J. Service Science & Management, 2010, 3: 159-164
doi:10.4236/jssm.2010.31020 Published Online March 2010 (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/jssm)
Copyright © 2010 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Knowledge Transfe: Theoretical
Jing Liu
School of Economics and Management, Northwest University of Politics and Law, Xi’an, China.
Email: ljta.0417@yahoo.com.cn
Received October 30st, 2009; revised December 19th, 2009; accepted January 27th, 2010.
Knowledge and culture are indissolubly linked together in organizations. Considerable evidence supports the impor-
tance of culture in the success or failure of knowledge management. Then, the effectiveness of knowledge transfer needs
both cultural understanding and new considerations in the knowledge transfer of intercultural organizations. This pa-
per identifies the influence of different dimensions of culture on knowledge transfer in different types of knowledge.
Based on a topology tha t classified na tional cultu re into fou r dimension s provided b y [12,13], power distance and ind i-
vidualism/collectivism are chosen as the representatives of national culture in this work and discuss the effect of na-
tional culture on knowledge transfer. The aim of this paper is to propose a theoretical framework for knowledge trans-
fer processes based on differences in national culture for future research.
Keywords: Knowledge, Knowledge Types, Knowledge Transfer, Culture, Cultural Dimensions
1. Introduction
There are diverging opinions the question of whether
culture might influence knowledge management. Refer-
ence [1] believes that there is a convergence of ap-
proaches with regards to knowledge management and
that effective knowledge management may evolve to
become a universal concept. Several researchers have
found no evidence that differences in national culture
have an affect on knowledge management practices [24].
But there are considerable evidence supports the impor-
tance of culture in the success or failure of knowledge
management within organizations. Reference [5] is very
critical of the viewpoints ignoring culture influence on
knowledge management. He point out that these view-
points gives the impression that knowledge management
operates in a kind of unitary vacuum in which diversity
in terms of language, cultural and ethnic background are
compressed into one giant independent variable which is
in any case pushed to the side. Reference [6] agree and
state that knowledge management models that exclude
the influence of national and regional culture seriously
undercut their potential effectiveness particularly in
global applications. They suggest that “cultural bias ex-
ists in data bases and in all busin ess and innovation” and
that “western analytical assumptions about knowledge
and information management, dominates both informa-
tion and knowledge management research and develop-
ment”. Recently, a few researchers have found empirical
evidence that differences in national culture do affect
knowledge sharing [7,8].
Knowledge and culture are indissolubly linked to-
gether in organizations. Recent technological revolution,
accompanied by rapid globalization [9], has led to in-
creased cultural heterogeneity within organizations. As
the world becomes more and more globalized, western
organizations now have access to a pool of job candi-
dates from increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds
[10]. National borders no longer preclude individuals of
different cultures from working in international organiza-
tions. Consequently, organizations today exhibit more
cultural diversity among their employees. Simultane-
ously, advancing globalization is forcing organizations to
engage in alliances and networks with partners with
widely diverse national or ethnic cultural backgrounds.
The differences in the cultu ral orientation of the collabo-
rating organizations increase the risk of misunderstand-
ings and conflicts, and often lead to failure, but if man-
aged in a balanced manner may also improve perform-
ance [11]. To overcome these barriers to success, we
need both cultural understanding and new considerations
in the knowledge transfer of intercultural organizations.
The effectiveness of knowledge transfer is directly re-
lated to the type of knowledge involved in the transfer
Culture and Knowledge Transfer: Theoretical Considerations
Copyright © 2010 SciRes JSSM
process. In addition, the transfer of knowledge is moder-
ated by 1) the nature of transacting cultural patterns and
2) the cognitive styles of the individu als.
The paper comprises five sections. In the next section,
the author will introduce a conceptual framework for
different types of knowledge and discuss the effect they
impose for knowledge transfer. The third section first
discusses the characteristics of culture and then proposes
a classification scheme based on a topology that classi-
fied national culture into four dimensions provided by
[12,13]. In the fourth section, power distance and indi-
vidualism/collectivism are chosen as the representatives
of national culture in this work and discuss the effect of
national culture on knowledge transfer. A discussion on
the theoretical and managerial implications concludes the
2. Theoretical Considerations: Knowledge
and Knowledge Types
In order to articulate knowledge transfer we need a basic
conceptualization of the concept of knowledge. The aca-
demic question of how knowledge should best be defined
is a subject of a lively epistemological debate. The com-
plex nature of knowledge has been discussed extensively
in information technology (IT), strategic management,
organizational theory and knowledge management lit-
erature. Reviewing crucial literatu re, principally there are
two approaches to defining knowledge. One uses the
concept of a value chain or hierarchical structure among
data, information, and knowledge. The other focuses on
the analysis of the process of knowing.
