In focusIKEA and Mannheimer Swartling exemplify benefit of knowledge sharing

A corporate culture pervaded by open doors and generous knowledge sharing leads not only to satisfaction among employees – it is also an important reason why some companies are more successful than others. While IKEA and Mannheimer Swartling are two very different companies, both have realised the importance of promoting a culture of knowledge sharing to generate sustainable success.

Ingvar Kamprad has said that the apprenticeship system is the most overlooked teaching method in the world. Having studied the corporate cultures at both IKEA and Mannheimer Swartling, Anna Jonsson, Associate Professor at the School of Economics at the University of Gothenburg, has concluded that the apprenticeship system is also a prominent factor behind fruitful knowledge sharing.

Her research shows that the apprenticeship system not only fosters knowledge sharing, but also contributes to a strong corporate culture through both formal and informal exchanges at the coffee machine and in connection with the Swedish tradition of “fika” (coffee break). Anna spent a year at Mannheimer Swartling conducting hundreds of interviews. Based on these, she concluded that both the firm’s success and its popularity among young lawyers stems from its strong team culture with values and a reward system that emphasise knowledge sharing, learning and the importance of understanding and seeing the company as a whole.

Seminar on the cultural aspects of knowledge sharing
Prior to her study of Mannheimer Swartling, Anna Jonsson conducted a similar study at IKEA – where she made similar findings. She has summarised her research of Mannheimer Swartling in two books, “Knowledge Transfer and Knowledge Management” and “True Partnership as True Learning – Knowledge Sharing within Mannheimer Swartling.” Recently, she presented her results to representatives of 50 law firms from around the world who gathered at Mannheimer Swartling for an afternoon seminar and panel discussions on the theme “True Partnership as True Learning”. As suggested in the title, the focus of the seminar was on the cultural – rather than the technical – aspects of knowledge sharing.

“After IKEA, I wanted to study an organisation that was its opposite – a specialist, rather than a pure generalist – and Mannheimer Swartling was an optimal choice. Although the operations and offerings of a law firm and IKEA are so different, it turns out they also have a lot in common,” says Anna Jonsson.

“Both have a tradition and ambition of developing employees’ skills – rather than trying to find or recruit the ‘right’ competencies. Their commercial success and popularity as workplaces are rooted in a strong tradition of knowledge sharing. They are simply better than many others at nurturing and developing knowledge. They have also realised that knowledge is a perishable commodity requiring constant care.

Increasing interest
Interest in developing methods of knowledge sharing has grown considerably in recent years, especially as the pace of globalisation and demands to be faster and better than competitors have increased. But also because the successful baby-boomers of the 1940s are reaching retirement.

“Swedish labour faces a daunting challenge. As the baby-boomers of the 1940s retire, businesses and organisations risk being drained of knowledge. To avoid that this knowledge and expertise is lost, a culture must be established whereby knowledge is naturally transferred from generation to generation and between colleagues.”

According to Anna Jonsson, there are various “tools and methods” for ensuring that colleagues’ knowledge is nurtured – and developed.

“These range from formal meetings to spontaneous, personal contacts. It is essential to promote both – for structure and culture to interact. A well-structured training programme or efficient systems for documenting information are as important as the informal exchange of knowledge during coffee breaks or opportunities to work alongside senior colleagues,” she says.

“When it comes to both Mannheimer Swartling and IKEA, there is a tradition of open doors, both physically and mentally. This tradition signals that everyone’s knowledge is respected.”

Both organisations have realised another important distinction: there is an important difference between knowledge – and knowing.

“Knowledge is certainly necessary to be able to do something and thus contribute to the development of the organisation. But the prerequisite for this is that you have the ability to put this knowledge into practice – and also the right motivation and drive.”

Daring to ask
According to Anna Jonsson, another important and success factor that both organisations share is that they have succeeded in engendering a sense of belonging to something bigger – and that the contributions of all are of value in achieving this “bigger thing”.

“Both organisations talk of ‘colleagues’ rather than ‘employees’, which says something about the perception of the individual and his/her importance. Daring to ask is rewarded, as is daring to share knowledge. In both cases, there is a democratic view of knowledge and a ‘we’ spirit that can be described as ‘one for all and all for one’.

“However, it is also clear that there are differences and that there is no solution that can simply be copied from one company to another. At IKEA, employees are encouraged to dare to make mistakes, for example, while at Mannheimer Swartling the focus is on challenging convention and seeking innovative solutions to complex issues,” she adds.

“Never being satisfied”
Mats Agmén, President of Inter IKEA Systems Services Ltd, also participated in the seminar. He has been actively working with IKEA’s corporate culture since the early 1980s. According to him, a key success factor for the furniture giant is taking the attitude of “never being satisfied”.

“A sense that we always can do better is firmly entrenched throughout the organisation and also helps unite us,” he says.

According to Mats Agmén, sharing knowledge within the company was easy to start with, “because everyone came from Älmhult”. But when the number of stores started to grow in the 1970s and the company established itself in more markets, the difficulties increased.

“As a result, in 1976 Ingvar Kamprad wrote a Christmas speech to everyone in the company in which he summarised the company’s values in what was called ‘Testament of a furniture dealer’. What was written then still applies today. Among other things, Ingvar stressed that no method is more effective than setting a good example,” says Mats Agmén.

With more than 150,000 employees in 42 countries around the world – in an industry where personnel turnover is traditionally high – the challenges are considerable when it comes to knowledge sharing and maintaining a common corporate culture. According to Mats Agmén, IKEA applies a toolbox whose various components together help foster knowledge sharing.

“We see knowledge sharing as a prerequisite for continued global growth; we have both a systematic and informal attitude to the dissemination of IKEA knowledge. This includes everything from recruiting the right people in each market who can act as ambassadors, to training them both in theory and in practice,” he says.

A key training tool in this large-scale organisation is an intranet comprising everything from practical guidance to employees’ own storytelling, which has grown increasingly important in spreading the corporate culture. Besides its college in the Dutch city of Delft – IKEA has recently opened a corporate culture centre in Älmhult, Sweden to engender inspiration and motivation.

“But the most important component is what happens when experienced and newly recruited employees come into direct contact with each other. A brilliant example of this is our IKEA store outside Stockholm in Kungens Kurva which has always been characterised as having something akin to a ‘grandparent-grandchild’ culture.”

“IKEA has sometimes been described as a cult – but that’s also one of the reasons for our success. By systematically sharing knowledge and being clear about our corporate culture, we have gotten to where we are today and prepared ourselves for the future.”

According to Anna Jonsson, there is a similar “cult identity” at Mannheimer Swartling too.

“This fosters a strong culture and brand – and helps attract young, new legal talent to the firm,” she says.

Promotes innovation and satisfaction
According to André Andersson, Global Relations Partner at Mannheimer Swartling, Anna Jonsson’s study has entailed new insights for the firm.

“Through her research, we have gained a better understanding of the most important aspects in the creation of a culture that promotes knowledge sharing,” he says.

Just like IKEA and other successful companies, the firm has realised that the organisation’s structure and culture must support one another. An open door policy and a tradition of informal exchanges in the corridor, at the coffee machine and in the lift facilitates finding solutions to complex issues.

“This leads to an innovative climate in which new ideas are born and can develop. It also means that colleagues have fun at work,” concludes Anna Jonsson.