Knowledge Management: The Energy Source of the Organization

Power is what keeps the lights on in an organization.  In the corporate world, this source of energy comes in the form of knowledge and that knowledge is what keeps a business profitable, not its year-end performance. The employees are the knowledge bearers of the company, the intellectual capital, and the ‘power’ players of the organization.  Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insights that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information.  How knowledge is stored, located, shared, and used within the community will determine the overall health of the corporation. 

Today, it is a business requirement to efficiently exploit what the business actually knows not only what it owns (Cummings, 2001). In its most simple sense, this refers to the effective use of an organization's knowledge and its ability to learn from past experiences. These past experiences come in the form of individuals, groups and from what Lave and Wenger (1991) refer to as “communities of practice” (CoP). 

What types of knowledge does an individual possess and what value does this knowledge have for others? How does the individual share his or her knowledge within an organization? Knowledge management systems include elements such as: trust, ethics, incentives, human relations, leadership, culture, organizational infrastructure, social networks, social capital, creativity and innovation, strategy, best practices, human competencies, knowledge sharing proficiencies, and learning (Jain, 2009). 

The purpose of this review is to contribute to a better understanding of the knowledge sharing between individuals and business units within an organization. Companies need to find ways to utilize tools within their environment to foster the extraction and storage of knowledge in hybrid ways for future reference and use. 

Expertise and Knowledge Sharing in the Corporate Setting 

It is often frustrating looking for a past document, email or file. When the information you are looking for is not readily available, what do you do? Do you ask a neighbor or a peer? What if he or she is not there? Do you pick up the phone to call someone? This is a problem that many organizations face today. A knowledge management system would assist in “filing” the information stored within the brains of an individual and with the help of technology. Knowledge management refers to the ability to develop, share, deposit, extract and deliver knowledge such that it may be retrieved and used to make decisions or to support the process (DeTienne, 2004). The tools must be available to the individual at the right moment in order for him or her to perform their job. 

Knowledge sharing has been conceptualized by (de Vries et al., 2006) in terms of two knowledge-sharing behaviors, knowledge donating and knowledge collecting. The key differences between knowledge collecting and knowledge donating that they have indicated are: 

Knowledge Collecting: (willingness)

Knowledge Donating: (eagerness)

The two knowledge-sharing attitudes, eagerness to share knowledge and willingness to share knowledge are defined as: 1. Willingness to share is defined as the extent to which an individual is prepared to grant other group members access to his or her individual intellectual capital. If my manager asked one of his direct reports to “share” his knowledge on a specific technology, he does not have a choice but to share it willingly. 2. Eagerness is defined as the extent to which an individual has a strong internal drive to communicate his or her individual intellectual capital to other group members. This person does not need his manager to tell him to share his intellectual capital; rather, he volunteers it to his peers, with no strings attached (de Vries et al., 2006, p. 117). 

There are also two distinct types of knowledge that influence sharing (Nonaka, 2001). All knowledge is personal in nature and explicates dimensions of tacit and explicit knowing in organizations. Tacit knowledge is hard to formalize and communicate and is rooted in action, involvement, and commitment in a specific context (Nonaka, 2001) it is composed of both cognitive elements, such as mental models, beliefs, and viewpoints, and technical elements, consisting of skills and know-how that apply to a specific context. Tacit knowledge in a company is known as being stored in the human brain and expressed by human behavior and actions. Explicit knowledge on the other hand, is knowledge that is easily codified and articulated with natural language. Tacit is sometimes referred to as know-how and explicit is as know-that. It is generally related to stored data, text, pictures, sound, etc. According to Kalseth and Cummings (2001) the organization is not automatically more competent than others because its members are highly educated and good learners. In fact, he argues that the opposite is often the case. Highly competent individuals may be less likely to share knowledge with others. 

Knowledge sharing is a unique attribute. Companies try to hire the most intelligent, team-driven, self-starting personnel possible. It is the quality of an organization's employees, how they perform their work, how they cooperate and collaborate, and on what common grounds their decisions are taken, that distinguishes the successful organizations from the failures (Cummings, 2001). It has been suggested that the knowledge-creating company should consistently create new knowledge, share it throughout the organization and capture it within new technologies, processes, products and services (Ensor, 2001). One way to share and collect this knowledge from individuals is to establish communities of practice. Communities of practice are “social networks” that are formed within the organization to assist in the transfer of knowledge.

