By Nouha Taifi
In today's economy, knowledge management has moved from being one of the resources of competitive advantage to being the most important resource. All attention has been turned toward knowledge and methods to manage it. Nonaka (1991) states that knowledge and its strategic use is one sure source of sustained competitive advantage for organizations. Thus, the processes used to retain and transfer knowledge is becoming the main objective of organizations. For that, knowledge management systems are created based on organizational needs in order to efficiently create and share knowledge.
However, few knowledge management systems have been able to deal with the human capital. The reason for that is two-fold; there are various definitions of knowledge and so what constitutes exactly knowledge management. At this point, many knowledge management (KM) practitioners have stated the weak capacity of the knowledge management systems (KMSs) in managing tacit knowledge. Yet, some made research trying to find solutions to the externalization of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge refers to the knowledge that cannot be easily articulated and thus only exists in people's hands and minds. This was first mentioned by Polanyi (1966) who created this interest for tacit knowledge.
The introduction of information and communication technologies (ICTs) improved a bit the tacit knowledge management. Some KM practitioners stated the great contribution of ICTs-driven KMSs in externalizing tacit knowledge (Cohen and Bacdayan, 1994; Scott, 1998). Others concluded the useless function of these KMSs, even the negative effect of them on tacit knowledge management attempts (Blackler, 1995; Hansen et al., 1999). Those two opposite point of views concerning the effectiveness of the ICTs-driven KMSs in externalizing tacit knowledge urges the need to present the real role played by those KMSs in externalizing tacit knowledge.
Knowledge and its Management:
Most organizations are nowadays realizing that knowledge management (KM) is one of the key success factors in today's economy, and all are moving toward the knowledge-based economy. All the KM view practitioners are aware that their success depends on the way they use their knowledge in order to get competitive advantage and create new knowledge. Various organizations strive for continuous innovation and for that KM plays a key role in differentiating one organization from the other.
One of the most relevant discussions about knowledge management was made by Nonaka (1991) and Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) when they showed how the Japanese companies were and are still -after 10 years- able to develop fast and to innovate in the new product development. Their success was mainly the result of their capacities to transfer and share the tacit and explicit knowledge across their organizations. It is important to mention that one of the firsts to distinguish between tacit and explicit knowledge was Polanyi (1966) when saying that `We can know more than we can tell´.
Also, Davenport and Prusak (1998) defined KM as a process for the collection, distribution and efficient use of the knowledge resource. At that time, the slogan 'efficient use of knowledge' was already used showing the new emerging trend and interest for KM. In fact, even before that, Drucker (1993) stated that in order to meet market challenges, a company has to be prepared to create efficient means to manage its knowledge and create new one according to its performance needs.
Knowledge has been defined in a variety of ways depending on the context. An interesting definition by Beckman (1997) was that knowledge is reasoning about information to actively guide task execution, problem-solving and decision making in order to perform, learn and teach. Also, Wiig (1993) stated that knowledge consists of truths and beliefs, perspectives and concepts, judgments and expectations, methodologies and 'know-how'.
Knowledge, this mixture of information, experience, skills and capacities is not only located in documents, journals or books, but above all in people's minds. It is important to understand that the primary sources of the tangible knowledge repositories are the human brains that are thinking and questioning. The human capital, as we call it, comprises the most important knowledge of all times which is the tacit knowledge. This knowledge is the know-how, and skills hidden in each individual- described as the knower. In order to manage the tacit knowledge, all interest is toward the knower- the individual carrying this knowledge. This focus has created a knower-centered (K-C) view for the KM experts.
The knower-centered approach considers the humans as the principle source of knowledge. The main issue concerning the K-C practitioners is to manage not only the explicit but also the tacit knowledge belonging to individuals. For that, recently, a new function has been created - the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO), this person dealing with knowledge. Drucker (1993) first mentioned the knowledge worker or CKO-as named today. He defined this person as a knowledge executive who knows how to allocate knowledge to productive use, and also as a strategic person that any organization must raise in order to meet the competitive goals.
Also, Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) said that knowledge practitioners generate and accumulate both tacit and explicit knowledge. And that the quality of their knowledge accumulated depend mainly on the quality of their direct day-to-day business experiences. Again, according to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), the CKO groups that are more linked to tacit knowledge are the 'knowledge operators'; they accumulate and generate rich tacit knowledge in the form of experience-based embodied skills.
In fact, experience, as mentioned before, is one of the most relevant types of tacit knowledge. Experience is building personal skills and the best one able to deal with that is the knowledge worker. As Davenport and Prusak (1998) said, this person can then try to transfer as much knowledge as possible to someone through mentoring or apprenticeship, so that important tacit knowledge is not wholly concentrated in one person.
However, tacit knowledge was named so for specific reasons. We should keep in mind that tacit knowledge is this knowledge difficult to codify. Polanyi (1966) defines tacit knowledge as personal, context-specific and, not easily visible and expressible -nor easy to formalize and communicate to others. More recently, Grant (1996) explained that it is this tacitness precisely that makes tacit knowledge difficult to imitate or to import from one organization to another and therefore this makes it an important organizational resource for securing competitive advantage.
