Managing Knowledge: How and Why?
The scope of Information Technology, or Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as it is known today, encompasses creation, structuring, organization, management and communication of information. When we speak of Knowledge Management (KM) we are pushing the concept a step further up from the domain of information to the domain of knowledge. Information Technology (IT) managers in any organization are expected to manage IT infrastructure and projects. The crucial question at this juncture is whether management or handling of knowledge is within the jurisdiction of the IT or ICT manager, or does it involve a larger perspective that could call for aspects of human resource management and people management. The first step in trying to define the scope of Knowledge Management is to acquire a clear understanding of the difference between information and knowledge. In other words, it has to be known in very clear terms what knowledge exactly is, its properties and its qualities.
Barnes (2001) bases his definition of knowledge on the sequential definitions of data and information. Data, he states, is observations of facts outside any context; information is data within a meaningful context; and knowledge is ‘information plus’ or information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection within a very highly contextual environment. Knowledge is a high-value form of information that is ready for application to decisions and actions within organizations (Davenport, 1998). Knowledge is therefore a type of value-added information.
A further distinction is made between two categories of knowledge – tacit or implicit and explicit knowledge. Tacit Knowledge is defined as the type of knowledge that is both understood and applied at the subconscious level. It is knowledge difficult to deliberately expressed, manifested or articulated, and said to be developed, again subconsciously or involuntarily, through personal interactions, conversations, storytelling and shared experience. Explicit knowledge, on the other hand “is more precisely and formally articulated, although removed from the original context of creation or use…” (Zach, 1999).
Barnes (2001) defines Knowledge Management as an attempt to improve or maximize the use of knowledge that exists in an organization. The point here is however different. How does one handle, process or manipulate tacit knowledge that exists only at the subconscious level? Tacit knowledge would not be amenable to IT tools and would therefore be entirely out of the domain of IT. The saving grace for IT turns out to be explicit knowledge that can be processed or handled by IT, and would therefore be the concern of the IT manager. Seen in this context, tacit knowledge management would be more in the field of expertise of human resources management than in the scope of the IT management; and it would be only explicit knowledge management that would be the concern of the IT manager.
It however does not end at that. Wilson (2002) is of the firm opinion that Knowledge Management as it is being applied today, is nothing more than a management fad and at best a theoretical utopian ideal. He defines knowledge as something that goes on exclusively inside the mind. Knowledge is what we know, it involves the mental processes of comprehension, understanding and learning. The problem, according to Wilson (2002), is that we actually do not have control over what we know. We do not know what we know. What we know is expressed only when we employ the knowledge to accomplish something. What the human mind learns is apparently forgotten only to emerge when needed or even when not needed. What we know can be expressed only in the form of messages conveyed orally, in writings, and through gestures, graphics or even body language. Such messages are however not knowledge but information which another knowing mind can assimilate, understand, comprehend and incorporate into its own knowledge structures. Since each persons knowledge structures are ‘biographically determined’ Schutz (1967), they cannot be identical for the conveyor and the receiver. This essentially implies that the same information, even if it results in knowledge, will be different knowledge for different information. Wilson (2002) asserts:
“everything outside the mind that can be manipulated in any way, can be defined as ‘data’, if it consists of simple facts, or as ‘information’, if the data are embedded in a context of relevance to the recipient. Collections of messages, composed in various ways, may be considered as ‘information resources’ of various kinds – collections of papers in a journal, e-mail messages in an electronic ‘folder’, manuscript letters in an archive, or whatever. Generally, these are regarded as ‘information resources’. Thus, data and information may be managed, and information resources may be managed, but knowledge (i.e., what we know) can never be managed, except by the individual knower and, even then, only imperfectly.”
Wilson’s line of argument puts knowledge management entirely out of the realm of Information Technology. If we have not been able to comprehend the mechanism of the human mind, there is no question of trying to digitize, quantify, manipulate or process knowledge which represents the human mind itself through the application of ICT.
After analysis of a large number of papers purportedly on knowledge management in leading academic journals, Wilson comes to the conclusion that there is absolutely no agreement on what actually constitutes knowledge management, that a majority of the papers used knowledge as a synonym for information and knowledge management as another name for information management. His analysis of the perspective on knowledge management held by leading management consultancies leads to the findings that “knowledge management means different things to different companies…”, and that established approaches such as Intellectual Assets Management Practice were frequently confused with knowledge management. Similarly, his analysis of business schools makes it evident that expert systems, information management systems, organization training and learning and e-learning are all labeled as knowledge management. His review of business school sites also reveals that the most reputed and prestigious of business schools give a wide berth to knowledge management except in the statement of interest of faculty.
The use of knowledge management in place of information management is termed as ‘search and replace marketing’ strategy by business houses and ICT professionals in a bid to repackage failed ICT concepts such as Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) and Organizational Learning. In other words it was the proverbial old wine in a new bottle.
What however makes sense in the context of this paper is the perspective that Knowledge Management comprises two aspects: the technology aspect and the management of people aspect or the ‘IT Track’ and the ‘People Track’ to borrow from Sveiby (2001). It can be inferred from Wilson’s study that knowledge is a result of information assimilation by the human mind. Information therefore leads to knowledge although the same information may result in different knowledge in different minds.
