Knowledge management: A human resource issue


Knowledge Management (KM) Can appear as a broad subject, so first I will try to define origin and core subject of this domain by defining KM and especially the different type of knowledge. From this study I will show how KM can and should be related to human resources (HR) and why HR should partly manage knowledge as it's becoming one of the most valuable and intangible asset of now days companies.


'In the mid 1980s, individuals and organizations began to appreciate the increasingly important role of knowledge in the emerging competitive environment. International competition was changing to increasingly emphasize product and service quality, responsiveness, diversity and customization. Some organizations, such as US based Chaparral Steel, had been pursuing a knowledge focus for some years, but during this period it started to become a more wide-spread business concern. These notions appeared in many places throughout the world almost simultaneously in the way bubbles appear in a kettle of superheated water' (Wiig, 1997). Even if KM was on manager subconscious or mind early, academic study are recent on the subject. The theoretical background for it had been created by the Japanese professor Ikujiro Nonaka. He had published some work on information creation in Japan and since 1991 he used the label "knowledge creation". His 1991 article "the Knowledge creating Company" in Harvard Business Review brought some attention, but the real breakthrough had to wait until 1995, when he published his book, together with Hiroteka Takeuchi, under the same title (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995)


Before we discuss knowledge management, let clarify what is meant by some usual terms in this field. The term knowledge is defined in the dictionary as: 'awareness or familiarity gained by experience (of a person, fact, or thing)', 'persons range of information', 'specific information; facts or intelligence about something' or 'a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject' (The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, 1995). A more philosophical and positivist view of knowledge is to see it as 'justified true belief' (Plato, cited in (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995).

Davenport and Prusak give a broader definition of knowledge: 'Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the minds of knowers. In organizations, it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes, practises, and norms' (Davenport & Prusak, 1997).

The literature on KM is dominated by practitioners and consultants in which terms such as 'intellectual capital' and 'intangible assets' are frequently emphasized (Bukh, Skovvang Christensen, & Mouritsen, 1995). Several KM initiatives, especially in the business sector, have been documented though it is often rather vague what these include (Bouthillier & Shearer, 2002). Neither is there any agreement on what constitutes knowledge itself or KM in the literature. KM is 'a term which has now come to be used to describe anything from organizational learning to database management tools' (Ruggles 1998, cited in (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2001). Many attempts though have been made to give knowledge and KM a theoretical definition. To exemplify, KM has been defined as 'the process of applying a systematic approach to the capture, structure, management, and dissemination of knowledge throughout an organization in order to work faster, reuse best practices, and reuse costly rework from project to project' (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Such theoretical definitions though, give a limited understanding. As held by Sveiby, concepts are best defined by the way that people use them (Sveiby, 2001). In both literature and practice, there is a divide between those focusing on technological aspects and those who focus on people and personal interactions (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2001). As this is a rather common distinction, that gives a structured approach to KM, this two sided approach (given several different labels) will be used as theoretical starting point.


Using Sveiby's classification, the IT-Track apply to those within KM focusing on management of information through different IT based systems, such as intranets, databases and expert systems. Knowledge is perceived as objects that can be identified and handled and there is rarely any clear difference made between knowledge and information. (Sveiby, 2001). Focus is placed on collecting, storing and distributing different sources of information. Knowledge sharing is emphasized, to which well functioning information processing systems and structures are seen as important devices. It is also essential to make information held by the organization easily accessible, for example by codifying information sources. As stated by Shera : 'Processing data can be performed by machine, but only the human mind can process knowledge or even information' (Jesse Shera in (Machlup & Mansfiel, 1983). This is probably the limit of the IT-Track, if for any reason people within the company are not willing to deliver or share their knowledge then the IT-Track is useless. 'The literature of KM' claims that the people dimension is more important than the technological in spite of the fact that most of the same literature is heavily oriented towards technology use' (Wilson, 2002). This lead to question why literature is more focused on the branch that is not the real issue and so is the literature on KM is really relevant to the subject or merely an extent of information technology literature. This would make sense as it's much more easy to write about well documented subject than to innovate.


