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Working Knowledge - Book Review

1 May 2007
Dr. Moria Levy

"Working Knowledge," authored by the globally renowned leaders in knowledge management, Larry Prusak and Thomas Davenport, was initially published in 1998, followed by a soft edition in 2000 that incorporated an introduction. In a concise statement, it is a classic in knowledge management, representing a pioneering contribution to the field by addressing work methodologies for various stages of the knowledge life cycle.

While distinct from a case study, the book offers numerous examples. Despite nearly a decade since its publication, the technological and cultural shifts brought about by the Internet and computing have occurred. However, the book's enduring relevance lies in its unaltered core organizational principles.

This article provides a review of the book's main points. It is crucial to note, as with other reviews, that it cannot replace the book's wealth of details and examples. Its dual purpose is to entice new readers and jog the memories of previous ones. The article is crafted for seamless, continuous reading while remaining accessible to those focusing on specific topics for their ongoing work.

The book comprehensively covers the following topics:
  • What is knowledge?

  • The market of demand and supply of knowledge

  • Knowledge creation

  • Structuring and coordinating knowledge

  • Knowledge transfer

  • Knowledge management roles and skills

  • Knowledge Management Technologies

  • Knowledge Management Projects

  • Practicality in Knowledge Management

What is knowledge?

The authors open, expounding upon the concept of knowledge classically, defining the interrelated concepts of data, information, and knowledge. Data comprises an assembly of objective facts about events, while information acts as a message derived from data involving both a sender and a receiver. It traverses the organization through both physical and soft communication networks. Information is treated as meaningful data, making a difference by adding value. This value addition occurs through five methods, each represented by the letter C:

  • Contextualization

  • Categorization

  • Calculation

  • Correcting

  • Condensed

Knowledge, a derivative of information just as data is derived from information, undergoes this transition by introducing value in one of four aspects, all contingent on the individual and their intelligence (once again denoted by C):

  • Comparison

  • Consequences

  • Connection

  • Conversation

Knowledge is a composite amalgamation of experience, values, contextual information, and insights. It provides a framework for evaluating and integrating new experiences and information. In an organizational context, knowledge isn't confined solely to documents and databases; it permeates processes, routines, practices, and norms. Knowledge evolves over time, shaped by experiences gained from formal sources such as courses, books, and mentors, as well as informal learning. Notably, in English, the terms "experience" and "expert" are interconnected.

The market of demand and supply of knowledge

Swiftly or gradually, efficiently or wastefully, knowledge traverses the organization—being acquired, replaced, discovered, created, or utilized. The knowledge management market, composed of various functionaries, collectively shapes the dynamics of knowledge supply and demand. Technology does not replace these roles; it is a supportive tool for market operations. Corporate politics also wield influence on the market. The key functionaries include:

  1. Knowledge buyers: Individuals typically grapple with complex issues with elusive simplicity and immediate answers. They seek insight, judgment, and understanding to enhance their task performance and overall work efficiency.

  2. Sellers: Distinguished figures within the organization possessing significant knowledge about a process or subject. They dispense fragments of knowledge, sometimes bundling information. Not everyone holding knowledge assumes the role of a seller; some prefer hoarding knowledge, while others struggle with knowledge transmission.

  3. Intermediaries or knowledge brokers: They facilitate connections between sellers and buyers. Proficient in diverse subjects, they identify knowledge needs and sources within the organization. Their comprehensive understanding of organizational activities enables them to visualize the overall flow of knowledge.

Payment System:

Every market incorporates a payment system, and the knowledge market encompasses the following components:

  • Reciprocity

  • Repute

  • Altruism

  • Trust

Three primary factors can impede the efficient functioning of knowledge markets:

  • Lack of information regarding who possesses knowledge and understanding of the payment system

  • Asymmetry in knowledge transfer within the organization, with some feeling they contribute more than they receive

  • Localized information, as it is often more convenient to seek knowledge from a nearby, less knowledgeable source than from a distant expert

Knowledge creation

Every thriving organization actively generates and utilizes knowledge, and there are five distinct methods of knowledge creation:

  1. Knowledge Acquisition: Knowledge acquisition within an organization can happen through various channels, such as acquiring companies (with caution, as obtaining a company does not guarantee acquiring knowledge within it), employee recruitment (with caution, as employees can also depart), and hiring consulting services (with caution, emphasizing the retention of knowledge within the company).

