Managing the KM Trade-Off: Knowledge Centralization versus
(Department of Information Technology, University of Trento, Italy
(Department of Economics, University of Trento, Italy
(Department of Economics, University of Trento, Italy
Abstract: KM is more an archipelago of theories and practices
rather than a monolithic approach. We propose a conceptual map that organizes
some major approaches to KM according to their assumptions on the nature
of knowledge. The paper introduces the two major views on knowledge -objectivist,
subjectivist - and explodes each of them into two major approaches to KM:
knowledge as a market, and knowledge as intellectual capital (the objectivistic
perspective); knowledge as mental models, and knowledge as practice (the
subjectivist perspective). We argue that the dichotomy between objective
and subjective approaches is intrinsic to KM within complex organizations,
as each side of the dichotomy responds to different, and often conflicting,
needs: on the one hand, the need to maximize the value of knowledge through
its replication; on the other hand, the need to keep knowledge appropriate
to an increasingly complex and changing environment. Moreover, as a proposal
for a deeper discussion, such trade-off will be suggested as the origin
of other relevant KM related trade-offs that will be listed. Managing these
trade-offs will be proposed as a main challenge of KM.
Keywords: Intellectual Capital, Knowledge Markets, Mental Models,
Communities of Practice, Retrospective Rationality, Bounded Rationality,
Constructivism, Organizational Trade-offs.
Categories: A.0, A.1, H.1.0, H.1.1
It is quite evident that Knowledge Management (KM) today is more an
archipelago of loosely connected and often contradictory theories and practices,
rather than a coherent framework to support organizations in managing their
knowledge. Moreover, it is clear that every approach is rooted within often
implicit (but recognizable) epistemological assumptions about the very
nature of knowledge.
A short version of this article was presented at the I-KNOW '03 (Graz,
Austria, July 2-4, 2003).
Such an epistemological reading of the different KM approaches, although
well rooted in the KM literature (see for example [Nonaka
95] and [Drucker 94]), is obviously a major one,
if we consider that KM aims at managing a resource whose nature has being
debated for long and that is still, perhaps more than ever, object of a
strong philosophical, cultural, and social debate. As we will suggest,
such debate has implications that go far beyond a mere philosophical reading.
In fact, different epistemological assumptions lead to very different answers
on how knowledge and learning must be organized, and on what is the role
of management and technology. Moreover the exploration of the relationship
between the very nature of knowledge and its organization, can provide
not just a lens in order to explain the coexistence of heterogeneous approaches
to KM. It also represents a chance to discover a type of issue which is
particularly relevant to managers that have to make decisions; it hides
a trade-off between two very valuable opportunities that implicate very
undesired consequences. In particular, we claim that each epistemological
view and KM approach can be considered as an "archetype" that
responds to different, and often conflicting, needs. On the one hand, the
need to maximize the value of knowledge through its replication leads to
objectification-codification, whereas, on the other hand, the need to keep
knowledge appropriate to an increasingly complex and changing environment
leads to subjectification-contextualization. From a managerial stand point,
this phenomenon should be red as a "good new": KM is more likely
to be considered as a challenging managerial discipline since it deals
with the capacity to choose, balance, compromise, and find an equilibrium
between conflicting but valuable issues.
2 Objectivist Approach: knowledge as content
A first macro-approach to KM, which we call the rational objectivistic
approach, has its organizational roots in the theory of rational decision
making. In its "classic" version, this theory sees knowledge
as an objective, non-problematic resource, whose availability and transparency
is taken for granted. Later versions of the theory, inspired by Simon's
work on bounded [Simon 72] and procedural [Simon
76] rationality, made clear that human beings have a limited capacity
of elaborating information, that acquiring information costs money, and
thus the information available when making a decisions is necessarily limited.
In both versions, however, knowledge is viewed as an "object"
or content that can be stored and used in a non problematic way, independently
from subjectivity of producers and consumers.
Two are the major KM views that can derive from the objectivist-rationalistic
perspective: the "knowledge as a market" approach, and the "knowledge
as intellectual capital" approach.