From Sveiby's classification, the second branch of KM is the People-track. Here, the focus is placed on people, their behaviours, skills and interactions. The aim is to maximise the organization's knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. Knowledge is perceived as processes that are constantly changing and emphasis placed on know-how and skills. The IT-Track requires investment in IT systems. The People-Track on the other hand calls for investment in people, recruitment and in the office environment. Trust and the "human infrastructure" are key words. (Sveiby, 2001). A common distinction in the literature is the one between explicit and tacit knowledge. Knowledge is held and created via complex processes and transformation between 'tacit' and 'explicit' knowledge. this has been referred as a "knowledge spiral" in which knowledge is created via different processes labelled "socialization", "externalization", "combination" and "internalization" (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995).

Another KM strategy significant to bring up and relevant to mention here is the personalization strategy. In this the role of computers is downplayed and emphasis placed on the individual. (Hansen, 1999). Computers serve a secondary purpose and are mainly used as supportive devises that facilitate personal contact within organizations. Personal contact is crucial for creation as well as spreading of knowledge. There is therefore a need to create spaces for communication between people such as open-plan offices. Whereas codification was held as important in the codification strategy, networking and creative employees are vital here. (Bukh, Skovvang Christensen, & Mouritsen, 1995). This consolidate the point previously discussed, in KM people and thus employees are the key to establish a KM strategy within the company. To further understand the knowledge that need to be managed we need to define clearly explicit and tacit Knowledge.

Explicit Knowledge

'Explicit or codified knowledge, refers to knowledge that is transmittable in formal, systematic language' (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). So Explicit knowledge can be precisely and properly articulated and is easy to codify, store, transfer, share and communicate. Typically this is the knowledge found in books and on the web, Wikipedia is a perfect example of explicit knowledge. As the definition and understanding of this concept is pretty straight forward there is no real issue on this concept but if some knowledge are easy to articulate in formal language some other are not and this lead to Tacit knowledge

Tacit Knowledge

Through the literature many definition can be found but one widely used is the one wrote by the, physician, philosopher, and social scientist Michael Polanyi who encapsulate the essence of tacit knowledge in this sentence 'we know more than we can tell' (Polanyi, 1966). To generalize is concept he gives examples like riding bike or skiing (Polanyi, 1969). Another definition is 'Tacit knowledge is personal, context-specific, and therefore hard to formalize and communicate' (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995), and a last useful definition is: 'What is unsaid and unexpressed could be the reservoirs of tacit knowledge' (Kikoski & Kikoski, 2004). So tacit knowledge is part of human being and deep inside people mind. People might even not be aware of their Knowledge, this make it really difficult for them to share or explain. For knowledge management, knowledge is relevant only if it can be effectively captured for the benefit of the organization, so in the case of tacit knowledge this can be an important issue.


As can be seen from the above, KM is predominantly a people related discipline even if it's often related to IT structure, the other point is that Knowledge is intangible by nature. There is 'natural' barriers to implement KM, the first one is from human nature.

It's obvious that people are highly reluctant as sharing their knowledge because it's often associated to power, and in today's competitive environment it can make the slight difference needed especially to increase career opportunities. So a new culture should be implemented in company to move from holding knowledge to gain individual power to sharing it to increase the power of the company and thus gaining power through company improvement.

The second barrier is time, people are focus on their annual objective to get bonuses or recognition from their hierarchy, and sharing their knowledge can appears as a waste of time in their 'quest'.

From this two point it's obvious that KM need to be incorporate in company culture and organization, it cannot be implemented in a silo type structure where KM would be just another silo and hoping that employee and manager will share their knowledge by themselves (Kuruganti, 2002).

Society is in a knowledge revolution and it requires that organizations capitalize on all available assets including knowledge assets (Tranfield, Denyer, Marcos, & Burr, 2004).It's becoming usual for CEO to say 'People are our greatest asset'. If this is what there are really thinking then KM should be top priority within the company. With appropriate KM they could monitor their asset and by training employee on a appropriate way they could improve it as learning and knowledge should be linked. This can be done only by the human resource department and won't work unless the company's culture supports sharing of information, (Mason & Pauleen, 2003). This lead to a key point to avoid KM failure. HRM should participate to KM goals establishment and this goals has to be measurable. It cannot be implemented as a fashionable additional layer within the organization even if KM is getting more and more fashionable. By setting up a up a KM system within the company will influence HR as they need to be aligned and consistent (Oltra, 2005). Culture has to be taken into consideration on a wide perspective as company culture is not the only one that influence people behavior, country with high power distance and low collectivism seems more reluctant to KM implementation (Oltra, 2005).


