Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Knowledge exchange key to IKEA's success



A recently presented doctoral thesis at Lund University School of Economics and Management in Sweden, "Knowledge across borders - a study in the IKEA world" by Anna Jonsson, concludes that employees willingness to exchange knowledge is the main success factor behind IKEA's global expansion (for Swedes, here's an article in Dagens Nyheter).

Anna Jonsson says that she got access to the world of IKEA to study the knowledge exchange when IKEA establishes themselves in new markets. Her main conclusion is that knowledge exchange within IKEA is the single most important factor behind their global expansion, and that the participation of the employees is crucial to their success.

To make the knowledge exchange work, the employees must be willing to share their experiences with each other. Anna Jonsson points out that many companies have a hard time getting their employees to share what they know since it is often not benefiting them to do so: “Within IKEA you learn that it is necessary to share knowledge and to be willing to learn new things – it can give you good career possibilities.”

Anna Jonsson has noted how important it is for information to flow easily throughout the IKEA organization and says that there are open channels between different organizational levels and units within IKEA.

I have worked at IKEA as a consultant and I believe I can sign to this. The clear IKEA vision and values which are communicated everywhere - even in the toilets! - and the open atmosphere with open-minded people certainly makes you more willing to share what you know with others. You are always sure that you will get something back when giving away what you have. Furthermore, at IKEA there is a reverse dress code – you dont see corporate suits, especially not accompanied by a tie. This way, management does not distinguish themselves from other employees. And everybody at IKEA, even the top management, have to work in one of the IKEA stores for a few days every year.

It don't think it is that hard to copy the IKEA business concept. In fact, they talk openly about it in their marketing communication. But, what would be really hard to copy is their culture. Then, why try to copy? If other companies would just allow themselves to get inspired by the IKEA culture, they would probably get much better at collaborating and exchanging knowledge.

Speaking of knowledge, a recent Swedish study concluded that the most commonly used phrase in Sweden is "I don't know", followed by "Where are you?" and "What's for dinner?". I am not all that surprised. At work, most of us are struggling with trying to find information or people that can help us do things we don't know how to do. That's how my day looks like before and after lunch. At lunch time, the big questions pop up; "Lunch anybody?", "Where shall we go?" and "What shall I eat?". My own standard answer to all of these questions is "I don't know" (or "I'm just goint to...").

I assume that if we all get better at answering these questions faster, productivity will explode.