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If Only We Knew What We Know - Book Review

1 July 2007
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

I've reviewed numerous books on knowledge management and its fundamentals, and unquestionably, "If Only We Knew What We Know," written by O'Dell and Grayson, the CEO and founder of APQC – an American nonprofit quality organization, stands out as a highly recommended read. This book delves into knowledge management by emphasizing the sharing of existing organizational knowledge, distinguishing itself from other works, such as Nonaka's, which focus on generating new knowledge. Despite its 1998 publication date and specific chapters becoming less relevant due to technological advancements and practical methodologies, most of the book remains valuable, instructive, engaging, and worth recommending.

This article reviews the book, following the principles outlined within its pages. Embracing technological advancements, the review encourages interactive reading, allowing readers to navigate the book's guiding map while highlighting the still-relevant chapters without delving into specific case studies. Notable stories from organizations such as Amoco, World Bank, Texas Instruments, and Buckman Laboratories are embedded in the book. Buckman's narrative, for instance, details the inception of the organization's knowledge management activity in 1992, a realization stemming from an illness-induced two-week absence, underscoring the importance of organizational knowledge.

Readers are advised to explore the complete book to fully grasp these narratives and delve into more detailed content beyond this article's overview.

The book aims to convey three primary messages:

  1. Effective organizational knowledge sharing translates to financial gains.

  2. Transforming knowledge into profit requires a focus on one or more added values:

    a. Enhancing customer intimacy and improving customer-related processes and knowledge.

    b. Pursuing excellence in product development and marketing.

    c. Achieving operational efficiency.

  3. A systematic process must be planned to ensure actual implementation, encompassing stages and enabling factors leading to change: organizational infrastructure, culture, technology (computing), and measurement.

These messages, along with supplementary information, are encapsulated in the following model, serving as the book's guiding map:

  • Introduction

    • What is Knowledge Management?

  • Inhibitory Factors

    • Personal Inhibitory Factors

    • Systemic Inhibitors

    • Added Values

  • Enabling Factors:

    • Culture

    • Technology

    • Enterprise Infrastructure

    • Measurement

  • Execution Steps:

    • Planning

    • Realization

    • Upgrade

  • Summary

Introduction – What is Knowledge Management?

Knowledge management is a framework and managerial concept designed to establish channels for transferring knowledge rooted in past experiences. Most definitions, including machine learning (ML), encompass knowledge sharing and developing new knowledge.

It is crucial to delineate what knowledge management is not:

  1. Knowledge management is not a religion or a spiritual calling: It doesn't operate on faith-based principles but relies on tangible practices.

  2. Knowledge management is not a way to rally employees around a drawn philosophical concept: It's not about abstract ideologies but practical approaches to knowledge utilization.

  3. Knowledge management is not a search for the truth (it is closer to making money). Unlike truth-seeking endeavors, its primary goal is often linked to generating economic value.

  4. Knowledge management is not a science: While it involves systematic processes, it is not a purely scientific pursuit.

  5. Knowledge management is not a passing managerial fad: It stands apart from fleeting trends as it is rooted in the enduring power of organizational learning, emphasizing practical outcomes. It goes beyond mere technology, recognizing that its success hinges on tapping into the intellectual capital of individuals. The emphasis is on project models, requiring individuals to initiate, conclude, and deliver tangible results.

Introduction - Inhibitory Factors

Personal Inhibitory Factors

  1. Ignorance:

    a. Individuals possessing knowledge may fail to recognize its significance for others.

    b. Those pursuing knowledge may remain unaware that it exists within someone else's grasp.

  2. Inability to Absorb:

    a. Individuals may lack the necessary resources, be it time, money, or attention, to effectively assimilate acquired knowledge.

  3. Lack of Early Connections:

    a. Managers without prior connections are less likely to adopt each other's knowledge in their respective roles.

  4. Lack of Motivation:

    a. Not everyone perceives a compelling business reason for transferring and sharing knowledge.

Systemic Inhibitors

Certain organizational archetypes resist and impede knowledge management. These include:

  1. Silo Ltd.: An organization prioritizing individual units at the expense of collective optimization.

  2. NIH - Not Invented Here Ltd.: An organization favoring new development over leveraging existing knowledge, especially from external sources.

