Knowledge Management in Specialised Communities: Sharing and the Protection of Quality in Context
Kevin M. McKenzie
McKenzie Roic Consulting Services
Neil E. Béchervaise
Australian, Graduate School of Entrepreneurship
Swinburne University of Technology
Keywords: Knowledge Management, Communities of Practice, Knowledge Exchange, Quality Management
Increasing demands for Knowledge Management principles that address the unwillingness of experts to pool their expertise into data-bases provide an apparent dilemma for Knowledge Managers. This paper draws on interview data gathered within the consulting community of a medium sized organisation in Australia to establish an eight-stage description of the knowledge transfer process. It highlights the importance of knowledge sharing within an expert community and describes the procedures for gaining acceptance into that consulting community, the social etiquette demands of the community, and the communication chains accessible to members of the community seeking knowledge. The paper submits that effective Knowledge Management is best described through a set of guiding social principles for effecting quality knowledge transfer within a specialised community of practice.
1. From Information Management Systems to Knowledge Management Systems
The sharing and transfer of knowledge between organisation members has long been recognised as a contributing factor to a firm's performance. With increasingly complex competitive environments characterised by globalisation, rapid change and hyper-competitive markets, the focus on knowledge management has become a strategic issue for all firms.
This recognition of knowledge as an important resource and asset has encouraged many researchers and authors to contribute to an emerging, yet already significant body of literature on the topic. Seminal works such as Teece (1977; 1982) on technology transfer and proprietary knowledge, Nelson and Winter's (1982) examination of organisation routines, Nonaka's (1990; 1994) studies of knowledge creation and Lave and Wenger's (1991) work on Legitimate Peripheral Participation have built a foundation upon which the valuing of organisational knowledge as a strategic asset has gained popularity (Zack, 1999; Brown and Duguid, 1991; Davenport, et al, 1998; Quinn et al, 1996).
The key issue and common research goal of knowledge management researchers has become an exploration of how an organisation can efficiently and effectively utilise knowledge management systems to remain competitive.
In the early information storage period, knowledge was conceptualised in terms of isolated information items to be stored in rudimentary content and practice databases. Over the past two decades, and largely driven from an Information Technology (IT) or information systems perspective, knowledge and knowledge management have been presented as a codification, storage and retrieval issues. This focus continues to drive the research agenda of information systems departments in many major universities, treating knowledge as a private good, owned by either the organisation or its organisation members (eg Rehesaar, 2002; Chiang, Wu and Chiang, 2002). It suggests that knowledge can be separated from the context in which it is generated and stored (Wasko and Faraj, 2000).
In more recent times, knowledge management literature has focused increasingly on the social nature of the knowledge exchange, and particularly on the concept of knowledge existing within communities and the concept of knowledge as a socially constructed phenomenon.
The organisational imperative was to extract so-called tacit knowledge from individuals and to convert it into explicit knowledge that could be codified and stored in computerised knowledge repositories for perpetual access. In the later part of the decade [1990's] there were expositions on the futility of such an endeavour, asserting that knowledge and the social systems in which it resided were too complex to be dealt with simplistically. (Snowden and Merali, 2000, p. 5)
From this perspective, knowledge exchange becomes a socially constructed exchange process through which people integrate and share their personal, social, academic and professional experiences with their work colleagues (Vance, 2002). Through this interaction, the construction of knowledge and its meaning within work practices is seen to evolve as a function of doing work. Often, workers seek knowledge from sources that are most easily accessible (such as asking co-workers) rather than from what might be seen as the best and most up-to-date source (O'Reilly, 1982). Knowledge is seen as a public good, owned and maintained by the community of practitioners who are its custodian. When knowledge is considered a public good, knowledge exchange is motivated by moral obligation and community interest as opposed to self-interest (Wasko and Faraj, 2000). This is a vastly different perspective to the IT focused literature that dominated the field of knowledge management until as recently as three years ago.
2. The SECI Model of Nonaka and Takeuchi
The second period of knowledge management, heralded by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), saw knowledge managers promoting the specification and quantification of explicit knowledge from what was initially identified as tacit. Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation (SECI) model of knowledge exchange proposes that knowledge is created and exchanged through a social process between individuals and through the interaction between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Their model describes the knowledge creation process as a never-ending spiral of tacit and explicit knowledge through four modes of knowledge conversion:
- Socialisation (tacit to tacit);
- Externalisation (tacit to explicit);
- Combination (explicit to explicit); and,
- Internalisation (explicit to tacit).
