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Managing Knowledge Networks - Book Review

1 July 2010

Dr. Moria Levy

The book "Managing Knowledge Networks," authored by David Johnson in 2009, highlights the author's expertise in networks. It delves into various aspects of knowledge networks, encompassing networks of knowledgeable individuals and knowledge items. The author explores how individuals access information and knowledge within or outside an organization.


However, accessibility to the book is a challenge. Its academic style caters to those who appreciate this form of writing. Beyond that, the initial half is theoretical; nevertheless, for readers who navigate this section, the latter part is more pragmatic and comparatively more straightforward to comprehend.


The book is structured around three key chapters:

  • Introduction: Knowledge; Networks.

  • Supporting Foundations: Network design; Technology; External knowledge.

  • Utilizing Knowledge for the Benefit of Performance: Innovation; Productivity; Locating information; Decision making.


The topics covered in the book include:

  • Knowledge

  • Networks

  • Network planning

  • Technology

  • External knowledge

  • Innovation

  • Productivity

  • Finding information

  • Decision making


Undoubtedly, the book offers a perspective different from that found in traditional knowledge management literature, providing a refreshing take on the subject. Happy reading!

Knowledge

Knowledge, as explored in literature, takes on various definitions. Johnson gleans insights from the dictionary definition Webster provided, including, among other things, 1) understanding or perceiving something and 2) possessing understanding or ability as a result of experience.


Like others, Johnson compares knowledge and related concepts such as data, information, and wisdom. However, he organizes them in a hierarchical order different from the conventional one: information > data > knowledge > wisdom. This arrangement suggests that knowledge involves a more profound understanding than data and information.


The analysis of the concept of knowledge further involves an examination along several axes:

  • Tacit knowledge versus revealed knowledge.

  • Personal knowledge versus social knowledge.

  • Ignorance versus knowledge (two opposing perceptions).


Context proves pivotal in comprehending knowledge and becomes critical when understanding knowledge networks. It can be analyzed in various ways:

  1. Context is a scenario where the node/connection is situated.

  2. Context as a dependency.

  3. Context as a framework or governance structure.


Networks

A network constitutes a collection of nodes interconnected by relationships.


In network analysis, various aspects are taken into consideration, including:

  • Reciprocity of relationships (whether A is related to B implies that B is equally associated with A).

  • Strength of connections.

  • The significance of connections, such as success in job performance.


Network analysis delves into various aspects related to behavior within and between networks, encompassing:

  • Several networks and the overlap or relationship between them, such as the connection between a formal structural network and informal power relations in an organization.

  • Proliferation of information/features on the network.

  • Liaisons are the nodes that connect clusters in a network, sometimes complementary and sometimes resulting in holes (disconnects between nodes).

  • Different types of routes for transitioning from junction to junction.

  • The location of a specific node in the network.

  • Distances: Fixed-distance connections form the foundation of network stability.

  • Network density (the level of connections relative to the maximum potential of connections in a network).

  • Groups and the level of connections within them; cliques and groups.


Network planning

To determine how to design networks, one must first comprehend:

  1. Studies indicate that weak connections are crucial in information networks, not only when strong connections are unavailable but also when those strong connections fail to provide the answer. This is because individuals in intense contact often share substantial knowledge overlap.

  2. Liaisons are particularly vital, especially for identifying who in the organization possesses specific knowledge.

  3. Isolated and densely populated cliques serve as sources of significant tacit knowledge.

  4. Tacit knowledge sharing is prevalent in informal and professional networks within the organization, whereas formal organizational networks and market networks (customers-suppliers) exhibit less sharing.

  5. Market networks feature asymmetric relationships between partners, resembling internal organizational networks.

  6. Professional networks exist within and between organizations, often based on similar management philosophies or corresponding performance values.

  7. Knowledge transfer between scientists and potential users can be challenging due to their separation into networks with limited interaction.

  8. Organizational communication over the network includes:

    a. Downward communication needs to improve in providing genuine and appropriate feedback to employees and ensuring broad information transfer.

    b. Upward communication is crucial for control and adaptability, although managers may focus on managing exceptions, making implementation challenging.

    c. Transversal communication (between employees and colleagues) complements up-and-down communication, addressing issues like interpreting knowledge duration, recipients, fidelity, and acknowledgment.