  3. Babylon Ltd.: An organization where different units need more awareness of each other's activities.

  4. All-by-Book Company Ltd.: is an organization rigidly adhering to procedures, potentially hindering the sharing of knowledge beyond formal protocols.

  5. Add-Above-All Ltd.: An organization willing to share knowledge but believes it can be achieved without additional organizational resources, prioritizing it above all other tasks.

If your organization resembles one or more of these types, there is hope for change. Recognizing the need for change, understanding the current state, and implementing a detailed action plan can significantly reduce and weaken inhibiting factors within your organization.

Added Values

Determining the added values and, consequently, defining the goals that knowledge management will serve is pivotal for the success of the process. A broad "let's share everything" ideology often results in diminished success. Concentrating on one or two added values that would benefit the organization is more effective.

Here are three types of value-added and examples of specific derived purposes:

  1. Improving Customer Intimacy and Customer-Related Processes:

    a. Examples:

    i. Uniformity of service.

    ii. Creating a One Stop Shop for customer convenience.

    iii. Providing knowledge for service representatives to address needs and problems swiftly and in a single call.

    iv. Enhancing client intimacy to reduce the likelihood of customer abandonment.

    v. Empowering salespersons to increase sales, operate more efficiently, and encourage repeat sales.

  2. Excellence in Product Development and Marketing:

    a. Examples:

    i. Reducing development time.

    ii. Integrating pertinent knowledge and functionality into a product or service to enhance quality.

    iii. Lowering development costs to boost profitability.

  3. Operational Efficiency:

    a. Suitable when:

    i. There are dozens or hundreds of similar units of work/activities in the organization.

    ii. In mergers, where synergy is sought not only from size but also from aggregated knowledge.

    iii. In partnerships with external parties, knowledge sharing is needed for the optimal execution of joint ventures.

It is essential to note that the added value may evolve, contingent upon the changing dynamics of the organization and the market.

Enabling Factors:


The significance of a knowledge-sharing organizational culture cannot be overstated. Culture blends shared history, expectations, unwritten rules, and social norms that influence everyone's organizational behavior. According to Sazolansky's 1995 study, the strength of the relationship between the knowledge sharer and the recipient is the best predictor of knowledge sharing. A knowledge-sharing culture thrives in organizations with learning through teaching and sharing, community understanding through storytelling, continuous transfer and development of new knowledge, common interests and expertise, shared problems and challenges, solid professional ethics, and good personal relationships.

Improving a knowledge-sharing organizational culture is challenging but feasible. Steps to take include recognizing that people want to share, leading the process through action in the field, relying on capitalism (efficiency and business effectiveness) and democracy, developing collaborative relationships, defining personal responsibility for knowledge development and sharing, and fostering a sense of collective organizational orientation. While there are varying opinions on the role of remuneration, the authors lean towards not relying solely on rewards, emphasizing that they alone will not achieve the desired results.


While not the primary factor, technology, especially computing, has significantly propelled knowledge management in recent years. The authors discuss various technological issues, acknowledging that many are irrelevant. They outline four main types of knowledge management solutions: structured content repositories, conversation and discussion databases, expert maps and specialties, and document and video transfer mechanisms. Implementing the technological aspect involves defining standards for uniform platforms, adapting solutions to knowledge management goals, developing structured cataloging methods, maintaining flexibility, adopting a practical approach, and incorporating measurement.

Enterprise Infrastructure

Supporting organizational infrastructure encompasses mechanisms that facilitate knowledge flow, an organizational structure supporting knowledge management, and change management. Six key inhibiting factors include hidden knowledge, blindness to relevant knowledge, trapped tacit knowledge, the perception of "we are different," lack of time, and the challenging realization process. Supporting mechanisms for knowledge sharing may involve self-employed responsibility, a network of knowledge managers and support personnel, and roles like documenters, content experts, and change agents.


Despite ongoing debate, the authors assert that measurement is a crucial enabling factor. Various types of measurement, such as outputs, activity, and inputs, can be implemented to track progress. Examples of measuring outputs against defined added values include customer retention levels, activity metrics like the number of calls, product development and marketing metrics like revenue from new products, and operational efficiency metrics like cost per unit and process efficiency.

