Today, 'knowledge' is considered to be a key resource that fuels society and drives innovation. The power of organizations and individuals comes from what they know, how efficiently they use what they know, and how quickly they learn and apply new knowledge. Mutual learning and collective action among individuals and groups foster innovation; when they collaborate and share knowledge, they are able to avoid repeating the same mistakes and use resources more effectively.
As such, knowledge must be 'managed' to ensure the full utilization of valuable lessons and best practices, combined with individual skills, competencies, ideas and innovations, to create a more effective and efficient organization (Dalkir, 2005). Knowledge management (KM) is an important discipline aiming to address this challenge by leveraging know-how across and between people and organizations to improve decision-making, innovation, partnerships and overall organizational results.
In the development world, farmers, researchers, governments, local organizations, bilateral and multilateral agencies, as well as the private sector, all have a stake in the management of knowledge. However, valuable knowledge is often buried in unread reports, irrelevant and unused data, and ineffective filing systems, or in the heads of individuals who are not willing to share what they know. This is why integrating KM in the innovation process requires a cultural shift from an individualistic way of working and storing knowledge toward a collaborative way of working.
The bottom of the iceberg
It is important to stress the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge, the distinction of which is the most fundamental concept of KM (Skyrme, 2011). According to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), explicit knowledge can be easily expressed in words and numbers and it is easy to codify, document, transfer and communicate in the form of manuals and procedures, scientific formulae or universal principles (as cited in Skyrme, 2011). However, such knowledge is seen 'only as the tip of the iceberg' with the vast majority of knowledge being tacit and difficult to codify (Skyrme, 2011). According to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) tacit knowledge is described as not easily visible and expressible, personal, hard to formalize, difficult to communicate, developed from action and experience, subconsciously understood and applied, and captured in the term 'know-how' (as cited in Skyrme, 2011).
This tacit knowledge is a major resource for innovation. It enables us to make sense of previous experiences and to connect patterns from the past to the present and future, as an essential part of the innovation process. It is deeply embedded into organizational operating practices and can provide a sustainable source of competitive advantage (Kotelnikov, 2001). However, it also presents a major management challenge for knowledge workers.
Knowledge management is about people, not machines
The increasing reliance on science and technology innovation as a source of competitive advantage driving the knowledge economy brings recognition of the need to identify tacit and codified knowledge in an innovation system, and to manage its creation, tracking, exchange and ownership (David and Foray, 1995). However, in triggering changes that facilitate innovation processes, many organizations perceive knowledge and innovation management mainly as related to knowledge-sharing infrastructure and tools, with the people and culture that provide context for information, often receiving the least (if any) attention. Infrastructure helps facilitate KM and innovation processes, but we often forget that KM is about people and not machines (Dalkir, 2005).
Technology cannot change people's behaviour or create a demand for knowledge sharing (Dalkir, 2005). The challenge is to use it to link people together so that they get the knowledge they need. Attention needs to be paid to content and its use. Technology also cannot replace face-to-face interactions such as informal networks and peer-to-peer learning, which both play very important roles in facilitating KM and innovation processes. While it is important to improve access to information and knowledge, including its availability, accessibility, and affordability through information and communication technology (ICT) tools, it is also important to promote knowledge sharing through learning circles, networking, peer-to-peer technology, Communities of Practice (CoP) and improved interaction and mutual learning (Spisiakova, 2011). The combination of such processes can help produce a culture where knowledge sharing becomes the norm, not the exception, for human relationships -- where people are encouraged to work together, to collaborate and share, and where they are rewarded for what they do. Only the organizations that harness the power of co-operation can effectively use knowledge to be more productive (Gurteen, 1999).
Experience shows that it takes a very long time to launch and subsequently maintain cultural change. It requires changing attitudes and aspirations, beliefs and values that inform action (Dalkir, 2005).
Knowledge and innovation flow when people perceive that there is a climate of trust and the people with whom they exchange views are credible. When people feel that they are respected and that they can trust their colleagues and peers, then knowledge sharing can be greatly enhanced (Dalkir, 2005). To build trust, it is important to inform, involve and motivate stakeholders, which requires effective communication.
Communication enables people to transmit culture to each other and develop it in a certain way. On the other hand, culture influences communication between people. According to Neher (1997), culture encourages certain topics for communication and discounts others. It often determines who talks with whom, on what occasion, and about what. It also determines how people interact with each other, how they perform tasks, solve problems, treat others and how they are expected to behave (Dalkir, 2005).