In this model, tacit knowledge can be transferred through two processes: socialisation, which maintains knowledge in its tacit form; and externalisation, which articulates tacit knowledge into explicit concepts through such means as metaphor, analogy, hypothesis, or models. Explicit knowledge is transferred either through internalisation, which is the process of embodying explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge through socialisation, or combination, which retains the explicit nature of the knowledge (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995).
According to Snowden (2000a), the deficiencies in Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) model in practice have become evident. In particular, organisations are increasingly realising that there is a body of knowledge that cannot be made explicit, and that much of what can be made explicit shouldn't be, on grounds of either cost or flexibility (Snowden, 1997). Additionally, there is an increasing realisation that much knowledge is held collectively within communities, and cannot be represented as the aggregation of individual knowledge (Snowden, 2000b; Cook and Brown, 1999). Regardless, Nonaka and Takeuchi's (1995) model has been seized to date, regardless of its original Business Process Reengineering specific context, as providing a means by which tacit knowledge may be rendered explicit (Snowden, 2000a; 2002b).
In the face of unwillingness among knowledge holders to share their expertise and despite the recognised stickiness of knowledge flow across organisations (Szulanski, 1999), this second period has provided substantial insights into the very human manner in which knowledge is formalised within organisation.
3. The Community as the Custodian of Payload Knowledge
Current developments in KM theorisation have established that knowledge is more meaningfully described as a complex mix of explicit information, frequently held by individual 'experts' within a specialist community of practice, and tacit knowledge held at both individual and community level. The sharing of this payload knowledge (a concept that emerged from the research data as comprising that specific distillation of knowledge, both tacit and explicit, required to resolve an applied problem in context) occurs efficiently in informal specialist work communities because members have a shared understanding of what is important, and as such know what is important to communicate and how to present information in useful ways. As a consequence, a specialist community dispersed across an organisation is an ideal channel for moving information and knowledge, such as best practices, tips or feedback, across organisational boundaries. Often, however, this knowledge remains tacit because everyone in the community knows it, and hence the cost to convert it to explicit knowledge (if possible at all) is not considered necessary by community members.
This notion of learning the professional practice, described by Schon (1983) as an artistic process, sees knowledge inherent in practice as being 'artful doing'. Through a process of reflective action, practitioners follow up the process of thinking on their feet with reflection-on-action. Completed after the encounter, this reflection enables workers to explore why they acted as they did, what is happening in a group, and so on.
Through Schon's (1983) process, reflective practitioners build up a collection of images, ideas, examples and actions that they draw upon personally, and can share with their colleagues within the community. From this knowledge base, workers can act out of an initial self-understanding that a novel situation is unique and either unlike any previously encountered, or similar yet different in many respects. Using the past repertoire of experiences as a resource, workers can find and participate in knowledge exchange with other workers in the community who have similar or relevant experiences. The community hence defines the boundary within which experiences and knowledge are important and held communally. The knowledge of what is important, who has the knowledge, and how they may be approached, then, becomes the art of participating within the consulting community.
These communities of practice can retain knowledge (Wenger, 1998a; 1998b) in a living way, unlike databases and codified repositories, which allows it to be applied to local problems and issues. Competencies of the group are stewarded (Wenger, 1998a; 1998b) as members discuss novel ideas, work together on problems, and keep up with developments inside and outside the firm. They also provide a home for identities (Wenger, 1998a; 1998b), which is important to knowledge exchange as it allows members to filter the sea of information, helping to sort out what they pay attention to, what they participate in, and what they avoid.
Within this context of specialised communities, payload knowledge is both specialised and highly contextualised within the community of expertise for which it has meaning. Snowden (2002) argues that payload knowledge is not a 'thing', that it cannot be conscripted from its holders and, that it cannot be 'known' outside the context within which it has immediate application.
4. Exchanging Payload knowledge
In support of Snowden's developing theses confirming the complexity of both knowledge itself, the knowledge process and the effective management of knowledge, this paper reports a case study focusing on knowledge transfer between consultants in a medium sized Australian consulting firm.
Through the in-depth interviewing of sixteen consultants, collected data was analysed using a modified content analysis (de Araugo, 2001). The study identified an eight-stage knowledge transfer process as it occurs within an expert community of practice (see figure 1).
