Purpose – The majority of knowledge management theory and practice literature is based on, and relates to, western and Japanese business environments and related assumptions. A number of generic knowledge management cross sectional studies based on Chinese organizations have taken place; however there is a lack of in-depth critical studies which are culturally grounded and which focus on a particular aspect or domain of knowledge management in Chinese organizations, as opposed to applying western or Japanese knowledge management models and concepts. Hence the paper seeks to make a contribution by carrying out a critical study in knowledge sharing within Chinese organizations that explores the role of culture in relation to the knowledge-sharing process, where the people-based aspects of knowledge sharing are likely to be influenced by the prevailing culture. The aim of the paper is to explore the role of knowledge sharing at multiple organizational levels within Chinese service-based organizations.Design/methodology/approach – Five consulting firms are analyzed within the multi case study, to explore knowledge sharing at multiple levels, where existing literature and preliminary research has shown that consulting organizations in the service sector are more likely to have advanced their understanding of knowledge sharing as a source of innovation and competitiveness. The research methods included interviews (n=40), focus groups (n=10) and observations made during four visits, each of several weeks, to the companies. The five organizations were Chinese owned and at a similar growth stage and hence the effects of external cultures or organizational specific cultures were secondary to that of the prevailing Chinese culture.Findings – The findings show that cultural interpretations of knowledge sharing practices can help in explaining Chinese conceptions and applications of knowledge sharing at multiple organizational levels. Moreover these cultural influences suggest that non-Chinese conceptions of knowledge sharing can in some circumstances result in misleading approaches being used in attempting to promote knowledge sharing in a Chinese context and that the strong group culture is a key vehicle for knowledge sharing as opposed to individual idea generation.Research limitations/implications – The findings show the need for further research in comparing Chinese and western organizations in relation to collaboration knowledge sharing where the case organizations have had different levels of exposure to western culture. Much more in-depth case-based research is needed to explore these contextual issues and to develop theoretical propositions.Practical implications – The extrapolation of western and Japanese-based knowledge sharing concepts and practices to Chinese contexts without an examination of Chinese culture and its impact on organizational culture may produce sub-optimal results. A more culturally grounded approach, where knowledge sharing practices are indigenously grounded, is suggested.Originality/value – There is a paucity of multi-level knowledge sharing studies which seek to both address cultural considerations and systematically inquire into the development of knowledge sharing in Chinese organizations from a cultural perspective. The findings from this study can help inform western-Chinese business collaboration through improved understanding of the cultural effects on knowledge sharing.