Articles of Interest

30 Nov 2015

Knowledge Management

Knowledge Management

User – friendly accessible information has a significant impact on people’s performance on the job. A recent review also highlighted the distinction between information/explicit knowledge and personal/ implicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is much easier to collect, store and access than tacit or implicit knowledge. The latter can be shared more effectively through inter-personal interaction and learning experiences. The purpose of this paper is to prompt an examination of the performance improvement opportunities associated with more effective knowledge management.

Any knowledge storage system is a snapshot of the creator’s knowledge at the time and is reliant on regular updates to maintain currency. It also tends to be configured by the creator rather than the user.

People need to determine what knowledge should be acquired, stored and made accessible and they need to deal with explicit and tacit knowledge in distinctly different ways. Any organisation’s knowledge management approach has significant impact on the effectiveness of learning and development.

Knowledge management works best when the users are involved in the design and configuration of storage and retrieval systems. While IS/IT groups work with platforms and architecture, entrusting design and usability to them is akin to entrusting the design of a public building to the timber supplier and builder.

A knowledge management framework needs to address the following aspects:

  • Acquisition and creation of knowledge
  • Storage and organization of explicit knowledge
  • Distribution of knowledge
  • Application of knowledge
  • Extraction and performance using knowledge
  • Sharing tacit knowledge

The key challenge facing organisations is how to manage the explosion of knowledge so that individual and group performance is enhanced through applied knowledge and ultimately so that customers and stakeholders benefit.


A recent review included a finding that perhaps the biggest impact on people performance could be made through access to user – friendly information available in real time on the job. Information is that which can be recorded, stored and accessed at will.

Knowledge Management groups often refer to this as “explicit knowledge” as opposed to what only an individual knows – “implicit knowledge”.

Complexity and rapidly changing needs, particularly at the customer interface, rely on customer service people having access to accurate information in real time while interacting with the customer.

The future is likely to be one in which the customer, and any other user, will configure, and interact with, the information they personally require.

This paper describes knowledge management in a way that can be discussed using common language and then potentially applied to individual and business performance.

Types of Knowledge

Common wisdom seems to describe two main types of knowledge; explicit and tacit or implicit. This distinction came from Polanyi in “The Tacit Dimension” 1960, and was popularised by Nonaka and Takeuchi in “The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, 1995.

People seem to gain knowledge through context (experiences) and understanding. The more experiences, the more knowledge is built and inevitably the more understanding is developed. The better they understand the subject matter, the more they are able to weave past experiences (context) into new knowledge by absorbing, doing, interacting, and reflecting.

This distinction is important due to the range of actions associated with them. Generally, much emphasis has been placed on people’s “implicit knowledge”. This has led to the assumption and a range of actions in many parts of the business that people need to “know” or learn and remember vast amounts of information. This in turn has led to a proliferation of training products designed to teach people everything they need to know i.e. learn or remember. This series of assumptions is plainly erroneous. In fact, “learning” the content of a knowledge base then relying on memory of that content to answer customer enquiries, for example, cause obvious problems such as a service officer recalling out of date information that has since been updated in the knowledge base.

Explicit knowledge

Explicit knowledge (i.e. information) can be articulated into formal language, including grammatical statements (words and numbers), mathematical expressions, specifications and manuals. Explicit knowledge can be readily processed electronically, transmitted or stored in databases although without applying tacit knowledge explicit stored knowledge can be meaningless.

Tacit or implicit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is personal knowledge gained through learning, individual experience and involves intangible factors, such as personal beliefs, perspective, and values. Tacit knowledge is hard to articulate with formal language. It contains subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches.

Integration of explicit and implicit

Before tacit knowledge can be communicated, it must be converted into words, models, or numbers that can be understood by others. This represents the integration of knowledge and the very natural transition of implicit to explicit and then, when accessed by others, on to implicit. For example, the trainer applies their implicit knowledge by running a training session; the participant accesses the explicit learning activity and internalizes the experience to form their own view or new implicit knowledge.