Communities of Practice within the Company 

Internal communities of practice has been defined as “a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Although there are many definitions of CoPs in research literature, the common way of describing it is that communities of practice are groups of people who share a common passion or purpose and who interact with the intent to share knowledge. CoPs emphasize the importance of the social aspect of learning in the formation of new knowledge and does not seem to place as much emphasis on the role of leaders external to the community or on the culture outside the community (Ruona, 2009). 

According to Wenger (1991) the goals of CoP accomplish the following: 

 
In such a fast-moving economy, communities of practice enable companies to improve performance for a variety of reasons. For example, CoPs offer companies an alternative way to handle unstructured problems and also to reduce, rework and reinvention of the wheel by enabling members to more easily reuse existing knowledge assets (DeTienne, 2004). In an environment where certain processes are similar, it is important to store these processes in a repository somewhere so that future inquiries are easily found. Employees can search a database, a Wiki and blogs to find answers to problems that have been worked on and solved in the past. A CoP would add the necessary information in this repository for their community, and other communities to view as well in order to share their knowledge. 

Communities of practice would be beneficial to immediate local presence as well as beneficial to a company with a global presence. With technological tools such as the intranet, virtual communities of practice could be formed that may increase the scope and timeliness of knowledge sharing (Ardichvili, 2005). An example of this type of sharing would be a global company sharing their repository with other groups in the United States, United Kingdom, India, Asia Pacific, and Australia. This would be advantageous once all communities inject their knowledge into the repository, giving the company virtually a 24/7 access to solving problems that may arise from anywhere in the world, without suffering a major time delay. 

Barriers to Sharing

There are several barriers that impinge on knowledge management and knowledge sharing. What is the incentive for an individual to share his/her knowledge? Why should one trust another with the knowledge they have accumulated throughout the years? Trust is the most critical prerequisite for knowledge exchange. Without trust, knowledge initiatives will fail, regardless of how thoroughly they are supported by technology and rhetoric (DeTienne, 2004). Trust was divided into 2 distinct categories: (1) trust in others, or knowledge-based trust, and (2) trust in the organization as a whole, or institution-based trust (Ardichvili, 2005). Where lack of trust exists, a great amount of sharing will not happen. 

One reason why individuals do not share willingly or eagerly is that they view “knowledge as power.” By sharing this power that they’ve created throughout the years, they fear that they may lose some of this power, and with it their competitive edge over other workers. People view knowledge as a method of securing their jobs so they are reluctant to share what they know with others. Employees will be hesitant to contribute to a knowledge database if they think that by doing so they will in some way devalue themselves to the organization or that the information they contribute will somehow be used against them (Orlikowski, 1993). 

The organization itself was viewed as a barrier to knowledge sharing. According to a study by the Journal of Knowledge Management, of the 431 senior managers interviewed, eighty percent responded that the culture of their organization in some way “hindered the development and introduction of knowledge management strategies and programs" (Chase, 1997, p. 27). For example, companies that base evaluation, promotion, or compensation on ''relative numbers'' instill in workers the perception that sharing knowledge will jeopardize the employee’s chances of advancement or success (Nakra, 2000). 

Employees will adopt the organizational norms. An organization needs to support the sharing of resources instead of empowering employees to adopt the “knowledge is power” mentality. Companies have implemented programs that inspire management and thus inspire their direct reports. This would have a waterfall effect from the top down approach, and will remove barriers to knowledge sharing.

Organizational Support from Top Management

Organizational culture was found to be a vital factor to an organization's ability to create value through leveraging knowledge assets (Cole-Gomolski, 1997). It is often cited as one of the most difficult factors to achieve as well as one of the biggest barriers to knowledge management’s success. An organizational culture that encourages knowledge sharing, creation, and contribution to organizational knowledge structures was found critical to the success of the knowledge management system. The impact of top management and leadership support is greater for knowledge management as it is an emerging discipline and employees have needed the added incentive of a total commitment from their organizations top management and leadership (Zheng, 2009). Without proper support from management, like most projects in any company, the knowledge management initiative will have little chance of succeeding. 

Incentives and Rewards for Sharing

Self-interest has been found to be a principle motivator for many people’s actions. Because knowledge management is, at its roots, dependent on people’s actions, organizations willing to implement knowledge management strategies are now finding that they should also be prepared to implement new reward policies and programs in order to motivate employees to take part in knowledge management programs. These incentives can either be tangible or intangible in nature. Tangible incentives could include links to performance bonuses, plane tickets, movie tickets, gift certificates whereas intangible rewards might consists of empowerment, praise from managers and senior executives, special recognition programs, or even placards. Incentives – tangible or intangible, big or small, will ultimately teach employees what the company really

Davenport and colleagues (1998) stated that offering incentives as a means of enticing staff to engage in knowledge management activities was one of the most common success factors; however, it was also one of the most difficult factors to sustain during the lifetime of a knowledge management initiative. According to Chase (1997), unproductive reward and recognition programs were one of the major obstacles to creating knowledge-focused companies. Not all technology solutions are a “one size fits all,” the same set of rewards may not work for every company due to variations in cultures and employees (DeTienne, 2004). 

