Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Knowledge Management Research Paper

Research Paper on Knowledge Management

The frame of knowledge
The literature of knowledge management goes back over three thousand years. In the Western world, it began with The Instructions of Amenemopet. Written around 1,000 BC, this book was a training manual for Egyptian civil servants and a guide to wise professional practice. Fragments of this document survive in the Bible. We can still read traces of Amenemopet’s advice to young managers in the Book of Proverbs (Aitken 1968: 3; Johnson 1998: x; New Jerusalem Bible: 964-5).

Johnson identifies the wisdom literature of the Bible as intensely practical. The Hebrew word for wisdom – chokmah – “means skillfulness in dealing with the job that is before us,” writes Johnson (1998: viii), comparing it with the Greek word techne, “the rational application of principles aimed at making or doing something well.”

Many scholars contrast the wisdom embodied in techne to the wisdom embodied in sophia. The contrast is accurate in a linguistic sense. Browning (1997: 306) describes the writers of the wisdom literature as “intellectuals but not in the Greek tradition of speculative philosophers; Hebrew wisdom was exemplified in practical skills, knowledge about how to manage one’s life and about the purpose of life.”

Johnson erases this distinction. He asserts that the wisdom literature is perfect for anyone “who believes like the Greeks that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’” This person, he states, “is by nature a lover of wisdom: a philosopher” (Johnson 1998: viii).


This leads us to an issue that forms the core of knowledge management, the link between speculation and experience, theory and practice, thought and behavior. This link sustains the process of knowledge creation. The process is embedded in the two phases of a rich cycle. One phase is theorizing. Theorizing transforms tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. The second phase is behavioral adaptation. Behavior transforms explicit knowledge into physical practice.

Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) emphasize the cycle of transformation from explicit knowledge to implicit knowledge and back again. This cycle is the basis of an integrated concept of knowledge richer and more effective than a concept of knowledge based solely on theory and rational planning.

Knowledge creation requires nourishment. Behavior, practice, and experience feed knowledge along with rational cognition and theory building. Different ways of thinking and different kinds of thought shape organizational knowledge. This interplay requires a cycle that anchors new learning in the behavioral web of situated knowledge. In turn, situated knowledge forms the background to new theory.

Practice and reflection, action and theorizing on the results of action unite in effective theory-in-use. Effective theory also considers the system within which we think and act. Consequently, “knowing what” and “knowing how” increasingly involve “knowing why.” The concept of knowledge management has therefore developed a broader and more philosophical frame than most management literature in recent decades.

The earliest wisdom writings emphasize the link between theory and application. If the worthy life requires examination, it is impossible to keep the wisdom of theory – thinking – and the wisdom of practice – doing – apart. Since the Greeks, however, some Western thinkers have proposed a division between thinking and doing, knowledge and action. For Plato, the world of thought is an ideal, immortal world. Plato contrasts the world of idea and archetype to the mortal, physical world in which we live. For Plato, the world of human existence is an inferior shadow of that other, superior reality. Despite his brilliance, Plato himself failed to think through the implied lessons of his teacher, Socrates.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates says that, “the superlative thing to know the explanation of everything, why it comes to be, why it perishes, why it is.” Explanation makes empirical demands. Aristotle understood this, and he was a practitioner of empirical observation. Although limited by human imperfection and available technology, Aristotle was concerned with apprehending the mortal, physical world in an attempt to explain. Aristotle, as much an empirical biologist as a speculative philosopher (Morowitz 1993: 160-163), has been ill served by the work of scholastic philosophers who concentrated on his other work to the neglect of his research and writing on the life sciences. By the middle ages, Aristotle was the hostage of empty scholasticism. Ignorance of the central role that biology and philosophy of science held in Aristotle’s Academy continues to this day.

But something was missing, even in the Academy. Of the “three great conceptual approaches to science – observation, experimentation, and theory – experimentation was unknown to the classical Greek savants. They worked back and forth between observation and theory and therefore lacked the powerful weapon of falsification to prune wrong theories” (Morowitz 1993: 161-2). Plato’s science stood on one leg, Aristotle’s on two. It was not until the great age of physics that Galileo, Newton and Bacon developed the concept of robust experiment that made scientific progress by stabilizing scientific method with its third leg.

