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A critical evaluation of the practice of

knowledge management
Marleen Huysman, Dirk de Wit* and Erik Andriessen
Delft University of echnology, De !ries van Heystplantsoen ",
"#"$ %& Delft, he 'etherlands,
*elematica *nstituut, +,-, .o/ 0$1, 2033 A' Enschede
e(mail) dewit4telin,nl
This paper reports about an empirical study that focusses on actual experiences with
knowledge management initiatives. The study is based on fourty five open interviews
within thirteen large companies that engage in knowledge management. While
analyzing the data, we posed five basic research questions: whos knowledge is
managed, what knowledge is managed, when is knowledge managed, why is
knowledge managed and where is knowledge managed! This explorative research
resulted in the identification of five possible traps in which organizations might fall
when introducing knowledge managent. The paper concludes with the general
observation that problems with knowledge management is not so much related to
workers resentments to share knowledge but more with the way knowledge sharing
tends to be managed.
6 *'%-DU7*-'
Although the concept of knowledge management is very popular among academics as
well as among organizational practitioners, it still lacks any mutually agreed upon
description or conception. We elieve that one of the causes for this amiguity resides
in the mismatch etween conceptual orientations on the one hand and actual
e!periences on the other. Although the amount of ooks, articles and conferences on
knowledge management grow e!ponentially, most accounts on practical e!periences
with knowledge management are ased on conceptual ideas or on accounts given y
enthusiastic "knowledge# managers. What is still lacking is a more thorough analysis of
the practice of knowledge management. $rogress in understanding % as far as this is
possile % cannot e ased on a conceptual orientation only and should take into
account what is happening in practice and how and why the topic is received y
organizations of today.
&n this chapter, we report on a study on knowledge management initiatives in
thirteen large companies. 'he purpose of the research is to gain a etter understanding
how organizations make use of knowledge management practices and with what kinds
of prolems they were confronted with. (uch research is needed as most reports on
knowledge management are centered on conceptual orientations or on est practices.
)esides that conceptual orientations lack empirical support, the prolem with accounts
on est practices is that most often, they only inform us aout positive "managerial#
e!periences, hiding more negative ones. We elieve that organizations learn etter from
other e!periences on knowledge management when the reports surface the traps and
ostacles organization might face when engaging in knowledge management initiatives.
Another reason why research directed towards the actual prolems
organizations face with knowledge management is needed, is that we are not satisfied
with the way workers resentment to knowledge management tend to e e!plained.
Most often, workers re*ections are interpreted as related to a reduction of power or a
reduction of degrees of freedom. We oserved however that negative attitudes towards
knowledge management initiatives are more a result of the way knowledge
management is managed than as a result of an aversion to knowledge e!changes per se.
" *'%-DU7*-' - %E8EA%7H
'he need to concentrate the research on actual e!periences and possile prolems,
resulted in a different selection of cases than is most often the case with writings on
knowledge management. +irst, we only included knowledge management initiatives
that had already een running a sustantial period. )y using this selection criteria, we
e!cluded organizations who did not yet gain enough practical e!periences in order to
report aout its pitfalls. 'his meant a serious shortcut of potentially interesting case
studies. &n fact, most organizations who are engaging in structural knowledge
management activities, are still in a conceptual stage. (econdly, we decided to include
organizations in the study who engage in forms of knowledge management ut do not
lael their activities as such. -uring the course of the study, we oserved that a lot of
e!perience with managing knowledge resides within companies ut are not "or not yet#
called .knowledge management/ activities. &t is worthwhile reporting aout these
e!periences as interesting case studies for other organizations to learn and to draw
lessons from. 0onse1uently, we otained a rather pragmatic orientation to knowledge
management. We perceive knowledge management as organizational practices that
facilitates knowledge e!change among knowledge workers. With knowledge workers
we refer to employees within organizations in which knowledge forms an important
aspect of their daily work processes. With successful knowledge management we refer
to these knowledge e!change practices that have ecome organically emedded in the
ongoing work processes of an organization.