Although there are those who perceive rewards and incentives to be indispensable to knowledge sharing (e.g., Gupta & Govindarajan, 2000; O’Reilly & Pondy, 1980; Quinn et al., 1996), others have argued that tangible rewards alone are not sufficient to motivate knowledge sharing among individuals. Professionals participate in knowledge sharing activities because of the intrinsic reward that comes from the work itself, and in some cases, formal rewards may be perceived as demeaning by professionals who are motivated by a sense of involvement and contribution (Ipe, 2003). 

Utilizing Technology as a Knowledge Repository 

The right amount of information at the right time has long since been an important factor for performance in all kinds of organizations. However, the amount of information now available, both internally and externally, is enormous (Cummings, 2001). Tools such as the Wiki and the Blog would make searching for knowledge easier, as well as facilitate collaboration with other technologies readily available such as Office communicator (IM), email and IP Phones. As Quiggin, 2006 states, “…the innovations associated with blogs and wikis are important in themselves, and the process of creative collaboration they represent is becoming central to technological progress in general”. 

Collaborative web editing spaces – (Wiki') s

A Wiki is a series of web pages that can be structured and completed by anyone who has been granted relevant access. Wikis can be used to create knowledge resources or as a collaborative working or project management tool. Wikis are designed to facilitate editing by as many people as possible. A wiki enables documents to be written collectively (co-authoring) in a simple markup language using a web browser. A wiki is a collection of pages, which are usually highly interconnected via hyperlinks; in effect, a very simple relational database. The name was based on the Hawaiian term wiki wiki, meaning “quick” or “informal” (Quiggin, 2006). Wikis are increasingly used by closed groups in government, corporate, and educational environments. They have been used internally for items specific to the department. Items such as procedural documents can be linked so that technology managers can input their knowledge into areas where their employees can find them easily.  Wiki's and Blogs are not just for fun; they can also be used as a business enabler.

Business case for Wiki’s and blogs:

Wiki’s have been used for knowledge management systems in the past. As Wood, 2009 asks, “If I design and implement the use of a wiki to develop and maintain employee learning materials, will it result in reduced development time, less redundancy, increased transparency, and higher quality of materials”. Wood’s studies have found that the wiki assisted in the collaboration of members in his work force. Nine out of the 13 team members logged on to the wiki providing 2,374 total edits to the wiki itself. 

Shared reflections (Blogs) 

Blogs foster regular and timely personal communication and dialogue for a defined team, community or interest group. Blogs serves many purposes, from online diaries to corporate public relations. In many cases, a blog post serves more to initiate a conversation, held in public view, than as a discrete piece of communication from author to reader. In important respects, blogs (at least full-scale blogs with comments and trackbacks) are collaborative productions. Blogs will be used to solicit a “quick” response to a question or concern. Blogs have been used to document a project. For example: If a project cut over was to occur in the weekend, a Blog can document items that went wrong. An analyst that supports the project can then view the blogs to assist in troubleshooting the issue. 

Blogs entice people to write down what they know and to share it widely. A project blog or a department blog not only surfaces and shares knowledge, but it also makes the blogs searchable and archives it. And once a company gets used to internal blogs, it's only natural (if anything about a corporation can be said to be natural) to open up some blogs to trusted customers and partners, bringing them into the intellectual bloodstream of the organization (Quiggin, 2006).

Conclusion 

Knowledge sharing in organizations is a complex process. Organizations should encourage employees to establish relationships between individuals for its creation, sharing and social use of knowledge. Knowledge is shared informally through formal channels, and much of the process is dependent on the culture of the organization’s work environment. With established communities of practice and incentives for sharing, the organization will have an advantage over their intellectual property. Companies that are investing in their employees and in the technology to harvest their knowledge will be ahead in terms of keeping that intellectual property in house. With Wikis, Blogs, Forums and other Web 2.0 tools in the enterprise, companies will look to keep most of the knowledge that the employees have created in an area easily accessible to everyone, anywhere and anytime.

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