Insert figure 1
This eight-stage process based model was developed to describe the interpersonal knowledge exchange process used by consultants to source, gather and integrate the knowledge they need to get the job done into their personal knowledge base as tacit knowledge. Requesting consultants (with a need for context specific knowledge) initiate the process at Stage One when the need arises for this payload knowledge. Initially, they carry out a self-resourced search (at Stage Two) to confirm that an intra-firm exchange process is, in fact, required. If unable to satisfy their payload knowledge need at this stage, the consultants enter Stage Three, looking for pointers to a potential credible source. At this stage, they engage in a hopping process between pointers to eventually identify a consultant with the required knowledge.
The requesting consultant then enters a complex translation, adaptation and negotiation process to decontextualise the required knowledge and relay it to the source consultant using the community's shared language, norms, etiquette and mental models (Stage Four). This request is recontextualised by source consultants, who confirm in their own mind that they have the required knowledge to fulfil the requesting consultant's needs. This decontextualisation and recontextualisation process is summarised in the following figure 2:
Source consultants then exercise their discretion in agreeing to participate at Stage Five of the model, which activates the complexities of Stage Six, where the desired knowledge is exchanged in the knowledge handover stage. Once again using the community's shared language, norms, etiquette and mental models, the tacit and explicit dimensions of the source consultant's experiential knowledge is condensed and funnelled to the requesting consultants in such a way that they can reconstruct the original meaning.
Having received this knowledge, the requesting consultants translate it once again at Stage Seven to target the very specific context required at their client site. The knowledge transfer complete, it is implemented at Stage Eight and internalised into the consultant's own tacit knowledge base. At this point, the knowledge received from the source consultant has been converted to payload knowledge, the specific knowledge required to get the work done.
While the eight-stage knowledge transfer process is presented unproblematically in this paper, the interpersonal process by which consultants exchange payload knowledge within their specialised communities was described by respondents to the study as non-linear, unpredictable and artistic. Nevertheless, they argued, it fulfils the majority of their payload knowledge exchange needs. Moreover, respondents indicated a clear preference for this interpersonal process. In addition, they provided an overwhelming rejection of IT based explicit databases as a substitute for the knowledge exchange process required to exchange context-specific payload knowledge.
I don't know that anyone uses the [explicit knowledge] databases at ABC. I can think of nothing more boring. I'd rather have a few drinks and have fun while getting hold of the knowledge required. (Keith)
Using shared language, norms, etiquette and mental models that have developed in the community over time, the respondents to this study indicated that consultants are able to decontextualise and recontextualise their knowledge in an exchange situation efficiently in ways that are not possible using the explicit process. The benefit offered by the decontextualisation and recontextualisation process as part of the interpersonal knowledge exchange process offers many benefits to consultants that the explicit process cannot deliver. Namely, it:
1. Saves them time when exchanging complex and context specific payload knowledge.
People will try to find the most efficient and effective method in order to minimise the economic cost ... I think the cost has several factors -one is time cost ...People who want knowledge generally want it immediately in the consulting field ...And that's another factor -the currency of knowledge. As soon as you start writing it down, it is very hard to keep it updated. (Sasha)
2. Encourages them to exchange the artistry associated with implementing the payload knowledge.
By participating in the community's knowledge exchange systems, you find out the unwritten rules of the game ... You learn the subtle skills from the other consultants so that you can get what you want. (Keith)
3. Allows them to confirm their personal knowledge against that of the community of practice to ensure it is appropriate in the specific client context and is up-to-date.
Sometimes you receive information from someone, and you might check it with someone else. This is a validation process that the community makes easier, because if the community thinks it is OK, then you will probably feel comfortable. (Sasha)
4. Enables them to learn and skilfully enact the social etiquette of the consulting community of practice.
By working with this company, I have learned to become a consultant. I didn't set out necessarily with this as a goal, but after a few years of working around and with my co-workers, I've picked up the art ... If you ask me now what those skills are specifically, I couldn't tell you. You’d just have to watch me and figure it out for yourself (Tara).
5. Is socially required (as the prevailing community etiquette) to use interpersonal exchange processes as opposed to contributing and retrieving information from the explicit knowledge store.