'he multiple case study research we have een using is mainly e!plorative. We
selected thirteen companies in the research, all engaging in knowledge management
initiatives. 'he research is ased on forty five open interviews with managers,
knowledge workers and initiators. 'he initiatives differ from each other in many
respects, such as the stage in which they are in and if they e!plicitly make use of the
words 2knowledge management3 or not. Although we had some prior knowledge on
what has een written aout knowledge management, we have tried as far as possile
to start interviewing with a lank notion of the concept. As argued, this was facilitated
y the fact that the practice of knowledge sharing within organization often differs
from what the theory claims it to e. 'ale one provides an overview of the
organizations that have een interviewed, the stage in which the organization is in and
whether the lael knowledge management is used or not.
Table " #elected cases
4!plicit use
of 5M lael
5M stage
(oftware house 6es &ntroduced7institutionalized
"8 years ago#
oil company 6es, after
&nstitutionalized "8 years ago#
&0' service 6es &ntroduced
steal company 6es 0onceptual
Ministry 9o &nstitutionalized ", years ago#
)ank 9o &nstitutionalized ", years ago#
&nsurance company 6es, after
&nstitutionalized ": years ago#
'elecom company 6es &ntroduced
'ransport company 9o &nstitutionalized "8 years ago#
0onsumer products
6es, after
&nstitutionalized ", year ago#
&nt. )ank 9o &ntroduced
Airport 6es &ntroduced
6es, after
&nstitutionalized ",; years ago#
'otal 18
All initiatives have three aspects in common< the companies are all large
companies with more than thousand people working, they all make use of information
communication technology "&0'# to support the knowledge e!changes and all
initiatives are supported y top%management.
9 *DE'*:;*'< %A+8 A'D WA;8 - A!-*D HEM
We encountered five potential traps related to the practice of knowledge management
as well as various ways to avoid them. 'hese traps emerged from addressing the
1uestion how the concept of knowledge management is treated in organizations. 'o
gain a etter understanding how the concept is used in practice, we addressed five
related research 1uestions< who, what, when, why and where. While addressing these
asic research 1uestions, we oserved five related traps in which organizations
engaged in knowledge management, might fall. 'hese traps are respectively the
individual knowledge trap, the emedded knowledge trap, the opportunity trap, the
management trap, and the operational level trap "see tale ,#
table $ %ive potential traps present within the practice of knowledge management
who "who/s knowledge is managed=# 'he individual knowledge trap
what "knowledge is managed=# 'he emedded knowledge trap
When is knowledge managed= 'he opportunity trap
Why "is knowledge managed=# 'he management trap
Where "is knowledge managed=# 'he operational level trap
'he traps should e seen as potential pitfalls and not as standard knowledge
management related prolems. &n other words, these traps can e avoided, as some
organizations that we studied have done so. &n fact, ne!t to a discussion of the nature,
causes and conse1uences of these traps, we also discuss, again mostly ased on ideas
generated from practice, possile ways to avoid them. &n other words, organizations
will face prolems when they treat knowledge management<
"1# more as related to individual learning than to collective learning>
",# more from a stock approach to knowledge than from a flow approach to
"8# more from an &0'7opportunity%driven approach than from a prolem%driven
":# more from a managerial perspective than from the perspective of the knowledge
";# more as an issue related to the operational level than a general organizational issue.
&n the following sections, we will descrie the five 1uestions with the related
traps separately. 4ach discussion will e supported with illustrations from practice.
9,6 Who=s knowledge is managed>) he individual knowledge trap
5nowledge management is generally seen as the management of learning processes
within organizations. 'here is however a potential pitfall when this is interpreted as the
management of individual learning instead of collective learning. -uring our research,
we came across many initiatives that approach knowledge management as supporting
knowledge development of individuals more than of collectives within organizations.
