Knowledge Management – Closing the gap between theory and practice
1. Knowledge Management – Where do we stand?
Knowledge management (KM) has, in the meantime, been accepted and has grown since the beginning in the field of management. One finds very different approaches of corporate knowledge management such as process oriented knowledge management, theme oriented knowledge management (e.g. concentration on CRM, SCM et al.), knowledge management as synonym to organised learning or innovation management, technical oriented knowledge management (i.e. focusing on the use of information systems to support storing or distributing knowledge). The different perspectives make it considerably harder to measure resp. evaluate the success of knowledge management – here understood as a cross divisional function within companies.
The feedback from management about KM in practice often brings up disappointment and reports about project failures. Besides, there are often false or unrealistic expectations towards knowledge management. Therefore scholars have started to systematically research the preconditions of success and to develop methods to analyse strengths and weaknesses. In the past, there were no doubts on the usefulness of KM activities, but in a time of tight budgets, pure argumentation is not enough. The investigation of usability and efficiency of KM activities, sometimes called performance measuring, is becoming more and more important.
From the perspective of science, knowledge management, today, is a very heterogeneous area in which ideas from different fields are integrated. According to the field of reference the subject can be technically understood (e.g. use of Wikis or information portals), seen as responsibility of personal development (e.g. promoting the exchange of knowledge through changing the organisational culture), but also reduced to the application of Data Mining and Business‑Intelligence technologies (acquiring knowledge from databases).
Until now, in traditional approaches of knowledge management, it was hardly or not at all taken into consideration that knowledge is actually necessary for all human activities. In the most cases, it is considered natural that it should be available or that its availability was assured through another agent (e.g. acquisition of employees with a particular qualification or through training of new employees). A closer look at this situation reveals that there is no clear line between what is taken for granted or where the necessary knowledge can be acquired without difficulty and the specific “knowledge” through which knowledge management could be actively steered. Consequently a deficit resp. a blind spot results in knowledge management which could be avoided through a broader view. It should be noted that knowledge management is definitely a duty of the management, and the most important requirement for success lies in the definition of clear goals and requirements, combined with pre‑determined personal responsibility. Knowledge management is then useful for the whole organisation as well as for each employee.
The number of all possibly relevant areas of knowledge, information, skills etc. naturally exceeds the possibilities of a conscious and active management. There will always be areas in a company, in which one has to trust that the co‑worker already has or will have the ability to acquire the needed knowledge. For the scholars, it is important to define the borders between knowledge and learning forms which are considered as taken for granted and the ones in which active management is required. The task of finding the borders has naturally to do with the identification of strategic relevant knowledge (or better areas of knowledge) and up to now, has not been sufficiently clarified.
The necessity of a systematic knowledge management is hardly questioned within organizations. The knowledge of companies as well as their members is considered as one of the main factors influencing the innovation capabilities and the economic performance of organizations. However it has to be repeated that it appears that organizations are often unsatisfied with their knowledge management outcomes. This may be caused by the fact that established knowledge management measurement models and established evaluation models respectively are still missing. But it may be more likely that existing approaches and instruments still need to be improved. Especially in economic hard times, which often lead to decreasing budgets, knowledge managers and CKOs respectively are confronted with a growing pressure to provide evidence that expenditures in knowledge management are justified.
2. The selected papers
How can organizations tailor, use, and extend techniques and tools from knowledge management for improving their business practices and processes?
Building upon existing work on knowledge management (KM) and organizational learning, the conference promoted interdisciplinary approaches from several disciplines. Continuing the success of the ECKM conference series since 2000, the 2011 conference held at the University of Passau on 1‑2 September 2011 provided an international communication forum bringing together academia and industry for discussing the progress made and addressing the challenges faced by continuous learning in knowledge‑intensive organizations. The programme included nine streams with more than 130 papers focusing on various areas of KM. As in the previous conferences, business applications were the most important field, but other emerging areas were also well represented. There was a good balance between the technical contributions and sociological, organisational, and psychological research. In some cases, the presentations focused on very specific aspect (from knowledge sharing to KM measurement), which also testifies that the research has started to focus on detailed problems.
This special issue is a selection of the best papers presented at the 11th edition of the European Conference on Knowledge Management (ECKM). The following papers have been selected due to their relevance for the advancement of the discipline:
2.1 Xiaoyan Bai, David White and David Sundaram: Contextual Adaptive Knowledge Visualization Environments
As an essential component of knowledge management systems, visualizations assist in creating, transferring and sharing knowledge in a wide range of contexts where knowledge workers need to explore, manage and get insights from tremendous volumes of data. Knowledge visualization context may incorporate any information in regard to the decisional problem context within which visualizations are applied, the visualization profiles of knowledge workers as well as their intended purposes. To address the contextual complexities, visualization systems to support knowledge management need to provide flexible support for the creation, manipulation, transformation and improvement of visualization solutions. With CAVE (Contextual Adaptive Visualization Environment) a flexible knowledge visualization system for better aiding knowledge creation, transfer and sharing has been designed and implemented.
