( ) R. Coombs, R. Hull
Research Policy 27 1998 237–253
the business unit or firm.
This difference concernsthe extent to which a firm is intrinsically limited inthe degree to which it can modify the content andscope of its knowledge base. Simplifying somewhat,the Nonaka
Leonard-Barton perspective emphasisesthe potential openness of the firm to the acquisitionof external knowledge and the possibility for thefirm to increase its potential to create radically newknowledge. In a sense, it presents a relatively in-creased possibility of ‘breaking free’ of path-depend-ency. In contrast, the evolutionary economics per-spective emphasises the way in which the knowledgebase of a firm and its routines of operation
path-dependency and limit the rate of integration of external knowledge or production of radically newknowledge. To put the problem in the language of evolutionary economics, the two perspectives pull indifferent directions on the question of the degree of variety generation which is possible
within the firm
.It is clear that variety generation within the firm is
variety generation—but the questionwhich is posed in this discussion is the potential for
those constraints on its varietygeneration.
The unit of analysis is important here. Clearly, the predomi-nant locus of path-dependency is the business unit. But there arealso significant elements of path-dependency in the behaviour of adivision, and of a corporation, the firm as a collection of businessunits. The degree of interactions between these loci of path-de-pendency will be influenced by, among other things, the corporatemanagement style. These issues are discussed later in the paper inSections 3 and 4. Until that point we will refer to ‘the firm’ as theunit of analysis.
This question has recently been given a further dimension indebates on the validity of ‘knowledge-based approaches to the
theory of the firm’. See Nikolai J. Foss a , Knowledge-basedapproaches to the theory of the firm: some critical comments,
Organization Science, Vol. 7 5 , pp. 470–476, 1996; Kathleen R.Connor, C. K. Prahalad, A resource-based theory of the firm:
knowledge versus opportunism, Organization Science, Vol. 7 5 ,1996, pp. 477–501; Bruce Kogut, Udo Zander, What firms do?coordination, identity, and learning, Organization Science, Vol. 7
Ž . Ž .
5 , 1996, pp. 502–518; and Nikolai J. Foss b , More criticalcomments on knowledge-based theories of the firm, Organization
Science, Vol. 7 5 , pp. 519–523, 1996. The debate centresaround the extent to which ‘knowledge perspectives’ can explain
why firms exist at all
; this has clear implications for the ways inwhich a ‘knowledge perspective’ may inform our understandingof the degree of variety generation that may be possible within afirm.
This paper proposes an approach to understandingand researching knowledge management which isdesigned to explore this problem in more detail. Thecentral feature of the approach is a theoretical andempirical focus on knowledge management
in the firm,
which is in contrast to the focus,characteristic of a great deal of the current literaturein this field, on categorising different types of knowledge.
In particular, it will be argued that itis vital to look not only at the effects of existingknowledge management practices on innovationwithin the firm, but also to account for the creationand maintenance of new knowledge managementpractices.In Section 2 of the paper, the case for a focus onknowledge management practices is elaborated. InSection 3, a taxonomy of knowledge managementpractices is presented, with some illustrative exam-
In Section 2 of the paper we elaborate on our understandingof knowledge management practices as
within the firm.It is worth pointing out here, however, that there is increasinginterest in analysing ‘practices’ within a number of disciplines.See for instance Tsoukas, op. cit. for a focus on ‘social practices’within the firm. Within sociology, see Stephen Turner, The SocialTheory of Practices: Tradition, Tacit Knowledge, and Presupposi-tions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994. In the historyand sociology of science and technology, see Andrew Pickering,The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995. Within social anthropology, Jean
Lave has suggested a focus on ‘communities of practice’ JeanLave and E. Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral
Participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991 .Lave’s ideas are now being utilised by some within organisationstudies, and interestingly by senior figures at the Rank Xerox PaloAlto Research Centre—see John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid,Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: towards aunified view of working, learning and innovation, Organization
Science, Vol. 2 1 , 1991, pp. 40–57.
Thus, we do not base our approach around discussion of thedifferences between tacit and explicit knowledge, or between‘individual’, ‘group’ and ‘organisational’ knowledge. This ap-proach in the event appeared justified, as many of the intervieweesthemselves discussed the difficulties they found with attempting todistinguish different types of knowledge when describing theirknowledge management activities, and preferred to describe thoseactivities in terms more relevant to their everyday work experi-ence.