Knowledge Management at 3M

Introduction: Knowledge Management at 3M

This article is about the Knowledge Management system in 3M Corporation. 3M is an internationally known organization that places a premium on creativity, innovation, and being “ahead of the curve” as far as its competitors are concerned. Towards this end, 3M employs a wide variety of knowledge management systems that rely on the simple principle of “tacit” creation and sharing of knowledge.

The propositions underpinning 3M’s Knowledge Management initiatives are that:

  • Proposition 1: Tacit knowledge creation is higher in an organization that scores high in team orientation dimension.

  • Proposition 2: Tacit knowledge sharing is higher in an organization that scores high in team orientation dimension. This principle translates into encourage people at all levels to share knowledge openly and without blockages so that the flow of information and its translation into knowledge goes on uninterrupted.

The way in which the KM system works in 3M is by nurturing of talent at all levels with a long-term commitment from top management to the initiative, the recruitment and retention of the right talent, followed by a strong support and recognition program. The KM system at 3M has been described as an emergent and reactive bottom-up system where top management’s role is that it legitimizes the initiative while the actual flow of information starts from the bottom with the middle level acting as intermediaries. The emphasis is on a multi-tiered system which is well oiled.

Benefits to the Company

With this introduction to the KM system at 3M, we can now look at how the system actually contributes to the benefit of the company. It needs to be remembered that the KM system at 3M revolves around the principle of formalizing informal networks on the “tacit to tacit” principle as described earlier.

With this system in place, 3M scores high on innovation and creativity as is evident from the way in which the company consistently ranks high among companies making the best use of their resources as far as knowledge creation and sharing are concerned. The extent to which the company encourages employees to find innovative solutions can be seen from the fact that the company allows them to work 15% of their time on projects of their interest. (Brand, 1998)

The research and development initiative at 3M is another area where the KM system can be seen as providing benefits to the company. The rule in the R&D department is that any new products that evolve as a result of the research by the department belong to the division whereas any new technologies that are developed belong to the company as a whole.

With these “rules” for cooperation between the different levels underpinning the KM system at 3M, it is no wonder that the company files some of the highest number of patents every year in the United States. Motivation of the employees is a key determinant of success in any company and particularly when it concerns the KM system, employees must be doubly motivated to expend that extra bit of energy to come up with “out of the box solutions”.

This is provided by the organizational structure that is “flat” and the absence of hierarchies encourages the employees to think creatively and be free from the “clogging” of organizational arteries that happens as a result of too much red tape and bureaucracy. In this way, the company benefits from the energy and motivation of its employees and this is manifested in the perception among the industry experts and its peers that 3M is a “knowledge organization”. The interaction between the KM system and the processes of the company is symbiotic with each feeding into each other to produce synergies that are otherwise difficult to achieve.


The preceding paragraphs have shown how the KM system at 3M stimulates creativity and fosters innovation. The company benefits from the application of the “tacit” creation and sharing of knowledge principle where informal channels are as much encouraged as formal modes of knowledge creation and sharing.

The KM system at 3M has indeed been the subject of much discussion and study as it delivers benefits to the company in terms of high number of patents and other knowledge artifacts that are developed by the employees of the company. In conclusion, it can be said that 3M has one of the best KM systems in the United States and possibly the entire world as well. It is no wonder that 3M is known as the innovation engine of the US.

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