Gesa Birnkraut
studied Business Economics and Cultural Management. She worked in several cultural projects and university institutes in Germany and Estonia before she became director of her own cultural management consulting agency. Since 2011 she is professor for strategic management and the University of Osnabrueck, Germany.

Knowledge Management in Cultural Institutions

Cultural organizations face the challenge of knowledge management with limited resources in day-to-day business operations. Knowledge is not (sufficiently) documented, nor is it secure with the organization because of fluctuation and irregular employment of staff. The goal of this paper by Prof. Gesa Birnkraut is to develop recommendations for the management of knowledge in cultural institutions based on theory and an online survey of 38 cultural institutions in total.
The research was realized together with M.A. student Jessica Kellner. The university found two co-operation partners within the cultural ministries in Berlin and Hamburg both were interested in getting the state of the art of this topic for their institutionally subsidized cultural organisations.

From March 19th to April 21st, 2013, cultural institutions in Hamburg and Berlin answered seven questions regarding knowledge management in their organization. With a total of 38 participants, the response rate for the online questionnaire was 43% in Hamburg and 42% in Berlin.

Definition of Knowledge Management

To understand the concept of knowledge management, it is necessary to define knowledge, a term with different emphases depending on the academic discipline in question. This study omits definitions that stem from a technology-driven perspective in favor of an orientation that conceives of knowledge management as a cultural and social process.

Because the meaning of knowledge management and instruments for its implementation in cultural organizations is the focus here, the formulation of a general definition will be avoided at this point. Knowledge here does not refer to that of performers or artists, but rather the knowledge of operational processes or, for example, of the organizations networks. In the context of this research paper, Probst et al.s definition will serve as a working definition:
Knowledge management constitutes an integrated operational concept that addresses potential designs for the organizations knowledge base. (Probst et al. 1997: 47)

Results of the Survey of Cultural Institutions

A. How is knowledge management understood in the given institution?

The answers to this first question can be grouped into different clusters, which were often named explicitly and clarify which basic understanding is identified with.

  • Dissemination/ exchange/ transfer: most pronounced is the dissemination of knowledge. Half of the institutions named exchange or transfer in their definition as the most important indication of knowledge management; Knowledge must flow, in the words of one institution. This refers to free access of all information to all staff members; open communication, in informal as well as formal contexts. The collective memory must be made freely accessible for all, and the dissemination of project-related knowledge and experience; general knowledge about internal processes, procedures, and structures; and about external partnerships, collaborations, and contacts is ensured.
  • Conservation and documentation of knowledge is the second most common understanding of knowledge management. The know-how of internal staff members, topic areas, and work processes should be systematically and transparently documented and embedded in the management structure, according to one institution. Another added, this means the deliberate handling of existing knowledge, in other words, the reflection about where knowledge is stored, who knows what when, or why not.
  • Further education/ professional development: two organizations understand knowledge management also as the development and further education of staff members, what is actually an aspect of knowledge creation.
B. Who is responsible for the management of knowledge in the institutions?

The results of both the organizations from Hamburg and Berlin were pretty similar. Most answered that leadership/ management/ director are responsible and approximately half have the opinion that all staff members are . Betwenn 20 and 30 percent stated that no one feels obligated to do it. Exactly so many answered that other people or groups have dedicated themselves to the issue, such as members of the organizations board, project leaders, or other employees.

Staff turnover and loss of knowledge

The cultural institutions that participated in the survey were of varying size, which is why numbers of employees and turnover were collected. The organizations from Hamburg varied in size between 9 and 500 employees, and those from Berlin varied between 2 and 530 employees. Mainly in the smaller organizations, up to one third of the entire personnel was replaced regularly. This very high levels of turnover came off because the departures of all people were included who had worked with the given institution for longer than six months, which included interns, trainees, temporary staff, etc. The results uphold that also the bigger surveyed cultural institutions must continually deal with personnel turnover, which is also reflected in the answers to the first question.

For the challenges that arise from staff turnover, organisations from Berlin and Hamburg named similar challenges, only in different levels of intensity: The three most named challenges were the lack of planning or non-systematic replacement of staff, knowledge not being recorded in written form, and redundant work is generated because of lacking documentation. An additional challenge was named mostly from the institutions in Berlin: For a quarter of the Berlin institutions, it is a challenge where there was no initial orientation with the staff to be replaced at all.