There are at least two dimensions to tacit knowledge:

  • Technical Dimension (procedural): This encompasses the kind of informal skills often captured in the terms know-how or experience. For example, a specialist develops a wealth of expertise after years of experience. But a specialist often has difficulty articulating the technical or scientific principles of his or her area of expertise. Often, when they master the area they stop thinking consciously of the steps they are going through while performing. Highly subjective and personal insights, intuitions, hunches and inspirations derived from bodily experience fall into this dimension.
  • Cognitive Dimension: This consists of beliefs, perceptions, ideals, values, emotions, talent and mental models so ingrained in us that we take them for granted. Though it cannot be articulated very easily, this dimension of tacit knowledge can shape the way people perceive the world. Often, past and present frameworks assist us in making sense of abstract ideas.

Data is organized into information or explicit knowledge by combining it with prior knowledge and the person’s own motives. This is normally done to solve a problem or make sense of a phenomenon. For example, website statistics are chunks of data but without a context, prior knowledge and a need, the data does not represent useful knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is dynamic, that is, it is constantly changing as people receive new inputs, such as learning, feelings and experience, and as people grow with each new experience and learning opportunity.

Due to the complexity of tacit knowledge, most is not captured by documents; rather it only resides within the creator. In many cases, the knowledge is not shared – it stays within the creator, in which case the “flow of knowledge” stops.

Knowledge Management “System”

A Knowledge Management system, which may be as simple as a story or as complex as a million-dollar computer program, captures a snapshot of the creator’s knowledge. In the case of a story, the knowledge is passed onto others by means of a verbal “snapshot”. In the case of a computer program, it resides in a database that may be utilized by others. It is only a snapshot as further experiences and learning within the creator may change the knowledge, while the snapshot remains the same.

Others may make use of the snapshot by using the story or tapping into the KM system and then combining it with their prior knowledge. This in turn forms new or modified tacit knowledge. This knowledge is then applied to solve a personal or business need, or explain a phenomenon.

Depending upon the KM system and the novelty of the situation, a snapshot of this new knowledge may or may not be entered into the system. The information has changed but the snapshot of the knowledge in the KM system has not. This inherent flaw can mean that users mistrust KM systems. Other factors that impact on the effectiveness of KM systems include:

  • The most valuable employees often have the greatest disdain for knowledge management. Curators can badger these employees to enter what they know into the system, even though few people will ever use the information.
  • The managers of these systems often know a lot about technology, but little about how people actually use knowledge on the job.
  • Tacit knowledge is extremely difficult to capture into these systems, yet it is often more critical to task performance than explicit knowledge.
  • Knowledge is of little use (at least to most organizations) unless it is turned into products, services, innovations, or improvements.
  • Knowledge management systems work best when the people who generate the knowledge are the same people who store it, explain it to others, and coach them as they try to implement it. These systems must be managed by the people who are implementing what is known, not those who understand information systems and technology.

Younger generation employees are fluent exponents of knowledge management and user owned and configured, intuitive and collaborative media. They expect to be able to pull knowledge in a variety of forms for their immediate use. They tend not to react as well to knowledge being pushed at them. Social networking sites come closest to this form of medium. This represents a subtle yet significant shift in how knowledge management will be considered. For example, Google Wave is “a personal communication and collaboration tool” and is a taste of what the future holds. It is a web based computing platform that will merge e-mail, instant messaging, wiki and social networking in real time.

Knowledge Management Framework

A knowledge management framework needs to include the following aspects for both tacit and explicit knowledge:

  • Acquisition and creation
  • Storage and organization
  • Distribution
  • Application
  • Extraction and performance
  • Sharing

Knowledge Acquisition and Creation

Knowledge acquisition is the gathering of knowledge. Gathering all organizational knowledge is an impossible task so determining what needs to be gathered is vital. Also, while it may be tempting to try to store personal or tacit knowledge, the value in these “war stories” or “memoirs” is largely in the telling and discourse rather than any direct application on the job, as it is the telling that helps people to make sense of the current situation. However, both tacit and explicit knowledge may well be developed as a result of these interactions. For example, the project life cycle may include a brainstorm session at the outset in order to tap into tacit knowledge and then develop an explicit scope of work.

Another example is that an organization may have offices scattered around the country and may find that an enormous amount of its knowledge is tied up in emails. So, it may be useful to implement a system that allows strategically important email to be saved in a data repository that can be called upon by others when needed.

Artifacts derived from knowledge creation are facts, concepts, processes, procedures, and principles. These, in turn, are used to help create knowledge in others. So, the artifacts themselves will be able to be stored in computers, but are not knowledge themselves, although they can be used in the generation / formation of new knowledge.

