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Knowledge Management in Organizations - Book review

1 April 2013

Dr. Moria Levy

"Knowledge Management in Organizations," authored by Donald Hislop and published by Oxford University Press, initially written in 2005 and updated in 2009, serves as a comprehensive guide to the field of knowledge management. Combining an academic orientation with a business-friendly style, the book explores various facets of knowledge management, referencing and scrutinizing existing studies. Noteworthy for its illumination of significant, often non-trivial points, the book fearlessly delves into topics such as organizational politics and even ventures to assess the impact of leadership on knowledge management.


The book addresses the following key areas:

Introduction:

  • Exploring the significance of knowledge management

Basics:

  • Knowledge

  • Knowledge Management

  • Knowledge Workers

  • Organizational Learning

Knowledge Development and Knowledge Elimination:

  • Innovation

  • Non-learning

Knowledge Sharing:

  • Willingness to Share

  • Knowledge Communities

Organizational Aspects:

  • Organizational Politics

  • Cultivating Culture

  • Leadership

  • Critical Examination of Knowledge Management


The book's original 2005 writing style is discernible, and while the 2009 updates bring noticeable changes, they are somewhat limited, leaving specific topics less contemporary. Notably, the original chapter on information systems is excluded due to its perceived lack of relevance, which is evident in this summary. Nevertheless, the book is highly recommended as a textbook for those involved in teaching or studying knowledge management as a profession, especially within academic circles. Its value extends to individuals seeking to enhance their existing knowledge in the field. I have gained insights!


Introduction:

Exploring the significance of knowledge management

The book naturally commences with a series of quotes, beginning with Drucker, among others, underscoring the pivotal role of knowledge as a substantial asset in organizations and beyond. This surge is evident in the proliferation of academic publications and the magnitude of business conferences. Hislop then delves into whether this surge is merely a trend. While his remarks don't yield an unequivocal conclusion, there is a discernible inclination, especially from an academic standpoint, to perceive knowledge management as a phenomenon rather than a fad. According to a quote from Bell's research, expanding knowledge within organizations and society is not merely quantitative but undeniably qualitative, with knowledge emerging as a critical determinant of success. The contemporary era is now characterized as a "post-industrial society," where services play a pivotal role, and knowledge services/products have supplanted industrial products as the primary generators of prosperity. Consequently, knowledge is paramount in determining an organization's competitive advantage.


Basics:

Knowledge

Epistemology in professional literature delineates two distinct philosophies concerning knowledge: the perspective of objective reality views knowledge as an entity, codifiable and externalizable. On the other hand, the practice-based perspective integrates knowledge into practice, emphasizing its inseparability. These perspectives have direct implications for knowledge management approaches. The former emphasizes establishing knowledge glorifications, while the latter focuses on connecting knowledgeable individuals.


The relationship between epistemology and knowledge types is evident: the objective reality perspective aligns with explicit knowledge—codable, accurate, independent of individuals and context, and easily shareable. In contrast, the experiential perspective aligns with tacit knowledge—hard to articulate or encode, subjective, personal, contextual, and challenging to share.


These perceptions shape knowledge management processes. In the objective reality perspective, knowledge is encoded, gathered in repositories, and structured. Technology plays a significant role. The integrated perspective emphasizes processes that facilitate and encourage sharing among individuals, focusing on knowledge development and interpretation.


Interestingly, Nonaka's SECI model (Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization) introduces a concept incorporating elements of both types rather than adhering strictly to a defined philosophy.


Knowledge Management

The term "knowledge management" carries diverse definitions in professional literature for various reasons, including the integrated perception of experience that questions the ability to manage knowledge.


The chosen definition is broad: Knowledge management is an umbrella term encompassing any effort to manage the knowledge held by an organization's personnel. This can be achieved through myriad methods, whether via information systems, the management of social processes, the design of a supportive organizational structure, or through cultural and human practices.


The impact of knowledge management extends to individuals, organizations, and society, with each standing to benefit. The advantages are not solely reserved for the organization.