Greater transparency also serves to enhance innovation through greater inclusiveness in knowledge processing. By involving more stakeholders in knowledge production and integration, organizations can ensure more quality control over knowledge in use and more stakeholder participation in the process. The transparency problem is fundamentally a KM problem because bad practice means bad knowledge in use, and bad knowledge in use is the product of dysfunctional knowledge processing (Dalkir, 2005).
Knowledge management cycle
KM theories help us understand how knowledge, as an intangible asset, is produced, tracked, used, managed and valued in innovation systems (Romer, 1998). Based on the work of Meyer and Zack (1996), Bukowitz and Williams (2000), McElroy (2003), and Wiig (1993), Dalkir developed the 'Integrated KM Cycle' framework (see Figure 1) that consists of three main phases: 1. Knowledge Capture and/or Creation; 2. Knowledge Sharing and Dissemination; and 3. Knowledge Acquisition and Application.
While knowledge capture refers to the identification and codification of existing internal and/or external knowledge and know-how, knowledge creation is about the development of new knowledge and know-how, e.g. innovations (Dalkir, 2005). The content and its value to the organization needs to be validated and contextualized. The content should then be delivered to the potential end-users through sharing and dissemination, keeping in mind the means of delivery, timing, frequency, form and language. Users will then try to understand the content, validate its usefulness and relevance, and make use of it through its application in their work (Dalkir, 2005).The cycle can help organizations consider the different phases through which knowledge and innovation flow and the attitudes needed for this flow to happen. This article explores the phase of knowledge sharing and dissemination.
Culture of knowledge sharing and dissemination
A knowledge-sharing culture can be defined as one where the paradigm of 'knowledge is power' shifts to that of 'sharing knowledge is more powerful' (Dalkir, 2005) and where collaboration positively influences the effectiveness of knowledge work (Sveiby and Simons, 2002). The problem is that people are generally not willing to leave their comfort zones, especially when they cannot see how the proposed change could improve their lives.
Improving motivation through incentives
Generally, individuals are more likely to be rewarded for what they know, rather than for what they share. As a result, the hoarding of knowledge often leads to negative consequences such as empire building, reinvention of the wheel, feelings of isolation, and resistance to ideas from outside an organization (Dalkir, 2005). To motivate employees to embrace KM and innovative behaviour, incentives can send out powerful messages about what is important in their organization. For example, knowledge sharing can be integrated in performance evaluation criteria as one of the key competencies of all staff and linked to salaries and promotions. Organizations can also promote role models by publicly rewarding examples of collaboration, good teamwork, innovations and knowledge re-use (Dalkir, 2005).
Furthermore, research shows that creating more learning opportunities that respond to people's immediate learning needs could be an incentive as well (Spisiakova, 2011). Being part of a CoP can address these needs and also help retain employees. Working as an active member of a CoP provides a significant incentive for a knowledge worker to stay with that organization, as well as helping to quickly link new members to the network and organizational culture (Dalkir, 2005). But more importantly, embracing KM should be its own reward if people recognize the benefits it brings and the way it makes their life easier. If KM does not make life easier for employees, it will fail (Dalkir, 2005).
Leadership that values and supports KM and innovation
According to Dalkir (2005), if real long-term sustainable organizational change is to occur in organizations, it has to happen at the cultural level, with strong and supportive leadership. To understand what is important in the organization, employees observe and listen to leaders. If a leader is actively sharing knowledge, encouraging collaboration and innovation, and rewarding such behaviour, employees can recognize it as important and are more likely to change (Dalkir, 2005).
Enhancing social capital through networking and communities
A person's education, skills and experience are insufficient to generate trust, and create and enforce norms (Dalkir, 2005). People produce knowledge only by interacting with others (Klimecki and Lassleben,1999). Through communication, people influence each other's views and create or change shared constructions of reality (Dalkir, 2005). There is therefore a need for concrete personal relationships and networks that influence individual behaviour and produce shared knowledge. Knowledge-sharing communities are the primary producers of this network of relationships, also called 'social capital'. They make connections between individuals so that they can solve problems and make decisions based on shared interest and knowledge (Dalkir, 2005).
For Huysman and de Wit (2002), a collective acceptance of shared knowledge is the key to generating value to the organization. For such learning to happen, organizations must encourage networking by connecting people -usually like-minded individuals with common interests- rather than hierarchies that create authority and formal channels of communications. These networks, also called CoP, connect everyone, operate informally, depend on trust and make formal ranks unclear (Dalkir, 2005). Their main characteristics are a common goal, commitment and a shared virtual workspace in which members can communicate with each other, store and share knowledge and ideas (Wenger, 1998).