2.1 Knowledge as a market
In analogy to what was proposed by [Hayek 48],
computational and cognitive boundaries lead people to manage knowledge
through markets. Market mechanisms, in fact, are able to bring to each
actor the needed piece of information in the right moment. Prices are proposed
as an example of mechanism that provides decision makers with enough (even
though not complete) information in order to take rational decisions.
For example, a shock in oil supply means, for some reason, that oil
becomes more scarce; from the perspective of a market buyer, higher prices
are the informative vehicle that instantaneously provides him with the
needed quantity of information. Through the market organizational form,
the whole knowledge can be managed by the system without assuming that
one needs to know everything.
Such perspective is reflected in all those theories of KM that see a
KM systems as a sort of knowledge market (see e.g. [Davenport
00]), populated by producers/ manufacturers, intermediaries and consumers
of knowledge. The goal of a KM system is therefore that of bringing down
the barriers which prevent such a market from becoming efficient. This
means that one has to increase the completeness of information (making
explicit the real value of knowledge), to overcome the information asymmetries
(some have better access to knowledge than others), and to avoid localisms
(knowledge can be shared across remote businesses).
The need to overcome or push forward the limits of rationality has emphasized
the role of those information and communication technologies that can be
used to strengthen and extend the human cognitive capabilities. [Borghoff
99] shows that organizations use technology to provide its members
with tools that allow them to increase the power to map, codify and transfer
knowledge: thus, for example, information retrieval and text mining tools
are used to facilitate the acquisition of new information from large bodies
of documents, data mining tools are used to extract regular patterns from
large collections of data, knowledge repositories and knowledge bases are
used to expand the memory capacity, ontology and representation languages
are used to improve the codification of information, document management
and publishing technologies are proposed to facilitate the dissemination
2.2 Knowledge as Intellectual Capital
From another perspective, bounded rationality leads to the need of considering
knowledge for the purpose of decision making in terms of local, rather
than global, optimality. Since the acquisition of information has a cost
that could be higher than the marginal outcome of its use, people need
to rely on working heuristics and procedures when making decisions. In
this sense, managing knowledge for decisions means reusing those solutions
that worked in the past, even though the reasons why they work are not
always clear, and as long as the value of each reuse is lower than the
cost of acquiring additional information.
Such a perspective seems to be collected by those approaches to KM that
view knowledge as an asset that needs to be reused by the organization.
In particular, the school of intellectual capital [Stewart
97]; [Sveiby 00] argues that people, through
their activity, generate working solutions that are embedded, for example,
in social relationships with customers and partners, procedures on how
things must be done, and structures that tell to people who can do what.
The simple production of such a knowledge has already generated a cost,
visible in the organization balance statement. On the other hand, it still
contains a potential value given by its reuse in similar situations. This
intangible value -the intangible capital- is not visible in the organization's
formal accounting documents, but is recognizable by the difference between
the value of the tangible assets, and the market value of an organization.
In order to exploit the value of the organizations' intangibles, knowledge
must be codified, spread and reused across the entire organization.
From an IT perspective, this view emphasizes the role of knowledge bases
that become the driving metaphor of knowledge as a resource that must be
codified and reused in order to exploit its value. Moreover, since the
IT revolution dramatically decreased the variable cost of information communication,
it opened the opportunity to maximize the rate of information replication.
In other words, the more the cost of communicating information decreases,
the more there is an incentive to replicate information to each potential
user that, through its use, can generate some value.