  9. Strategies to address knowledge transfer problems include expanding transmitted knowledge, focusing on relevant areas, leveraging knowledge communities, and defining roles for knowledge transfer.

  10. Impacts on knowledge network connections and information access:

    a. Density: A certain level of network density is necessary for employees to fulfill their tasks.

    b. Physical proximity: Proximity enhances communication, knowledge transfer, coordination, feedback, and task performance.

    c. Mobility: Both physical and technological mobility (ability to use phones, laptops, etc.).


Planning network structures in organizations:

  1. Hierarchical network structures:

    a. Pros: Very efficient, standardized, stable, and secure. Suitable for early-stage or small organizations with long product development cycles.

    b. Cons: Bottlenecks, challenges in product diversification, obstacles in transverse function connections, slow responsiveness to environmental changes, and less orientation towards customers.

  2. Matrix network structures:

    a. Pros: Allow product focus, shorten development processes, facilitate rapid responses, promote coordination, and foster high levels of tacit knowledge.

    b. Cons: Reinvention, duplication, less standardized problem-solving, challenges in dispersing knowledge among products, missed opportunities for knowledge sharing, reinvestments, and unclear customer contact points.

  3. Free network structures:

    a. Pros: Adaptable, maximizes problem-solving, enhances organizational learning, is suitable for dynamic environments, and allows initiative freedom.

    b. Cons: Uncertainty, potential for disorder, risks, difficulty in explanation, unclear responsibilities, lack of security, the potential for exploitation, lower efficiency and standardization, need for trust, and development of ways of forgetting to move forward.


Technology

Information systems aim to facilitate the provision of pertinent information to the appropriate employees at the right time. However, accomplishing this goal proves challenging, primarily because 90% of information is not stored within systems but resides in people's minds, on paper, within social systems, and more.


Studies reveal a correlation between information systems and formal organizational structures:

  1. The complexity of technology correlates with increased levels of authority.

  2. Systems associated with explicit knowledge exhibit a higher control span.

  3. Administrative activity is more pronounced in systems engaged in processes.

  4. Standard systems are more likely to have documentation than need-specific or process systems.

  5. Dedicated systems involve more communication and coordination than standard and process systems.


Information systems can impact knowledge networks in various ways:

  1. They can diminish the need for synchronous communication (e.g., phone calls).

  2. They can enhance the frequency of social and professional relationships.

  3. They possess capabilities to optimize information transfer.

  4. Users may experience a sense of increased control, communication, and improved access to information.


When designing information systems, the decision to develop centralized or decentralized systems needs consideration, each offering distinct advantages and representing different network perceptions.


Examples of noteworthy technologies within the context of knowledge networks include:

  • Social networks (e.g., Facebook) are directly linked or interconnected through shared tags.

  • Dashboards enable employees to visually receive shared organizational knowledge in different sections, empowering them to decide on appropriate actions.


External knowledge

While the book primarily delves into intra-organizational knowledge networks, understanding the nature of non-organizational knowledge is crucial for several reasons:

  1. It serves as a significant source of organizational knowledge.

  2. External knowledge influences the organization, with changes in the external environment dictating internal adaptations.

  3. Knowledge sharing with customers/suppliers increasingly becomes integral to the organizational mission.

  4. Tacit knowledge generated by employees in external organizational networks contributes to the organizational knowledge network.


Insights:

  • Studies on specific groups indicate that the most productive scientists are often prolific communicators in non-organizational knowledge networks.

  • When discussing non-organizational networks, it is imperative to consider the perspectives of the individuals participating in these networks, the viewpoint of the organization, and the stance of the intermediaries steering these networks.

  • Consortia forming external knowledge networks enables participating organizations to develop, implement, and test new ideas, promote policies related to ongoing ideas, and enhance the likelihood of success by gathering information from diverse groups in the early stages.

  • Extra-organizational knowledge communities play a significant role, encompassing help communities, knowledge-sharing communities, best practice development communities, and communities for initiation and innovation. Many communities seem to blend various types.

  • The development of knowledge communities relies on common interests, shared threats, and a desire to connect with like-minded individuals. These factors facilitate channeling and strengthen existing connections.

