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Knowledge management in a multicultural environment: a South African perspective

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Purpose ‐ Numerous authors contend that there are dissimilarities in the way people, especially those from different cultural backgrounds, interpret or accept knowledge sharing. Ribiere and Sitar argue that, as a result of their educational systems, western cultures do not encourage a social exemplar of knowledge sharing. Yeh and Ma concur, arguing that western cultures are more likely to embrace values of self-determination, independence and the attainment of personal interest. In contrast, Yang argues that Asian cultures nurture a sharing and teamwork environment or approach to activities. Very little is mentioned in literature about knowledge sharing in African cultures and/or African organisations. Specifically, not much is known regarding knowledge sharing in settings where the roles of dominance of one culture over another are reversed or neutralised, either by force or law, or by natural progression. The purpose of this paper is to address this issue. Design/methodology/approach ‐ Being in the fortunate position of working for a culturally diversified multinational organisation based in South Africa, one of the authors was able to determine, on a first-hand basis, how different cultural backgrounds impact upon knowledge sharing. In the organisation under review, research subjects' opinions on knowledge sharing, culture and other knowledge management (KM) issues were surveyed by means of a structured questionnaire consisting of 21 descriptive questions. Phenomenological research was chosen since it is a qualitative research method that attempts to understand participants' perspectives, perceptions and views of a phenomenon. The analysis that follows consists of descriptive statistics used for each question, as well as the testing of hypotheses regarding the relationships between explanatory and response variables. Findings ‐ As in other studies, cultural issues such as language proficiency, education and schooling, gender biases, age and work experience, were all found to influence the knowledge-sharing inclination of individuals either directly or indirectly. However, when individuals have been exposed to past political turmoil leading to present empowerment policies such as affirmative action, knowledge distribution takes on a different dimension ‐ one in which knowledge sharing becomes a power play. African individuals, irrespective of whether they are black or white, display much more of a sense of power in knowledge sharing than do their European counterparts. Originality/value ‐ The paper is of relevance to knowledge management practitioners, scholars and professionals interested in the sharing and management of knowledge in extremely diversified and multidimensional environments.
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Keywords: Equal opportunities; Knowledge management; Knowledge sharing; Organizational culture; South Africa

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 29, 2007

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