences create barriers to communication and understanding.

Almost half a century ago a link was established between language, knowledge and power. Generally, it was argued that whether something is perceived to be valuable knowledge or not is a matter of its place in discoursive systems maintained and guided by speech.

Hence, mapping how language works in organizations is essential in understanding knowledge sharing and performance.

Common language

Multicultural organizations are most often also multilingual organizations. By introducing a common language, it has been argued, communication frequency can be increased and a common frame of reference can be created. English is without question the international lingua franca and serves in communication across many linguistic boundaries where it allows non-native speakers to communicate with each other and with native speakers.

English language consistency is conceptualized as the proportion of English language used in daily organizational collaboration. While English has gradually become the most commonly used corporate language, it can still be a challenge to achieve consistency in its daily use.

Communication is a process in which individuals share and create knowledge in order to reach a mutual understanding. Communication frequency is defined as the number of times information is exchanged between organization members over a period of time.

Departmental knowledge sharing

There is little agreement on a precise definition of the concept of knowledge. However, while knowledge can be seen as an important organizational asset, many today agree that knowledge is linked to other social structures (such as language and culture) and thus cannot be treated as a neutral free flowing resource.

Knowledge location refers to the extent to which department members know where internal knowledge resources are located. Departments that generally know where knowledge is distributed among its members have been argued to have greater performance.

The knowledge needed is defined as the information necessary for carrying out the department's objectives. Having available the knowledge resources sufficient to achieve the department's objectives is argued to be crucial for departmental performance.

Knowing that someone else has valuable expertise is important, but useful in yielding performance only if the knowledge is brought to bear. To bring knowledge to bear is understood as actualizing knowledge resources to a problem or task in a timely manner.

Personal knowledge refers to informal information about non-work issues. This type of knowledge is typically developed in interaction between individuals with a close social connection. Such strong personal ties are known to increase the frequency of communication and the sharing of tacit knowledge. Personal knowledge could well be confined to small groups sharing the same natural language.

Departmental performance

Work performance often refers to the core technical duties of the job, also known as task performance or in-role performance. Departmental performance is based on members' evaluation of the group's success and their satisfaction with working in the group.

The evaluation of success in department performance is related to motivation, prior experiences and confidence in oneself and other members. Differential motivations such as structural constraints and opportunities as well as subjective states may influence the abilities of individuals and groups to achieve their intended objectives.

"In the corporate world, one approach to improve shared understanding, internal communication and information flow is to adopt a common language."

Satisfaction has been defined as the emotional state resulting from the evaluation of one's job or job experiences. It may arise from individual integration in the group and from perceiving the group as being successful.

Language diversity

Organizational diversity in terms of linguistic differences is likely to play an important role in interaction and performance of any group. Individuals often group along language boundaries in multinational organizations and language differences may explain why some organization members are isolated from important knowledge exchanges. Language dissimilarities can also be a driver of uneven patterns of interaction and knowledge sharing in multicultural settings. Language differences have been argued to affect interaction and performance negatively due to inadequate language skills and group formation.

Speaking in a second language is argued to be a less rich means of communication compared to one's native language, and lacking language proficiency may make it harder to establish a common frame of reference necessary for sharing knowledge. Consequently, individuals may have a limited knowledge of "who knows what" due to less rich communication and, due to language insufficiencies, they might refrain from small talk providing important personal information.

A second barrier language can be associated with is group formation. Close social relations are predictive of the behaviour of information-seeking in connection to:

  • knowing what another person knows;
  • valuing what that other person knows in relation to one's work; and
  • being able to gain timely access to that person's thinking.

In conclusion, language-based group formations may lead individuals to abstain from sharing knowledge with other speech communities and consequently important knowledge will not be located or brought to bear.

While language diversity is often perceived as negatively associated with interaction and performance some literatures argue that diversity is generally beneficial for organizations. The reason is that demographic diversity is assumed to be associated also with cognitive diversity, which expands a group's knowledge resources and enhances its problem-solving capacity. As such, diversity is found to stimulate information processing, creativity and group performance. Hence, diversity broadens the range of information, perspectives and heuristics necessary for recognizing strategic opportunities and consider various strategic alternatives.

Organizational diversity, therefore, may lead to the presence of more needed knowledge than in homogeneous groups.

English language consistency

It has been argued that diversity can lead to higher performance only if individuals understand each other and build on each others' ideas. This suggests that interaction processes are crucial to the success of heterogeneous groups. Accordingly, if an organization member is to use another member's knowledge, there must be some degree of shared understanding. In the corporate world, one approach to improve shared understanding, internal communication and information flow is to adopt a common language. Hence, the use of English as a common organizational language has often been applied to ease communication problems.

The presence of a shared language can determine the efficiency of communication because it guides how individuals interpret, understand and respond to information. Also, language differences have a negative effect on the sender's ability to transmit knowledge due to the creation and driving of social networks and informal structural clusters through which knowledge circulates along linguistic boundaries. Consequently, organization members that are familiar with the commonly shared language are more likely to understand and use available knowledge.

Speaking a shared language is particularly important in the transfer of personal knowledge or tacit knowledge that is difficult to articulate. And this type of knowledge may be vital for organizational success. Accordingly, a shared language increases mutual understanding among organization members and this helps them to communicate more effectively. Moreover, a shared language eases communication and thus assists in creating an environment encouraging knowledge sharing and will, therefore, be positively related to knowledge-sharing behaviours.

Unfortunately, merely introducing a common language will rarely make a multicultural organization completely monolingual, as multilingual situations are an everyday phenomenon in international organizations. Additionally, language-based power relations may negatively influence organization members' willingness to use the common language in daily interactions. Although difficult to achieve, a high consistency in common language communication may lead to increased knowledge sharing and, consequently, improved performance. However, second-language daily interactions may be less rich than speaking in a native language and therefore lead to decreased personal knowledge.

Communication frequency

It has been argued that there is a positive relation between communication frequency, shared language and knowledge sharing. Communication can be described as a process with repetitive knowledge exchanges between participants by use of a shared language allowing individuals to zero in on each other. Moreover, through cycles of knowledge exchange, participants are expected to develop social ties and move towards a mutual understanding. Ideally, each cycle of exchange reveals underlying differences or agreements allowing for adjustments and minor alterations to knowledge and perspective.

The sharing of knowledge is increased when individuals spend more time interacting. This is due not only to the fact that increased interaction leads to more frequent communication, but also because communication allows staff members to become conversant with, and better understand the language and jargon of their counterparts.

Frequent communication has been argued to reduce the uncertainty associated with an activity and facilitate performance. Empirical evidence supports the argument that frequent communication is associated with positive outcomes such as project success, low dysfunctional conflict, improved coordination, better understanding of others' knowledge and relationship effectiveness. Similarly, more frequent communication is also argued to lead to strong social relations promoting mutual trust and reducing social and cultural barriers.


The management of multicultural organizations should focus on creating an environment supporting consistent English communication in general and English management communication in particular. Organizational language diversity has often been portrayed as an obstacle to interaction and performance. However, this may be less of a problem than expected.

Moreover, there can be a beneficial outcome of regular communication in multicultural organizations due to its positive effect on knowledge sharing and satisfaction. In addition, an increase in interaction may assist in improving the common language because a high communication frequency is known to contribute to the development of a common language and jargon.

November 2011.

This is a shortened version of "Multicultural organizations: common language, knowledge sharing and performance", which originally appeared in Personnel Review, Volume 40 Number 3, 2011.

The authors are Jakob Lauring and Jan Selmer.