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Knowledge Sharing

As stated earlier, knowledge management is fundamentally about making the right knowledge or the right knowledge sources (including people) available to the right people at the right time. Knowledge sharing is therefore perhaps the single most important aspect in this process, since the vast majority of KM initiatives depend upon it. Knowledge sharing can be described as either push or pull.The latter is when the knowledge worker actively seeks out knowledge sources (e.g. library search, seeking out an expert, collaborating with a coworker etc.), while knowledge push is when knowledge is "pushed onto" the user (e.g. newsletters, unsolicited publications, etc).

Knowledge sharing depends on the habit and willingness of the knowledge worker to seek out and/or be receptive to these knowledge sources. The right culture, incentives, and so on must therefore be present.

In the rest of this section I will discuss the concepts of knowledge sharing according to the different types of knowledge. The role of IT will also be explored and discussed from a general perspective.


Explicit Knowledge and Knowledge Sharing

Successful explicit knowledge sharing is determined by the following criteria (Bukowitz and Williams 1999):

IT systems have proved extremely useful in aiding or performing many of these functions.


Explicit Knowledge Sharing and IT

IT is useful in most stages of the knowledge sharing process, and it is used for content management as well as data and text mining (looking for hidden knowledge, relationships, etc. within data and documents).

Content management systems are used to update, distribute, tag, and otherwise manage content. They may include a wide range of functions, including web content management and document management systems (which I consider separately). They may be used to (based on Wikipedia entry):

Document management systems use numerous advanced indexing, searching, and retrieval mechanisms (e.g. using meta data or content from the actual document) to facilitate explicit knowledge sharing.

To take advantage of all of these functions, it is a foregone conclusion that the system was chosen and implemented appropriately. This aspect is discussed in the section on knowledge management systems.

All in all, IT is a very useful tool in the management of explicit knowledge and information. This is not to say that humans no longer play a part. They certainly do, and knowledge and content managers are instrumental in ensuring that the knowledge is relevant, up to date, and presented correctly.


Can Explicit Knowledge Sharing Systems Yield Competitive Advantage?

For the actual storage and retrieval, there is very little disagreement on the value of IT as a means of sharing, sorting, and accessing explicit knowledge. Where one does find disagreement is on the value placed on this function. KM and organizational learning theorists have sometimes downplayed the value of explicit knowledge and focused largely on tacit knowledge (Brown & Duguid, Cook & Brown 1999). However, it has also been argued that in a world where we have an overflow of explicit knowledge and information, the ability to manage it, and thus to provide continuous streams of relevant knowledge and information, can be a source of competitive advantage in itself (Maier 2002, Botha et al 2008). The latter view appears to be gaining support, although one important point should be considered: explicit knowledge management systems are quite transparent and therefore fairly easy to replicate. This means that they cannot be the source of sustained long term competitive advantage (Jackson et al 2003).

All this being said, in most cases, implementing a solid system that enables explicit knowledge sharing is crucial for the following reasons:


Tacit Knowledge Sharing

Sharing tacit knowledge requires socialization. This can take many different forms. Davenport & Prusak (2000) outline a few relevant factors:

Codification of tacit knowledge is difficult and sometimes outright impossible. There will often be a resulting knowledge loss (Bukowitz and Williams 1999, Davenport & Prusak 2000). Often, it is much more reasonable to simply externalize the sources of tacit knowledge rather than the knowledge itself (Davenport & Prusak 2000). This means that often it is better for experts to externalize what they know rather than how they know it. The main role of KM then becomes making sure that experts can be found so that tacit knowledge can be passed on through practice, mentoring, and networking (socialization), and that the firm supports and encourages the networking that is necessary for these functions to occur.

To share tacit knowledge requires a culture conducive to this type of sharing. Furthermore, knowledge managers (generalists that understand the types of knowledge that exist in the communities) must be used to locate and translate knowledge elements, thus facilitating their integration into other communities. This endeavor is very much about people and managing organizational culture change.


Tacit Knowledge Sharing and IT

It is important for tacit sharing of knowledge to be people focused. However, increasingly, IT systems are becoming useful in this area as well. They can support interaction between people that are not in the same location and some tools are designed to capture unstructured thoughts and ideas. The important factor to remember is that tacit knowledge cannot always be made explicit (and may lose some of its richness in the process). Therefore, IT systems should not attempt or pretend that they can carry out this process, but instead act as an important support to existing practices.