2.2 Zoltán Gaál, Lajos Szabó, Nóra Obermayer‑Kovács and Anikó Csepregi: Middle Managers’ Maturity of Knowledge Sharing: Investigation of Middle Managers Working at Medium‑ and Large‑sized Enterprises
Since middle managers have an important position within the organization and play a significant role in the knowledge sharing process, the authors focus on the knowledge sharing of middle managers who work at medium and large‑sized enterprises in Hungary. A new method of how to measure middle managers’ maturity of knowledge sharing is presented. Between 2007 and 2010 an empirical survey was conducted and 400 middle managers in SMEs interviewed. The main influence factors identified are the availability among middle managers, the availability among the middle managers and their subordinates, the usefulness of knowledge among middle managers and the usefulness of knowledge among the middle managers and their subordinates.
2.3 Markus Haag and Yanqing Duan: Understanding Personal Knowledge Development in Online Learning Environments: An Instrument for Measuring Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation
The authors investigate personal knowledge development in online learning environments using the perspective of a model adapted from the SECI model. The SECI model, which was originally designed to describe organisational knowledge creation and conversion, was adapted to conceptualise personal knowledge development in online learning at the individual level (the so‑called EC‑I model). A measurement instrument based on a structural equation model has been developed and applied on data collected through an online survey, in which online learners report on their experiences of personal knowledge development in online learning environments.
2.4 Dan Paulin and Kaj Suneson: Knowledge Transfer, Knowledge Sharing and Knowledge Barriers – Three Blurry Terms in KM
As the discipline is still missing a common understanding of main terms three of them are picked up and discussed in detail, namely knowledge transfer, knowledge sharing and knowledge barriers. Knowledge transfer and knowledge sharing are sometimes used synonymously or are considered to have overlapping content. Several authors have pointed out this confusion while other authors have attempted to clarify the differences and define the terms. Knowledge barriers as a term seem to have a partly more obvious content although the borders between knowledge barriers and connecting terms, such as ‘barriers to knowledge sharing’, seem to blur discussions and views. This paper concludes by highlighting the effects on the terms when two different knowledge perspectives, knowledge as an object (or the K‑O view) and knowledge as a subjective contextual construction (or the K‑SCC view) are applied. The clarifications are supported by examples from companies in different industries.
2.5 Virginia Maracine, Luca Iandoli, Emil Scarlat and Adriana Sarah Nica: Knowledge use and Sharing into a Medical Community of Practice; the Role of Virtual Agents (Knowbots)
The article presents the results of a research project aiming to capture the changes that a medical organization specialized in rehabilitation (the National Institute of Rehabilitation and Physical Medicine from Bucharest, Romania ‑ INRMFB) has to undertake for converting its classical structure into a new, knowledge‑oriented one. This transition generates new issues in knowledge creation and sharing processes, related to the particularities of the new organizational forms. The methodological basis is a Social Network Analysis (SNA). The critical aspects and areas of improvements (e.g. knowledge needs, knowledge bottlenecks, structural determinants of inefficiency or of poor performance) where identified and the functional specifications defined.
2.6 Ciara Heavin and Frederic Adam: Characterising the Knowledge Approach of a Firm: An Investigation of Knowledge Activities in Five Software SMEs
An organisation’s ability to successfully compete in a changing market place is depending from its ability to manage what it knows. Sometimes it is argued that due to their size, knowledge management (KM) is not a concern for smaller organisations. As we can see this is not true in the current economic situation. Therefore a study was carried out in order to classify the knowledge activities (KAs) of a Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in terms of the type and extent to which knowledge is managed. The output from this study provides insight into how SMEs are motivated to deal with knowledge as a mean of achieving their organisational objectives.
2.7 Jan Pawlowski and Markus Bick: The Global Knowledge Management Framework: Towards a Theory for Knowledge Management in Globally Distributed Settings
This article introduces the Global Knowledge Management Framework (GKMF) which describes components and influence factors of knowledge management in globally distributed settings. The framework identifies the key aspects when designing knowledge management processes and systems and can be used for two main purposes. On the one hand, it guides development processes by providing a solution space and success factors for decision makers as well as implementers. On the other hand, it is a reference for researchers to compare research in the field by providing a common set of context descriptions as well as aspects influencing the success of knowledge management solutions. The application of the framework is demonstrated in two scenarios.
3. Signals from the 11th ECKM: KM on the way to a cumulative research tradition
Going back to the introductory statements and linking them to the main results from the conference, several questions arise. Are we focusing the essential aspects? Are we taking the right measures to solve practical problems? How can we make sure that KM works at all in practice?
After more than 10 years of ECKM and more than 20 years of KM the discussion about the future of this research field already has been initiated in the editorial of a previous special issue of EJKM (Vol 8, Jan 2010) edited by Ettore Bolisani and Enrico Scarso. Three major findings where indicated which are summarized and the progress reconsidered.