Execution Steps:


Planning Phase Objectives:

  1. Evaluation of Current Opportunities for Knowledge Sharing:

    a. Understand existing knowledge within the organization.

    b. Evaluate the organizational importance of the subject.

    c. Analyze the current knowledge-sharing mode.

    d. Assess processes for acquiring external knowledge.

    e. Determine the extent to which knowledge is considered a product.

    f. Identify technologies used for knowledge transfer and sharing.

    g. Examine the organization's current encouragement of knowledge sharing.

  2. Business Value-Added Research:

    a. This involves four stages:

    i.Examination of business strategy.

    ii.Evaluation of the current condition, identifying pain points and areas for improvement.

    iii.Development of a comprehensive framework for knowledge management.

    iv. Making realistic decisions regarding the knowledge management channels to operate in.

  3. Locating Leads for an Initial Project:

    a. Critical to find a leader who understands the need and has the necessary resources to support knowledge management activities.

  4. Informing and Preparing the Organization for Activity:

    a. Identify subgroups within the organization.

    b. Analyze the benefits partners in these groups would derive from knowledge management.

    c. Seek help from individuals experienced in organizational processes related to knowledge sharing.

    d. Recruit and involve them with understanding and support on the subject.

  5. Set Up Your Business Case:

    a. The team understands projects and processes in this final stage, providing added value.

    b. Present the business case.

    c. Obtain management consent and funding.

The planning phase aims to lay the groundwork by assessing existing knowledge, understanding its importance, and strategically planning for knowledge management. Identifying leads, preparing the organization, and presenting a comprehensive business case is integral to successful implementation.


Implementation Phase Objectives:

  1. Initiate the Project:

    a. Implementation methods vary based on project type.

    b. The article does not detail implementation, considering the late 1990s context with limited methodologies.

    c. Insights are drawn from lessons learned in previous launches.

  2. Provide Content and Process Support:

    a. Guiding principles:

    i. Face-to-face meetings are crucial.

    ii. Multiple sessions are necessary for effectiveness.

    iii. Investing in coordinators and functionaries proves worthwhile.

    iv. Prioritize achieving tangible and perceived results.

  3. Review and Study

  4. Achieve Measurable Results

The implementation phase involves initiating the project, offering content and process support with a focus on face-to-face interactions, and emphasizing the attainment of tangible and perceived results. The review and study phase is critical for assessing progress and making necessary adjustments.


Objectives for the Upgrade Phase:

  1. Compile Success Stories and Publish Initial Results:

    a. Document successful outcomes and share them to foster confidence and enthusiasm.

    b. Offer a concrete demonstration of the project's impact.

  2. Utilize Accumulated Knowledge for Improvement and Expansion:

    a. Apply insights gained from experience to enhance and broaden the initiative.

    b. Extend the project's scope based on the knowledge and lessons acquired.

  3. Establish a Supportive Organizational Process for Continuous Management:

    a. Develop a sustainable framework for continuous knowledge management.

    b. Implement processes to ensure the initiative's long-term success and seamless integration.

The upgrade phase aims to compile success stories, utilize accumulated knowledge for improvement and expansion, and establish a supportive organizational process for continuous management. This involves documenting outcomes, applying insights, and developing sustainable processes for long-term success.


Summary of Knowledge Management Principles:

While there is no concise summary of the expansive topic of knowledge management, the authors offer fundamental principles to remember on this enduring journey:

  1. Business values drive sharing values.

  2. Transfer of best practices is a promising knowledge management strategy.

  3. Integration of knowledge management into the organizational structure is crucial.

  4. Generous resource allocation for knowledge management is rare and tied to success.

  5. Proper organizational culture plays a critical role.

  6. Successful knowledge management combines the attraction and push of knowledge.

  7. Effective knowledge management doesn't solely rely on incentives.

  8. Management support is a necessity for long-term survival.

  9. Technology is a stimulant, but knowledge management is more than technology-driven.

  10. Mature knowledge management efforts evolve from an education concept to a measurement concept.

Hope you found this summary enjoyable and enlightening. If intrigued, consider exploring the book for a deeper understanding.

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