Sunday, August 16, 2009

Share Knowledge and Information in All Directions

I spoke with an executive recently who told me about the corporate culture in his company. Secrecy, withholding critical information, and inconsistent communication were common practice. My friend was frustrated to no end. Organizations that fail to share important knowledge and information up, down and across struggle in the long run.

No organization achieves perfection with regard to information sharing, because human judgment is involved. Obviously, some data is not appropriate for wide distribution. Sometimes, confidentiality is a necessity. To communicate well requires time, focus and effort, which are often in short supply.

Nevertheless some companies, such as Pixar Animation Studios, excel as learning organizations that openly and honestly share knowledge. Pixar is one of the most successful film production companies of all time. The "fraternity of geeks" who work at Pixar succeeded in transforming hand-drawn cel animation to computer-generated 3-D graphics. The string of movies thus created, starting with Toy Story in 1995, have been hugely popular and critically acclaimed.

Through it all, a corporate culture that highly values information-sharing at every level within the organization has enabled Pixar to continue to produce one hit after another.

The September 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review cited several reasons for Pixar's sustained creative success. Among other things, the company espouses a philosophy that "we are smarter than me." The company believes that everyone needs to be involved in the creative process and, to that end, communication throughout all levels is imperative.

Next, Pixar works to hire good people, to support them, and to foster an environment where trust and respect are a given. More specifically, those good people are encouraged to take risks, knowing that they will inevitably make mistakes. Talented people will learn from failures and use their hard-earned discoveries to move forward more effectively on subsequent projects.

Finally, Pixar's culture is flat, collegial and extremely peer-oriented. Hierarchies are out, everyone is treated with respect, and both honest feedback and careful listening are encouraged and rewarded.

One very specific and practical example of the way information-sharing plays itself out is Pixar University. Every employee is encouraged to spend as many as four hours a week furthering his/her education. Pixar University offers more than a hundred courses, from filmmaking and writing to sculpture, painting and drawing.

Randy Nelson, dean of Pixar University, says, "We offer the equivalent of an undergraduate education in fine arts and the art of filmmaking." And this is not just fun time or a way to avoid work, but rather a critical job expectation. Nelson says, "This is part of everyone's work. We're all filmmakers here. We all have access to the same curriculum. In class, people from every level sit right next to our directors and the president of the company."

Pixar University epitomizes the concept of broad knowledge-sharing. Nelson asserts, "The skills we develop are skills we need everywhere in the organization. Why teach drawing to accountants? Because drawing class doesn't just teach people to draw. It teaches them to be more observant. There's no company on earth that wouldn't benefit from having people become more observant."

At Pixar University, employees are also encouraged to try new things, take risks, and learn from mistakes. The University crest says in Latin: "Alienus Non Diutius," which translates to "alone no longer." Says Nelson, "It's the heart of our model, giving people opportunities to fail together and to recover from mistakes together."

In addition to excellent financial results, Pixar has earned countless industry accolades for its work, including 22 Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, and three Grammys. Every Pixar film produced since 2001 was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar and four of those movies, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, came home with the little golden statuette.

Pixar Animation Studios provides an incredibly compelling example of an organization that sees the critical value in gathering information from a diverse variety of sources and then sharing it openly up, down and across the company. Those individuals who hold information closely would not survive in such a culture. Pixar's reputation as a place where creative genius thrives is indeed well-earned.

Companies like Pixar that set themselves up as learning organizations and follow through on that commitment tend to be successful. Other organizations-- where secrecy, lack of clarity, and generally poor communication all around are the rule-- suffer in the end.

Where does your organization or team sit on the communication spectrum? Do you openly share important knowledge and information in all directions? Does your culture foster honest feedback and careful listening? What do you personally contribute from a communication standpoint?

A human or animal organism needs circulation of blood and nutrients to all parts of the body in order to have full physical health. Similarly, freely flowing knowledge and information are the "lifeblood" of any organization that hopes to achieve robust business outcomes.

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