The most common way to describe knowledge is to
distinguish it from data and information [14,15]. Refer-
ence [16] suggests that knowledge is authenticated in-
formation and information is interpreted data. Reference
[17] regards data as carrier of information and knowl-
edge, information as relating to descriptive and historical
fact, and knowledge as new or modified insight or pre-
dictive understanding. Reference [18] defines data as
observation or facts, with information as data in a mean-
ingful context and knowledge as meaningfully organized
accumulation of information. Reference [19] regards
knowledge as a production that is made from raw mate-
rial - information. Reference [20] argues that data can be
classified as raw numbers, images, words, and sounds
derived from observation or measurement. Information
represents data arranged in a meaningful pattern. Unlike
information, knowledge is about beliefs, commitment,
perspectives, intention and action. The common factor of
those definitions is that knowled g e is located at the top of
a hierarchical structure.
Another thought defines knowledge as a process re-
lated to application [1822]. Reference [23] identifies
both justified belief and commitment anchored to the
overall epistemological structure of the holder as key
ingredients of knowledge. Reference [15] further adds to
this definition of Nonaka and Takeuchi th at to know is to
be able to take part in the process that makes the knowl-
edge meaningful. Reference [24] concludes that knowl-
edge is a high-value form of information that is ready to
be applied to decisions and actions.
One impact of these definitional differences occurs
when discussing knowledge transfer. The differences in
viewpoints on knowledge suggest different implications
for knowledge transfer. It is common to consider knowl-
edge as arranged in a knowledge hierarchy, where data is
transformed into information, and information is trans-
posed into knowledge.
A further key question of knowledge transfer research
concerns the relationship and interaction among different
types of knowledge. Reference [25] note that there are at
least three distinct types of knowledge: human knowl-
edge, social knowledge, and structured knowledge. Hu-
man knowledge constitutes what individuals know or
know how to do, is manifested in important skills, and
usually comprises both explicit and tacit knowledge. It
could be conceptual or abstract in orientation. Social
knowledge exists in relationships among individuals or
within groups. Social or collective knowledge is largely
tacit, composed of cultural norms that exist as a result of
working together, and its salience is reflected in our abil-
ity to collaborate and develop tran sactional relationships.
Structured knowledge is embedded in organizational
systems, processes, rules, and routines. This kind of
knowledge is explicit and rule based and can exist inde-
pendently of the knowers [26].
These three types of knowledge work in concert with
terms of the three dimensions of knowledge, proposed by
[27]: simple versus complex, explicit versus tacit, and
independent versus systemic. The first dimension- sim-
plicity versus complexity-is relevant in cross-border
knowledge transactions. Complex knowledge evokes
more causal uncertainties and conveys such types of
knowledge required amount of factual information. Sim-
ple knowledge can be captured with little information
and is, therefore, relatively easy to transfer. The explicit
versus tacit dimension concerns how well articulated or
implicit the knowledge is. The transfer of tacit knowl-
edge requires richer context and richer media, because
tacit knowledge requires more than just codification.
Explicit knowledge, however, can be codified and is
transferred with relative ease. The third dimension of
knowledge deals with the independent versus systemic
character of knowledge-that is, the extent to which the
knowledge is embedded in the organizational context.
Knowledge that is independent can be described by itself,
whereas knowledge that is systemic must be described in
relation to a body of knowledge existing in the transfer-
ring organization.
Culture and Knowledge Transfer: Theoretical Considerations
Copyright © 2010 SciRes JSSM
Using these dimensions, human knowledge can be
conceptualized as either simple or complex, as tacit or
explicit (or both), and, generally, as more independent or
systemic. Social knowledge can be either simple or com-
plex and is largely tacit an d systemic in character. Struc-
tured knowledge is either simple or complex, is usually
more explicit than tacit, and is largely systemic in char-
acter. “Sticky” knowledge [28], which is more complex,
tacit, and systemic, is more difficult to transfer, regard-
less of cultural differences. Some combinations of human,
social, and structured knowledge can take on the charac-
ter of sticky knowledge and become even more difficult
to transfer, regardless of the cultural differences involved
between the transacting organizations.
Reference [27] argue that the position of knowledge
along each of the three dimensions affects the amount of
information required to describe it and the amount of
effort needed to transfer it. Therefore, it is more difficult
to transfer and to absorb if th e type of knowledg e (human,
social, or structured) being transferred is tacit, complex,
and systemic.
All of these criteria of effective knowledge transfer are
affected when knowledge transfers involve transacting
organizations that are located in dissimilar cultural con-
texts. Cross-border transfer of organizational knowledge
is most effective when the type of knowledge (i.e., hu-
man, social, or structured) being transferred is simple,
explicit, and independent and when such transfers in-
volve similar cultural contexts. In contrast, transfer is
least effective when the type of knowledge being trans-
ferred is complex, tacit, and systemic and involves dis-
similar cultural contexts.
