The concept of treating organizational knowledge as a valuable asset to leading organizations has been popularized by leading management and organization theorists. Organizations are being advised that in order to remain competitive, they must efficiently and effectively create, locate, capture, and share their organization’s knowledge and expertise, and have the ability to use that knowledge on specific problems and opportunities. Firms are showing a tremendous interest in implementing knowledge management processes and technologies, and are even beginning to adopt knowledge management as part of their overall business strategy.
Although knowledge management is becoming widely accepted, few organizations today are fully capable of developing and leveraging critical organizational knowledge to improve their performance. Many organizations have become so complex that their knowledge is fragmented, difficult to locate and share, and therefore redundant, inconsistent or not used at all. In today’s environment of rapid change and technological discontinuity, even knowledge and expertise that can be shared is often quickly made obsolete. However, while many people call for effectively managing knowledge, almost no research has been done regarding how to do it.
What is Knowledge?
Knowledge is commonly distinguished from data and information. Data represents observations or facts out of context, and therefore not directly meaningful. Information is derived from placing data within some meaningful context, often in the form of a message. Knowledge is what we come to believe and value based upon the meaningfully organized information (messages) one gains through experience, communication or inference. Knowledge can be viewed both as a thing to be stored and manipulated and also as a process of simultaneously knowing and acting – that is, applying ‘expertise’. In order to succeed in today’s business world, organizations need to manage knowledge both as an object and as a process.
Knowledge can be tacit or explicit. Tacit knowledge is subconsciously understood and applied, difficult to articulate, developed from direct experience and action, and usually shared through highly interactive conversation, story-telling and shared experience. Explicit knowledge on the other hand, can be more precisely articulated. Therefore, although more conceptual, it can be more easily codified, documented, transferred or shared. Explicit knowledge is playing an increasingly large role in organizations, and it is considered by some to be the most important factor of production in the knowledge economy. Imagine an organization without procedure manuals, product literature, or computer software.
Knowledge may be of several types, each of which may be made explicit. Knowledge about something is called declarative knowledge. A shared, explicit understanding of concepts, categories, and descriptors lays the foundation for effective communication and knowledge sharing in organizations. Knowledge of how something works or is performed is called procedural knowledge. Shared explicit procedural knowledge lays a foundation for efficiently coordinated action in organizations. Knowledge why something occurs is called causal knowledge. Shared explicit causal knowledge, often in the form of organizational stories, enables organizations to coordinate strategy for achieving goals or outcomes.
Knowledge also may range from general to specific. General knowledge is broad and independent of particular events. Specific knowledge, in contrast, is context-specific. General knowledge can be more easily and meaningfully codified and exchanged, especially among different knowledge or practice communities. Codifying specific knowledge in order for it to be meaningful across an organization requires its context to be described along with the focal knowledge. This requires explicitly defining contextual categories and relationships that are meaningful across knowledge communities.
Effective performance and growth in knowledge-intensive organizations requires integrating and sharing highly distributed knowledge. Although tacit knowledge develops through observing action, it is more easily exchanged, distributed, or combined among communities of practice by being made explicit. However, explicating tacit knowledge so it can be efficiently and effectively shared and reused is one of the least understood aspects of knowledge management. Even so, deciding which explicit knowledge an organization should use can affect competitive performance.
Knowledge may be naturally tacit or it might appear that way because it hasn’t been articulated yet, most likely because of social issues. Articulating particular types of knowledge may not be culturally legitimate, because challenging what the organization knows may not be socially or politically correct, or the organization may be unable to see beyond its customary habits and practices. Also, making private knowledge public and accessible may result in a redistribution of power that may be upsetting or rebelled upon in particular organizational cultures. Knowledge also may remain unarticulated because of intellectual constraints in cases where organizations have no formal language or model in order to articulate it.
Potentially explicable knowledge that has not been articulated displays a lost opportunity to efficiently share and disperse that knowledge. If competitors have articulated the integration of similar knowledge, then they may obtain a competitive advantage. However, knowledge that is naturally inarticulable that organizations attempt to make explicit may result in the knowledge being lost, and performance suffering. Articulable knowledge that has been made explicit represents an opportunity that has been taken advantage of.
Organizations often do not challenge the way knowledge is stored, treated or passed on. However, managers should not blindly accept the apparent tacitness of knowledge. Mrs. Fields Cookies, for example was able to develop a knowledge process (baking cookies) to a level high enough to be explicated and articulated in a recipe that produces cookies of consistently high quality. The cookies are apparently supposed to be almost as good as those originally baked by Debbie Fields herself. The famous chef Ray Kroc was extremely successful in articulating and routinizing the process of cooking a hamburger to produce a consistent, if not gourmet, level of quality.
Although explicit knowledge represents only a part of the intellectual part of an organization, it plays a crucial role in the overall knowledge strategy of the organization. Its management requires frameworks and well-considered architectures.
Knowledge processing can be put into two broad classes: integrative and interactive, each dealing with different knowledge management objectives. Together, these methods provide a broad set of knowledge processing capabilities. They support well-structured bases for managing explicit knowledge while at the same time involving tacit knowledge.