Knowledge Management approach shouldn't be narrowly focused on information technology but also on cultural and human aspect as this might be the key for barrier inhibition. Through this paper I mainly focus on company's people knowledge to show why HR need to part of the KM process, but KM need also to take care of knowledge on customer. Company like Amazon is a good example thanks to their knowledge they can advertise you a book or product you are likely to get even before you think about it by matching customer buying behavior. This show that if KM is a HR issue it's not the only one and KM has to be integrated in company's culture and at all possible organizational level and it then should improve profitability. As usual with any new company strategy, it has to be insufflate by top manager and top-down promoted. As Knowledge sharing is a big change in people behavior manager need to be really good at emotional intelligence and have a great sense of empathy to make sure that change needed will be accepted, so the key of successful Knowledge Management might not bet knowledge.

Comment on how I have changed as a result of this learning

The main change in my mind is about knowledge and especially the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge, and this is one of the reason why I developed this topic on my assignment. To me there was only one kind of knowledge the one defined as explicit. I was thinking that all the knowledge was available in library and book. To me getting to people that are specialized on a topic or with great experience wasn't really useful as it was just a shortcut cut to have access to knowledge that is anyway available via literature. Now I realized that tacit knowledge is a real benefice and some of this tacit knowledge is only available through people. My personal profile as most of engineer is introvert type and now I think that I have to work hard on this point to become more extravert and I should try to share as most experience possible with people to get their knowledge. This is where emotional intelligence is becoming important and to me it's one of the key that make difference between a real manager and a supervisor. Anyone develop some tacit knowledge through personal and professional experience and being able to capture it from others is a key to develop, improve myself and expand my faculty.

I could make an analogy with ski mountaineering, I joined a club first for some practical reason, I was getting bored to always climb the same place, so I choose a club to discover new summit and in fact I learn much more than new place I developed my technical skill by learning from others member and develop my physical strength by challenging others. This exchange was good as developing my ability to climb but now I realize that I could have learn much more from them as all this individual does have probably much more to share than their climbing ability, thinking about, just the travel experience accumulated to go climbing is huge as many of them went to Peru, China, Nepal, Pakistan and so on.

What seems weird to me is that all the knowledge accumulated by someone disappear when this one leave the group or a company, and we are not able to get his knowledge unless he is willing to share it with us. If nothing is done within a company to get people knowledge then turnover might be synonym of loosing asset. I'm not sure despite nice CEO talk about their most valuable asset when they are talking of employee, that knowledge is really perceived as highly valuable. As this is intangible it doesn't appear in the income statement, balance sheet or cash flow statement, so it might be difficult sell it to any potential share holder or to some financial guy.

By going to theatre or museum we have access to knowledge, internet is a huge source to, knowledge surround us. As you mention in class, the way people behave in a pub is knowledge, everyone knows who's turn is it and who's going to pay and there is nothing formal about it but it does exist. This lead to another thinking which is that in KM the most important is not the technology use to store it but human relation to get it.

The question I'm asking myself is why does people share their knowledge, as time is very precious and to share you need time so what consciously or unconsciously people are looking for when they accept to spend time to talk and share?

One the reason would be that trough conversation if managed well you can get as more as you gives. With the hypothesis that we are because of others and we exist through the look of others then there is a risk about sharing because then it's becoming for each of us that our peers view us as knowledgeable and skillful. If during the conversation we feel that our talk is not worth listening for the others or fell indifference from the others then we could simply collapse. This is why when I arrive first in KM class I thought that it would be a technological course, and now I'm feeling that KM is all about sharing and relationship.

The other topics that make me think is the six degree theories. At first I thought that was funny to think that trough 6 relation I could be in contact with anyone, but then I started wondering what could be the implication of this with KM.

Community are getting interconnected more easily, so information and knowledge tend to flows along this community relationship. The good aspect is that it's possible to get access to parts of others company knowledge. As usual there is a downside and that one is obvious, competitors might get access to your knowledge as well and I think that this threat should be taken into consideration. This powerful interconnection can change some business mode to. A good example is OpenOffice and Linux which are both software developed on a open source project by community. This two product are competing with Microsoft operating system and office software.

Another interesting aspect of this network is the power we can get out of this. If there is two distinct community then there might be only one person able to make the link between this two community. Assuming you are this node what's the best things to do? You can either choose to interconnect people from the two community via multiple node to enhance knowledge sharing or you can chose to stay the only node interconnecting this network. In this case the flow of information will be narrower but as a broker you can manage power. Again this depend on personal choice and how you manage your relationship.


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