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Developing Organisation Knowledge

Many are aware of the importance of implementing effective knowledge management in organisations.  However, the challenges are not few!  This article discusses two basic approaches in identifying and managing knowledge in  organisations and how these can be managed to develop a knowledge creating organisation.

The first approach we will be discussing is the tacit knowledge approach.  Tacit knowledge can simply be defined as the knowledge that exists in the heads of individuals.  Organisations must make the best use of this knowledge by encouraging individuals to share their ideas with their work colleagues to develop new insights together that will lead to the creation of new knowledge within the organisation.

Therefore, to make good use of the tacit knowledge of individuals, managers are urged to identify the knowledge possessed by various individuals in an organisation and then to arrange the kinds of interactions between knowledgeable individuals that will help the organisation perform its current tasks, transfer knowledge from one part of the organisation to another, and/or create new knowledge that may be useful to the organisation. 

Synopsis

If knowledge remains tacit in the heads of individuals, then the only way to move knowledge within the organisation is to move people.

Moving people is often costly and time-consuming and may be resisted by individuals who fear disruptions of their careers or family life.

Another challenge arises when an individual refuses to share knowledge. At the heart of such resistance is usually a belief that an individual’s job security or position of influence in an organisation depends on the tacit knowledge that he or she has and that the organisation needs.

Overcoming such fears is likely to require a profound rethinking of the employment relationship in many organisations, especially with regard to key knowledge workers.

THE CHALLENGES OF TACIT KNOWLEDGE

One of the main advantages of the tacit knowledge approach is that it is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to begin managing knowledge. The essential first step is a relatively simple one, identify what each individual in the organisation believes is the specific kinds of knowledge he or she possesses. Managers can then use this knowledge to assign individuals to key tasks or to compose teams with appropriate sets of knowledge to carry out a project, to improve performance in current processes, or to try to create new knowledge in the organisation.
However, if knowledge remains tacit in the heads of individuals, then the only way to move knowledge within the organisation is to move people. Moving people is often costly and time-consuming and may be resisted by individuals who fear disruptions of their careers or family life.  Even when knowledgeable individuals are willing to be moved, an individual can only be in one place at a time and can only work so many hours per day and days per week, thereby limiting the reach and the speed in transferring an individual’s knowledge.

Leaving knowledge tacit in the heads of individuals creates a risk that the organisation may lose that knowledge if any of those individuals becomes incapacitated, leaves the organisation, or, in the worst case, is head-hunted by competitors.   
The challenge firms face as they become larger, more knowledge intensive, and more geographically dispersed, is for their managers to know ‘what they know’.  A common initiative within the tacit knowledge approach is to improve understanding of who knows about what in his/her organisation.  This can be achieved by developing contact information for each person about the kind of knowledge he/she possesses.

EXPLICIT KNOWLEDGE

We now look at the explicit knowledge approach which holds that knowledge is something that can be explained or articulated and made explicit by individuals such as by being disseminated within an organisation through documents, drawings, standard operating procedures, manuals of best practice, and the like. Information systems are usually seen as playing a central role in facilitating the dissemination of explicit knowledge over company intranets or between organisations via the internet.  

A good example of effective use of this approach is when an organisation embarks on a new project, designers of the project are given a manual of design methods and techniques from the team that had previously worked on a similar project.  By the end of the project the new team would then be required to have improved design methods and techniques, developed and documented more efficient and flexible delivery processes and develop an improved design manual to meet the product and production goals for its project. This manual would then be passed on to the next design team given the task of developing the next project. In this way, the organisation seeks to capture the knowledge developed by its personnel during each project and to systematically leverage that knowledge in launching the work of the next project team (Spear and Bowen 1999).  

The key advantage of this approach is that when individuals articulate their knowledge in a document, or other form of explicit knowledge asset, it should be possible through use of information systems to quickly disseminate that knowledge throughout an organisation or indeed anywhere in the world. In effect, converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge creates an asset that is available 24/7 and is free from the limitations of time and space that constrain the dissemination of tacit knowledge by moving individuals.

THE CHALLENGES OF EXPLICIT KNOWLEDGE

To gain benefits from an explicit knowledge management approach, a number of organisational challenges must be overcome. Individuals may not have sufficient skill or motivation to articulate their useful knowledge. Another challenge arises when an individual is capable of articulating his or her knowledge, but resists requests by the organisation to do so. At the heart of such resistance is usually a belief that an individual’s job security or position of influence in an organisation depends on the tacit knowledge that he or she has and that the organisation needs.

Overcoming such fears is likely to require a profound rethinking of the employment relationship in many organisations, especially with regard to key knowledge workers.

Another challenge is assuring that knowledge articulated in one part of the organisation is not ignored by any of its other parts simply because they prefer to stay close to their own familiar knowledge.  One approach to managing this concern is the implementation of organisational best practices.  One way of achieving this is to set up a committee of experts responsible for a knowledge evaluation process that examines the applications of knowledge articulated within the organisation, and defines the best practice in applying that currently available knowledge.
 
Implementing such a process for assuring that an organisation’s best knowledge and practice are actually used requires a high degree of organisational discipline in adhering to the organisation’s current best knowledge. Such discipline will normally require building a high degree of organisational trust that the expert committee is objective, impartial and transparent when deciding what is best knowledge and best practice.

CONCLUSION

The tacit and explicit knowledge management approaches thus involve different practices, and one might ask which approach is the best for his/her organisation.  As with most alternative approaches to management issues, the answer is not one or the other but a mix in the right combination.  The challenge is then to find the right combination and balance of tacit and explicit knowledge management approaches.  

What the right combination and balance may consist of will vary with a number of factors.  These may include the technology the organisation uses or could use, the market conditions it faces, the knowledge intensity of its strategies and operations, the current attitudes of its knowledge workers towards the organisation, the degree of geographical dispersion of its knowledge workers, the resources available to the organisation to invest in developing infrastructure and processes for its knowledge management practice, and so on.

It is suggested that organisations that are starting on their implementation of systematic knowledge management approaches should in most cases begin with tacit knowledge management practices as described above.  Such practices are relatively inexpensive, fast to implement, and less challenging than the full-blown explicit knowledge management practices. Implementation of tacit knowledge management practices should be seen and communicated within the organisation as only the first step in an evolving management process that will eventually include more formal and systematic explicit knowledge management practices.

When the respective advantages of tacit and explicit knowledge management practices can be combined, an organisation should be able to develop and apply new knowledge faster and more extensively than organisations that do not try to manage knowledge or that use only tacit or only explicit knowledge management practices. Thus, the eventual goal for most organisations will be to devise and implement hybrid knowledge management practices in which explicit knowledge management practices complement and significantly extend their initial tacit knowledge practices.   This will create what Nonaka (1991) called a ‘knowledge creating company’.  This is depicted in Figure 1 where knowledge is converted from one form to another through a number of techniques, namely: socialisations (e.g. between master and apprentice), Articulation (making tacit knowledge explicit), Combination (combining different forms of explicit knowledge) and Internalisations (the process of allowing explicit knowledge to become tacit over time).

References are available upon request.

Last modified onThursday, 28 August 2014 05:04
Francis Farrugia

Ing. Francis Farrugia occupies the post of Head of the Standardisation Directorate of the Malta Standards Authority (MSA). He also lectures at the Henley Management College in Malta.

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