The organization's knowledge management strategy is anchored in the concept of knowledge epistemology and is reflected on three levels:

  • Aligning knowledge and knowledge management with business goals (e.g., creating a competitive advantage through reuse and knowledge development)

  • Defining knowledge processes (e.g., oral knowledge documentation, enhancing communication capabilities)

  • Deriving implications related to human resource management (e.g., motivating people, remuneration)


Citing Earl's research, the book identifies seven categories for knowledge management, each rooted in a different central philosophy:

  1. Management of computer systems for knowledge management; Main philosophy: coding

  2. Managing maps of stakeholders and experts; Key philosophy: connectivity

  3. Knowledge process management; Key philosophy: Capabilities

  4. Knowledge Asset Management (IP); Key philosophy: commercialization

  5. Management of knowledge networks (communities). Central philosophy: cooperation

  6. Knowledge space management; Main philosophy: accessibility

  7. Management of mind maps; Central philosophy: awareness and recognition


In a broader context, the nature of management is examined based on its strength and the type of interaction (Alvesson & Karreman):

  • Weak/approach-focused management – knowledge communities (idea sharing)

  • Strong/approach-focused management – normative control (predefined interpretations)

  • Soft/behaviorally focused management – expanded libraries (exchange of information)

  • Strong/behavior-focused management – extended blueprints (templates).


Knowledge Workers

Hislop references studies to elucidate the definitions of knowledge-intensive organizations and knowledge workers:

  • Knowledge-Intensive Organization Definition (according to Swart et al.): A society where a majority of work is intellectual, carried out by trained workers comprising a substantial portion of the workforce

  • Knowledge Worker Definition: An individual whose primary work involves intellectual, creative, and non-routine tasks, combining the utilization and creation of theoretical/abstract knowledge. Alternatively, a person whose work integrates a significant amount of tacit knowledge, context-dependent knowledge, and abstract/conceptual knowledge


Characteristics of Knowledge-Intensive Organizations:

  • Flatter organizational structures with less hierarchy

  • Competitive advantage derived from knowledge, skills, and workforce efforts

  • Highly educated/trained workforce, often with academic backgrounds

  • Team or project-oriented work processes emphasizing independence, creativity, and deviation from routine

  • Complex, non-standard products/services tailored to specific needs

  • Dynamic markets with high competition, mainly qualitative rather than cost-driven


Key Knowledge Processes in Knowledge-Intensive Organizations:

  • Knowledge development and realization

  • Knowledge coding

  • Knowledge acquisition

  • Knowledge sharing


Knowledge work and its outcomes evolve based on the organization's knowledge perception. In the philosophy of objective reality, the systematic application of defined knowledge is crucial, resulting in more customer solutions and performance improvements. In the philosophy integrated with experience, the emphasis is on enhancing the quality of products/consulting/solutions without systematic knowledge.


Towards the chapter's conclusion, Hislop poses a critical question: Are knowledge workers ideal workers? The answer is not unequivocal. While intrinsically motivated and committed to hard work, knowledge workers may sometimes conflict with the organization. Their performance is directly impacted by their alignment with the organization's values. Frequent job changes among knowledge workers can negatively affect the organizations they are associated with, prompting reflection on this dynamic.


Organizational Learning

Due to the connection, and perhaps even overlap, between knowledge management and organizational learning, there is an opportunity to explore organizational learning within the context of the book on knowledge management. This is particularly relevant given the wealth of materials on organizational learning in professional literature.


When delving into learning typologies, three components are considered:

  • Way of Learning: Perceptual/thinking; organizational culture; Behavioral

  • Type of Learning: Single loop, double loop; third order (deuteron)

  • Learning Level: Personal; team/group; Enterprise; Interorganizational


Organizational learning is the learning of an individual or group that becomes integrated into the organization's structure and processes. This integration is achieved through reflection and transforming relevant norms and values.


Key learning processes encompass:

  • Intuition: At the individual level, a cognitive process for recognizing patterns

  • Attending: At the individual level, an action-based process for discovering/absorbing new ideas

  • Providing Meaning: At the individual/group level, explaining personal insights through words or actions

  • Experiencing: At the individual/group level, an effort to realize and apply new learning through action

  • Integration: At the group/organization level, the development of shared practical knowledge and understanding

  • Institutionalization: At the organizational level, a process ensures repetitive actions integrate organizational insights, both at the process and computing levels


The learning organization concept is presented in two contrasting perceptions within the literature: an optimistic view that sees it as an organization supporting employee learning and leveraging it for organizational benefit, fostering experimentation, risk-taking, and open dialogue. Conversely, a skeptical view portrays it as an organization where social control systems serve to create value and adapt it to profits, potentially reinforcing management power and contradicting the independence promised by learning rhetoric.