'hat the focus tends to e more on individual learning rather than on collective
learning is understandale as managing individual learning is less complicated than
collective learning. +or e!ample, motivating individuals to learn is less difficult than
motivating collectives to do so to contriute to a shared knowledge ase. +urthermore,
tools to improve the individual knowledge ase are part of every organization, such as
training, education, or more e!plicit tools such as liraries or dataases. &n contrast,
tools to improve the collective knowledge ase are much more difficult to imagine.
Also, managing individual learning is easier to control than is the case with collective
learning. Managers for e!ample might ask employees to read an article, to take a
course or to inspect a dataase. +rom this information processing activity, we can for a
large part predict what the outcome of this learning process will e. Much of the
collective knowledge is however gained during day to day interactions and is less easy
to manage ")rown and -uguid 1??1#. )ecause of this ias towards individual learning,
organizations might fall in the trap of focussing on the development of individual
knowledge instead of sharing and creating knowledge among individuals. @arious
organizations in our research for e!ample have created knowledge centers that actually
function as knowledge liraries. &ndividuals can ac1uire the necessary knowledge from
these centers as to gain more insights on a particular su*ect. Also, many organizations
use the intranet to store past e!periences of knowledge workers so that others can
learn from this. 'hese networks merely function as tools to support individual
knowledge development more than collaorative knowledge development. As one
consultant at a software company remarked< 2the system is supposed to store
e!periences in a dataase, ut that doesn/t work, you cannot learn e!periences from
others as such, knowledge sharing happens through face to face communication3.
(ome organizations show possiilities how to avoid this individual knowledge
trap. At a consumer product organization and an oil company for e!ample the sharing
of knowledge among collectives was supported y enaling the e!istence of
communities. -uring fre1uent meetings, these communities e!change valuale
e!periences and develop new ideas how to improve their day to day activities.
Managing communities calls for a different approach as managing individuals. &n fact,
management has little influence on these .communities of practices/ esides
acknowledging there e!istence. Aearning of and within communities is also often
unnoticed y the learners themselves "0iorra and Aanzara 1??:# and is seldom
planned. Also, many communities are continuously in a flu!, changing from place, time,
memership and content. Mapping the knowledge within the organization y mapping
the various communities is therefore impossile> even if management is ale to map all
the e!isting communities, this would only e a random indication. 0onse1uently
managing collective learning processes such as those that take place in communities of
practices are much harder to manage than individual learning processes "Crr 1??D,
0iorra and Aanzara 1??:, 0ook and 6anow 1??8, Weick and Eoerts 1??8, Fordan
9," What knowledge is managed>) he em5edded knowledge trap
Many articles and ooks on the concept of knowledge management start their
discussion with a definition of knowledge. Almost always, the relation is made etween
two related concepts< data and information. Whereas data are signals and information
are signals that make a difference, knowledge is created out of information ut is
individual specific. &n its most e!treme definition, knowledge that elongs to
individuals cannot e e!plicated. At the moment we e!change knowledge, knowledge
ecomes signals to the potential receiver. When the receiver interprets these signals, it
will e changed into information related to past knowledge. 'he trap lies in the danger
that organizations might treat this e!ternalized knowledge as sufficient sustitutes for
knowledge e!changes etween individuals. &f so, much valuale knowledge will e
'he e!ternalization trap is closely connected to the use of &nformation
0ommunication 'echnology "&0'#, ecause &0' often supports e!ternalizing
knowledge. As a result, knowledge management is often seen as inherently connected
to &0'. +or e!ample, the introduction of an &ntranet is seen as creating the facility for
knowledge e!change in comination with a reward structure that encourages people to
share their knowledge via documents and reports. 6et, when the technology itself is
not fancy enough, or when the use is not adapted to the people working with the
technology, people will e driven away, despite rewards or punishments. 'his will
curtail the knowledge management initiative. We came across several knowledge
management initiatives that focused on creating a technological environment, ut who
where unale to reach the people actually using the system. A multinational consumer
product company learned this lesson over the past years. 'hey started out y putting
