Theknowledgecore's Blog

Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

Fuzzy borders – Fuzzy practice – KM needs a SatNav to find itself!

My latest blog takes a look at aspects of KM definition.  It is designed to tie in with past blogs and lead you into the next couple of blogs, which looks at how KM is being practiced.  I hope you have had the opportunity to look at the paper from my last blog post, as the research I talk about in these blogs underpins the development of the K-Core model. 

KM is acknowledged as difficult to define, with theorists offering a plethora of alternatives such as:

‘…a framework that builds on past experiences and creates new mechanisms for exchanging and creating knowledge’ (Kakabadse, et al., 2003, p.78)

‘…the discipline of creating a thriving work and learning environment that fosters the continuous creation, aggregation, use and re-use of both organisational and personal knowledge in the pursuit of new business value’ (Cross, 1998, p. 11)

‘…the exploitation and development of the knowledge assets of an organisation with a view to furthering the organisation’s objectives. The knowledge to be managed includes both explicit, documented knowledge, and tacit, subjective knowledge’ (Davenport&Prusak cited in Metaxiotis et al., 2005, p. 9)

‘The way that organisations function, communicate, analyse situations, come up with novel solutions to problems and develop new ways of doing business. It can also involve issues of culture, custom, values and skills as well as relationships with suppliers and customers’ (Iftikhar, 2003, p. 57)

Some authors have posited that the definition of KM is situated according to discipline and/or sector, and can be categorised into three views: Information based; technology based; culturally based.

Kulkarne et al. suggest KM to be conditional according to whether the knowledge being managed is tacit or explicit. They posit that the two types of knowledge cannot be managed in the same manner. The authors determined that knowledge is either managed through a ‘personalisation strategy’ for tacit knowledge, which occurs by direct contact in linking experts with apprentices or mentors, or a ‘codification strategy’ for explicit knowledge, which attempts to condense the knowledge process into reusable objects that can be stored, classified and retrieved.

Sarah & Haslett  attempt to clarify this, suggesting two KM approaches: ‘Knowledge as a product’ – how knowledge is shared, stored and used, and ‘Knowledge as a process’ – how knowledge is created, applied and recreated. The authors believe that ‘knowledge and ‘knowing’ is a cultural process and is the cumulative result of a learning orientation’ (p. 2). However some authors, such as Kulkarne et al., discuss a further diversification of KM, being the management of knowledge or the management of knowledge workers. The authors suggest that this focuses on what the person knows and how they can learn from others, KM being the coordination between actors. The table below is a synthesis of literature adapted from Alavi & Leidner (2001), which predates the above-mentioned theorists. This appears to demonstrate that literature in the field is incomplete with theorist providing narratives that seem to be moulded to fit their own views of the world.

Credited Author View of knowledge KM Implications
Schubert et al. (1998) Knowledge as a state of mindFounded on knowledge residing in and being expanded by the individual and then applied to organisational needs KM involves enhancing individual’s learning and understanding through provision of information
Carlsson et al. (1996); McQueen (1998); Zack (1998) Knowledge as an objectKnowledge is an object that is transient and can be stored Issue is building and managing knowledge stocks
Carlsson et al. (1996); Raven (1996); Zack (1998) Knowledge a processKnowledge is viewed as a process of simultaneous knowing and acting Focus is on knowledge flows and the process of creation, sharing and distributing knowledge
McQueen (1998) A condition of accessKnowledge is seen as having to facilitate access and retrieval and could be viewed as an extension of knowledge as an object Focus is organised access to and retrieval of content
Carlsson et al. (1996); Raven (1996); Watson (1999) Knowledge as a capabilityKnowledge is seen not as a capability for specific action, but the capacity to apply learning, information and experience in order to determine pathways for decision making Issue is about building core competencies and understanding strategic know-how


Schutt believes there to be an issue in that KM definitions have succumbed to technology driven aspects. He believes that organisations are attempting to focus on the storage of knowledge, when they should be concentrating on increasing the productivity of knowledge workers, ‘in other words to compliment scientific management [Taylorism] for knowledge work’ (p. 455). This would seem to echo the concerns signposted in earlier blogs by Wilson.

Hellstrom & Jacob believe that KM emerges from a process that mirrors the generation of knowledge, where ‘Knowledge Management originates from patterns in events from which outcomes and effects may be inferred’ (p. 178). Taking this a step further it cold be inferred that KM is based on an understanding of Holsapple’s primary types of knowledge (see my previous blog on knowledge definition). If Hellstrom is correct and KM emerges from the knowledge generation process, could it therefore be possible that the key to KM lies within a situated understanding of ‘What’, ‘How’ and ‘Why’ as suggested by Holsapple? It would also seem that Hellstrom & Jacob are suggesting KM to be a system in their expression of a ‘pattern of events’ – something that I will expore in a later blog.