3 Subjective Approach: knowledge as context
A second macro-approach to KM, which we call knowledge as context, stresses
the subjective nature of knowledge and its strong dependency on a social
and a cognitive dimension. In general, the epistemological focus is shifted
from a notion of knowledge as general and abstract content, to those interpretative
"premises" within which a "piece" of content gets a
meaning, this way becoming knowledge. In this sense, knowledge is described
as a double faced matter, made of content -such as traditional scientific
statements- within an appropriate context - such as theories. In general,
in this epistemological view the contextual layer is viewed as an intrinsically
subjective construct that cannot be separated by people as an external
matter. For example, a context is not the time and place where an event
occurs, or the domain in which a statement is to be placed. Rather, it
is a perspective through which events and statements are red, a lens that
may change from person to person, from community to community. In this
sense, the difference between content and context is not quantitative but
qualitative; it is not an additional layer of facts that needs to be considered
when interpreting some content, but rather an internal momentum through
which facts, from the actor's perspective, gain sense [Giunchglia
The contextual nature of knowledge has been described according to two
main perspectives. The first one underlines the cognitive nature of interpretation,
and views knowledge as a phenomenon that manifests itself mainly in terms
of mental constructs (knowledge as mental models). The second underlines
the social nature of interpretation and represents knowledge as a phenomenon
that manifests mainly in terms of social relationships (knowledge as a
3.1 Knowledge as mental models
The cognitive approach has its roots in the phenomenological-cognitive
theory of organizations. These theories stress that the problem of rationality
does not lie in the limited quantity of available information, but rather
in the fact that the meaning of a piece of information changes according
to the actor's goals and beliefs. Information is interpreted, and not simply
received. The problem of knowledge is thus shifted from uncertainty to
ambiguity, that is, from the problem of deciding when there is a lack of
information (Simon) to the problem of deciding when information is abundant
and alternative interpretations are available [Zack 99],
[Weick 95]. Such a perspective, brought to its organizational
consequences by [March 91a], underlines how people and organizations act
on the basis of their roles and identities, and not on the basis of prospectively
assessed goals. Rather on the contrary, goals are defined ex-post, once
an action has been executed and some new situation has been achieved.
Quoting March [March 91a], organizations are seen
as "garbage cans", that is to say, collections of existing solutions
seeking for new problems. In this sense, knowledge is viewed as a tool
to celebrate and justify decisions, rather than a matter that describes
a world in order to take a correct action.
March's critic opens the way to the constructivist approach, proposed
by [Daft and Weick 84], who moves the attention from interpretation to sense making
processes. While the former assumes that there is an external world that
needs to be interpreted through cognitive constructs, the latter stresses
that through interpretation we act on the world and we modify it. The intrinsic
ambiguity of an environment is now viewed as an opportunity to interpret
a situation from a point of view and to change the world accordingly. As
a consequence, from a description of a given environment, knowledge becomes
the tool both to retrospectively justify and prospectively construct reality
As it is well described in [Zack 99], a KM system
must allow the emergence of those interpretation schemas and mental models
that structure the way in which management perceives reality and, consequently,
proceeds to action. The goal of such a process is to explicit the subjective
nature of the current beliefs and business theories, to modify these models
and thus act in a different way, and to encourage the communication and
sharing not only of information, but also of those mental models underlying
the interpretation of information. These KM solutions are characterized,
on the one hand by a higher complexity and "volatility" of the
issues they deal with (e.g. the mental models, the vision) and, on the
other hand, by a stronger impact on traditional organizational structures.
For these reasons, these solutions become often the basis of methodologies
(which have become fashionable in the 90s), which aim at making the top
management aware of new methods of business leadership based on recommendations
mainly focused on reasoning about, and exploiting mental models [Senge
90] [Argyris 02] 2.
3.2 Knowledge as practice
The other subjective approach to organizational knowledge, which we
call the pragmatic approach, has its roots in the social theories of organizational
learning, namely in the study of organizational cultures and the influence
of social factors (such as the feeling of belonging to something, trust,
and identity) on organizational dynamics [Mead 34],
[Vygotsky 78], [Latour 87]. These
studies, in a first phase, operated within the conception of sociality
as a constraint to be taken into account in the designing and development
of rational organizations (as in the case of the so-called human relations
schools - see e.g. [Mayo 34]).
view that brings the cognitivist-subjective approach to its extreme is
proposed by [Vopel 03]. Basically, since knowledge
is not a means to describe reality but rather a tool to reduce decisional
ambiguity and celebrate actions, it is no longer relevant to have the "right"
knowledge. What is relevant is to act, and to have some "knowledge"
able to drive people's confidence on the goodness of a decision. In KM
terms, since an ambiguous reality is not describable at all, this view
leads to a solution similar to the one proposed by the intellectual capital
approach, in which "centralization and control of the knowledge base(s)"
and the building of "a single perspective" is a good KM strategy.