3. Culture and Cultural Dimensions
The type of knowledge being transferred is the most im-
portant antecedent of effectiveness. However, it should
be noted that there are strong interactions between cul-
tural patterns and cognitiv e styles. In addition, some cul-
tural contexts might foster some cognitive styles that are
uniquely responsible for the evolution and practice of
certain types of organizational knowledge, compared to
other cultural contexts, which might emphasize different
Culture is “a pattern of basic assumptions -- invented,
discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to
cope with its problems of extern al ad ap tation an d in tern al
integration - that has worked well enough to be consid-
ered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as
the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to
those problems” [29]. Researchers suggest different
manifestation of culture. Reference [25] notes that values,
norms, and practices are reflections of culture, while [30]
categorizes culture into values and practices subsuming
symbols, heroes, and rituals. No matter how researchers
define culture, however, there is a common view that
culture has at least two layers: the inner layer and the
core. The core of culture is value, which is describ ed as a
fairly stable emotional tendency to respond consistently
to some specific object, situation, person or category of
people [31]. It’s an invisible, unconscious, and embedded
basic feeling that is manifested in the outer visible layer
of culture, such as attitudes and practices, and in alterna-
tives of behaviors [2532]. The key role of culture in
organizations is creating a consensually validated system
of beliefs and values which influences organizational
behavior [3 3].
Culture can be applied to different dimensions, such as
nations, organizations, religious groups, and so on. Na-
tional culture (external culture) and organizational cul-
ture (internal culture) are widely accepted as important
cultural dimensions for organizations. National (external)
culture is national, regional, composed of values, com-
mon perceptions, similar views of reality, while organ-
izational (internal) culture is emerging from group me-
chanics, relevant in understanding the sub-populations
who make up the firm [33]. These two dimensions have
been regard as a dominant influence on organizational
behaviors. National culture is believed to play significant
roles in determining the efficacy of knowledge transfer
within the same organization that cross different national
borders and cultures [34]. Reference [12,13] provided a
topology that classified national culture into four dimen-
sions: Power Distance, Individualism/Collectivism, Un-
certainty Avoidance, and Masculinity/Femininity. This
topology is being adopted for the current study because it
provides the most rich and well articulated conceptuali-
zation of culture available.
Power distance Power distance can be conceptualized
as the degree of separation between individuals at adja-
cent levels of rank. Individuals who score highly on
power distance place a high value on societal hierarchy,
while individuals who score low value societal hierarchy
less [1335]. Norms and customs in high power distance
cultures include centralized decision making at the top,
showing a great deal of respect for individuals with
higher rank [36], and a tendency to form bureaucratic
organizations [13].
Individualism/Collectivism Several scholars such as
[37] regard the individualism-collectivism dimension of
cultural variation as the major distinguishing characteris-
tic in the way that different societies analyze social be-
havior and process information. Reference [38,39] has
defined individualism as a cultural pattern consisting of
loosely linked individuals who view themselves as inde-
pendent with their own preferences, needs, rights, and
contracts, whereas collectivism refers to a cultural pat-
tern that consists of closely linked individuals who see
themselves as belonging to one or more collectives (e.g.,
family, organizations) and who are motivated by the
norms, duties, and obligations thus imposed. People are
Culture and Knowledge Transfer: Theoretical Considerations
Copyright © 2010 SciRes JSSM
inclined to give priority to the goals of these collectives
over their own personal go als. Reference [37] argues that
the collectivism-individualism dimension strongly influ-
ences what kind of information people prefer and are
more prepared to process.
Uncertainty Avoidance Uncertainty avoidance can be
conceptualized as the propensity of individuals to avoid
actions where the outcome is unclear. Customs in cul-
tures with high uncertainty avoidance include dichoto-
mization (conceptualizing people and situations as either
good or bad), modularation and compartmentalization of
tasks, in an attempt to simplify them [1340].
Masculinity/Femininity The concept of masculinity is
associated with the competitiveness of individuals. Mas-
culine individuals value ambition and the acquisition of
wealth, while feminine individuals value nurturing and
quality of life. Masculine individuals typically believe
that failure is catastrophic, while feminine individuals
see failure as common and find it easier to move on.
4. National Culture and Knowledge Transfer
National culture is a crucial factor in knowledge transfer.
Cultures shape the value of both managers and employ-
ees. Cultural differences evoke subtle yet powerfully
different managerial behaviors and leadership styles [41].
Such behaviors and leadership styles provide the organ-
izational context within which employees transfer their
knowledge to one another.