No philosophical debate is ever settled swiftly. Some debates rage and smolder and rage again across the ages. The debates on theory and practice, idealism and realism, thinking and action are no exception. Even so, it seems fairly well resolved that learning precedes knowledge. To create knowledge, we must learn.

Individual learning and organizational learning
Although the process of learning and the nature of knowledge are not completely understood, there is wide agreement that knowledge creation requires experience. Kolb’s (1984: 38) definition of learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” offers a useful perspective.

Any kind of experience may, in principle, be transformed into knowledge. Kolb emphasizes the relationship between experience and knowledge as a dynamic process of continuous reproduction and regeneration. It contradicts the static model of learning as acquiring knowledge external to and independent of the learner. Information and facts are external to and independent of the learner. Knowledge inheres in human beings and the specific form of knowledge is often contingent on the learning process.

Because knowledge is human, developing knowledge requires thinking and practice, mind and body both. Mindless recording will not transform experience into knowledge. Learning requires human agency, a concept synonymous with Heidegger’s concept of care, the human tendency for each person to care about his own existence (Heidegger 1993: 238). For Heidegger, both practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge express of human care in an intimate relationship between action and knowledge.

Human knowledge is not only the product of past experience, but the product of anticipating the future. Knowing things involves feedforward as well as feedback, anticipating how things may be used, manipulated or acted on in the future. As children, politicians and scientists all discover, anticipatory knowledge – prediction – is not always accurate. It is part of the knowledge cycle nonetheless.

Kolb’s definition of learning fits together with Heidegger’s concept of care to suggest a model of individual learning that shifts the focus of learning from the adaptation of external behavior to the internal process of knowledge creation. The model outlines the ways in which human beings monitor and control knowledge through three human capacities. These capacities are 1) the ability to act, 2) the ability to apprehend action and the environment within which action takes place, 3) critical comprehension.

Kolb (1984: 107) writes that, “Comprehension ... guides our choices of experience and directs our attention to those aspects of apprehended experience to be considered relevant. Comprehension is more than a secondary process of representing selected aspects of apprehended reality. The process of critical comprehension is capable of selecting and reshaping apprehended experience in ways that are more powerful and profound. The power of comprehension has led to the discovery of ever new ways of seeing the world, the very connection between mind and physical reality.” Critical comprehension is the pivotal force in learning.

Learning through critical comprehension
This process integrates experience into knowledge through cycles of action and feedback. Knowledge, in turn, supports the human capacity to understand present situations and shape future action. Experience is transformed into knowledge in several ways. One is reflection on the past. The other is the strategic judgment that human agents make as they design the future. These judgments link human beings to the environment by projecting future possibilities in a complex network of cause and effect. Things are understood through their perceived positions in these networks.

Generalized knowledge
The interaction between experience, anticipation, critical comprehension and knowledge is only part of the story. Situated knowledge also relies on generalized knowledge distinct from – and abstracted from – immediate situations and intentions.

Generalized knowledge guides perception and thus it guides action. It is common knowledge shared among groups of actors. Community among actors depends, in part, on shared common knowledge and the shared nature of general knowledge implies a social process. This social process plays a major role in knowledge creation. While individual actors also create generalized knowledge, every creator of new knowledge builds in part on what has come before. Even the greatest individual creators see farther because they stand, as Newton famously put it, “on the shoulders of giants.” Even individual knowledge creation is thus a social process.

Two more aspects of human agency drive knowledge creation, habit and tacit knowledge. Garfinkel’s (1967) experiments demonstrate that a general store of knowledge is essential even to the most mundane activity. This general store of knowledge depends on many factors. These include habituation, tacit knowledge and the larger social stock of generalized knowledge, together with learning based on experience, anticipation, and critical comprehension.

One fascinating aspect of habitualization is the fact that it plays a role in many different theories of knowledge creation. Berger and Luckman (1971: 70-71) write that, “All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which ipso facto, is apprehended by its performer as that pattern ... In terms of the meanings bestowed by man upon his activity, habitualization makes it unnecessary for each situation to be defined anew, step by step. A large variety of situations may be subsumed under its predefinitions.”

