What did I know before I began? There is also a similar question that an organization / school ought to answer (Does the organization know what it knows). If I only knew what I know, I may be able to answer this question well. Anyway, I can't recall when I first came across the term "knowledge management". It should not be long ago. I felt interested to know how knowledge can be managed, and how useful it is in school. At the end of my study, I start to realize that it is difficult to manage knowledge - it is not an object to be captured once it leaves people's mind. Or it just becomes information again, waiting to be interpreted to become knowledge (Sveiby, 1997; Miller, 2002). Peter Drucker said somewhere that there is nothing as knowledge management but knowledgeable people; knowledge is useful information. Takeuchi & Nonaka (1995) mention that knowledge is about beliefs, commitment and action (to achieve some end). It is also about meaning, being context-specific and relational. All these about knowledge show the important role of people. There is no knowledge without people who create, process, interpret and transfer it. The focus of KM is still about people, not information or knowledge. So the term knowledge management itself in a sense is a misnomer. When we say we manage knowledge, to a great extent, we are in fact managing people for KM goals.
Another issue that interests me is the discipline of KM itself. Many people (including professionals) I talk to have little idea about KM. One said it is another management fad, after the business re-engineering fad of the 1990s. I read an interesting paper supporting the view that KM is just information management re-packaged, advocated by companies or scholars who want to sell their products or ideas with a new name (Wilson, 2002). However, its findings were based on a particular database search on journal articles, and did not include any KM journals (though there are not many). I found that KM is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary covering many subject areas. Al-Hawamdeh (2003) lists the KM courses/degrees by different world universities. These courses have different focuses. Stankosky (2005) has included some significant KM doctoral papers, but also lists many KM study impact areas, to name some - systems theory, data mining, leadership, ethics, organizational psychology, management theory, virtual network, groupware, intelligent agents, enterprise resource planning...etc. Thus, it seems that KM is still not a well-established academic discipline, which requires more theoretical and methodological research. In business field, I asked a HR director of Reebok about KM in her company. She said there is no KM strategy/officer in the company. She also answered some questions about KM (contingent organization and CoP) that I have come across. I suppose their KM is integrated partly with human resources management. Our dialogue is attached at the end (if you feel interested to read).
Besides, I spent some time studying the role of information technology (IT) in KM.
There are disagreements on the role of technology in knowledge sharing. People like Hansen, Nohria, & Tierney (1999) advocate IT to connect people with reusable codified knowledge. Others think that technology has little to do with KM. Success of KM is related to appropriate culture rather than technology (Dixon, 2000; Stankosky, 2005). However, it is human nature to create and use tools. Thus it is not wise to deny or ignore technology which shows an aspect of human complexity (Snowden, 2003).
Knowledge sharing can take different forms. It can be done without technology. Face-to-face contact is always the natural way to communicate. When people cannot see each other, they can send letters, though it takes time. Twentieth century technology has helped - by means of telephone, telegraph, television, and fax, to name some notable examples. The coming of the internet and new IT tools makes knowledge sharing inseparable from a consideration of computer technology (Holsapple, 2003). Three areas which IT contributes to KM are: information resources management, creating knowledge bases, and collaborative technologies (Skyrme, 2000). IT acts as a catalyst which enables and facilitates the process of knowledge sharing, though appropriate organizational environment is also essential (Handzic, 2004). I also attach a figure below illustrating my reflection on IT and knowledge sharing in school.
One area I need to know more for KM is planning content management.Business organizations need to capture, manage and store knowledge from materials and resources accumulated by information technology. Schools have also gathered a lot of files, documents and materials since 1990s. Their effective management and utilization has become an important issue. Knowledge management principles may be employed to make them easily available to users for retrieval and sharing (Tan, 2005). EMB (2004) mentions that in enriching digital resources for schools, knowledge management strategies will be adopted to facilitate the usage and sharing of resources and experiences (Goal 4). This by and large, remains on paper only. Schools need guidance in formulating strategy to handle the mountain of files and materials. In several areas the school needs advice:
- Knowledge capture in school setting - how to effectively auditing them, converting them into uniform/standard format, index and classify them for retrieval, through the use of metadata, creating taxonomies and even data mining (expensive).