  • Individuals often grapple with how much they can engage as partners in extra-organizational networks while safeguarding their interests.


Establishing organized extra-organizational networks, such as consortia, requires addressing several significant issues:

  • Balancing the desire for continuity and avoidance of changes.

  • Identifying observed threats from sharing.

  • Overcoming objections.

  • Bridging gaps in common ground.

  • Creating or strengthening common interests.

  • Addressing a lack of vision.

  • Navigating internal bureaucracies.

  • Complying with regulations.

  • Managing relations with third parties not directly involved to prevent potential complications.


Innovation

Processes of creativity and innovation often underscore organizations' ability to adapt swiftly to the continually changing competitive world. Despite their significance, both creativity and innovation pose challenges. Studies reveal that only 3% of generated ideas are implemented, and merely 0.3% achieve commercial success. Three pivotal steps should be considered:

  1. Development of New Ideas (Creativity):

    a. Content transforms as tacit knowledge transforms, blending tacit and overt knowledge, and is implemented as explicit.

    b. Strong/direct connections in the knowledge network foster agreement in creating necessary knowledge for ideas, are crucial in tacit knowledge transmission and are vital for impact during implementation.

    c. Weak/indirect connections in the knowledge network are essential for creating new knowledge/ideas, aiding in knowledge transfer and diffusion, but may increase objections during implementation.

    d. Connection density hampers the creation of new knowledge and ideas, assists in tacit knowledge transfer, and allows influence on implementing ideas and knowledge in practice.

    e. Knowledge mediation facilitates the creation of new knowledge and ideas and is critical for knowledge transfer and diffusion but may hinder its application.

  2. Creating Ideas (Creativity):

    a. The essence of creativity lies in incorporating old ideas into new templates, with the knowledge network acting as the enabling engine, particularly potent when knowledge is transmitted through weak connections.

    b. Combining better details with opposing types of knowledge (e.g., merging an old idea with a new template) within teams shows success. Individuals bridging network gaps (liaisons) hold an advantage during this stage.

  3. Knowledge Transfer/Diffusion in the Organization:

    a. This social process involves searching for information and knowledge and transmitting it online. The knowledge network is crucial at this stage.

    b. Obstacles to transfer include cultural aspects, integration challenges (especially for functionaries differing from idea creators), and the organization's ability to recognize the new information's value.

    c. Enabling factors include trust, mediation (including external consultants), and a critical mass for transfer/diffusion.

  4. Implementation of Ideas in the Organization (Innovation):

    a. Implementing ideas is about integrating the new idea into the organization's ongoing work processes, marking the organization's bottom line.

    b. Success in implementation is linked to reducing uncertainty resulting from change, an essential product of the knowledge network. Leveraging the knowledge network channels is vital to transfer information and knowledge and alleviate uncertainty among employees and managers.

    c. It is essential to consider that transferring all knowledge related to a complex idea may sometimes lead to information overload, confusion, and increasing uncertainty rather than reducing it.


Productivity

Productivity is integral to fostering organizational well-being and comprises two key components:

  1. Effectiveness: Focuses on achieving outputs (deliverables) related to organizational goals.

  2. Efficiency: Centers on minimizing inputs while consistently achieving defined outputs.


Various network structures exist for organizing and managing enterprises, and an individual's position within the organization often determines the information exposure influencing their actions. Understanding these structures in the context of knowledge networks is crucial.


In principle, high communication and network density, exemplified by complete network structures or those with numerous pathways between individuals, enhances productivity to a certain extent. Effective networks reduce route lengths and facilitate direct connections with organizational managers.


Every organization exhibits some degree of track duplication, promoting stability and efficiency. However, less dense networks tend to be more efficient without segmentation into separate networks. An inherent tension between usefulness and efficiency exists even within knowledge networks.


Organizations strike a balance between these two directions through various approaches:

  • Defining structured differentiation and integration between different components.

  • Leveraging small team communication networks.

  • Incorporating knowledge networks that consider suppliers and customers (the entire supply chain) to maximize benefits within efficiency constraints.

  • Utilizing technology as an integration and communication tool enables efficiency despite increased communication complexity.