their faith in technology and the opportunities to map e!perts knowledge in dataases,
ut soon discovered that creating a network of e!perts, and facilitating physical
encounters opens a large potential for knowledge sharing. 'he &0' is introduced after
the network has ecome estalished. Crganizations may ecome dependent on their
digitized archives, overlooking its lack of sustainaility. 'here is also the prolem of
deterioration< knowledge emedded in documents or in e!pert systems may grow
outdated 1uickly. When sharing emedded knowledge is not part of an e!plicit culture,
knowledge dataases fall prone to rapid deterioration. 'his is not a new phenomenon,
yet it re1uires discipline of the .knowledge worker/, which in itself forms another
prolem of knowledge e!ternalization. -iscipline may e hampered y the pressing
agenda. We oserved at various organizations the prolem knowledge workers have in
filling in the knowledge system with past e!periences, while already gaining new
e!periences in a new pro*ect or work%environments. 4specially in pro*ect oriented
organizations the pressure to make hours accountale, is high. 'his phenomenon is not
industry specific. )oth at a consultancy firm as at a steel company, people e!pressed
the prolem in finding little time to add e!perience. 'he ovious solution for
management is to create slack in order to enale workers to make their e!periences
e!plicit. However, even when creating slack, people will find it hard to make e!plicit
what is truly valuale to the company. 'his prolem was encountered at an &0' service
organization where technologists are unale to e!press the valuale learning
e!periences. Cn the other hand they are reluctant in using the knowledge documented,
ecause they preferred using their own solution rather than that offered y others.
Many authors on knowledge management elieve that one of the serious prolems with
e!ternalizing knowledge resides in the unwillingness of knowledge workers to give
away their power. 'he argument goes that ecause knowledge is often perceived as
power, people are selective in e!ternalizing their knowledge. &nterestingly, we did not
come across this argument for re*ecting knowledge management. &n fact, what we
oserved was that those knowledge workers that have indeed gained much knowledge
aout particular topics are not afraid of sharing it. 'he prolem however lies in those
workers who cannot e proud aout their uilt up e!periences. 4!plicating their
knowledge will mean opening up of individual kept secrets. A final prolem with the
emedded knowledge trap is that the organizations tend to e focussed more on
emedded than on situated knowledge. (ituated knowledge is knowledge that is not
emedded somewhere, neither in manuals nor in the heads of individuals. &nstead,
individuals interacting with each other create situated knowledge in practice. (ituated
knowledge is therefore situation rather than individual specific "Aave and Wenger
9,9 Why is knowledge managed>) he management trap
Cne of the most common traps of knowledge management is that the concept is
generally een perceived from a managerial perspective. 0learly, for managers there
are several advantages to manage the knowledge within the organization. Cne is that
knowledge is often scattered within the organization. With the emergence of the
knowledge economy in which workers gain more and more knowledge specific to their
own work process, organizations are in need to make these scattered knowledge
domains more transparent. 9e!t and related is the argument that transparency is
needed as to reduce re%invention of wheels. 'he ideal is that when everyone knows
what everyone knows, people will contact each other to e!change knowledge or to
effectively refer customers and clients. Aearning from each other has the additional
advantage of filling up knowledge gaps that would otherwise e!ist when people leave
the organization or change positions. Again, the ideal is that past e!periences are
stored within the organizational knowledge ase or are e!changed etween master and
apprentice. 'he ongoing trend towards gloalization too, calls for the e!change of
knowledge among gloally dispersed knowledge workers. Another reason why
organizations are interested in knowledge management is the growth of an awareness
that organizational knowledge might e the key to organizational success. Management
ooks and articles demonstrate a growing awareness that the intellectual capital of the
corporation is usually worth much more than its tangile ook value "(teward 1?H#.
(hareholders have developed a need to gain more insight in the core competence of the
organization, which in most cases resides in the "tacit# knowledge shared among the
workers within the organization. Another reason for management to introduce
knowledge management is to facilitate an organizational change process. +or e!ample,
a large insurance company changed its operations from a product to a market ased
organization. &n order to support this organizational change process, knowledge
management techni1ues were used to overcome the prolems of a loss of knowledge
that might result from changing positions and rotating people.