This paper postulates that the concern of the IT manager with respect to knowledge management is the handling, manipulation, processing and communication of the information that is in turn processed and assimilated by the human mind to generate knowledge. In other words, the IT manager should know all that is related with the IT aspect or the Information aspect of Knowledge Management. The ‘People Track’ or the people aspect of Knowledge Management falls outside the domain of the IT manager. It is largely a concern of human resource management or people management where the focus would be on knowledge sharing by building ‘Communities of Practice’ (Lesser & Storck, 2001) in organizations.
The IT Track of Knowledge Management
Implementation of Knowledge Management for the IT manager would imply implementation of information systems that would foster knowledge in the organization and not implementation of Knowledge Management per se. Such implementation best practices (Talisma White Paper, 2006) would require the usual information management approaches based on the Strategy, Planning and Execution with an overall Knowledge Management orientation. The strategy best practices would incorporate formulation of measurable business objectives, obtaining ongoing executive sponsorship, staffing the ‘Information’ Management team with the right people and identifying and tackling cultural resistance.
The Planning best practices would involve identifying target consumers and experts, conducting detailed needs assessment, identifying a small and critical first phase, collating and creating ‘information’ content and designing effective workflow processes.
Similarly, the Execution best practices would incorporate investing in meticulous project management, managing a flexible project scope, keeping the user community involved, being obsessed with ‘information’ quality and marketing the ‘information’ management implementation with a ‘Knowledge Creation’ perspective.
The People Track of Knowledge Management
The principal aim of the ‘people track’ or people perspective of Knowledge Management is to improve the exchange and sharing of information within an organization. To do so, the people perspective lays more emphasis on developing personal networking and what is termed Communities of Practice than on implementing Information Systems and other ICT tools and services. Organizational knowledge in this case is maintained primarily maintained through collaborative and social processes. The initial task here is to define Organizational Knowledge. Brown and Duguid (1998) applies the concepts of Explicit and Implicit knowledge to define Organizational Knowledge. They opine that Organizational Knowledge is captured in a ‘core competency’ that is made up of both explicit and implicit knowledge. However, Brown and Duguid (1998) argues that whereas explicit knowledge tends to be individual, implicit knowledge is shared. It is created out of and revealed in collaborative practice. It is therefore properly characterized as Organizational Knowledge. The point to be noted here is that there can be collaboration with others who are no longer present through knowledge representations or knowledge artifacts.
The development and maintenance of Organizational Knowledge is the result of a dynamic self-organizing event. Brown and Duguit (1998) views Organizational Knowledge as the interplay between ‘know-what’ and ‘know-how’. Know-what is the explicit knowledge that is represented by expertise, and ‘know-how’ is the implicit knowledge that enables the ‘know-what’ to be put into practice. Organizational Knowledge is therefore not only the result of a dynamic, self-organizing process, but is also the result of a shared, distributed one. In a workplace, Organizational Knowledge is not individual, but the result of a process in which multiple workers coordinates their actions to produce a synergism that transcends the efforts of any individual (Lintern, Diedrich & Serfaty, 2002). Organizational Knowledge is distributed in nature because it involves an interactive disposition, one between people and with resources and materials in the environment. This is a characteristic of all Organizational Knowledge rather than that of a particular kind. The significance of the above observation lies in the fact that the team is given more importance than the individual. It is the knowledge embedded in practice and communities. Because Organizational Knowledge is distributive and collective, it implies that the storage and documentation of abstracted knowledge or information will alone not comprise knowledge management. The knowledge management process will therefore have to be embedded in the practice of a community acting with a particular environment.
This brings us to the concept of the Community of Practice. In very general terms, a Community of Practice is a group of people who share similar goals and interests. They employ common practices, work with the same tools and express themselves in a shared vocabulary (Wenger, 1998). This paper however refers to the organizational Community of Practice which is defined by Gongla & Rizutto (2001) as “knowledge networks, referred to as institutionalized, informal networks of professionals managing domains of knowledge (organizational)”. Communities of Practice are instrumental in fostering knowledge development and creative interactions among members. They are a key element in the learning organization. At this stage, it is required to differentiate between teams and Communities of Practice. Lesser & Storck, 2001, differentiates the two as follows:
i. The organization assigns people to be team members whereas community relationships are oriented around practice.
ii. Authority relationships within the team are determined by the organization, whereas authority relationships in a Community of Practice emerge through interaction around expertise.
iii. Teams have goals that could be set by people not in the team, whereas communities are responsible only to their members.
iv. The work and reporting processes of the team are defined by the organization, whereas communities develop their own processes.