Finding information

Locating information within knowledge networks is a crucial and significant task for employees. This process is not trivial, and the meanings and patterns of both search and non-search behaviors need to be comprehended:

  1. The cost of searching for information within organizational knowledge networks is often perceived as high, prompting individuals to prefer seeking knowledge outside the organization.

  2. People may hesitate to admit their lack of knowledge due to ego and status concerns, especially in less socially acquainted settings or when unsure about reciprocal information exchange.

  3. Motivation to search for information is heightened when individuals recognize the importance of the missing information to their understanding.

  4. "Free riders," which predominantly seek to receive rather than contribute to knowledge networks, can jeopardize the network's existence.

  5. Demographics significantly influence formal and informal networks within an organization, with notable differences in communication networks between men and women.

  6. Ambiguity in job definitions correlates with decreased professional functioning and a greater inclination to be part of small knowledge networks, particularly among employees with similar status.

  7. A positive correlation exists between involvement in knowledge networks and a sense of organizational commitment.

  8. Committed employees actively participating in organizational knowledge networks tend to engage in external knowledge networks.

  9. For less-involved employees, participation in an organizational knowledge network can increase their organizational commitment.

  10. Lack of sufficient knowledge among employees can result from various factors, including inadequate training, unawareness of existing knowledge, voluntary avoidance, limited memory, and organizational cultures that withhold crucial knowledge.

  11. Individuals often rely on past information sources rather than exploring more suitable options.

  12. Accessibility is a significant factor influencing employees' choice of information sources.


Advice:

  1. Consider the ability to acquire and locate knowledge in recruitment decisions.

  2. Provide training to enhance employees' search skills, acknowledging variations in their abilities.

  3. Establish mechanisms to disseminate common knowledge, making information sources accessible.

  4. Equip employees with tools to identify critical organizational information for the future.

  5. Develop ways to provide employees with feedback on their performance, a key area of information-seeking.

  6. Minimize the number of gatekeeping managers to facilitate the confirmation of newly discovered information.

  7. Ensure partially overlapping sources of information to cross-reference and complete details.

  8. Acknowledge that individuals may avoid information they consider "bad news" or contradictory to their existing knowledge.


Main factors influencing the search for new information:

  1. Weak ties.

  2. Opinion leaders in networks, influencing knowledge transfer and consensus creation.

  3. Access to knowledge and individuals in the networks holding it, with physical proximity enhancing accessibility.

  4. Organizational search patterns.

  5. Previous successful experiences with information sources, as individuals tend to search with databases and people who have been helpful in the past.


Decision making

Decision-making is the linchpin that underpins any process involving innovation and productivity. Additionally, it marks the conclusion of the information-seeking process that serves it. When examining the impact of knowledge networks on decision-making processes, managers must recognize the following:

  1. It's effortless to rely on established patterns and past knowledge, hastening conclusions.

  2. Information and knowledge, while reducing uncertainty, can also intensify it (wildly when conflicting with expectations), posing decision-making challenges.

  3. Studies indicate that employees heavily seek information reinforcing pre-existing decisions, leading decision-makers to reinforce often-existing approaches rather than explore genuine alternatives.

  4. Time, or the lack thereof, is a pivotal factor influencing an employee's inclination to seek decision-supporting information.

  5. A certain degree of "ignorance" can be advantageous, and sometimes full knowledge incurs more costs than the advantages it provides.


Recommendations:

  1. Provide employees with knowledge and tools for searching decision-oriented information.

  2. Collect information not only about different decision-related alternatives but also about the connections between these alternatives.

  3. Leverage technology where possible, as computer systems can consider more factors than humans if appropriately programmed.

  4. Learn to forget information and decide when to relinquish old details in favor of new insights.

  5. When deciding how much information to gather for decision-making and how much ignorance to tolerate, consider factors such as the ability to resolve conflicts, coordination levels among employees/groups, accumulated covert and overt knowledge, specialization levels, and the opportunities taken into account.


In summary, knowledge networks, comprising people and database connections, form a crucial foundation for acquiring knowledge and making decisions. Thanks to these networks, organizations achieve greater sustainability and innovation. However, is it necessary to attain full knowledge? Not necessarily. Consider the costs involved and plan the steps accordingly.

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