- Integrated platform - how to find and set up an affordable platform (resembling Lotus Domino, IBM Websphere series and MS Sharepoint Portal) to integrate intranet/portal components to facilitate knowledge sharing.
- Workflow management - to consider how documents move around the school or organization; how to co-ordinate tasks and information among staff to make school process more efficient. This is related to point 2.
Another area I need to know more is the management of tacit knowledge.
It seems Polanyi (1966) considered all knowledge is tacit (there is disagreement among studies interpreting Polanyi's view). A related issue is: how does the school know what it does not know? Worse still is the school does not know what it does not know. This is related to knowledge audit which I have to learn more. Anyway, it is difficult to manage tacit knowledge. Skyrme (2000) suggests two approaches to deal with tacit knowledge:
- Convert tacit knowledge into explicit format by means of documents, repositories, processes etc.
- Enhance the flow of tacit knowledge through establishing sharing culture, better human interaction and socialization, as well as human resource management etc.
The first one can be helped by IT. The second one requires further study of strategic plans, adapted from business models for the school setting, with support of school leaders to make it work. It involves a big culture shift, requires good management, interpersonal and communication skills built on trust (Sallis, & Jones, 2002).
Last, a quotation to share: "If we only knew what we know, viz., in the use of certain words and concepts that are so subtle in application, we would be astonished at the treasures contained in our knowledge." (Immanuel Kant, Vienna Logic.)
Appendix II: Dialogue
1. Contingent organizations/groups appear in global workplace nowadays. People are more often aligned to their professional identity than to their employer. They form their own network. They are mobile and transient. Managers face a great challenge. Are there such contingent organizations in Reebok?
Ans. In the traditional management system, it relies on authority, planning, organizing, which we called transactional leadership. But in contingent organizations where workers are focusing on employability, not loyalty, managers will need to change their leadership style to transformational leadership, which includes visioning, communicating, empowering - all those words you can find from transformational leadership. Reebok is a US company with culture emphasizing making a difference. Therefore, empowerment, independence, initiative, ability to judge and decide, etc, all these words are used to describe required competencies.
2. How do you deal with these contingent organizations?
Ans. That's why HR exists to deal with all issues. When employees become mobile, and personal network formed, HR will need to support line managers defining clear job descriptions, and establishing clear performance objectives. Also HR needs to coach line managers how to manage performance, making sure they provide constructive feedback, help employees to link their career needs into the bigger picture. Motivating and retaining the employees will need managers using transformational leadership, not only transactional. Of course, the whole HR strategy and programs/policies will need to support this.
3. Do the workers in mainland China factories possess such consciousness of their "professional identity"?
Ans. If you talk about production line workers, I don't think they are working in contingent organizations. Therefore, they don't have any professional identity. However, Reebok does ask factory to hire employees working in Reebok premises, and reporting to Reebok managers. Reebok managers conduct performance assessment for them. In this type of organizations, it looks like more contingent, because the employees will need to possess the necessary professional skills in making shoes.
4. Does Reebok have knowledge communities or communities of practice? If yes, do they work well?
Ans. Certainly, it exists in Reebok. Reebok is a global company therefore they emphasize on diversity of ideas and teamwork. Whether they work well would be another issue, because it relates much to the top level's leadership in leading the teams, external business environment, and internal systems and procedures if they fit into the business strategy, such as whether our supply chain can deliver the products which meet time to market, quality, cost effectiveness. One example of KC is the product creation team.
5. Suppose the 'bad guys' group themselves up and foster 'bad practice'? How does the manager identify them?
Ans. That's why HR plays an important role to ensure we have procedure and policy in place so that the right people are put in the right job. Usually global organizations tend to be managed more by systems, processes, procedures, rules, and policies. Even if you have bad guys fostering bad practice, there would be check and balance in the company unless the bad guy is the CEO, or Chairman.
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