'hese motivations to introduce knowledge management have at least one thing
in common which make them at the same time vulnerale< they all perceive knowledge
management from a management perspective. Herein lies the contriutor to the
management trap. Crganizations face prolems when knowledge management is seen
as a possile solution to prolems that are merely managerial prolems. &n either case,
managers and organizations should make sure that knowledge management is
perceived as an answer to prolems and opportunities that are oth felt y knowledge
workers as y management. 5nowledge management calls for a fast support of
knowledge workers and .outsiders/ such as managers cannot force upon e!change of
knowledge. Crganizations that use the concept of knowledge management to control
and monitor the knowledge within the organization have more prolems in
implementing it than organizations that use the concept to address real prolems.
'hese prolems do not have to match> a win%win situation can also occur when the
various actors engage in knowledge e!change out of different reasons. +or e!ample,
knowledge e!changes etween various actors at an electronic discussion platform
introduced y a -utch ministry proliferated, although actors had different reasons to
engage in these discussions. Cne particular discussion platform concerning sustainale
construction was initiated y the ministry to learn new insights from actors in and
outside the government. 'he reasons for people working at the ministry to engage in
the discussion was to adapt its future policy on the ideas of e!perts in the field of
uilding and construction. 'he reasons of actors at universities to engage in the
discussion was merely ecause these discussions might spawn new research initiatives.
5nowledge management heavily depends on the willingness of knowledge
workers to take part in it. We encountered during our research various reasons for
knowledge workers to actually engage in knowledge management initiatives, such as
an increase of *o%efficiency, status, and fun. &f the condition of a win win situation is
not taken care of, managers will e confronted with ma*or re*ections from the side of
the knowledge workers.
9,? When is knowledge managed>) the opportunity trap
Another potential trap in which organizations might fall is when knowledge
managment is introduced ased on &0'%driven and opportunity driven arguments only
rather than on "present or future# prolem%driven arguments.
Crganizations that use the concept of knowledge management to control and
monitor the knowledge within the organization have more prolems in implementing it
than organizations that use the concept to address real prolems. 5nowledge
management will e more successful when it addresses e!isting situations and prolems
than when it is seen as an opportunity to organizational change. (tandard packages,
standard models or standard ideas to knowledge management has the ovious
disadvantage of a possile mismatch with the actual need to e!change knowledge.
'here are asically three reasons why organizations engage in e!plicit knowledge
management activities. Cne reason is &0'%driven< knowledge management is often
linked to supporting knowledge e!change through &0'. With the rise of the
technological possiilities that &0' offers, and especially with the rise of the intranet,
Aotus 9otes, and knowledge and e!pert systems, new avenues opened for
organizations that want to structure their knowledge processes. 'he prolem of an
&0'%driven introduction of knowledge management is however that it might not
correspond to the actual needs to e!change knowledge. Also, organizations might not
have the capacity to asorp innovative tools that &0' offers. Another reason to
introduce knowledge management is opportunity%driven. (ome organizations introduce
knowledge management ecause they are triggered y stories of other organizations
that engage in forms of knowledge management. A possile fallacy herein is that most
of these stories are ased on conceptual orientations only or are told y highly
enthusiastic "knowledge# managers. &n oth cases, the positive stories tend to hide
negative e!periences and7or pitfalls to knowledge management. &n other words,
organizations are seduced to imitate others, while the models they imitate are mostly
incomplete. 'he companies we visited, that were only in a conceptual stage of
introducing knowledge management, often referred to well%known te!tooks, well%
known est%practices and well%known conference%speakers. A third reason to introduce
knowledge management is prolem%driven. &n such a case, organizations use
knowledge management techni1ues to address e!isting prolems "e.g. an
organizational change process# or future prolems. $rolem%driven knowledge
management is often initiated y knowledge workers themselves. &nterestingly, all
organizations that introduced knowledge management ased on prolem driven
arguments. 9ever used the words 25nowledge Management3 or only attached the
words in a later stage when the concept gain popularity. Crganizations that introduced
knowledge management ased on &0'%driven or opportunity%driven "or comination of
oth# arguments either had prolems in institutionalizing it, or are still in a conceptual
stage of introduction.
