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Knowledge management (KM) and Belbin Team Roles

As more of us work in isolation, it’s becoming more and more evident that sharing knowledge is crucial to business success.

Knowledge management continues to be a major driver of effective decision-making and problem-solving. It’s key to leveraging organisational assets, learning from mistakes and evolving to meet changing markets. It’s also crucial for retaining staff, developing employees, and cultivating innovation.

According to the latest research, knowledge transmission is under a great deal of threat from the pandemic. As we encounter closed borders, fewer opportunities for travel and organisations worldwide moving to remote working, we risk becoming far less diverse and interconnected. Technology has proved a great enabler at a critical time, but it is no substitute for interactive teamworking.

Even before COVID much of the corporate world failed to place sufficient value on knowledge flows.

We don’t know what we don’t know. But often, we don’t know what we do know, either.

Lew Platt, ex-CEO of Hewlett Packard, said, “If only Hewlett Packard knew what it knows, it would make three times more profit tomorrow.”

All too often, knowledge management is not regarded as a strategic imperative that could dramatically increase ROI, but as a costly and difficult enterprise. Despite knowledge priorities consistently ranking second or third for executives across multiple sectors’, Ernst & Young report that 44% of employees are poor or very poor at transferring knowledge.[1] According to the SHRM, poor knowledge management in teams costs Fortune 500 companies $31.5 billion annually.[2]

So, what are we getting wrong when it comes to knowledge sharing? And how can we leverage Belbin Team Role methodology to improve knowledge management practices?

Knowledge management systems – pressing all the wrong buttons?

In the 1990s, Knowledge Management Systems (KMS) were all the rage as IT systems designed to capture information and outline a process for people to follow. So, why weren’t they more successful?

Categorising, storing and sharing knowledge is a perfect storm: it’s a huge, daunting undertaking; it involves expensive systems and technology, and it’s difficult to engage people to do it. We’ve all had experience of programs that stand in the way of us doing our jobs, cause unnecessary bureaucracy and frustration, and lead to undesirable (or downright risky) workarounds. And that’s only if they’re enforced. If not, they simply fall by the wayside and become obsolete.

Organisations can invest in expensive systems, but knowledge management will fail unless we understand exactly what sort of knowledge we need to capture and why.

Two different kinds of knowledge – explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge.

Organisations wanting to capture and share knowledge often focus on explicit knowledge – the so-called ‘know what’ category. This includes document management, intelligence gathering and data and text mining. It’s the kind of information that can easily be stored, retrieved and modified, so is a perfect fit for IT systems to handle.

But then there’s also implicit knowledge (also known as tacit or embodied knowledge) – the ‘know how’. It’s based on experience and dependent on context, such as findings from observations and analysis. It’s much more likely to confer competitive advantage, and, since it’s often shared through conversation and storytelling, it’s also much trickier to codify.

In broad terms, the knowledge of value to an organisation might include: intellectual property, training information, big data, market intelligence, customer information, individual experience, routines and cultural understanding.

When knowledge creation (the formation of new concepts and ideas) takes place, there’s continuous interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge in people’s minds to develop those new concepts. But since many teams have moved to virtual working over the past year, there are signs that tacit knowledge is falling through the cracks. Opportunities for informal conversation and anecdotes are not as plentiful and if the value of tacit knowledge is not appreciated, organisations could be wasting time, money and resources.

People over process

Carol Kinsey Goman, president of Kinsey Consulting Services, says: “Knowledge management is change management, and, if you don’t understand people’s perspective, all the strategy and technology in the world means very little”.

So, in order to take a more sustainable and realistic approach to knowledge sharing, we need to understand how and why a group of people share and collaborate, our own attitudes to change, and the behavioural drivers for those attitudes. Once we understand how an individual perceives change, we have a key as to how best to engage them with the knowledge management process. We can then deploy team behavioural dynamics to help improve knowledge sharing and leverage real change.

Belbin Team Roles and attitudes to knowledge management

According to Belbin, individuals in the workplace demonstrate a number of preferred ‘Team Roles’ – ways of behaving, contributing and interrelating with others – which shape their working styles and contributions to a team.

Team Roles also offer a handle on how to approach knowledge sharing within a team or organisation. Thinking roles (Plant, Monitor Evaluator and Specialist) are likely to focus on academic and theoretical considerations. Social roles (Co-ordinator, Resource Investigator and Teamworker) are likely to view sharing as people-focused, aiming to get the best from everyone in the team. Action roles (Completer Finisher, Implementer and Shaper) are likely to share and learn with a view to the practical applications of knowledge in making things work more efficiently and to a higher standard.