Besides, since an efficient tacit knowledge management provide an organization with a competitive advantage, it is important to give it the right definition. New KM approaches have appeared trying to deal with tacit knowledge. Hansen et al. (1999) distinguished between two different types of strategies depending on the tacit and explicit knowledge focus. Respectively, at the core of the codification strategy is the conversion of individual knowledge to organizational knowledge through the use of databases. And the personalization strategy instead stresses the tacit and contextual aspects of knowledge and experience, relying on the transfer of individuals between different teams. Then, the KM approach accordingly, related to tacit knowledge, calls for the creation of groups or networks that will share knowledge.
Wenger (1998) defines those formed groups of workers as the communities of practice. He studied how the know-how was shared among workers in large organizations showing that mostly information was exchanged in informal meetings. A community of practice is different from a team; it is defined by knowledge rather than by task. More recently, many examples of communities of practice have been created in organizations, but have different names. Gongla and Rizzuto (2001) mentioned some of them such as 'learning communities' at Hewlett-Packard Company, 'thematic groups' at the World Bank, 'peer groups' at British Petroleum, and 'knowledge networks' at IBM Global Services.
Information Communication Technologies and Knowledge Management Systems:
Knowledge sharing and creation- the aim of all communities of practice, has been recently boosted by the introduction of the information and communication technologies (ICTs) in order to allow more information handling. It has established itself as an important tool for communication and information exchange between people. Some authors even seem to equate knowledge management with the introduction of specific ICTs applications like intranets, and groupware. The role of ICTs in knowledge management is once again to extract, and codify knowledge, whether it is explicit or implicit knowledge. As Malhotra (2000) said, knowledge management embodies organizational processes that seek synergistic combination of data and information-processing, capacity information technologies, and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings.
The supportive role of ICTs for tacit knowledge management has been discussed by many KM practitioners. Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) described two modes of organizational knowledge creation related to the transfer and sharing of tacit knowledge; socialization referring to the transfer of individual tacit knowledge to organizational tacit knowledge, and externalization which is converting tacit knowledge based on experience to objective explicit knowledge. In fact, those two modes of dealing with tacit knowledge are supported by ICTs; Scott (1998) stated that to facilitate socialization, virtual teams use visual cues (signals) from observation and rich media such as animation, graphics, audio, video-conferencing, the chat feature of the internet, and virtual reality. Before that, Cohen and Bacdayan (1994) mentioned that the multimedia capabilities of the intranet, such as video clips, demonstrate organizational procedures that cannot be easily communicated or when language barriers exist. Concerning the mode of externalization, the transfer difficulty of 'sticky' tacit knowledge- as named by Von Hippel (1994) is mainly due to the unknown rules of expertise, which means that there are no specific methods to externalize tacit knowledge. This author also stated that iterative prototyping has been used successfully to externalize 'sticky' user requirements, since as mentioned more recently by Ba et al. (1997), animation, video clips, virtual reality and other technologies enhance presentation of prototypes on the intranet. Also, Scott (1998) identified the hyperlinking capability as a mean of reducing cognitive overload and capturing tacit knowledge. Hyperlinking encourages context sharing which enables tacit knowledge dimension to be communicated via the emergence of explicit relationships, according to Gundry and Metes (1996).
Whereas Davenport and Prusak (1998) stated that the technology cannot make organizations more 'knowledgeable'. In the sense that, the ICTs-driven KM approaches stress only the codifiable, explicit aspects of knowledge while ignoring the tacit aspects (Blackler, 1995). In fact, Hansen et al. (1999) mentioned that if an organization KM strategy is aimed at personalization- bringing people together for the purpose of exchanging tacit knowledge, investing in ICTs would not be advantageous. Thus, the importance of tacit knowledge for knowledge creation is determining the value and limitations of the ICTs since its basic goal is supposed to be the articulation of knowledge.
The other issue concerning the emergence of ICTs-driven KM approaches is that the focus on explicit knowledge management could leave no place for the tacit knowledge to be produced. This is a very recent concept mentioned by Clergeau (2005) while she focused her study on the role of ICTs in information exchange at three call centers. In fact, the ICTs-based Taylorim- as she named it- codifies intensively knowledge leaving no space for individuals, inside an organization, to create and share their tacit knowledge. As the journalist Sydney J. Harris said: 'real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers'. At that level, the knowledge and individual experience of workers are no more considered as unique and the organization does not promote learning. This issue is also due to the non-awareness of the top and middle class organization management of the importance of the tacit knowledge. In fact, KMSs are manipulated by people and some practitioners do not attach the right value to tacit knowledge. Some even think that it is not necessary to externalize knowledge, though, to share it with others. Thus, some think that it would be better to look for complementarities rather than sharing their own knowledge.
To conclude, all those factors demonstrate the importance of an adequate atmosphere for the act of knowledge sharing. Davenport and Prusak (1997) stated that the creation and testing of knowledge is a social activity and, as such, requires environments that provide extensive opportunities for communication and experimentation. So, since the social activity- tacit knowledge - requires an adequate environment in order to be efficiently created and shared, it is interesting to see if knowledge management systems (KMS) based on ICTs are the right environment for such knowledge management. Clearly, this urges the need for discovering the adequate KMSs for tacit knowledge management.
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