Knowledge Development and Knowledge Elimination:

Innovation

Innovation is the deliberate transformation or transfer within an organization, encompassing its products, services, processes, or structure. Most studies commonly refer to three interrelated characteristics of processes related to innovation, each influencing the other:

  1. Learning Interactivity: Sustaining a continuous process of exchanging and sharing knowledge resources within the organization and with its customers and suppliers.

  2. Diverse Bodies of Knowledge: Incorporating various types of knowledge bodies whose combination fosters innovation.

  3. Utilization of Internal and External Networks: Leveraging communication and using transmitted knowledge within networks. Examination of networks reveals various types of cooperation and the participation of numerous organizations in external networks.


In the context of innovation, Hislop analyzes Nonaka's knowledge development model, which, as previously noted, aligns more closely with the philosophy of objective reality in its definition of knowledge but integrates elements from both. The SECI model, a cornerstone of Nonaka's proposition, emphasizes the sharp distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge and the spiral transition between them, moving from individual to group to organization and back. Hislop also addresses substantial criticisms directed at this model, including the lack of sufficient research evidence, uncertainty regarding converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and cultural considerations regarding its global applicability.


Despite criticisms, many studies assert the significance of tacit knowledge in organizational innovation processes, forming the foundational premise for Nonaka's innovation model. Tacit knowledge, especially when complex ("sticky knowledge" in professional jargon), challenges sharing. Trust is critical in successfully transferring and sharing tacit and complex knowledge, particularly when involving different stakeholders, significantly increasing the likelihood of innovation.


Non-learning

Initially, it must be acknowledged that engaging in non-learning activities and eliminating existing knowledge are rare occurrences in the purview of knowledge managers. Regulated databases handle knowledge validity dates and archives, but this encapsulates the essence of the discussion. Including such a chapter in the book on knowledge management in organizations presents a refreshing, significant, and thought-provoking aspect.


The elimination of knowledge is categorized into two types: the positive and the negative—planned and intentional or accidental. De Holan's research, quoted in this context, further orders knowledge elimination based on the nature of knowledge (new/old):

  • Organizational Memory Loss/Forgetting: Unplanned forgetting reflects the organization's inability to sustain past practices

  • Non-learning: Deliberate elimination of knowledge from existing and old repositories (unlearning)

  • Failure to Capture New Knowledge: Unintentional oversight related to newly created knowledge

  • Prevention of Bad Habits: Intentional avoidance of knowledge closely tied to negative practices, grounded in the notion that not all acquired knowledge is positive


Hislop takes a moment to delve into non-learning, defining it as a purposeful process of reflection and a willingness to relinquish outdated or soon-to-be obsolete knowledge, values, and practical experience.


The primary challenges associated with non-learning include:

  • The emotional difficulty for individuals in admitting mistakes and recognizing outdated knowledge

  • Cognitive challenge for individuals to grasp that what was appropriate in the past may no longer be relevant

  • Organizational difficulty in altering established patterns, as institutional knowledge is often taken for granted, makes it challenging for the organization to pause and reassess

  • The organizational challenge is refraining from punishing individuals involved in failures.

It is worth noting that there is no consensus on whether a crisis impedes learning or serves as a catalyst.


Key processes that organizations must navigate in the context of knowledge elimination include:

  1. Presenting new ideas—an opportunity for non-learning

  2. Preserving knowledge from veteran staff—an opportunity to prevent forgetfulness

  3. Changing organizational work processes—an opportunity for non-learning


Knowledge Sharing:

Willingness to Share

The willingness to share knowledge is not inherent; employees may perceive advantages but also potential drawbacks. Fear of risk, reduced dependency on knowledge, and concerns about losing ownership of knowledge are possible deterrents. Additionally, the act of sharing knowledge itself can be time-consuming.


Several factors influence the willingness to share:


Trust:

The most significant factor, according to studies, is interpersonal trust. Trust is defined as the belief individuals have in the observable behavior of others and the assumption that these individuals will honor their commitments. Trust forms a mutual connection, and Newell & Swan outline three types:

  1. Trust-Based Companion Friendship

  2. Trust is based on assessing the ability of others to perform their competency tasks

  3. Commitment Based Trust

Trust can develop at a personal level, but it is essential to note that trust also evolves between groups and organizations.


Belonging:

Research indicates that a sense of belonging to a group or identification with a role enhances the willingness to share.