- First, there may be a sort of "identity" problem. Today, many researchers and practitioners declare they work in the field of KM. But can we say that KM is a well‑defined disciplinary area in the management sciences, with established objects, boundaries, and methods? Or is it just a different way to see topics that are also considered in other areas and fields? This suspicion comes from the fact that knowledge is a pervasive term that tends to be used substantially in all the branches of management, economics, organisation science, but also psychology, sociology, computer sciences etc. …. This clearly raises a question of definition: to institutionalise KM as a discipline, the characteristics of KM, its typical research objects, methods and foundational references, should be clarified and "declared".
KM is still an open discipline and scholars still differ about the basic functions of knowledge management. There are many “schools of thoughts” or convictions which can be irritating for practitioners as one is looking for a clear solution to an existing problem. The challenge is to consolidate competing models and concepts as well as further developing them into practically usable tools. This means that a considerable demand for discussion is needed among scholars because these different basic positions don’t allow any holistic insights and lead to a confusion of results by the use of the same terminology with different meanings. A first step might be the foundation of IAKM (the International Association of KM) which has been initiated at the Passau conference and intends to raise the quality of the research outcome as well as a common definition of the basics. At the moment, unfortunately, the wheel is reinvented too often.
- What are the scientific approaches that are the most appropriate to study KM? And is this question relevant, or useless? As our small selection of papers clearly demonstrates, diverging methods are often used by different researchers, which clearly reflect the broad coverage of KM topics. Case‑studies and surveys are still important for those that study organisational or sociological aspects, while mathematical and logical approaches (including semantics and ontologies) are especially used by people that study computer applications applied to KM. …. This is clearly a rich toolbox, but in our opinion, the question is not just to identify the "most appropriate" method out of these, but rather to reflect on the comparative usefulness and applicability of each of them to the various research situations and objects. This is directly connected with the particular interpretation of the notion of "knowledge" that each study adopts.
The whole field of information systems research had an intensive discussion of rigor vs. relevance as the guiding research principle. What was seen as contradictory in the beginning is meanwhile no longer in contrast to each other. As we know, the use of formal models is often the reason for a contrast between the "hard" sciences (mostly based on mathematical models) and the human and social sciences that deal with more elusive and ambiguous objects. In the case of KM, things are more complicated because this is by nature a multidisciplinary field, where researchers pick their methods and research objects from different disciplines and areas. Despite of the complexity which has to be considered there is no doubt about the need of a sound research design and suitable research methods on a high level. Both are still missing in many studies and publications which reduces the acceptance and the value of the results within the scientific community. In addition to that longitudinal studies would be valuable in order to find out if the situation or assumptions change over time.
- A third question is particularly relevant for practitioners. Is KM really becoming an established component of the managerial practice?
Knowledge management is a rather new and fast developing scientific discipline, which originally came out of the real needs of companies to properly manage knowledge assets as unique value‑adding economic resource in high‑volatile technology‑enabled global environment. KM is intended to support enterprises to acquire and communicate knowledge among employees, to preserve the knowledge of key employees, to handle information overload and (re‑) gain competitive advantages. The feedback from companies on the one hand shows that KM meanwhile is well established but on the other hand a clear and accountable contribution to the success of a business is missing. It is evidenced by several studies that there is no doubt about the importance of systematic KM activities but also that most managers are highly unsatisfied with the contribution so far.
This critical review two years after the reflection by Ettore Bolisani and Enrico Scarso shows that the discipline faces major challenges on its way to an acknowledged discipline. A few more topics have been identified in the meantime which are prolonging the list. Especially SMEs which have to cope with a lack of financial resources are increasingly dependent of knowledge, skills and commitment of each individual employee. KM provides systematic models, procedures and instruments to cope with change but most of them apply only to bigger companies. The peculiarities of KM in SMEs need to be investigated more intensive. This is important, since these peculiarities imply a different way of managing knowledge compared to the demands of large enterprises. A challenge is furthermore the management of knowledge flows across the boundaries of companies including global knowledge management (ie. KM within globally acting companies). There is also an abundance of instruments to perform a valid diagnosis of KM activities within companies. Also the question remains of the usefulness of the existing instruments and the results they yield, e.g. whether the results could be used to outline or guide the way of shaping KM by proposing solutions or instruments. It is at least from a scientific point of view questionable, whether the usefulness of most of the instruments is overridden by the efforts of its utilization or not.
At the first glance this critical remarks can be seen rather pessimistic but a closer look at scientific progress shows a similar begin and similar problems in most new fields. The unsolved problems are stimulating and encouraging especially for younger scholars and open a wide field for engagement. Two recommendations as a result from the discussions during the conference could guide the next years of research efforts:
- Firstly, contributing to a cumulative research tradition by grounding the research activities on sound theories and commonly accepted research methods
- and secondly, investing in the empirical validation of (the numerous existing) models and methods not in the creation of new ones!
University of Passau