With these approaches in mind, it is possible to moderate approaches to knowledge management in view of an individual’s Team Role styles. An Implementer is likely to thrive on the task of organising and documenting materials, but may struggle with the inevitable change that arises from lessons learned and alterations to best practices. A Co-ordinator is likely to be an invaluable asset when identifying individual’s strengths and areas of specific knowledge, but may flounder if left in charge of collecting detailed, in-depth documentation on a particular subject. Specialists may enjoy sharing their expertise with others, but may become defensive if they feel their contribution is threatened by enabling others to fulfil their role.

Lessons learned

In the field of knowledge management, lessons learned are an important way to gather and retain knowledge from projects.

In order to learn lessons successfully, teams need:

· An experience from which to learn;

· A pattern of action for similar situations;

· To share a common goal to do things differently in order to make improvements.

Again, understanding individuals’ approaches and priorities when learning from past successes and failures can help an organisation to set those individuals up for success, rather than merely introducing the KM process in order to tick the right boxes.

Cultivating an organizational culture of collaboration using Belbin

In order to reap the full benefits of lessons learned, we need to foster an environment where organizational learning is valued, and where it feels safe to identify and own mistakes without fear of recriminations.

Belbin Individual Reports allow each team member to identify and communicate the behaviours they tend to adopt in a team. The Team Role language gives people a positive vocabulary with which to share preferences and discuss shortcomings.

In Belbin theory, 'weakness' is not a dirty word. In fact, we talk about ‘associated weaknesses' of a particular Team Role as simply flipsides of a Team Role strength – a trade-off for playing a particular role to good effect. Team Role weaknesses can be mitigated by allocating work to a member of the team more suited to the function.

For example:

· We neglected to follow up on crucial leads. Resource Investigators are great explorers and networkers, but their enthusiasm can wane. It would be preferable for the team to allocate follow-up tasks to Implementers and Completer Finishers, who will ensure that no one is missed.

· We took an unviable idea too far, wasting resources. With Plants generating new ideas and Shapers pushing forwards towards a goal, the team can get carried away. In this situation, they might resolve to include Monitor Evaluators earlier on in the process, to ensure that new ideas can be impartially assessed to ensure viability.

· Competitors beat us to the punch. Bringing new products to market requires ears on the ground. If the team is too insular, it could plan to involve Resource Investigators to conduct adequate reconnaissance in the marketplace, and to keep on the lookout for developments from competitors.

In each case, Team Role language gives space and moves the conversation away from blame and conflict. This enables team members to share responsibility and work their way towards a more constructive outcome.

Building Communities of Practice (COP)

Communities of Practice (COPs) are required for sustainable knowledge management. They are generally informal groups with a passion for a particular subject or practice, and they are ideally cross-sectional within the organization. Members of COPs meet voluntarily to share and improve knowledge and collaborate to solve problems.

Download our free handout for:

· More in-depth, Team Role-specific expertise in approaches to knowledge management

· A practical exercise to help you map explicit and tacit knowledge in your team

· Advice in building Communities of Practice with regard to Team Roles

Managing knowledge, managing change

Belbin isn’t just about teams. It’s a tool to help people gain a better understanding of themselves and one another, with a view to working more effectively. Whilst we pride ourselves on our reports being practical and easily digestible, there’s plenty of depth to explore.

And it’s not just knowledge management – Belbin has a myriad of other applications that can set your organization on the path to success. For more information on our products and services, why not contact us today? Our small, dedicated team is ready to help.

Don’t miss our free download (at the bottom of this page), with an in-depth analysis of the advantages and drawbacks of each Team Role approach and a practical exercise to help you map explicit and tacit knowledge in your team.


With thanks to Elwyn Thomas, Ex Arup Associate Director for his presentation on Knowledge Management given at the Belbin Conference in 2014.

· [1]$FILE/EY-The-knowledge-advantage-digital-edition.pdf

The only sanctioned way of finding out your Belbin® Team Role strengths and weaknesses is by completing the official Belbin® Self-Perception Inventory online, and receiving a Belbin® Individual Report. Over 3 million Belbin® Reports have been generated worldwide for individuals, managers, teams and organisations. We can help you every step of the way. Contact us to start your Belbin® journey.

T - 1300 731 381


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