As mentioned in above, national culture can be classi-
fied into four dimensions, which are Power distance,
Individualism/Collectivism, Uncertainty avoidance, Ma-
sulinity/Femininity. These dimensions determine as-
sumptions and behaviors of managers and employees in
the process of knowledge transfer. According to several
scholars [1342], power distance and individual-
ism/collectivism are the primary distinctions between
North America (C anada and US) and China (H ong Kong
and Mainland China). Reference [13] indicates that, the
power distance scores of people in Hong Kong and China
are much higher than that of people in North America,
while the individualism scores of people in Hong Kong
and China are much lower than that of people in North
America. Thus, power distance and individualism/
co l l e c t i v i sm are chosen as the representatives of national
culture in this work and discuss in detail in the following .
Power Distance Power distance deals with leaders’
decision power. It affects both the way in which people
organize themselves and the way in which they write
about organizing [12]. Power Distance is the degree to
which people accept and expect unequal authority. Indi-
viduals who score high on power distance believe that
supervisors should maintain decision making authority,
receive credit for success, and that supervisors deserve
respect and admiration from subordinates. Conversely,
individuals who score low on power distance believe that
the supervisor and the subordinate are colleagues, work-
ing toward the same goal, and are similar in terms of
respectability. The superior position will improve deci-
sion power in high-power-distance culture while hard-
working, good work and experiences are ways to in-
crease decision power in low-power-distance culture
Based on the above analysis, people from different
Power Distance societies will act differently toward au-
thority: the larger the power distance is, the more people
would accept unequal authority. Hence, managers with
different cultural backgrounds might play different roles
in the process of inter-organizational kn owledge transfer.
Individualism/Collectivism In individualistic societies,
members have less respect and loyalty to the group they
belong to than members of collectivist societies have.
They prefer to stand on their own feet, favor independent
work, emphasize competition and achieving specific
statuses, and have a calculated involvement in group af-
fairs. In contrast, members of collectivist societies re-
spect and remain loyal to their group and emphasize co-
operation and group work. They prefer low internal
competition, relationships, harmony, order and discipline
[42] and favor cooperation and teamwork [1245].
Cultures shape the norms that define the context for
social interaction [25]. Individualism and collectivism
strongly influence ways of thinking. Specifically, they
influence how members of a culture process, interpret,
and make use of a body of information and knowledge
[37]. Collectivists maintain respect, harmony, and loyalty
to the groups they belong to and support order, discipline
and centralized authority vested at the top. They are more
likely to obey managers’ orders and go along with their
managers’ wills. Furthermore, employees in collectivist
societies rely on their supervisors while those in indi-
vidualistic societies prefer to get help from their peers
[46]. In addition, workers in individualist societies envi-
sion knowledge creation as an intervention of individual
effort while workers in collectivist societies think of the
integration and modification of existing knowledge as a
group effort [46]. Thus, managers in collectivist societies
will more thoroughly create the right context for knowl-
edge sharing among different groups and better harmo-
nize differences among the involved groups.
5. Theoretical Conclusions, Limitations, and
Future Research
Knowledge and culture are indissolubly linked together
in organizations. Considerable evidence supports the
importance of culture in the success or failure of knowl-
edge management.
Starting from the basic concept of the culture and
knowledge and basing on the type of knowledge and the
dimension of culture both influence knowledge-sharing,
power distance and individualism/collectivism are cho-
Culture and Knowledge Transfer: Theoretical Considerations
Copyright © 2010 SciRes JSSM
sen as the representatives of nation al culture in this work
and discuss the effect of national culture on knowledge
This paper proposes two abstract conclusions: 1) peo-
ple from different Power Distance societies will act dif-
ferently toward autho rity: the larg er the power distan ce is,
the more people would accept unequal authority. Hence,
managers with different cu ltural backgrounds might play
different roles in the process of inter-organizational
knowledge transfer. 2) Individualism and collectivism
strongly influence ways of thinking. Collectivists main-
tain respect, harmony, and loyalty to the groups they be-
long to and support order, discipline and centralized au-
thority vested at the top. Managers in collectivist socie-
ties will more thoroughly create the right context for
knowledge sharing among different groups and better
harmonize differen ces among the involved groups.
The research is limited by its scope because it focuses
on the transfer processes. Further research might exam-
ine the culture factor influencing knowledge manage-
ment in other knowledge management processes. There
is also an unclear detailed relationship between knowl-
edge management performance and knowledge manage-
ment decision based on different culture dimensions.
Further research might examine the relationship between
organization performance and knowledge management
decision based on different culture dimensions, as well as
empirical research on the cultural conditions that lead to
appropriate and inappropriate adaptation.
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