1. THE HISTORY OF KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
1.1 DEFINING KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
KM has always been the talk of the town concerning the significance of words. Professionals and academics cannot write about KM without briefly explaining what knowledge implies and, as a result, many articles cover different definitions. These definitions are being formulated by the professionals and academics working in the field from psychology to history to sociology to economy. All these different insights indicate the complexity of what knowledge is and how knowledge can be managed.
Since the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century, knowledge is dictating human activity. On one hand, academics were concerned with the discovery and promotion of useful knowledge, and, on the other hand, professionals transferred knowledge to the apprentice (Boisot, 2002). For that reason, Call (2005) stresses that KM in the organisational context is not rocket science. However, if people were already aware of the significance of exploring and exploiting knowledge, why are contemporary organisations so interested in KM?
After Polanyi (1958, 1967) suggested that there are two types of knowledge, explicit and tacit knowledge, KM received great interests from organisations. Furthermore, at the same time, the traditional economy moved to a post-industrial economy which is widely referred to as the new economy (Bell, 1976). Within this new economy, organisations recognise “the fundamental economic changes resulting from the acceleration in the accumulation and availability of knowledge” (Grant, 2002; p. 134), where knowledge is seen as a new factor of production (Drucker, 1993) – focussing on intangibles rather than tangibles (Stewart, 1997) – which results in a predominance of services over goods (Grant, 2002). Thereupon, tacit and explicit knowledge have become the pivot of KM and they are currently operating as the backbone of the discipline. However, these two types of knowledge are being used in popularised ways. For instance, the United Nations (2005; p. xvi) points out that “tacit knowledge is information combined with experience, context, interpretation and judgment [and] explicit knowledge (information) ... is codified in formal, systemic language”. This definition is a good example of “sloppy thinking on the subject of knowledge” (Boisot, 2002; p. 67) because knowledge, information and data are used interchangeably. A better definition for explicit and tacit knowledge is outlined by Nonaka (1998; p. 33):
EXPLICIT KNOWLEDGE CAN BE ARTICULATED AND EASILY COMMUNICATED BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANISATIONS. TACIT KNOWLEDGE (SKILLS, KNOW-HOW, AND CONTEXTUAL KNOWLEDGE) IS MANIFESTED ONLY IN ITS APPLICATION – TRANSFERRING IT FROM ONE INDIVIDUAL TO ANOTHER IS COSTLY AND SLOW
Organisations have widely started to embrace KM in the beginning of the 1990s. This was particularly a result of the new economy that exhibits, according to Grant (2002; p. 134), several characteristics, like the “[new economy] is more networked” and “subject to rapid change”. Particularly due to the rapid change, organisations are sensing an “absence of the data or information necessary to make an informed judgment” (Spender, 2002; p. 154) concerning a new problem or opportunity. Such an absence creates uncertainty and new knowledge is required.
1.2 POST-INDUSTRIAL GENERATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) introduced the first generation of KM in organisations by arguing that tacit knowledge could be transferred to explicit knowledge through the four processes of socialisation, externalisation, combination, and internationalisation, also referred to as the SECI model. However, the degree of transfer from tacit to explicit knowledge depended on the necessity; “it did not follow that all of the knowledge in the ... heads and conversations had, should or could have been made explicit” (Snowden, 2002; p. 103). In a period in which computer technology was seen as the solution to every organisational problem, organisations also started implementing computer technologies for capturing and codifying all of the knowledge of staff members. The aim of this strategy was to change knowledge from an organisational liability to an organisational asset (Dufour and Steane, 2007). In this respect, McElroy (2003; p. 71) stresses that “first generation KM assumes that current knowledge is valid and the goal of such approach is to optimise the delivery of existing organisational knowledge to staff members”, so that they can function successfully in organisational processes. This is why technology has played such a dominant role in KM to date. Consequently, consulting firms and software developers jumped into the market of total KM and the discipline took off as a technical solution.
However, in the late 1990s it became clear that the technical approach of KM failed to show its value. Organisations had spent a large amount of money on setting up the technology to capture and codify knowledge, but unfortunately – in most cases – the technology was not being used. Hence, KM had neglected the social-cultural factors. Subsequently, critical case-studies were published which showed that “human, social, and cultural factors are typically key determinants of the success or failure of KM initiatives” (Hislop, 2005; p. 44). Consequently, KM moved to a second generation by emphasising on OL. OL is about improving and developing “knowledgeability” (Hislop, 2005; p. 44) where individuals, groups and organisations are changing ideas, values, and / or behaviours through a change or transformation in understanding. In this respect, Stacey (2001; p. 94) argues that “knowledge is not a thing, or a system, but an ephemeral, active process of relating in which you cannot manage it”. With this idea no one is able to manage knowledge. This approach is the extreme opposite of capturing and codifying all knowledge through computer technology. However, these extremes have resulted in the recognition that organisations “must become better at learning if they are to succeed” (Bennet and Shane Tomblin, 2006; p. 294) in KM.
1.3 THE CURRENT TREND OF KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
Currently, all the changes in KM generations have resulted in a focus on context and narrative, rather than only on content. Polanyi (1958, 1967) argues that we only know what we know, when we need to know it. Hence, “human knowledge is deeply contextual” and tend to focus on the thing contained, rather than the container (Snowden, 2002; p. 105).
This development emphasises on how organisations should learn. Andersen (2000) argues that the reliance on centralised strategic planning process is insufficient. The strategy process evolves around ongoing learning from the actions taken by managers in different parts or units of the organisation. Nicolas (2004; p. 21) stresses that “in this paradigm, strategy is formed over time as shared cognition developed among managers who enact the organisation’s strategic moves”. Similar is the assumption that OL is a process which goal is to improve the development of the organisation by means of new initiatives. This requires a “new move from simply putting more knowledge into databases to levering the many ways that knowledge can migrate into an organization and impact business performance” (Pérez López et al., 2005; p. 228).