Given the extreme flexibility of the Community of Practice and its independence from organization control, it is evident that the primary function of Knowledge Management in this context would be to restructure organizations in a way that encourages the creation and development of communities of practice. The people perception of Knowledge Management then has to concentrate on the development of knowledge through these communities of practice, and on maintaining the knowledge once developed. Lintern, Diedrich & Serfaty (2002) cites three examples, two from Lave & Wenger (1991) one from Brown & Duguid (1998) to illustrate that in communities of practice, organizational knowledge evolves by virtue of natural and seamless processes. The first example from Lave & Wenger (1991) is the work activity of tailor’s apprentices in West Africa to advance the notion of Legitimate Peripheral Participation, a development process in which apprentices initially participate in peripheral activities, and then gradually develop their skills to participate in more central activities. The process is situated within ongoing work activities, where the apprentice gets ample opportunities to observe and learn from the masters at work. It was found that the rate of learning of an apprentice depended on three factors:
i. Cultural legitimacy of the apprentice i.e. whether the apprentice is recognized as a member of the trade, albeit a junior one.
ii. Ready access to those who are more skilled in the form of possibility of interactions and discussions.
iii. Timely progression from peripheral to more central activities
That apprentices will fail where legitimacy, access and timely access is denied was illustrated with the help of the second example of butchers in central markets from Lave & Wenger (1991). Due to an emphasis on cost reduction, the butchers are set apart form the workplace from skilled butchers, and are therefore denied situational access to the central activities of the master butchers. As a result, they also do not gain legitimacy, and the policy of the management itself does not incorporate any progression in skill level. Progression to more complex task is not by virtue of developing skills but at the convenience of the employer. The short-term corporate goal of achieving cost reductions is fulfilled at the cost of long-term corporate goal of developing a skilled workforce, and also at the cost of the individual goal of personal achievement.
The third case study from Brown and Duguid (1998) is of technicians who repairs copy machines at customer sites. It was found that these technicians had developed an informal support network when they found that the information in the repair manuals provided by the company was inadequate for all but the most routine of tasks. They met often in social gatherings outside working hours where the discussions inevitably centered on challenging repair problems of the copy machines. On learning about this informal interaction, the company decided to reinforce communication links between the technicians by providing two-way radio sets and indirect interventions that met with considerable success. In addition an information base that drew directly on the insights gained by the technicians was developed. Technicians were encouraged to provide feedback on the information that was required, and the any information that made it to the knowledge base was peer reviewed to ensure infallibility. The information base created a sense of professionalism, and those who contributed to it earned respect and social recognition from their peers.
Though the case studies provided are from the communities of practice of skilled workers, the same principles apply to all levels of sophistication in the work place.
It follows from the above that Knowledge Management has to acknowledge that knowledge develops because of the reciprocity inherent in shared practice. Knowledge develops through the implicit, multi-directional negotiation inherent in collaborations with colleagues and mentors. Knowledge cannot be maintained by the detention of individuals or from the transfer of information from a departing team to a new team, but only through continuity of the collaborative process. The social interactivity required for the development and maintenance of knowledge must therefore be accorded legitimacy, especially by the management. The natural social processes of negotiation, communication and collaboration are imperative for the development of knowledge.
These requirements for the development and maintenance of organizational knowledge translate directly into the objectives of people-oriented knowledge management. The primary and most basic of task of knowledge management would then be to convince the management about the importance of knowledge management and the changes that would have to be made to manage knowledge.
Suitable condition and environment will have to be build up for the evolution of communities of practice. This would involve providing cultural legitimacy from other members as opposed to management legitimacy, but also ready access to different levels of members with different levels of knowledge and the opportunity of timely progression as the concerned member gains in skill and knowledge. To achieve all these, knowledge management will have to resort to changes in the very structure of the organization as also in the hierarchy. This will require careful planning so that the overall aims and objectives of the organization are kept in sight even as these changes to the basic structure of the organization are made. Close involvement of the management at every stage of planning and implementation is imperative. Policy decisions that affect people management also have to be taken such as in the case of awarded added recognition and incentives to more knowledgeable members within communities of information. The selection of such significant members however has to be made by the community of practice with minimal or no interference from the management or others who are not members of the community.
Finally, it is the creation of the knowledge repository which will ultimately help in sustaining the organization. The point of contention here is knowledge, as it is, cannot be stored, only information can be stored. This is where the ‘IT Track’ or the IT orientation of knowledge management assumes significance. The information crucial to the development of knowledge was to be structured, organized and made readily available not only to members of the concerned community of practice, but also to members of cross communities of practice. Though the ability to store knowledge is an attractive perspective for management because it encourages development of a technology based storage system that the management then owns, it is actually a fallacy. Only the information can be stored, but the knowledge resides in the communities of practice or in the workforce. Any form of information store or an information base must give priority to the ideas and beliefs within a community of practice that determine how a particular information will be judged. The information can be translated to knowledge only by its application through a community of practice.
All said and done, Knowledge Management depends both on the management of knowledge from the perception of application of ICT tools, services and facilities to develop relevant information bases and make them readily accessible wherever they are required, and also on the management of people and the environment to pave the way for evolution of active and meaningful communities of practice where the information can be translated to knowledge by their application.
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8. Lintern, G., Diedrich, F., H., & Serfaty, D., 2002, “Engineering the Community of Practice for Maintenance of Organizational Knowledge”, IEEE 7th Human Factors Meeting, Scottsdale, Arizona, 2002,
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