Knowledge management

Knowledge management can be like fitting the pieces of a jig-saw together

A good question to ask your prospective employer at interview might be; How does the company manage its knowledge?

In return, a good question that employers could ask potential employees might be; Tell me about a time when you shared your knowledge with colleagues?

By definition, knowledge management refers to the way in which an organisation captures, stores, manages and shares the knowledge that exists amongst its employees.  The term knowledge management is also used to describe the planned and structured approach an organisation may use to enhance its capabilities. This can include designing and implementing tools, processes, systems, structures and cultures to improve the creation, sharing and use of knowledge throughout the organisation. Those of us who have worked with people who have been intent on keeping their knowledge to themselves know how difficult it can be to extract that knowledge, experience and expertise to create new capabilities and opportunities for the organisation.

Knowledge sharing is vital to the long-term sustainability of any organisation.

The two types of knowledge concerned are Tacit and Explicit; tacit knowledge refers to an individual’s “know how” in performing tasks which just comes naturally, is intuitive and is often hard to define.  Explicit knowledge on the other hand, can be written down in manuals and easily communicated to others.  For example, explicit knowledge might relate to a recipe for making a cake using a list of ingredients and specific quantities. Knowing how long to beat the eggs and butter, to get the mix “just right”, is a perfect example of tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is often gained through “learning by doing” and is an important source of relevant information that organisations should really try to extract and convert into explicit knowledge. Formal and methodical in nature, explicit knowledge is easier to capture and share – often in the form of written instructions or specifications.  Sharing explicit knowledge can be achieved through organisational manuals, a knowledge database or intranet, to name but a few examples.

Extracting tacit knowledge and turning it into explicit knowledge can be difficult. Tacit knowledge is first learnt by watching others perform a task and then copying them. This process is often referred to as “social learning” or “socialisation”. The next step would be to articulate the newly acquired tacit knowledge to team members and colleagues. Converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge may then be achieved by incorporating the newly learned processes into an instruction manual. This knowledge sharing process often throws up some surprising advantages. As new eyes and brains put to work newly acquired explicit knowledge, refinements and subtle improvements can be added to broaden the tacit knowledge of everyone. From there the whole cycle can be started again – although on a higher level. This is often described as “Business Process Re-engineering”

Most IT people enjoy sharing knowledge with their peers as it makes them feel involved in the team and as contributors to the overall sustainability of the organisation. In return, they learn from those around them and many associate this process with the term “teamwork”. Other motivating factors for knowledge sharing include compensation although this can be counter productive as some people become reliant on rewards to share their knowledge and will not do so unless they are duly compensated.  Compensation may be in the form of financial reward or just positive feedback from managers and colleagues.

It has been shown that organisational culture plays a large part in the desire for employees to share knowledge. Thousands of MTR interviews indicate that employees tend to respond well to a non-autocratic style of management – aligned with open communication in both directions. Senior managers, who create and promote an environment which encourages knowledge sharing, eventually see this become the norm. Entrenched knowledge sharing creates a flow-on effect as employees collaborate towards achieving a common goal.  Embedding knowledge sharing in the strategic goals and visions of the company keeps it at the forefront of all employees’ minds.

How an employee feels about the organisation they work for is important in assessing their desire and willingness to share knowledge.  If employees form a strong connection with the organisation, through sharing the same values, they tend to form an emotional attachment.  This is known as Affective Commitment.  It has been suggested that affective commitment leads to job satisfaction and encourages employee retention. It has also been suggested that this leads to more productive employees.  It has been found that employees who identify with the organisation are more willing to share their tacit knowledge. Affective commitment also seems to produce a strong sense of collective identity among staff. This in turn leads to more pro-active sharing of knowledge between team members, leading to a more productive organisation.