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Vol. 26, No. 2

December / January 2000

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Annual Meeting Coverage

Track 5:

Social, Behavioral, Cultural and Ethical Factors, Part 2


by Janice Keeler

All of the tracks in the 1999 ASIS Annual Meeting pertain to knowledge management in organizations. In this track the focus is on social, behavioral, cultural and ethical factors.

Consulting firms and other organizations with large concentrations of "knowledge workers," such as those in the pharmaceutical industry, have been at the forefront of efforts to create, capture, organize, disseminate and reuse knowledge in systematic ways.

Andersen Consulting uses the following definition: "Knowledge Management is the engine that transforms ideas into business value. It is a systematic process for creating, acquiring, synthesizing, sharing and using information, insights and experiences to achieve organizational goals."

The goal is to share both explicit knowledge (which can be captured as information in databases) and tacit knowledge (knowledge in people's heads that is difficult or impossible to reduce to writing). Key challenges in knowledge management include providing links between people as well as databases and encouraging people to make tacit knowledge more explicit so that it can be shared.

Knowledge Management at the Organizational Level

Knowledge management requires a "knowledge sharing" culture to be successful. In organizations that reward only individual achievement and competition, people are rewarded for their personal knowledge and have no incentive to share it. In a knowledge-sharing culture, people can be rewarded for individual achievements, but are also recognized and rewarded for their knowledge sharing and contributions to team efforts. Key organizational characteristics of a knowledge sharing culture include the following:

  • top leadership sees knowledge as a strategic asset and provides incentives and support for knowledge management processes;
  • the organization focuses on development and exploitation of knowledge capital;
  • standard processes and tools for managing knowledge capital are defined;
  • knowledge creation, contribution and use are a natural and recognized part of business processes, not separate from normal work processes;
  • groups within the organization cooperate instead of compete with each other;
  • knowledge is made accessible to everyone who can contribute to it or use it;
  • rewards and performance evaluations specifically recognize contributions and use of the store of knowledge capital; and
  • communications channels and a common technology infrastructure enable and enhance knowledge management activities.

Knowledge management programs must address a number of ethical issues. They must protect confidential or client information. They must comply with copyright and intellectual property laws and contracts. They must take a stance on the purpose and desirability of management monitoring of e-mail or discussion databases. Policies related to these ethical issues must be communicated to people in the organization. Individuals must understand and comply with these policies.

Additional cultural issues arise if the organization is global. Different cultures have different views about knowledge sharing, different work processes and different views of teamwork versus individual work. A global knowledge management program must be sensitive to these differences and encourage everybody in the global organization to participate in the knowledge management processes. On a more concrete level, decisions must be made about how to handle multiple languages.

Knowledge Management at the Group Level

Knowledge management programs are often designed around the concept of "communities of practice." These communities serve as a "virtual club," or support group, where employees around the organization are united through common skills, interests or responsibilities. Virtual communities cross departmental or geographic boundaries. Members are connected through common business needs to share ideas, solve problems and identify and improve best practices. Employees may join more than one community of practice. Communities foster the interpersonal connections that allow people to explore new ideas and share experiences, whether through in-person meetings, discussion databases or other types of interactions.

Knowledge Management and Individual Behavior

If knowledge management is new to a group or organization, it requires changes in individual behavior. Individuals must be encouraged to incorporate knowledge management activities into their daily routines. When they have questions, they should search existing knowledge bases for relevant material, then perhaps post questions in discussion databases or call experts for guidance. They must be given incentives to contribute to the knowledge bases and be equally encouraged to use them. One of the biggest changes may be the chance to participate in one or more communities of practice or virtual teams, where they can share ideas and experiences with people outside their immediate work group.

Knowledge Management Is Broader Than Information Management

Knowledge management requires the skills and tools of information management to deal with the explicit information in the organization. It also requires skills, processes and tools to create a knowledge-sharing culture and link people to facilitate sharing tacit knowledge. Knowledge management explicitly encourages the creation of new knowledge and the systematic documentation of whatever knowledge can be made explicit.

The team managing a knowledge management program must have professional skills from a variety of disciplines, not just information management. Karl Wiig [Knowledge Management Methods: Practical Approaches to Managing Knowledge, Schema Press, 1995, p. 17] lists 16 areas of proficiency required by knowledge management teams, ranging from information management skills to proficiencies in organization design, change management and project management. Knowledge management teams typically include information professionals, technology specialists, management representatives who know the business and the organization's goals, subject matter experts who have a deep knowledge of the content and processes of the subject area, business process experts and change management specialists.

Resources Providing Overview of KM in Organizations

Davenport, Thomas H. and Prusak, Laurence. Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1998. ISBN 0-87-54655-6 (alk. Paper)

Liebowitz, Jay, ed. Knowledge Management Handbook. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8493-0238-2

Nonaka, I. and H. Takeuchi, The Knowledge-Creating Company. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995. ISBN 0-19-509269-4.

Wiig, Karl. Knowledge Management Trilogy. Arlington, Tex.: Schema Press, 1993-1995. ISBN 0-9638925-3-3.

v. 1. Knowledge Management Foundations: Thinking about Thinking How People and Organizations Create, Represent and Use Knowledge, 1993. ISBN 0-96-38925-0-9

v.2. Knowledge Management: The Central Management Focus for Intelligent-acting Organizations, 1994. ISBN 0-9638925-1-7.

v.3. Knowledge Management Methods: Practical Approaches to Managing Knowledge, 1995. ISBN 0-9638925-2-5.

Index and chapter reviews available at .http://www.krii.com/schema_press.htm.

Janice Keeler joined Andersen Consulting in 1993 after starting and managing information centers for two other professional services firms. For the past three years she has been part of Andersen Consulting's Global Knowledge Management team. She was a member of the Program Committee for the 1999 ASIS Annual Meeting. She can be reached by mail at 3773 Willow Rd., Northbrook, IL 60062-6212; by phone at 847/714-2369; or by e-mail at janice.s.keeler@ac.com.


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