Habitualization need not prohibit critical comprehension. The two processes work together in dialectical relationship. They are distinct yet related dimensions of learning that depend intimately on each other. One form of habitualization results from repeated acts of critical comprehension that transform experience into knowledge. Critical comprehension depends on a generalized store of knowledge generated by habitualization. The knowledge spiral describes the relationships between these aspects of knowledge.

The knowledge management framework posits knowledge creation as a spiral moving through epistemological and ontological dimensions (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995: 70-73). The epistemological dimension can be portrayed as a spectrum running from explicit knowledge to tacit knowledge. The ontological dimension describes levels of knowledge moving from individual knowledge through group knowledge, organizational knowledge and inter-organizational knowledge. Human beings shift knowledge from one frame to another. As they do so, they embrace knowledge, enlarging it, internalizing it, transmitting it, shifting it, recontextualizing and transforming it. Humans create new knowledge by acting on and working with knowledge. Knowledge creation requires social context and individual contribution.

Dimensions of learning
Intentional human action is sometimes treated as the only influence on social process. While we know that that is not so, the theories-in-use that shape our behavior often rely on purposeful, rational action to the exclusion of other forces.

The world of rational intention described by Weber’s bureaucracy (1969), Fayol’s hierarchy (1949), or Taylor’s scientific management (1947) doesn’t mirror the rich, developmental quality of human enterprise. These models fail to account for knowledge creation. Despite the acknowledged need for innovation and engagement, we often rely on purely rational, models of organizational development. Rational, technocratic models of organization that neglect the existential role of care and agency in human behavior make knowledge creation difficult. In mistakenly rationalizing emotional factors out of human behavior, bureaucracy tends to kill the innovation and resourcefulness on which human enterprise depends. Evolution has not designed human beings to work as the cogs of a grand machine. The Modern Times visualized in Chaplin’s classic film suggest the emotional tone of a world void of human agency and the existential caring on which knowledge creation depends. The endpoint of technocratic, scientific management is the gray, bureaucratic world of Whyte’s (1956) Organization Man.

A robust understanding of knowledge and knowledge creation embraces many issues. In addition to generative innovation, purposeful design and conscious adaptation, knowledge creation demands response to environmental change. Behavioral adaptation and the evolutionary feedback of complex adaptive systems is a central force in social process. Evolution, and therefore chance, play powerful roles in learning and innovation. Evolutionary chance involves the element of response to random influence comparable to genetic change in the process of random selection. Biological mutations occur at random under the influence of limited entropy when radiation or other environmental influences affect genetic structure. Shannon and Weaver’s information theory would describe this as a disturbance in the signal for the genetic code. While this is always a form of signal degeneration, however, some genetic deformations create viable new options for survival and growth. When a new genetic development finds an appropriate ecological niche, it survives to become an evolutionary development. Knowledge often works this way. So do many complex adaptive systems.

The process has parallels in human culture and society. New signals change social context, paradigms and world-views. These signals may be purposeful, or they may begin in an unplanned way. They may be the result of signal interference to messages in transmission. They may result from sudden insight. There are many possibilities. When change and chance are embodied in new form, they cease to be random and become evolutionary. Chance is closely allied to experimentation. Feedback from purposeful change, experiment, and chance all contribute to a dialectical progression that spirals upward from tacit knowledge to explicit and back again, crossing levels of learning as the spiral grows. This process closely parallels the growth of scientific knowledge.

Before examining the process of social learning in greater depth, we will develop a model of learning that accounts for both critical comprehension and habitualization as aspects of learning. In doing so, we are aware that habitualization is not always seen as a learning process. This perspective violates the notion of learning as conscious effort by the learner, particularly in models that see learning as the acquisition of external knowledge. Rather than being framed as part of the knowledge creation process, habit is often associated with stagnation and the absence of learning. This can certainly be the case, but it is also clear that comprehending things anew at each encounter is impossible. Habit is as important to human understanding as critical comprehension. The teachers of skills in activities from sports and music to mathematics and surgery are aware of this. The essential learning issue in habit is selecting, developing and rooting habits that serve us. This, too, is why examining patterns and habits is one aspect of learning.