But the reason is quite different; centralization becomes a means to merely
legitimate actions; no matter what knowledge base or perspective is adopted.
Here, learning is viewed as information acquisition, and sociality as
a dimension that needs to be managed in order to improve traditional learning.
However, a radically alternative approach emerged which envisions sociality
as an intrinsic factor that determines the very nature of organizational
learning tout-court. The strong link between knowledge and sociality was
brought forward by several authors (see, e.g. [Suchman
87], [Brown 91], [Clancey 92],
[Lave 90]), and is based on the idea that, in its
essence, knowledge has a practical nature. In other words, knowledge, far
from being an abstract matter based on a factual representation of reality,
is closely linked to the context of social practices which are created,
generated, and reshaped within a certain community. It is only by knowing
the group dynamics and habits, that the outspoken and traditional knowledge
acquires significance. Therefore learning, viewed as a generative process
of creating a practice, is carried out first of all through active participation
(engagement), and then internalized and transmitted through the practices
of a community.
Such view generated two quite different approaches to KM. A first one,
particularly famous thanks to the work of [Nonaka 95],
brought the attention of companies to the concept of implicit knowledge:
knowledge created by individual workers, and therefore strongly dependent
on the personal experience of its producers, can become of great value
to the company through a process of explicitation, refinement and crystallization.
This way, drawing a conclusion similar to those that belong to the objectivistic
tradition, knowledge can be transformed into a general and abstract object,
that can then be applied and re-used in contexts, which are different from
the original one.
The second view gave a more fundamental role to subjectivity and sociality
stressing the collective, rather than the individual, dimension of knowledge
creation [Wenger 98]. People participate to informal
communities in which they learn through practice, and generate knowledge
by contributing to the update and modification of these practices. Therefore,
a KM system cannot aim only at making explicit the implicit knowledge of
individuals, but rather at facilitating the creation and social dissemination
of practical knowledge. This happens by encouraging the creation and vitality
of the Web of informal relationships, which feeds the system of communities
of practice also through the use of open, weakly structured and mainly
collaborative technologies (like groupware systems), capable of supporting
the creation of traditional, or even virtual communities3.
to Nonaka's approach, communities of practice had a greater impact on concrete
KM solutions and techniques since the former proposes a very costly process
of knowledge exploitation, based on putting a manager side by side with
workers. On the other hand, a common managerial interpretation of the community-based
approach, supports a vision in which knowledge workers, independently from
the organizational will or desire, participate to the processes of exploitation
simply by taking part in the life of their community.
4 Managing KM Trade-offs
The heterogeneity that characterizes the different KM approaches here
presented, rather than deriving from alternative ideological views on knowledge,
represent the expressions of a "natural", unsaid, and typically
unintentional, debate around the dualistic nature of knowledge that happens
within organizations. In other words, we believe that the "ontological
dualism" between subjectivity and objectivity [Giddens
84] is not simply a matter of debate on the foundations of KM, but
a real contradiction afflicting researchers and practitioners whose task
is to manage knowledge within complex firms. In particular this ontological
dualism manifests itself in terms of a very concrete trade-off between
two opposite needs. On the one hand, managers need to foster value and
control, and try to achieve the latter through knowledge standardization
and the former through knowledge replication. Such a need is legitimated
by an objectivist approach to KM, and drives actions oriented towards the
creation of centralized repositories and efficient communication networks.
On the other hand, managers face the need, expressed by organizational
communities, to keep knowledge appropriate to context specific business
environments. Such a need is legitimated by a subjectivist approach to
KM, and drives actions oriented towards the enablement of informal networks,
and the recognition of the value generated by semantic specialization and
differentiation. The ontological dualism becomes a trade-off if we consider
how the two tendencies generate conflicting side effects: while standardization
tends to reduce appropriateness, contextualization tends to reduce replicability.