Character:

Personal character plays a role in influencing the willingness to share. This aspect can be considered in the recruitment process.


In conclusion, while employees may have advantages in sharing knowledge, the decision to do so is influenced by various factors, including trust, a sense of belonging, and individual character traits. Recognizing and understanding these factors is crucial for fostering an organization's knowledge-sharing culture.


Knowledge Communities

Knowledge communities represent just one avenue for sharing knowledge, a choice emphasized by Hislop due to their centrality in knowledge-sharing solutions, primarily when the book was written, marked by the emergence of social media. Knowledge communities are individuals engaged in an everyday activity, sharing some common knowledge, identity, and shared values.


Diverging from formal working groups in organizations, knowledge communities evolve and are shaped by their shared values. They operate voluntarily and non-hierarchically, with self-sufficient management and no external command and control system. The timeframe for community existence can be perpetual.


In line with Hislop's approach throughout the book, a critical examination of knowledge communities is incorporated, challenging the idealized portrayal in many articles and books. Criticisms encompass:

  1. Discussions about knowledge communities often neglect power and conflict issues (expounded in the chapter on organizational politics)

  2. Discussions often need to distinguish between various types of communities, which vary significantly in characteristics, making uniform evaluation challenging.

  3. The widespread popularity of knowledge communities sometimes leads to regular working groups being viewed as such, resulting in conclusions that may not apply to all types of communities

  4. A strong community identity can create exclusivity, resembling a club, and may deter potential contributors, causing the loss of valuable individuals and knowledge


Trust and a sense of identity are crucial for a community to thrive, as discussed in the earlier section on willingness to share. These elements are more applicable in intra-organizational communities, and challenges arise in non-organizational communities due to a lack of shared knowledge, values, assumptions, and an everyday context.


Hislop contends that trust can be fostered by engaging in shared work-related and non-work-related social interactions. Investing in context-oriented management and informational resources that support collaboration, such as knowledge bases, templates, drawings, and expert maps, is recommended. These measures can facilitate the development of knowledge communities, addressing their inherent challenges, particularly in non-organizational settings.


Organizational Aspects:

Organizational Politics

Few books on knowledge management delve into the realm of organizational politics and its implications for knowledge management. The central argument of this chapter underscores the critical importance of comprehending the intricate connections between power dynamics and organizational knowledge processes. Like other subjects, the discourse on power manifests varying perspectives in professional literature, with two primary opposing schools of thought. One sees power as a standalone resource, independent of individuals, capable of influencing people and activities to achieve desired goals. The second school views power as an integral part of social relationships, a force people can utilize but cannot be separated from specific individuals.


The characteristics of knowledge that endow it with the potential to be a source of power are:

  1. Scarcity of knowledge – information held by a select few, latent and attainable through experience

  2. Responsiveness to wants/needs – knowledge possessed by individuals providing solutions aligned with their objectives and contributing to organizational goals

  3. Knowledge without alternatives – indispensable information


Power is defined as a (lacking) resource enabling individuals to shape the behavior of others. There are five distinct types of power resources: physical, economic, knowledge about the organization and its procedures, professional technical knowledge, and norms encompassing ideas and values. Power, politics, and conflict are interlinked and mutually influential: conflicts of interest impact and are impacted by various power resources; these, in turn, affect and are affected by political processes within the organization, all while influencing and being influenced by conflicting interests.


Unlike physical power, which is uniformly treated negatively and subject to legal scrutiny, attitudes toward other types of power fluctuate based on circumstances, depending on their impact on others and the reactions they elicit.


Understanding these dynamics in the context of knowledge management is paramount, as it enables a nuanced comprehension of human behavior and the propensity to share information.


Cultivating Culture

Those engaged in knowledge management recognize the pivotal role of fostering organizational culture in encouraging employee knowledge sharing. Culture, as we have come to understand, stands as the primary key to the overall success of knowledge management processes. This chapter delves into promoting organizational culture and associated human resource activities contributing to this endeavor. Organizational culture is defined as the amalgamation of beliefs and behaviors shared by members of the organization.


As a precursor, Hislop introduces the concept of the employee's psychological contract within the organization. This contract influences the employee's commitment level to the organization, shaping their attitudes and behaviors across various domains, including knowledge sharing and development. Thus, a closely entwined relationship exists between the psychological contract and organizational culture.