9,0 Where is knowledge managed>) the operational level trap
When we look at the actual practices of knowledge management and ask ourselves
where knowledge is managed, we oserved that many of the organizations that we
interviewed focussed their attention on the operational level without paying attention
to knowledge e!changes of managers or etween the operational and other levels
within the organization. 'here are various reasons why this focus on the operational
level might ecome a urden to the knowledge management initiative. +irst, for many
knowledge workers it is important that management should act as an e!ample instead
of a facilitator only. As one knowledge worker argued< if they do not share their
knowledge why would & do it=3 Another reason is of course that knowledge e!change
processes cannot e limited to the operational level only. Much of the knowledge is
also shared among managers. When managers do not engage in this process, a
conse1uence could e that the shared knowledge does not ecome accepted
organizational wide. Cf course, another important condition for successful introduction
of knowledge management is that management not only contriutes to knowledge
sharing and construction, ut also supports the initiatives. We did not come across this
latter condition during our research as management support was one of the criteria we
used to select cases. 9evertheless, lack of management support seems to e one of the
serious prolems organizations face when introducing knowledge management. "e.g.
-avenport 1??H#
? 7-'7@UD*'< %EMA%A8
5nowledge management has received much controversial attention. Although the
group of proponents is still growing, the same can e said for a large group of people
who perceive the concept as new wine in old ottles. Although we used a critical
perspective, we still elong more to the first group of proponents who perceive
knowledge management as one of the asic organizational processes in present and
future organizations. Although there e!ist many different conceptions of knowledge
management, almost everyone agrees that knowledge management is aout supporting
the development and surfacing of knowledge that is shared in organizations.
0onse1uently, knowledge management re1uires the support of "conditions for#
ac1uisition, development, storage and sharing of knowledge. All these knowledge
intensive processes are aout forms of knowledge e!change> e!changes oth within as
well as with actors outside the formal oundaries of an organization. However, ased
on our research, we oserved that there e!ist many different ways of using these ideas
in practice. Moreover, we oserved that there are some traps in which organizations
might fall when introducing knowledge management initiatives. &n sum, knowledge
management is more effective when it is centered oth on collective and individual
learning processes than on individual learning processes only. When knowledge
management involves the support of individual learning processes, knowledge sharing
among knowledge workers can not e guaranteed. Also, knowledge management is
more effective in organizations were knowledge e!change is seen from a flow
perspective rather than a stock perspective only. When knowledge management is
focussed on increasing the knowledge stock, prolems might arise as a result of
differences in interpretation, lack of discipline and lack of fle!iility. 'he success of
knowledge management also depends on the underlying reason for introduction.
$rolem driven arguments seems to e more successful than &0' and opportunity
driven argument. 5nowledge management is also more effective when organizations
acknowledge the needs of knowledge workers to e!change their knowledge. +inally,
knowledge management is most successful if it is approached as an organizational%wide
issue rather than an issue relevant to the operational level only.
All these traps in comination create some understanding how knowledge
management takes place in practice. &n other words, the traps in comination result in
an overall knowledge management trap that refers to the tendency to e!plicitly
managing knowledge.
'he tasks of supporting the very knowledge e!change processes in it self and of
introducing and implementing the idea can range from highly e!plicit to highly implicit.
With implicit management we refer to non%directive ways of using power while e!plicit
management is aout the directive use of power. With e!plicit management of
knowledge we refer to situations in which the manager forces knowledge workers to
ecome involved in knowledge e!change processes. His7her power can e forced upon
y the use of various incentives, ranging from financial to status%related. &n other
words, comining the various traps of knowledge management in practice, result in the
implication to implicitly manage the implicit. -ifferent from many other conceptions
on the topic and supported y oservations from practice, we conclude that the
success of knowledge management lies in the way organizations are ale to not only
managing implicit knowledge ut also in the degree to which these processes occur
less directive or implicitly.
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