Through its experience, the World Bank identified some success factors of these communities. Firstly, it is crucial that staff members choose issues or themes in which they are interested and form groups around these issues. Secondly, a virtual workspace alone is insufficient for CoP to work; face-to-face contact is also very important. Furthermore, external partners must be included in CoP to provide an additional source of know-how. This knowledge-sharing partnership means access to top quality expertise (APQC, 2003).
Allocating time for knowledge sharing or a different way of working?
People often perceive KM as burden -- an additional activity to what they are already doing. To understand KM, we need to see it simply as a different way of working by embedding knowledge-sharing and learning activities in core business processes. Rather than introducing new KM processes, we can improve the existing ones by undertaking various activities with the explicit intention of managing the knowledge needed or produced during these activities (Spisiakova, 2011). For example, the World Bank is incorporating knowledge sharing and learning into its way of doing business by increasing interest among different departments to map and manage their knowledge as well as increasing the interest of stakeholders (APQC, 2003).
Tolerating mistakes and failure to promote innovation
Changes imply mistakes. Not tolerating risk of failure and mistakes can prevent employees from taking risks and trying innovative approaches in their work, thus impeding the success of KM. However, if the organization's role models and reward systems actively promote, support and value such interactions, then cultural change can be facilitated (Dalkir, 2005).
Robbins (2001) has a different perception of risk. Our cultures have been programmed to fear failure (Robbins, 2001). The organizations and individuals that succeed are not those who do not fail, but those who know that if they try something and it does not give them what they aimed for, they have had a learning experience. They use what they learned and try something else (Robbins, 2001). So organizations need to re-frame their perspective of failure and commit to learning from every experience. Leaders who possess such a vision and commitment can facilitate the achievement of desirable results and innovations as they transmit their values to their employees and create an environment that is open to creativity, flexibility and innovation.
Creating more systematic and engaging knowledge-sharing platforms
Organizations often underestimate the value of knowledge-sharing platforms, including methods and techniques for learning and finding solutions. When they are systematic, such platforms enable people to work together, discover, share and re-use valuable knowledge, new ideas, experts, and other intellectual assets that exist and can be capitalized upon (Dalkir, 2005).
Electronic discussion forums can be effective in facilitating dialogue and knowledge sharing on key issues and challenges facing the particular community, with a specific emphasis on learning from the experience of those who face similar challenges in their daily lives. To promote networking, organizations are also adopting a range of portals (e.g. IFAD Asia), and improving their intranets and knowledge repositories. While such platforms can provide many functions for validating and sharing knowledge and expertise, discussing issues, or joining a community, it is important that they offer a sense of ownership, participation and diversity of content and sources (APQC, 2003).
Creating opportunities for face-to-face interactions are equally important. Organizations need to systematically organize meetings, seminars, workshops and knowledge markets/fairs that provide opportunities for learning and are complementing other knowledge-sharing processes and tools (Spisiakova, 2011). Experience shows that knowledge-sharing events can also benefit from using alternative facilitation methods. IFAD, for example, has been trying to move away from traditional meeting formats and promote collaborative learning by using methods such as peer assists, creative problem solving, after-action reviews, open space technology, and storytelling to solve specific problems and facilitate learning on innovative approaches in use and potential application elsewhere. These formats are fun and have the capacity to engage people and stimulate more learning, sharing and thinking outside the box (IFAD, 2010).
Successful knowledge and innovation management begins with a sound strategy combined with fostering of organizational culture that enables and rewards the sharing of valuable knowledge. While technology is important to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration, more attention needs to be paid to its content and use. It also cannot replace important face-to-face interactions. To promote knowledge sharing, we need to look at it holistically through learning circles, networking, peer-to-peer assistance, CoP, improved interactions and mutual learning. The concrete personal relationships and networks that are created through this process are a basis for trust. Knowledge flows when people perceive there is a climate of trust, which is one of the key prerequisites of culture that promotes KM and innovation. The social capital that is strengthened in such an environment needs to be maintained through continuous investment in learning and development. Together with appropriate incentives, this would help create a collaborative and knowledge-sharing culture, without which knowledge cannot be managed effectively and innovations cannot be properly documented, shared and applied in new contexts.
(References available upon request)