C. Methods for the securing of knowledge

The next questions sought to establish what methods the institutions currently utilize for the securing of knowledge from departing staff members, and how successful these methods are rated. With this question, differences were apparent as well between the Hamburg and Berlin institutions. For Hamburg, the existing instruments rated most (very) successful were the verbal training of replacements (71%), although this was also considered a challenge, and electronic documentation as a data file (45%). One third does not use a form of documentation at all. Further relatively successful instruments for the participating institutions are (printed) handbooks and mentors or supervisors. Staff training their replacements verbally is implemented and rated as very successful by 25% of Berlin institutions, and 75% rated this method as merely successful. However, 25% of the institutions considered this a challenge, and half do not implement it systematically. The next method rated most (very) successful was mentoring/supervisors (70%), followed by electronic documentation as a data file (50%). While Berlin uses (printed) handbooks less than Hamburg. other knowledge management instruments are used rarely or not at all by both Hamburg and Berlin institutions. This includes knowledge databases, internal wikis, and job rotation. In the free-answer field of the questionnaire, responses included stand-ins as well as common contact lists and shared info in Outlook.

D. The largest barriers to the implementation of knowledge management

Differences are manifest between the Hamburg and Berlin institutions. Two thirds of the organizations from Hamburg agreed that both the time and financial resources are lacking, followed closely by 60% of participants who confirm that the goals of knowledge management are not clearly defined. For half the organizations, the benefit for the organization is difficult to determine, and nearly 40% say the same about the benefit for individuals. Half of those surveyed also acknowledge that expertise is not available in a structured way or adequately identified (11% strongly agree, 39% somewhat agree). Three institutions also confirm a competitive mentality within the organization, and two somewhat agree with the statement, Staff members avoid working transparently for fear of sanction.

Overall, the cultural institutions from Berlin offer similar evaluations regarding knowledge management in their organizations. There are only slight differences in the weight given to each barrier. A minority of those surveyed (40%, as opposed to 50% of those from Hamburg) acknowledged that expertise is not available in a structured way or adequately identified, while 60% answered here that they disagree. For 45% of the Berlin cultural institutions, a lack of clearly defined goals is problematic. 3 of the 20 institutions confirm competitive as well as knowledge is power mentalities.

Reflection on the Results and Recommendations for Cultural Institutions

  • Recommendation 1: Departing staff members that leave the organization must train their replacements in a systematic way. Consistent and feasible procedures must be developed that are simple to implement and carry out.
  • Recommendation 2: An understanding of the importance of knowledge management, which is definitely present in most of the cultural institutions, must be utilized by the organizations leadership for the development of a consistent, functional system.
  • Recommendation 3: There must be one person in the organization who has the responsibility to look after the development and implementation of knowledge management next come all staff members into question. This means that the leadership of the organization must provide the impulse and the resources for this development.
  • Recommendation 4: It seems that the benefits of knowledge management, and even more the damage from of a lack thereof, are not clear for the institutions. Especially considering the scarcity of resources, awareness must be raised regarding the costs that occur due to the loss of knowledge. Cultural institutions and their leadership can use knowledge management not only to conserve resources, for example, in avoiding the repetition of the same mistakes, but its concerted implementation can also improve the quality of their work and thereby realize the purpose of their organization. Here are also benefactors implicated in creating and raising this awareness.
  • Recommendation 5: The methods implemented for the purpose of knowledge management and exchange are not sufficiently structured it is clear from the results that the verbal training of replacement staff by departing staff, as well as electronic data files are not systematized. A portfolio of methods must be put together that matches the given organization and its available resources.
  • Recommendation 6: The institutions should ensure that an organizational culture is developed that facilitates collaborative learning and knowledge in the long-term by means of communication and management tools.

Looking at these results it is clear that the problem of proper knowledge management is understood in most institutions, but the priority setting is different, the waste of resources through a non-existent knowledge management is not seen by the leaders and funders of the institutions. For future developments and the increasing specialization of management tasks it will be necessary to give the staff in the institutions the possibility to concentrate on actual processes without losing time and energy and precious information. For new members it will be also a big gain of time and energy and knowledge. All in all this topic will be important to deal with in the future work of cultural managers.

Birnkraut, Gesa; Kellner, Jessica (2013): Wissensmanagement in Kulturinstitutionen, in: Hohn, Stefanie; Lisowski, Rainer, Wortmann, Rolf (2013): Jahrbuch Nonprofit Management.

Klahr, Philip (1997): Knowledge management on a global scale. In: Gaines et al. (eds.), Artificial intelligence in knowledge management, Stanford. http://aaaipress.org/Papers/Symposia/Spring/1997/SS-97-01/SS97-01-015.pdf zuletzt aufgerufen am: 26.01.2013.

Probst, Gilbert J. B.; Raub, Steffen; Remhardt, Kai (2010 [1997]): Wissen managen. Wie Unternehmen ihre wertvollste Ressource optimal nutzen. 6. Aufl. Wiesbaden: Gabler.

Wiig, Karl M. (1993): Knowledge Management Foundations: Thinking about ThinkingHow People and Organizations Create, Represent, and Use Knowledge. Arlington, TX: Schema Press.
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