The ability to create new knowledge is often at the heart of the organization's competitive advantage. Sometimes this issue is not treated as part of knowledge management since it borders and overlaps with innovation management (Wellman 2009). Since I chose a broader knowledge management definition, I very much regard it as a part of the process, and I will refer (albeit superficially) to some theories that pertain to innovation.
Knowledge creation according to the Nonaka's SECI model is about continuous transfer, combination, and conversion of the different types of knowledge, as users practice, interact, and learn. Cook and Brown (1999) distinguish between knowledge and knowing, and suggest that knowledge creation is a product of the interplay between them. The shift in condition between the possession of knowledge and the act of knowing - something that comes about through practice, action, and interaction- is the driving force in the creation of new knowledge. Furthermore, in order for this interplay to be most fruitful, it is important to support unstructured work environments in areas where creativity and innovation are important.
Knowledge sharing and knowledge creation thus go hand in hand. Knowledge is created through practice, collaboration, interaction, and education, as the different knowledge types are shared and converted. Beyond this, knowledge creation is also supported by relevant information and data which can improve decisions and serve as building blocks in the creation of new knowledge.
Managing Knowledge Creation
The role of management in the knowledge creation process is thus as follows:
- To enable and encourage knowledge sharing: On the tactical side, as described in the previous subsection, management must understand where and in what forms knowledge exists. They must then provide the right forums for knowledge to be shared. For tacit knowledge this implies a particular emphasis on informal communication, while for explicit knowledge this implies a focus on a variety of IT systems. On the strategic side (to be discussed in-depth later), management must create/design the right environments, processes, and systems that provide the means and willingness for it to take place.
- To create a suitable work environment: This includes the notion of creating an interplay between knowledge and knowing. It implies offering relevant courses and education, but most importantly allowing new knowledge to be created through interaction, practice, and experimentation. Botha et al (2008) point to the importance of shared experiences in the knowledge creation process when dealing with tacit knowledge, and the need for an environment where these can be formed. March (1988) discusses how our cultural norms often stifle innovation and new knowledge creation. He advocates environments where we recognize that goals can be created through action, where intuition is accepted and valued, and where experience is nothing more than a theory. These concepts bring us back to the concept of theory in use (referring to work environments that do not follow strict, "official" rules and procedures), and the acceptance and support of environments that allow brainstorming, trial and error, and unstructured interaction.
- As an example, from innovation theory, one can refer to the practice of establishing teams to solve problems, unhindered by the bureaucracy that may exist in the firm. Peters (1988) refers to the value of chaos and the advantage of smaller, fast-acting teams. One common alternative is the use of cross-functional project teams. These are usually a group of experts from different parts of the organization, led by a "generalist" project leader. If these teams are allowed the freedom to experiment and work in an autonomous, or virtually autonomous environment, it can be a great catalyst for innovation and new knowledge creation. Then, once the task is complete, the members return to their role in the organization, helping to spread this knowledge back into their own community of practice. The project team itself can also facilitate the creation of bridges between communities of practice, and at times may even serve as a way to extend them. Variations of this concept can be seen in several places in innovation theory, notably in Nonaka and Takeuchi's self-organizing project teams in the hypertext organization.
- To provide systems that support the work process: These can be groupware systems that facilitate communication or brainstorming. However, they must not interfere with creative processes or communities of practice, or enforce rigid organizational practices (espoused theory).
- To provide knowledge workers with timely, relevant information and data. In today's fast paced environment this is virtually synonymous with the implementation of IT systems which can store, retrieve, organize, and present information and data in a helpful way.
IT and Knowledge Creation
The use of IT is very much the same as it is for knowledge sharing, allowing for some degree of support in the transfer of all knowledge types. One important aspect is that it must support, and not interfere with, informal collaboration. For example, groupware systems can be used to enhance communication between communities or teams, particularly if they support varied (e.g. video, audio, text - according to the needs of the individual firm), informal communication.
Apart from this, IT also has an important role through information management, by providing access to data and information, and allowing the manager to perform in-depth analyses. More than that, IT systems can also be programmed to spot trends in data and information and present that to the manager. This essentially enables the manager to make better decisions and aids knowledge creation by providing some of the building blocks for new knowledge.
IT tools can also be used in the innovation process (e.g. tools used in the actual product design), but these are outside the scope of knowledge management.
In conclusion, knowledge creation depends upon the mechanisms described in the subsection on knowledge sharing, combined with the ability to put knowledge into practice in an environment which supports interaction and experimentation. The creative process is a delicate one, and it is easily ruined by strict adherence to rules and regulations, or by bureaucracy. Similarly IT systems must be implemented with care (as discussed above), and not attempt to replace processes vital to knowledge creation.
Alan Frost M.Sc., 2010