Characteristics of an organizational culture that fosters knowledge management include:

  • Knowledge sharing is the norm

  • A shared sense of identity among individuals

  • High levels of trust and mutual respect among people

  • Fairness in processes, organizational structures, and treatment

  • Employees possess a high level of trust and commitment to the organization


Reciprocally, knowledge management can contribute to organizational culture through the following:

  • Linking knowledge management activities to business challenges

  • Aligning knowledge management activities with the organizational style

  • Ensuring HR practices are connected to behaviors conducive to knowledge sharing


In the realm of human resource management within an organization, knowledge management can be influenced through various means:

  • Recruiting and selecting individuals who align with the organization's values and possess personalities conducive to knowledge sharing

  • Designing challenging and satisfying work processes that facilitate the development of existing skills, acquisition of new ones, and fostering employee independence

  • Prioritizing general training enriches employees without confining them to specific, narrow knowledge.

  • Emphasizing coaching and mentoring, which research suggests positively impacts behaviors related to knowledge sharing

  • Recognizing and rewarding knowledge management activities, though conflicting studies exist on the long-term effectiveness of such rewards

  • Lastly, retaining knowledgeable employees is deemed crucial


Understanding and implementing these strategies contribute significantly to fostering a culture that facilitates effective organizational knowledge management.

Leadership

The leadership domain is extensively discussed in professional literature, not limited to knowledge management. This chapter exclusively focuses on and explores the interplay between leadership and knowledge management processes.


In the initial phase, Hislop delves into various conceptualizations of leadership that have evolved over the past century:

  • Leadership as an innate trait

  • Leadership as behavior, with a focus on studying successful leaders' behaviors

  • Contextual leadership, wherein leadership depends on the organization's nature and its context

  • Charismatic leadership

  • Leadership that crafts vision, values, and goals motivating employees to participate in their advancement


Hislop differentiates between two closely related yet distinct terms—leader and manager:

  • Leadership with a long-term focus; Management with a near-term focus

  • Strategic nature of leadership; Operational focus of management

  • Leadership driven by motivation through inspiration and excitement; Management focused on goal achievement, measurement, and reward

  • Leadership in the development of values and vision; Management in the realization of existing values and vision


A fundamental premise associated with leadership is that it significantly influences a company's performance and competitiveness despite its dealings with resilience and values.


While the knowledge management literature extensively addresses leadership, this analysis underscores that the primary reference is often to transformational leadership. Existing literature generally portrays a positive relationship between leadership and knowledge management performance—however, some express reservations about the success of studies in establishing a direct connection between the two. The research is not consistently empirical and satisfactory where a connection is presented. Moreover, an alternative concept suggests that knowledge management does not necessitate a single leader; instead, all managers and employees should embody leadership qualities to ensure the success of knowledge management, contrary to the conventional perception of an individual leader leading the charge.


Critical Examination of Knowledge Management

On the one hand, it is natural to conclude such a book with a chapter on critical thinking, given that critical thinking has characterized the entire course of the book. On the other hand, considering the whole book has already encompassed crucial thinking on each subject, one might question the need for an independent chapter on this topic.


The Critical Thinking chapter delves into questions about knowledge management, not necessarily limited to critical thinking about a specific topic, as discussed in previous chapters. In this context, critical thinking raises three main questions related to the subject:

  1. There are numerous issues in the professional literature on knowledge management related to the perception of knowledge involving both philosophies, sometimes ignoring one (usually combined experience) and failing to clarify which philosophy is being relied upon.

  2. It is essential to contemplate whether knowledge management is truly a phenomenon worth studying or if it's merely a passing trend. As mentioned earlier, opinions are divided, with academic evidence suggesting it is not a fad, while in the business world, definitive proof or a unanimous opinion is lacking.

  3. The final issue in the book attempts to comprehend the processes and agents influencing the diffusion and consumption of knowledge in knowledge management processes.


Hislop analyzes the four primary factors impacting the field:

  • The Big Five transformed the idea into a service/product

  • Business schools

  • Opinion leaders in the global field of knowledge management (such as Prusak and Nonaka)

  • Consulting companies that translate the theory into practical, everyday activities


The book meticulously examines these factors and their influence on the field.


Nothing is more fitting than concluding the book with the issue in which it ended—who influenced the field, brought it to its current state, and guided it into new avenues. We are left to wait... and perhaps also play a role. Good luck to us (M.L.).

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