Integrative applications use a sequential flow of explicit knowledge into and out of the central base. Producers and consumers interact with this ‘repository’ rather than with each other directly. The repository becomes the primary means of knowledge exchange, providing a place for members of a knowledge community to contribute their knowledge and views. The primary focus tends to be on the repository and the explicit knowledge it contains, rather than on the contributors, users, or the tacit knowledge they may have.
Integrative applications vary in the extent to which knowledge producers and consumers come from the same knowledge community. At one extreme, which is called electronic publishing, the consumers (readers) neither directly engage in the same work nor belong to the same practice community as the producers (authors). Once published, the content tends to be stable, and those few updates that may be required are expected to originate with authors. The consumer accepts the content as it is, and active feedback or modification by the user is not anticipated. For example, the organization may produce a periodic newsletter, or the human resources department may publish its policies or a directory of employee skills and experience.
On the other extreme, the producers and consumers are members of the same practice community or organizational unit. While still using a sequential flow, the repository provides a means to integrate and build on their collective knowledge. These are labeled integrated knowledge bases. A best-practices database is the most common application. Practices are collected, integrated and shared among people confronting similar problems.
Regarding the organizational roles for managing integrative applications, acquisition requires knowledge creators, finders, and collectors. Capturing verbal knowledge requires interviewers and transcribers. Documenting observed experiences requires organizational “reporters”. Surfacing and interpreting deeply held cultural and social knowledge may require corporate anthropologists. Refining requires analysts, interpreters, abstractors, classifiers, editors, and integrators. A librarian or “knowledge curator” must manage the repository. Others must take responsibility for access, distribution and presentation. Finally, organizations may need people to train users to critically interpret, evaluate and adapt knowledge to new contexts.
Interactive applications are focused primarily on supporting interaction among people who hold tacit knowledge. In contrast to integrative applications, the repository is a result of interaction and collaboration rather than the primary focus of the application. Its content is dynamic and evolving.
Interactive applications vary by the level of expertise between producers and consumers and the degree of structure placed upon their interaction. Where formal training or knowledge transfer is the objective, the interaction tends to be primarily between instructor and student, or expert and novice, and structured around a discrete problem, assignment or lesson plan. These applications are referred to as distributed learning.
In contrast, interaction among those performing common practices or tasks tends to be more ad hoc or emergent. These applications are referred to as forums. They may take the form of a knowledge brokerage – an electronic discussion space where people may either search for knowledge (e.g., “Does anyone know…”) or advertise their expertise. The most interactive forums support ongoing, collaborative discussions. The producers and consumers comprise the same group of people, continually responding to and building on each individual’s additions to the discussion. The flow continually loops back from presentation to acquisition. With the appropriate structuring and indexing of the content, a knowledge repository can be developed. A standard categorization scheme for indexing contributions provides the ability to reapply that knowledge across the enterprise.
Interactive applications play a major role in supporting integrative business procedures. For example, a forum can be linked to an electronic publishing application for editors to discuss the quality of the contributions, or to offer a place for readers to react to and discuss the publication. Best practice databases typically require some degree of forum interaction, so that those attempting to adopt a practice have an opportunity to discuss its reapplication with its creators.
Knowledge Management and Factors Affecting IT
Effective use of information technology to communicate knowledge requires an organization to share a common perspective from where the information can be analyzed. The more that communicators share similar knowledge, background and experience, the more effectively knowledge can be communicated via electronically mediated channels. At one extreme, the dissemination of explicit, factual knowledge within a workplace that possess a high level of shared contextual knowledge can be accomplished through access to a central center of data.
However, when a common perspective is not present, or the knowledge exchanged is less explicit, or the community is loosely tied together, then more interactive modes such as electronic mail or discussion databases are appropriate. When the perspective is not well shared and knowledge is primarily tacit, communication and narrated experience is best supported with the most interactive modes such as video conferencing or face-to-face conversation.
Cultural, People and Organizational Issues
Effective knowledge management has to tackle cultural, people and organizational issues first, as these things cannot be solved by purchasing an off-the-shelf product. Conflicts, ambitions and inter-organizational politics are strong factors of the knowledge management process. The key to a successful knowledge management implementation is a culture that encourages the creation and sharing of knowledge, and processes technology, in order to handle these problems effectively.
Unfortunately, most performance systems and processes do not reward adequately or maybe at all the sharing and reuse of knowledge. If the culture of the organization does not reward knowledge sharing, then knowledge management is no going to be successful. Employees need strong incentives to participate in such schemes; otherwise they tend to feel that information is being squeezed out of them. If employees see this as an invasion of privacy, it certainly will not work.
A company that is going to succeed at knowledge management will need a culture of confidence, trust, mutual respect and mutual support which encourages the application of knowledge, and a willingness to share power through shared information. Sharing knowledge will only be successful when a market demand and supply for knowledge is created. Eventually, the shared knowledge base will lead to the erosion of private power bases, as high-quality information becomes available online.
While technology can only be an enabler and not a driver, some solutions, can influence organizational culture and help to bring about the necessary changes. In particular, if a technology solution provides quality information in a shared knowledge base that is fast and easy to access, people will want to participate. For example, at Motorola, a knowledge management system piloted by one group of users was provided on a read-only basis to everyone. Soon everyone demanded the ability to participate in full.
In conclusion, one can see how understanding and utilizing knowledge management can lead to success in an organization. Developing effective methods of knowledge retrieval, analysis and dissemination will yield great benefits to any organization.