Several models of learning involve the twinned process of building new frames of habit while examining current patterns of behavior and belief. These include Schön’s (1983) concept of reflective practice, Argyris’s (1977) concept of double-loop learning, and what Senge (1990) terms generative learning. As we learn to do things and know things, we also reflect on the frame of knowledge itself. Systematic knowledge of what we know must incorporate knowledge of how we know and embrace the value-laden considerations of why we know and why we act.

Incorporating habitualization into a model of individual learning offers a richer perspective than earlier models. (Figure 2) While this model fails to distinguish between the modes of explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge respectively associated with special and general knowledge, it is a useful simplification.

Individual learning
The model represents the interaction between two dimensions of two aspects of learning. First, it represents the processual and ephemeral dimension of time in contrast to the enduring dimension of time. Second, it represents the special and situated dimension of knowledge in contrast to the general dimension of knowledge. We will next discuss a third aspect of learning, existence in space. This aspect of learning distinguishes between the individual and social dimensions of learning.

Individual learning and social formation
Systems theory explains action as a function of social structure. Mainstream theories of organizational learning locate individual learning within organizational entities. In contrast, we view individual learning as one of the processes that transform collective interaction and mutual experience into an aligned and interconnected collective fabric. This social fabric exists over and above the individual. It is an enduring fabric that may be described in terms of Giddens’s (1979) concepts of system and structure.

Giddens’s concepts of system and structure correspond to the situated and generalized dimensions of individual knowledge. Giddens (1979: 66) defines social systems as “reproduced relations between actors or collectivities.” These are sustained patterns of relationships created by actors with mutual, situated knowledge about each other and their environment. These patterns are produced and reproduced through processes of social positioning (Giddens 1984: 83-92). Individuals align themselves through this process and negotiate critically comprehended experience into networks of mutually acknowledged relations. These relations enmesh individuals in integrated networks of opportunity and obligation. Being mutually acknowledged, they assume a supraindividual quality. In other words, no individual is fully able to define his or her own position within the system.

Giddens categorizes social structure as rules and resources representing generalized knowledge shared among individuals. The social system defines an idiosyncratic social position for each individual. The social structure represents shared stores of knowledge that permit mutually understood, regularized conduct among individuals. Like generalized knowledge, social structure is implicit in social practice. It is generated through social routinization and regionalization in time and space. First, it denotes the creation of socially aligned individual practices. Second, it demarcates their confinement to specific sectors of time and space (Giddens 1984: 60-64; Giddens 1984: chapter 3). The social processes of groups resemble the individual processes that are their counterparts. Routinization and regionalization result from repeated processes of systemic positioning. At the same time social positioning requires the mutual understanding implicit in routinized and regionalized social practices.

We may summarize these concepts by locating them within the dimensions of three aspects of learning. These are (1) the ephemeral versus the enduring dimensions of existence in time, (2) the situated versus the generalized dimensions of knowledge which conform to Giddens’s distinction between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic and (3) existence in space, the distinction between the individual and collective dimensions of learning.

Three aspects of learning
In much the same way that individual action and experience are grounded in the specific capacities of human body and mind, social interaction and mutual experience are grounded in integration. Giddens defines integration as “reciprocity of practices between actors” in “circumstances of co-presence” (social integration) or “across extended time-space, outside conditions of co-presence” (system integration) (1984: 376-377).

Unlike the human mind and body, this reciprocity has no organic quality. First, it rests on physical co-presence, possibly mediated. Second, it requires the existence of mutual understandings implicit in a social structure. Third, it demands the network of active social relations that exist in social systems. These three factors configure individual action and experience into mutual interaction and experience. They lead to the alignment and negotiation of individual strategic judgment and practices into collective processes of social positioning, social routinization and social regionalization.

This suggests the comprehensive model (Figure 4) on which we build to develop a concept of organizational learning.

