Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What Is Knowledge Management - Knowing What We Know?

Information Technology

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What Is Knowledge Management - Knowing What We Know?

Author: Colin Mc Cullough

The paper aims to identify the role human factors play in determining the success or failure or knowledge management initiatives.

A growing realisation in both the private and public sector is the worth of human capital as an intangible asset. In a society transcending the boundaries from information to a knowledge society, it is essential to find adequate and successful means of processing and exploiting the knowledge within the heads of its members. Research literature shows a strong link between knowledge management and the creation of a sustainable competitive advantage, because of the tacit nature of an organisation�s knowledge (Gupta & McDaniel, 2002). The growing body of literature on KM has tended to emphasise the technical aspects at the expense of the people management aspects and it is indicative in itself that the vast majority of literature resides within the Information Technology (IT) field (Bank, 1996; Cole-Gomolski, 1997; Finerty, 1997). Scarbrough et al.�s (1999) IPD report provided an extensive overview of existing literature which demonstrated a growing gap in the literature in terms of people issues in favour of a concern with the technological and system aspects. Likewise Johanessen et al. (1999) explore the inadequacy of firms investing in new technology hoping that KM will simply emerge as a result. Instead they suggest it is the employees themselves who will be the impetus behind the transition from functional organisations to knowledge organisations.

Fundamentally frequent KM attempts end in failure. The assumption that knowledge is an object, and can be codified and distributed underpins the linked field of computer science and information systems. As a result of this knowledge management has been closely tied to ICT. Yet even within the computer science fields, it is increasingly recognised that most current software for knowledge management have more to do with new ways of storing and communicating information than with actual ways in which people create, acquire and use knowledge (Milton et al., 1999). Likewise as McDermott points out, using ICT rather than a solution to knowledge management may �represent the great trap in knowledge management� (McDermott, 1999: p. 104).

An analysis of current academic literature on obstacles to knowledge management reveal three main groups of factors � flaws in the organisational process, misconceptions of the role of technology in the process and lastly, and that which I seek to elucidate as a principle component � a large disregard of the importance of the human factor in achieving a successful knowledge-sharing and knowledge managing culture.

A failure to understand clearly the terms of reference (i.e. what is knowledge management?) fogs entirely the picture of what factors can enhance or reduce the chances of successful knowledge management within an organisation. As Thomas, Kellogg and Erickson (2003) point out the view of knowledge management as a passive, fact-storing procedure which ignores the context in which knowledge is embedded and which relies solely on information technologies is a common misconception of the whole process. Soo, Devinney. Midgley and Deering (2000) likewise stress that the knowledge management process is not something simple which can be bolted on to conventional business models as mere storage models.

The vast majority of academic research into knowledge management, concludes, as do Dominguez, Laverde, Lizzaralde and Arregui (2003) that while there is a general difficulty for companies to explain what they mean when they use the term knowledge management, they are in a position to identify common aspects such as the sharing of knowledge and of transforming individual into organisational knowledge. They admit, however, that a lack of clarity over the concept while generating certain confusion, has led to a greater flexibility in its application in the private sector. It simply means different things in different contexts. De Jarnett (1996) states that knowledge management is knowledge creation, which is followed by knowledge interpretation, knowledge dissemination and use, and knowledge retention and refinement. Brooking (1997), however, in his definition stresses that knowledge management is the activity which is concerned with strategy and tactics to manage human centred assets while Quintas et al (1997) in their definition claim that KM is the process is critically managing knowledge to meet existing needs, to identify and exploit existing and acquired knowledge assets and to develop new opportunities. As Ariely (2003) points out even nowadays there is no full consensus on definitions and perceptions of knowledge management. She concludes, however, that the differing definitions expose the problems industry is having with defining and commonly understanding such a combined term. For this reason she favours the definition by Brooks (2000) of organisational knowledge management through correlating the aim of KM in the organisation with those of the organisation. Ultimately the test is the success achieved in enabling knowledge creation rather than managing it. As von Krogh (2000) points out the dilemma can perhaps be best approached by managing the processes relating to the domain of knowledge management rather than presuming to manage the knowledge itself.

Knowledge management is inextricably linked to the sharing of knowledge between individuals and to the collaborative processes involved. The factors and environments which enhance this all relate to the human factor in the KM process.

About the Author

Colin Mc Cullough works in knowledge management in the public sector. He has consulted for a number of comanies including and


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