Through participating in a group, you learn the knowledge sharing process, which is never written down, and often varies from individual to individual. You learn to have a beer first, or a coffee, and you learn that buying coffee is the accepted way of getting consultants out of the office or client site to participate in the process. It is all very subtle stuff, and it is part of the community norms, and the way things happen. (Adam)
6. Engages consultants in a continuous process of updating their own knowledge and sharing their growing expertise with the community
It is through a reflective process, looking at what has worked and what has not worked in the past, and applying that to the present, that our consultants are able to add a lot of value to clients. (Petra)
7. Is socially enjoyable, and consultants prefer to exchange knowledge in a situation that is fun and enjoyable. The explicit process is not seen in any way as fun or enjoyable.
At ABC, everyone knows that the way to get [payload knowledge] is to do it in a socially enjoyable situation. Nobody wants to sit in front of a computer when it is not required. There is not a social etiquette dictating that I must contribute and retrieve documents from the [explicit] database. However, just ask five consultants in the office right now about how knowledge is exchanged and they will tell you that knowledge is served with beer and coffee. (Owen)
The eight-stage knowledge exchange process is seen as central to defining the expertise of the community of consulting practice described in this paper. In addition, the social etiquette of informal meetings, the transfer of tacit behavioural knowledge about how to "be" a consultant and how to facilitate the consulting process through the community, is each learned within the community and requires ÔpermissionÕ to access from the community. Gaining permission to access the community requires learning the unwritten rules and specialised language of the community.
It takes time to learn this and you don't learn it from the formal induction process. It's through lunches, coffees, cluster group lunches and informal catch-ups that these things emerge. It took me a couple of years to fully get a handle on it -and even now I make mistakes. (Phillip)
The past two decades have seen a rapid but identifiable evolution in our understanding of effective knowledge management. In the information storage period, knowledge was conceptualised in terms of isolated information items to be stored in rudimentary content and practice databases.
The second period of knowledge management, heralded by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), saw knowledge managers promoting the specification and quantification of explicit knowledge from what was termed tacit. In the face of unwillingness among knowledge holders to share their expertise and despite the recognised stickiness of knowledge flow across organisations, this second period provided insights into the very human manner in which knowledge is formalised within organisation.
Current developments in KM theorisation have established that knowledge is more meaningfully described as a complex mix of explicit information, frequently held by individual 'experts' within a specialist community of practice, and tacit knowledge held at both individual and community level. The paper argues that this payload knowledge is both specialised and highly contextualised within the community of expertise for which it has meaning. Snowden (2002) argues further, that payload knowledge is not a thing, that it cannot be conscripted from its holders and, that it cannot be known outside the context within which it has immediate application.
In support of Snowden's developing theses confirming the complexity of both knowledge itself, the knowledge process and the effective management of knowledge, this paper has provided an eight-stage description of the knowledge transfer process as it occurs within an expert community of practice and presented a set of guiding principles for effecting contextualised knowledge transfer.
Within an expert community, the knowledge transfer process involves not only an identification of the particular knowledge to be transferred but also a sequence of social processes establishing:
- the credentials of the knowledge seeker,
- the identity of potential knowledge providers,
- the contextualisation of the knowledge required by the seeker in recognition of the social position of the potential provider,
- acceptance of the informant role by the knowledge provider,
- negotiation of meaning of the knowledge request with the provider within the social framework of the community of expertise,
- transfer of the knowledge from provider to seeker, and
- re-contextualisation of the knowledge within the seeker's specific needs context.
As guiding principles to this knowledge transfer process, it is argued that:
- all knowledge exchange occurs within a social framework or community of expertise;
- membership is established through demonstration of facility with and adherence to the rules of etiquette of the community;
- facility with the rules of the community are demonstrated through mastery of the shared language and collective social responsibility of the community;
- community rules include those for knowledge exchange and for the protection of both the community and the knowledge it holds -individually and collectively;
- trust must be earned within the community before knowledge exchange can be negotiated;
- time management is a central issue in negotiating knowledge exchange;
- IT databases are generally seen to be ineffective as knowledge resources.
The high levels of socialisation demanded across the knowledge transfer process strongly suggest, as Snowden (2002) has contended, that knowledge is both a flow of comprehension and a set of things. This paper argues that payload knowledge is only meaningful within a shared social framework - the community of expertise, which can construct or reconstruct it to meet immediate and appropriate demand. Finally, that knowledge management, if it is to effectively meet the needs of knowledge seekers into the future, must focus increasingly on providing appropriate forums for meaningful payload knowledge creation and transfer.
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