Knowledge Storage and Organisation

Much explicit knowledge is still stored in paper based documents, such as books and manuals. However, this makes it hard to update, distribute and access. Paper based storage systems also lack dynamic storage and search systems. For example, an individual’s work space and day to day resources can be categorized in a number of ways to suit his or her needs, while a manual is generally organized by chapters (the search engine is the table of contents) and key words (the search engine is the index).

Knowledge bases are the modern equivalent of a library of manuals. They tend to be more aligned to the achievement of set tasks but are still configured by the creator rather than the user. It will be useful to consider storage and organization from a user’s perspective.

Knowledge Distribution

A mechanism, such as an intranet or internet, allows the stored knowledge in the repository to be quickly disseminated throughout an organization. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of ethernet technology, has a law named after him — Metcalfe’s Law, “the asset value of a computer network increases exponentially as each new node (individual user) is added to it.” This is because each new user brings along a wealth of new linkages and resources, so the total network value grows far richer than the mere sum of its parts. This is what gives the Internet its power. Gilder’s Law – the total bandwidth of communication systems will triple every 12 months – describes a decline in the unit cost of the net, which in turn allows more information to be distributed over the net. The key change in knowledge distribution is the extent to which users configure and pull knowledge rather than have it pushed to them.

Knowledge Application

 This is the actual use of the knowledge and is generally measured by its effectiveness and usefulness. It is knowledge that is simply relayed rather than enhanced. Thus, if bad information is going in, incorrect knowledge and understanding will be created by users when they use it in their interactions. In most instances, the users and the knowledge drivers should be one and the same, that is, the users not only withdraw the information, but they could also input the information. To insure that good information goes in, it is vital to involve the users from day one in the planning, design, and building of the system. It needs to mimic the way the users perform their tasks. If they find it clumsy and hard to use, they will not use it. This form of knowledge is most readily provided via electronic media for users.

Knowledge Extraction and Performance

Unlike knowledge application, this aspect should result in enhanced benefits to the individual, and ultimately, the organization. For each benefit, different approaches can be used. This table shows approaches suitable for improving performance by extracting and applying knowledge. For example, if an organization needs knowledge to be applied to innovation, brain – storming is a useful approach.




Problem solve





Importantly, knowledge can serve as a context for the assessment of performance such as a customer interaction, which in turn, allows the observer to act. To determine whether performance is appropriate, an observer has to “attach meaning to it,” i.e. to perceive and interpret it. Once perceived and interpreted the observer may evaluate whether the performance is appropriate and whether action is required.

And secondly, the role of knowledge in generating appropriate actions is that it serves as a background for articulating possible courses of action, for judging whether courses of action will yield the intended result and for using this judgment in selecting among them, for deciding how actions should be implemented and for actually implementing actions, as well as for making adjustments during the course of the action.

The knowledge background required for sound judgment tends to be developed over time as a result of many experiences and, while applying explicit “bites” of information, is largely tacit.

Knowledge Sharing

Knowledge sharing in organizations is often achieved through one on one or group interactions. While explicit knowledge creators in organizations may hope that their content is applied as intended, without the sense making of interaction, knowledge can be ignored, misinterpreted or applied inappropriately.

There are a number of ways that knowledge is shared. In general, they include:

  • From tacit to tacit — Sharing experiences to create tacit knowledge, such as shared mental models and technical skills. This also includes observation, imitation, and practice. However, “experience” is the key, which is why the mere “transfer of information” often makes little sense to the receiver.
  • From explicit to tacit — Embodying explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge. Closely related to “learning by doing,” through practice and experience Normally, knowledge is verbalized or diagrammed into documents or oral stories.
  • From tacit to explicit — The quintessential process of articulating tacit knowledge into explicit concepts through metaphors, analogies, concepts, illustrations or models. Note that when we conceptualize an image, we express its essence mostly in language.
  • From explicit to explicit — A process of systemizing concepts into a knowledge system. Individuals exchange and combine knowledge through media, such as documents, meetings, and conversations. Information is reconfigured by such means as sorting, combining, and categorizing. Formal education and many training programs work this way.

Organisations need to create environments in which tacit and explicit knowledge are recognized as being valuable and different and that each requires a different approach.