Effective knowledge sharing for competitive advantage
Efficient knowledge use enhances competitive advantage and improves organizational success. Knowledge management (KM) has become increasingly important as organizations realize that effective use of their vast and varied knowledge assets and resources provides them with the ability to innovate and respond to fast changing customer expectations.
Organizations develop KM capabilities to help support a range of vital operational and innovative activities. The interest in organizational capabilities has created a focus on the development and implementation of KM processes and infrastructure required to support daily work practices.
Competitive advantage rests on the ability to constantly develop capabilities that form the basis for products and services offered by organizations. To remain competitive it is insufficient to have resources and assets, as organizations must also possess strong KM capabilities for developing and supporting work practices and routines. This is especially true for organizations competing in fast changing dynamic markets as KM capabilities enable organizations to react to changing market conditions, and achieve and sustain competitive advantage.
The ability to create, store, disseminate, and utilize knowledge and expertise has become a primary way for organizations to compete. Amassing and synthesizing specialized knowledge from multiple sources is a pivotal factor in resolving the technical and operational uncertainties that impede organizational success. Organizational success is related to an ability to import new external knowledge and synthesize existing internal knowledge. Access to external knowledge represents an external-to-internal transfer of knowledge, while internal knowledge integration captures an internal-to-internal transfer of knowledge. Higher performance is associated with knowledge transfer mechanisms that actively encouraged the exchange of information across organizational units and across organizational boundaries. Thus, the acquisition, integration and availability of specialized knowledge, influence the outcome of organizational success.
Further, distinct expertise needs to be shared between employees with a sufficient level of congruence to enable individuals to understand each other and work together towards their common goals from different perspectives. Combining previously unconnected aspects or recombining previously associated aspects creates common knowledge, as individuals realize that tasks are better achieved through dynamic interaction and feedback. In this way organizations are likely to create new and common knowledge and engage in effective sharing and integration of knowledge to achieve their predefined goals.
KM capabilities are integral for effective knowledge sharing between individuals. Knowledge use is associated with people and behaviour and organizations benefit when knowledge is shared in context and according to need. Organizations need to adopt an integrative approach to developing KM capabilities that covers all potential sources of knowledge and reduces barriers to knowledge sharing and organizational learning. KM capabilities, namely infrastructure and processes, provide the support structure required to share knowledge within the context in which it is required. Organizations aim to develop KM capabilities into a state where KM practices are institutionalized and embedded into its daily work practices. For a KM initiative to achieve such an organizational state, the knowledge infrastructure and process capabilities need to develop from an initial state of low availability, accessibility, usage and practice to a state of organizational capability of high availability, accessibility, usage and practice.
KM capability framework
The KM capability framework depicts the possible states organizations may encounter while implementing their KM programmes.
An organization's KM programme can be considered to be in the initial state when the organization is creating a knowledge vision and relating this vision to its strategic needs and other initiatives that already exist. During this state the organization explores all possibilities related to the KM initiative and also the opportunities present. The organization identifies the infrastructure required to support the initiative and the KM processes to be practised. Financial support for the programme and other resources required to implement the programme are also identified and budgeted. An important activity or feature of this state is the top management's commitment to the KM initiative and development of a cross-functional team responsible for implementing the programme. Within this state, management needs to communicate its knowledge vision across the organization, and make individuals aware of the KM programme and its expected benefits.
High KM infrastructure capability
The KM programme is in the state of high infrastructure capability when there is an emphasis on developing the infrastructure. During this stage the knowledge vision is translated into action by means of mission and value statements to encourage the growth of knowledge within the organization. A knowledge culture of sharing and learning is promoted with individuals encouraged to participate and contribute. The organization reviews its policies and processes, and implements systems of rewards and incentives to motivate and reward knowledge sharing behaviour. During this state information technology support is developed in the form of repositories and collaborative technologies. Knowledge mapping and application technologies are developed to enable the firm to effectively track sources of knowledge, creating a catalogue of internal organizational knowledge, and apply its existing knowledge. An organization's KM programme could be considered to be in this state when individuals have access to the infrastructure but do not avail themselves of its complete potential or capability, due to the lack of practising knowledge processes.