The relationship between individual and social knowledge
From information to knowledge
Daniel Bell’s 1967 book on post-industrial society developed two main themes. First, he argued that that the character of knowledge was undergoing significant transformation. Second, he believed that a professional knowledge elite was emerging to manage the new knowledge. Moving from an era of empirical knowledge and practical expertise to an era of theoretical knowledge and technical expertise means that industrial output depends on knowledge-based solutions to an increasingly greater degree. At the same time, we are moving from definitive production concepts to sensitizing production concepts. Developing and using these concepts requires what Bell labeled the professional knowledge elite.

This transformation might itself be described as a knowledge-based process:

The knowledge-based company
This pattern describes a process leading from intellectualized work to competence embodied in social change. In the 1990s, we are seeing the first major wave of a social transformation that will change our perception of how people work. These will eventually change the way that work is organized.

This can be illustrated as a transformation from knowing what to knowing how. This transformation finally leads to the process-oriented change in organizational learning described in Senge’s Fifth Discipline and Zuboff’s In the Age of the Smart Machine. We can visualize the transformation this way:

The dynamic use of technology as a learning tool
Learning and Knowledge
This reorganization is part of a trend that moves from an emphasis on transforming material resources to an emphasis on transforming intellectual resources (Ginman 1987). This is not entirely new. To the contrary, the first great classic of economics emphasized the application of intellect to human resources as an essential factor in material production. Adam Smith’s (1986: 109-117) famous example of the pin factory emphasizes the power of intellect applied to structuring the flow of labor. Smith’s era and the era of industrial revolution that followed placed his concerns in a resolutely material context. In today’s perspective, however, it is possible to see in Smith’s work some of the arguments that emerge again in the discussion of structural capital.

If knowledge management is a relatively new framework, it has been emerging for several decades. W. Edwards Deming’s (1986; 1993) work in Japanese industry after World War 2 reflect an early version of principles now seen in the literature of knowledge management and organizational learning. Deming (1993: 96) called for a profound knowledge comprised of “four parts, all related to each other: appreciation for a system; knowledge about variation; theory of knowledge; psychology” (Deming 1993: 96). The concept of profound knowledge establishes a toolbox for broad understanding linked to predictable results.

Nearly 3,000 years separate Amenemopet’s writings and Deming’s work. Five decades separate Deming’s great breakthrough in reorganizing industrial work to the reorganization of work in the post-industrial, knowledge economy. At the Norwegian School of Management Department of Knowledge Management, we are as concerned about the long waves of human development and social change as we are convinced of the need for rapid innovation and swift response to the fluctuating currents of change. Both needs are reflected in the dialectical knowledge spiral that links action to thought and practice to reflection. Theory and behavior both form the substance of good management practice, a fact as true in Amenemopet’s time as in our own.

A mere millenium after Amenemopet launched the tradition of wisdom literature, the gospelist John reflected on the relationship between thought and action. His prologue (John 1:1) reminds us that “in the beginning was the Word.” The word was identified with sophia, wisdom (Proverbs 8:22; Wisdom 7:22). The word, the idea – knowledge – came before creation, that ultimate act of feedforward. But creativity, generative innovation demands more than idea alone. It requires action, and only in the act of creation did the word find meaning. For the gospelist, it is only when the word becomes flesh (john 1:14) through human action that existential care is born.

We cite the Bible not to persuade but to link a rich stream of contemporary management thought to the long lines of human care. Every person must reach his or her own conclusion on the nature of divine wisdom. Human wisdom, whatever form it takes, requires existential care.

Knowledge management and organizational learning clearly involve the search for technical excellence and productivity. But the difference between the knowledge management perspective and technocratic perspectives involves the question of existential care. Caring as instrumental behavior does not give rise to organizational learning in the best sense. True learning begins with caring as agency.

The authors represented here reflect on many different aspects of knowledge, information and agency. Each has his or her own perspective. In introducing the Norwegian School of Management Research Annual, we wanted to raise a broad series of philosophical questions. We also want to share with you an important idea. Work is one of the most important arenas of human activity. We spend nearly half our waking hours at work or involved in work. Work is a source of human identity and human action, individual pride and livelihood. Work is far too important a part of human experience to be considered only in the light of social technology. It is an arena for wisdom. Life must be examined to be worth living, and this examination must also frame our working life. In examining work through the perspective of knowledge management, we frame questions and issues on a grand and important forum of human experience.

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