Download "A Synthesis of Knowledge Management Failure Factors" by Alan Frost. Free paper released Jan. 2014.


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):

  • Articulation: The ability of the user to define what he needs.
  • Awareness: Awareness of the knowledge available. The provider is encouraged to make use of directories, maps, corporate yellow pages, etc.
  • Access: Access to the knowledge.
  • Guidance: Knowledge managers are often considered key in the build-up of a knowledge sharing system (Davenport & Prusak 2000, Gamble & Blackwell 2001). They must help define the areas of expertise of the members of the firm, guide their contributions, assist users, and be responsible for the language used in publications and other communication material. This is so as to avoid an information/knowledge overload.
  • Completeness: Access to both centrally managed and self-published knowledge. The former is often more scrutinized but takes longer to publish and is not as hands-on (and potentially relevant). Self-published information on the other hand runs the risk of not being as reliable.

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):

  • Import and create documents and multimedia material.
  • Identify key users and their roles.
  • Assign roles and responsibilities to different instances of content categories or types.
  • Define workflow tasks. Content managers can be alerted when changes in content are made.
  • Track and manage multiple versions of content.
  • Publish content to a repository to support access. Increasingly, the repository is a part of the system, incorporating search and retrieval.

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:

  • Not doing so would almost certainly become a source of competitive disadvantage (for lack of a better word).
  • They may well provide a short term advantage, which may be extended through continuous improvements and new technologies.
  • With proper care, such systems will also play a limited role in the sharing of tacit knowledge, as will be discussed in the next section.  

Tacit Knowledge Sharing

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

  • Informal networks, which involve the day to day interaction between people within work environments are considered very important
  • Unlike the formalized structure of the firm, these networks span functions and hierarchies. They are therefore difficult to identify and monitor.
  • Management should support these networks by providing the means for communication. Japanese firms have created talk rooms where employees can engage in unstructured, unmonitored discussions. A specific location is useful but not mandatory - this process also occurs in cafeterias etc. Management must simply provide the means for employees to foster informal networks and "trade" tacit knowledge.
  • Management must also understand the value of chaos. This refers to the value of unstructured work practices that encourage experimentation and social interaction. Within a more chaotic environment, individuals are given the freedom to solve problems creatively and, in so doing, must tap into and evolve their social networks. This is closely linked to the notion of theory in use vs espoused theory. The value of less structured work environments is also well known within innovation management.

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 oriented approaches often place undue focus on externalization (Swan et al 2002). Due to the context specific nature of tacit knowledge, and due to the fact that much of it cannot be codified, externalization should sometimes not be attempted. In this context, IT is perhaps best as an expertise locater.

However, in some cases IT can be of some limited use 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.

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.

The management of tacit knowledge has traditionally been a pitfall of IT driven KM, and something that designers and manufacturers have not been adequately versed in - particularly in the 1990s. The current situation still sees the subject divided between those who take a technologically-centric view and those who take a people-oriented approach (Bali et al 2009). Increasingly however, the limitations of IT are being recognized in this context, as well as in related disciplines such as knowledge creation.

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

  • As an expert finder: To located the source of the tacit knowledge through systems like corporate yellow pages.
  • As providing limited support in the socialization of tacit knowledge: If IT systems support varied, formal and informal forms of communication then they can help tacit knowledge sharing by supporting teams, projects, communities, etc. Functions like being able to attach notes to documents, or video conferencing can support work environments over long distances to some degree. It is very important to realize though that if one replaces existing socialization functions with IT, this can backfire and become outright detrimental to the firm's efforts.
  • As providing limited support in the externalization of tacit knowledge: Through groupware applications that support the codification process, discussion forums etc. However, not only is this aspect limited, but externalization itself is only rarely feasible.

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:

  • Scenario planning: The practice of creating a set of scenarios and hypothesizing how they might unfold by drawing upon the perspectives of experts, the firm's knowledge asserts, and so on. For more on this see here http://www.valuebasedmanagement.net/methods_scenario_planning.html
  • After action reviews: "is a structured review or de-brief process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better" (wikipedia).
  • Management training

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.

knowledge sharing characteristics

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 best roles is as an expert finder, although 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 2013

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