In fact, as underlined elsewhere [Bonifacio 02], in
complex environments standard knowledge tends to become useless since too
general to be applied and generate value. On the other hand, highly contextual
distributed "knowledges" tend to be "solipsistically"
owned by communities and organizations in order to merely justify their
actions; each "knowledge" becomes unable both to represent some
reality and to be communicated to another community. As a consequence,
complex firms that face heterogeneous environmental conditions, such as
PSFs [Bonifacio 00], are likely to promote, more or
less intentionally, both types of approaches as appropriate answers to
the need/opportunity to crystallize knowledge through centralization (in
stable or controllable environments), and the need/opportunity to mobilize
it through distribution (in uncontrolled and dynamic settings). Moreover
we propose that this fundamental trade-off is the basis of some other relevant
ones that concretely impact on well known and traditional organizational
4.1 Innovation versus improvement
Two typical ways to describe organizational learning are radical innovation
and continuous improvement [Hamel 01], [Boland
95], [Brown 91]. Such processes are seemingly
related to the main approaches to KM here proposed. In fact, viewing knowledge
as content implies, as said, an objectivistic reading of the environment
that can be increasingly "known" through deeper observation and
analysis. From this perspective, knowing is an incremental process that
aims at refining our representation of the world which is addressed towards
precision and truth. Such refinement is achieved inductively through the
formulation of better theories and, deductively, through their verification
by means of more precise experiments.
As a consequence, according to a behavioural metaphor [Weick
91], organizational learning manifests as continuous improvement, that
is, a reactive trial and error process of adjustment of organizational
behaviours to changing environmental conditions.
On the other hand, knowledge as context implies a broader view of organizational
learning that resembles the way in which Kuhn [Kuhn 70]
described the paradigmatic and discontinuous evolution of scientific knowledge.
From this perspective, a knowledge is seen as one of the "plausible"
interpretations of the world rather than a "draft" version of
an increasingly refined truth. People can see the environment from different
perspective and, moreover, they can construct different realities through
social negotiation [Berger 66]. As a consequence,
the evolution of a knowledge can be subject to "discontinuities"
and not only to "incrementality"; that is, social entities can
negotiate radically new theories of the world that lead and, according
to these, generate alternative and even conflicting interpretations of
the same facts. Moreover, social actors can "implement" such
views in the world through manipulation and creation of consensus, or,
as said by Weick [Weick 95], enact different "realities".
In this sense, organizational learning can be seen as innovation, that
is, the generation of alternative views of both the business and the organization
itself, which drives actions that are able to enable business and organizational
configurations in which such views are, ex post, true4.
Such dualism is the basis of other important ones such as specialization
versus despecialization. In fact, as proposed by James March [March
91b], while incremental learning are sustained by specialization trends
(that March calls exploitation), discontinuous forms of learning are sustain
by despecialization (that March calls exploration). Moreover, such dualism
is the basis of the other famous one of efficiency versus efficacy. In
fact, while exploitation of current capabilities leads to more efficient
solutions (being able do the same things with less resources), exploration
of new capabilities leads to new solutions (do new things). Of course,
within an unstable environment efficiency could be ineffective, since leading
to improve useless solutions, while in a stable one efficacy could lead
to un efficient behaviours, since exploring alternative answers that are
not required by environmental dynamics.
4.2 The source of knowledge: theory versus practice
An important debate evolves around the source of knowledge, that is,
whether knowledge originates from theoretical or practical reasoning [Brown
00]. In the former case, primacy is attributed to logical reasoning
and, moreover, to those mental processes that occur in the head of knowledge
workers. In the latter case, primacy is attributed to those relationship
that occur among social actors since knowledge is embedded in the various
ways in which we relate to each other. The trade off manifests if we consider
how theoretical reasoning aims at defining abstract (from specific contexts)
and general (applicable in different contexts) knowledge objects while
practical reasoning aims at defining "knowledges" that are rooted
in contextual circumstances.
view of innovation as social construction is sustained by a series of studies
that, through the concept of network externalities [Liebowitz
94], [Katz 85], show how famous innovations can
be better described as enactment of favorable business environments, rather
than proper understanding of given business environments [Arthur
89], [David 85].