Garavan  suggests KM to be generic, proposing it to be contextual according to the value placed on knowledge by aspects of organisation outcomes. However, this contextually generic view of KM could be observed as being contradictory. The consideration of generic KM functions is explored further in a limited literature review conducted by Qureshi et al. The authors examined research conducted between 1997 and 1999 to suggest that KM consists of five basic functions: Create; collect; organise; deliver; use. The literature review is limited both in breadth and scale, but it would seem to provide a signpost toward a basic definition of what KM is actually about. It is also limited from a cultural perspective, being conducted as a joint authorship between a North American, Dutch and United Kingdom based authors.

The work of Qureshi et al. is supported by a similar synthesis of literature carried out by Supyuenyong & Islam. Their work, originating in Thailand encompasses a more extensive, but still limited, review of literature reflecting a more global perspective. The review suggests four ‘sub-processes’ of KM: Knowledge Creation and Acquisition; Knowledge Organisation and Retention; Knowledge Dissemination; Knowledge Utilisation. Whilst they state that there are four sub-processes, it would seem that they consist of six processes, which extends the work of Qureshi et al. through the addition of ‘Retention’, which could also be reasonably defined as ‘Storage’. This omission could suggest a flaw in the work of Qureshi et al. and provide a signpost for potential weaknesses in research, where literature reviews lack value due to their insufficient breadth and depth. The difference in language between the two approaches is also interesting and is explored later. Gupta (2008) utilises a singular narrative research to suggest that KM is made up of five key steps: Generation, Sharing, Adaption, Application and Modification. Gupta’s assertion could be seen as interesting due to the absence of ‘Storing and Gathering’. The authors define ‘Modification’ as the generation of new knowledge. However, they fail to differentiate between ‘knowledge creation’ and ‘the generation of new knowledge’. This would seem to demonstrate a lack of ‘know what’ in literature, which could effect the effective transmission and development of ‘know how’. For if ‘know what’ is not clearly signposted, it would not seem possible to manipulate the ‘what’ to develop ‘how’. This issue is to be explored in a later blog.

For the wealth of contextualised definitions available to the academic or practitioner it would seem difficult to find a succinct explanation for what KM is actually about. It would therefore seem feasible to suggest that this apparent lack of clarity could contribute to confusion on the part of the practitioner, which in turn could result in poor performance of KM as a management tool.

This would also appear beneficial to further enquire into the language used within the KM field. If KM is generic, as suggested by Garavan et al. (2000) and progressed by Qureshi et al. (2006), Gupta (2008) and Supyuenyong & Islam (2006), KM should presumably possess a common language. However, it is also identified as contextual (Garavan 2000; Alavi & Leidner, 1999), in which case there could be a lack of common vocabulary. This, if it is the case, could be identified as a further contributor to the variety of KM definitions.  The results of this can be found in my paper ‘Towards overcoming dissatisfaction in the field’.

The literature also suggests the need for further enquiry into the core functions of KM to determine whether they are consistent across disciplines. If there are commonalities, there would seem to be an opportunity to tune out the distortions caused by the multitude of definitions and provide the practitioner with a succinct view on what KM is actually about. This could assist the field in overcoming issues of definition and language as identified by theorists such as Fulop & Rifkin. These authors identify a potential failure of KM as being attached to commercial gains of consultants and academic authors:

‘The language and jargon they extol can be used to establish expertise, to impress, to influence, to exclude, to baffle, to establish (‘expert’) status or to cover up ignorance or fear’ (p. 35).

The underlying theme from the assembly of this literature would seem to be that the practitioner and the academic could find the field daunting in breadth and scale. It appears that what is missing is agreed research that succinctly defines the functions of KM so as to transmit a simple message of what creates value. It would also seem that this lack of definition could expose the field to fads brought about by a misunderstanding of purpose.

The lack of agreed definition could be attributed to the breadth of theoretical foundations that underpin the field. It would appear that definitions are derived form a singular narrative perspective and, whilst it is not possible to present a statement for all literature in the field, it would seem that an evidence based definition is yet to be provided. The KM vista could also be seen as too broad and ill defined for practitioners to extrapolate value from the field; a perspective that requires further exploration.

[Just another day and another point of view… It’s free, so take it for what it’s worth]

So, what do you think?

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This entry was posted on June 5, 2010 by in Uncategorized.
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