“Organizations need to take steps to bring together individuals with common interests and improve their likelihood of success in knowledge sharing.”
High KM process capability
The KM programme can be considered to be in the state of high KM process capability when there is an emphasis on practising knowledge processes. Openness and trust characterize the organization's work environment and support knowledge sharing behaviours, which are included as an integral part of the training programmes. Communities of practice and centres of excellence evolve and individuals are encouraged to join and participate. Activities that establish an organization's KM programme in a state of high knowledge process capability include identifying lessons learnt, best practices, benchmarking, brainstorming, group problem solving, mentoring and collaboration. The daily work processes support decision-making, feedback and interaction, which are made apparent in the team commitment. Knowledge champions from distributed centres meet regularly and knowledge flows across boundaries and development centres. Therefore an organization would be in a state of high knowledge process capability and low infrastructure capability when the above-mentioned knowledge processes are practised but do not receive adequate support in the form of infrastructure support.
Organizational state of KM
An organization will be in a state of organizational KM infrastructure and process capability when it achieves high availability of infrastructure capability to support frequent and regular practice of knowledge processes. In other words, knowledge processes are embedded in the daily routines, procedures and practices of the organization which posses the knowledge infrastructure to support them. This state is characterized by a vibrant mix of vision, strategy, leadership, organizational structure, culture, technology infrastructure, and knowledge processes of creation, storage, retrieval, transfer, application and sharing. Forums such as communities of practice evolve and the organizational structure, culture, and technology support them. Lessons learnt are captured regularly and made available across the organization, while best practices are implemented.
Knowledge sharing and learning permeate the organizational environment of role models, mentoring, leadership, motivation, commitment, and training, where collaboration, feedback and interaction drive knowledge flow between individuals and teams. Acculturated knowledge champions and collaborative information technology support ensure that knowledge flows are not inhibited by organizational structures and distributed geographical locations, but instead flow across social networks and boundaries of the organization.
KM capability framework summary
By assessing and focusing on the KM infrastructure and process capabilities and their characteristics that are being developed and practised, organizations can determine the existing state of their KM programme implementation. The framework enables organizations to analyse if their KM programme is more focused towards developing KM infrastructure capability rather than KM process capability, or whether limited KM infrastructure is available for the KM processes being practised. Thus, the framework could help organizations to better understand the issues related to developing a KM initiative, and analyse any imbalance that may exist and needs to be addressed.
Implications for KM practice
KM initiatives evolve from the initial knowledge requirements, to a state of continued growth of knowledge use within organizations. In this state, knowledge processes need to be embedded in the daily routines of organizations and supported by knowledge infrastructure.
The development and growth of KM programmes and initiatives to a state of continuous knowledge use should ideally be managed at a pace that matches the rate of organizational growth to avoid instances of any imbalance between the requirements and availability of KM infrastructure and processes.
Organizations must develop capabilities to support and facilitate interaction and feedback to ensure the flow of knowledge. Organizations need to take steps to bring together individuals with common interests and improve their likelihood of success in knowledge sharing. Encouragement and facilitation of organization-wide communities of practice are a positive step towards effective KM, especially within a distributed organization. Convincing people to share their knowledge requires a combination of KM capabilities, such as inculcating a level of trust among individuals and managers, and creating a “no-blame” culture within organizations and a rewards system. Organizational vision and value statements need to reflect the commitment towards a knowledge culture, and be effectively communicated throughout the entire organization.
Organizations develop KM capabilities to mobilize and utilize their existing knowledge resources and integrate them with new knowledge in a dynamic manner. The development of KM infrastructure and process capabilities allow organizations to adopt a continuous view of their operations in order to manage context, provide feedback, facilitate interaction, and enable the flow of knowledge. This leads to the creation, sharing and integration of tacit and explicit knowledge, and ensures that the right knowledge is available to the right person at the right time within organizations.
This is a shortened version of “Developing knowledge management capabilities: a structured approach”, which originally appeared in Journal of Knowledge Management, Volume 15 Number 2, 2011.
The authors are Birinder Singh Sandhawalia and Darren Dalcher.