On the other hand, the more we pursue theoretical formulations the more
we risk to generate logically correct but useless statements. Moreover,
the more we keep our solutions as practical, the more these are unable
to sustain predictions about alternative applicative domains. As a corollary,
such trade-off inspires well known limitations of current KM approaches:
while those that are inspired by an objectivistic metaphor are proposed
as prescriptive theories (they state what should be done normatively in
order to sustain organizational knowledge), those that are inspired by
subjectivistic metaphors tend to be merely descriptive (they tell us how
to study a practice but not how to judge it as good or bad). On the contrary,
while objectivistic approaches manifest an evident weak capacity to describe
how "things really work", subjectivistic ones are quite effective
in sustaining a deep understanding of organizational dynamics. As a matter
of fact, as many KM practitioners know, while Davenport or Sveiby's like
approaches are more easy to sell to companies, CoP and Mental Models are
much more able to explain learning dynamics.
4.3 The power of knowledge: owning content versus context
An important corollary of the two main approaches to KM is the definition
of power. Objectivistic approaches tend to view power as the capacity of
people to own content, that is, to prevent other people from accessing
relevant pieces of knowledge if they aren't disposed to pay some form of
value in order to acquire it [Davenport 00], [Stewart
97]. On the other hand, subjectivistic approaches lead to a notion
of power embedded in the capacity to own a context, that is, the capacity
prevent people from accessing either a social environment (CoP), or an
interpretative frame (mental models) in which content becomes meaningful
[Wenger 98]. In the latter case, power lies in the
capacity to interpret facts according to a perspective or identity, while
in the former resides in the quantity to store and recall relevant pieces
of content. In particular, the market metaphor views power as the capacity
to generate information asymmetries and the intellectual capital as the
capacity to standardize more content. On the other hand, the CoP approach
views power as the capacity to prevent people from accessing the social
practice reducing transparency, and the mental models as the capacity of
people to share content but not the ability to interpret it.
4.4 The role of technology: problem versus solution
The two different views on the knowledge provide a quite different angle
to read the role of technology. On the one hand, knowledge as content reads
technology as a neutral medium that vehicles knowledge from producers to
consumers. Technology is evaluated in quantitative terms as, for example,
media richness [Daft 86], and storing or processing
capacity. From this perspective, technological architectures are to be
incrementally evaluated on the base of their capacity to store, process,
and richly represent knowledge objects while managers and designers are
seen as independent parties that aim at enabling a better management of
knowledge. On the other hand, knowledge as context holds an opposite perspective
that views technology as an attempt to provide, and sometimes impose, a
context through which content should be interpreted. In fact, a KM technology
is seen as a "knowledge" itself that implicitly embeds a perspective
on social practices and meaning.
That is, technology aims at structuring both the way in which users
should engage in learning practices (CoP perspective), and the reference
schema -such as ontologies, taxonomies, concept maps- through which content
should be interpreted (mental models) [Bowker 00].
From this perspective, technology adoption is seen as a negotiation process
among different groups of interest (at least, as said by Orlikowski [Orlikowski
91a; 91b] designers, users, and managers) that
aims at preserving and imposing alternative interpretations of the working
environment. Moreover, managers aim at controlling knowledge through processes
and schemas inspired by standardization and centralization, users aim at
preserving opaqueness and locality of work practices, while designers aim
at implementing solutions that are conceptually appealing according to
their community. In such sense, technology, rather than a medium, is a
4.5 The role of managers: enablers versus controller
Strongly related to the above perspective, is the notion of
management that emerges if considering knowledge as either content or
context. In the former sense, the management of knowledge can and
should be focused on its traditional function, that is control. Here,
managers divide, through a top down process, the cognitive labour
according to cognitive loads and roles [Rullani
90]. Moreover, they aim at "extracting" knowledge from
people through standardization processes to transform it into a matter
that is independent from its holder. As a consequence, as much as
standard labour force and financial capital means that both manual
workers and industrial assets can be substituted, than standard
cognitive labour means that knowledge workers can be substituted as
well [Drucker 94]. Such goal, is well represented
by Nonaka's idea of making knowledge explicit, by Stweart with the
idea of transforming human capital into structural capital, and with
the one proposed by Davenport of knowledge codification. Moreover,
these views lead to hierarchical forms of cognitive division of labour
such as the Nonaka's Middle-Up-Down Management [Nonaka 95], and the Devanport's [Davenport 00] and Stewart [Stewart
97] classic forms based on Chief Knowledge Officers, Knowledge
Managers, and Knowledge workers. From this perspective, knowledge is a
value that can be controlled by managers.