IT can be useful as a forum for externalization of tacit knowledge. For example, groupware systems that support brainstorming can help in the codification process (Botha et al 2008). Online discussion databases and forums can also be sources of externalized knowledge (Botha et al 2008), although the richness of this knowledge should be questioned.

While IT is crucial for information management, it is important not to confuse information with knowledge. Using IT to move tacit knowledge is difficult since knowledge represents the shared understanding and the sense making that is deeply rooted in the social practice of the community. The focus for the successful sharing of tacit knowledge must be on social interaction, problem solving, mentoring, and teaching, and IT systems must be used to support these processes intelligently.

IT's contribution to OL therefore depends on its fit to the social context of the communities. Technology must not be seen as the superior solution and should not be used to structure organizational practice (at most to supplement it). There is also the danger that IT may limit the participation of some members of the community. It may make it more difficult for individuals to become accepted members of the community by limiting socialization channels. The challenge is to extend the reach of communication without sacrificing reciprocity in regards to knowledge sharing or socialization.

During KM's boom at the turn of the century, IT-driven KM initiatives turned out to be a major pitfal. Today you still see a divide between technologically-centric views and people-oriented approaches (Bali et al 2009). Increasingly however, IT is being recognised for its ability to provide support to sound KM initiatives, within knowledge sharing, creation, etc. In different capacities, IT should be regarded as a critical tool (though not as the initiative itself).

The role of IT for tacit knowledge sharing can thus be summarized as follows:


Embedded Knowledge Sharing

As a reminder, embedded knowledge refers to knowledge locked in products, processes, routines, etc.

Embedded knowledge can be shared when the knowledge from one product or process is incorporated into another. Management must understand what knowledge is locked within those sources, and they must transfer the relevant parts into a different system. To do this, Gamble and Blackwell advocate the use of:

Embedded knowledge could theoretically be transferred as is, simply by testing the effects of procedures or design features transferred from one area to another. However, often it will have to be made explicit, or partially explicit, at least to the responsible managers. This way they can hypothesize the effects that embedded knowledge has in a given situation and use simulation and experimentation to implement it in a new area.

Beyond the knowledge mapping functions described in the subsection on organization and assessment, IT's use is usually more indirect. It can be used as support in the design of simulations, experiments, and product design, and it can also provide modeling tools used in reverse engineering of products. However, these tools are not typically considered as being knowledge management systems and are thus beyond the scope of this website.

One direct role of IT systems is as an embedded knowledge repository where procedures, guidelines, etc are stored and retrieved. If implemented properly, with the IT system complementing rather than disrupting existing processes and culture, then it can support practices and routines, and eventually become an embedded knowledge artifact in its own right.


Conclusion

To facilitate knowledge sharing, KM must understand the requirements of the users, as well as the complexities and potential problems with managing knowledge and knowledge sources. Very broadly speaking, management must therefore implement the right processes, frameworks, and systems that enable knowledge sharing. They must also foster a knowledge sharing culture that ensures that these investments are fully utilized.



For explicit knowledge, seven issues have been identified that KM must consider, these are: articulation, awareness, access, guidance, completeness. IT has been identified as a key component of this type of knowledge sharing, facilitating and lowering the cost of the storage, access, retrieval, and variety of explicit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge sharing depends on socialization and practice. KM must offer the means for this to take place by providing the right forums (primarily physical, but also virtual), supporting networks and communities, and accepting unstructured work environments. Generalists, known as knowledge managers, should be used to gain an understanding of the location of knowledge sources and to bridge the gaps between communities and networks.

In order to support the transfer of tacit knowledge, KMS must support the socialization functions, while at the same time not enforcing strict managerial practices/routines/hierarchies/etc. One of its roles is as an expert finder, and it can also help in the direct transfer of tacit knowledge through the support of rich and varied methods of communication, which preferably include informal communication channels.

Embedded knowledge sharing is a process whereby embedded knowledge is passed on from one product, routine, or process to another. Several tools have been described that can help management understand the effects of embedded knowledge and help in its transfer. These were: scenario planning, after action reviews, and management training.


Alan Frost M.Sc., 2010 - Updated 2017
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