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Lost in Translation: Why Organizations Should Facilitate Knowledge Transfer


  • Alexandre Perrin

    () (GREDEG - Groupe de Recherche en Droit, Economie et Gestion - UNS - Université Nice Sophia Antipolis - UCA - Université Côte d'Azur - CNRS - Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique)


Even if knowledge transfer has been extensively studied both in theory and in practice in the last few years, little analysis has been made regarding rhetoric. With very few exceptions (Czarniawska and Joerges, 1996; Gherardi and Nicolini, 2000) organizational knowledge transfer - defined as the process through which one unit (eg. group, department or division) is affected by the experience of another (Argote and Ingram, 2000: 151) - has been mainly represented as a communication process. Complementary to this view, I propose to interpret the circulation of knowledge in organizations as a process of translation: knowledge is not only transferred between two entities but is transformed during that process.To support my view, I look at the different theoretical views on knowledge transfer in the organizational context. Four pieces of analysis can be found: the cognitive approach, the economic approach, the situated approach and the translation approach. First, knowledge transfer can be seen as a dyadic process between a sender and a receiver. In this cognitive approach, knowledge transfer is seen as a way to change the knowing activity. In the second analysis, knowledge is considered as a commodity built on routines. Transferring knowledge means choosing and re-using the right routines to ensure the evolution of the organization. The situated approach tries to make a synthesis of both of the previous approaches by analysing knowledge in the context in which it is created, used and transferred. Finally, the translation approach focuses on the modifications of knowledge that take place when it is translated. It involves creating convergences and homologies by relating things that were previously different (Gherardi and Nicolini, 2000). Because the process involves very different communities and social actors, both geographically and functionally it is one of the most frequent ways in which knowledge crosses organisational and geographical boundaries to move into other areas (Czarniawska and Joerges, 1996).To illustrate my view, I examine a story of knowledge transfer in a multinational company. The story is about the re-use of a new device called the “lump-breaker” which improves the manufacture in a gypsum plant. I examine the story before and after the implementation of a knowledge management structure. Before, the knowledge is “lost in translation” because of lack of support from the central organization (ie. knowledge management) that creates confusion of different meanings: when the sender has made little effort to translate the best practice into simple terms, the receiver has more difficulty to re-use the device. After having put in place a knowledge management structure, the device is subsequently adopted by different factory managers who have read the database which contains the best practice. At this point, the role of the knowledge management team (ie. the “translator”) is to ease the re-use of the knowledge by “packaging” the best practice. If the effort is not made by the sender, the knowledge management team acts as a “translator” for the receiver. One implication is to minimize the role of technological mechanisms (databases and information portals) if the sender does not play his role: the practice has to be described in such a way that others can implement it. If not, the practice is lost.

Suggested Citation

  • Alexandre Perrin, 2006. "Lost in Translation: Why Organizations Should Facilitate Knowledge Transfer," Post-Print halshs-00082398, HAL.
  • Handle: RePEc:hal:journl:halshs-00082398
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Foss, Nicolai J. & Pedersen, Torben, 2002. "Transferring knowledge in MNCs: The role of sources of subsidiary knowledge and organizational context," Journal of International Management, Elsevier, vol. 8(1), pages 49-67.
    2. Lindenberg, Siegwart, 2001. "Intrinsic Motivation in a New Light," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 54(2-3), pages 317-342.
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