On the other side, knowledge as context views managers as enablers
that can create an environment favourable to knowledge, but they
cannot control or appropriate its value. Such impossibility is due to
the "sticky" nature of knowledge [Brown
00] whose value is intrinsically embedded in social practices and
interpretative schemas. As a consequence, aiming at collecting content
is a non sense since any content avulse from practical and mental
context has no meaning. Moreover, managers have to reposition
themselves as community facilitators and, as clearly proposed by
Stewart [Stewart 97], renounce to the goal of
controlling the uncontrollable; that is, knowledge flows naturally
cross organizational boundaries since communities are transversal by
definition. Rather, managers should concentrate on moving "the
heart" of a community within the company so that the net exchange
of knowledge (knowledge that goes in minus the one that goes out) is
positive. To do so, rather than controlling intellectual property with
non disclosure agreements or patents, they should invest in strategic
communities providing resources and space for interaction.
Traditionally KM initiatives are presented as win win solutions, that
is, they are proposed as systems and organizational models that, if implemented,
expand the capacity of the firm to generate value and, moreover, such value
is distributed among every steak holder. They are neutral, in the broader
sense that these systems do not fundamentally influence the existing equilibria
if not in terms of requiring cultural change or a more developed knowledge
sharing attitude. In short, they're presented just as "good news".
Of course, like every evolution that impacts on the firm's core processes,
"good news" come always with "bad news". As we showed,
pushing too much the value of replicability generates meaningless solutions,
focusing too much on content implies a lack of context, promoting improvement,
specialization, and efficiency, weaknesses the capacity to generate effective
innovation. Moreover, adopting normative and theoretic approaches to KM
system design leads to solutions that are unable to properly represent
work practices, while technologies are "messages" whose successful
implementation is crucially rooted in the negotiation among managers, users
and designers. Finally, if power lies in the capacity not only to own content
but also context, KM systems should focus less on quantitative performance
parameters (such as, storing capacity) and more on qualitative ones such
as: to what extent people are disposed to share their interpretative schemas?
Are social practices transparent so that new comers are legitimated to
learn? Is technology an instrument that reduce or increase the opacity
of meaning ?
Of course such bad news are good news for managers. In fact, wherever
there are decision to be taken than there's managerial work to be done.
In managerial terms, in fact, our thesis entails that the role of knowledge
managers should be mainly focused on balancing the KM related trade-offs;
in this sense, a good knowledge manager must be able to tune centralization
vs distribution dynamics on the basis of a pragmatic evaluation of environmental
conditions, privileging the former in stable conditions, and the latter
in turbulent settings. In particular, he/she should balance innovation
issues versus improvement, efficiency versus efficacy, specialization versus
despecialization, replicability of solutions versus appropriateness, normative
approaches to organizational design versus more descriptive ones, technologies
as mediums versus technologies as messages, power as content versus power
as context. That is, managers should heavily reposition KM as a practice
that can lead towards two very different organizational models which imply
a main trade-off that goes directly at the very heart of the managerial
function. In fact, while the objectivist view leads to centralized forms
of organization, the subjectivistic one leads to distributed forms. In
trade-off terms, centralization could ensure control but at the risk of
controlling a useless and maladaptive organization; on the other hand,
distribution could sustain more innovative and flexible capacities, while
implying a loss in power and control. From the latter perspective, managers
that so often underline the importance of the subjective factor, should
be aware that they're going in the direction of criticizing their own traditional
position in favour of a new distributed managerial paradigm.
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