  2. Dedicated Resources: Organizations allocate resources or designate specific groups responsible for cultivating their knowledge. Establishing a dedicated Research and Development (R&D) group is the most preferable approach. While a dedicated group enjoys the freedom to explore and generate new ideas without constraints, a drawback lies in the challenge of transferring knowledge to other elements of the organization.

  3. Fusion: Fusion involves integrating individuals from diverse backgrounds, roles, and perspectives to create a melting pot conducive to the creative development of new knowledge. This principle aligns with Nonaka and Takeuchi's concept of the Knowledge-Creating Society, emphasizing creative chaos and its limits. Five principles guide knowledge management processes in this context, including fostering awareness, identifying candidates for knowledge sharing, highlighting diversity, understanding complexity, and setting clear development goals with defined milestones and metrics.

  4. Adaptation: The ability to adapt to changes, whether in competitors' new products, emerging technologies, or shifts in social and economic landscapes, is crucial for knowledge development. Difficulty in adapting can impede the creation of new knowledge.

  5. Networks: Knowledge doesn't solely develop within dedicated resources; it also thrives in informal networks within the organization, which can evolve and become intelligible over its lifespan. Regardless of the method chosen, dedicating time and space (physical or virtual) is essential for their realization. These processes do not occur spontaneously; managers must comprehend their significance for the organization's success and nurture them over time.

Structuring and coordinating knowledge

Organizing knowledge aims to present organizational information in a format accessible to consumers. A primary challenge lies in preserving its essential features during the construction process. It's crucial to strike a balance, avoiding insufficient construction that leaves knowledge incomplete and excessive construction that hampers its essence.

Various types of knowledge demand specific structuring approaches:

  • Covert knowledge: Transform to open and explicit knowledge

  • Knowledge that cannot be taught: Structure for learnable knowledge

  • Knowledge that is not fluent and fluent: Organize for explicit knowledge

  • Knowledge that is difficult to discern in use: Structure for explicit knowledge in use

  • Rich-to-schematic knowledge

  • Complex-to-simple knowledge

  • Undocumented knowledge: Structure for documented knowledge

Implementing these distinctions is challenging, particularly when effectively organizing hidden knowledge. In cases where construction may be incomplete, it's advisable to create an expert map (organizational Yellow Pages) and consult knowledgeable individuals to enhance understanding. When organizing tacit knowledge (integrated with an expert map or in preparation for retirement/departure), attention should be paid to:

  1. The importance of stories (Narratives, Storytelling)

  2. For knowledge integrated or embedded in the organization's products and services.

While many organizations have attempted to build knowledge within systems (computing) over time, successes are often isolated or partial. Demonstrating the widespread applicability of this method across various knowledge types and diverse needs remains challenging.

Knowledge transfer

Transferring knowledge may seem straightforward—just hire intelligent individuals and let them engage in conversations. However, the reality is more intricate, and actualizing this concept is far from simple. As mentioned earlier, it's often easier to communicate with someone in our immediate surroundings than with the most knowledgeable person in society. Strategies for transferring knowledge in an organization include:

  1. Informal Spaces and Meeting Rooms: Facilitate one-on-one conversations and knowledge transfers, either individually or in small groups. This informal approach, distinct from structured work meetings, complements the existing formal knowledge-sharing and transfer processes. This strategy encompasses after-work dinners, shared transportation trips, and similar activities.

  2. Knowledge Fairs: Knowledge fairs are recommended to foster cross-organizational knowledge sharing in a spontaneous setting. While the existence of the fair is planned, the employees determine the interactions, knowledge exchange, and dynamics. The organization's role is to create the opportunity for sharing. In Israel, several knowledge fairs exemplify this approach, notably the annual one by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The Culture of Knowledge Transfer:

The non-transfer of knowledge can result from various reasons, such as lack of trust, diverse cultures and contexts, uneven taxonomy, insufficient time and space for sharing, overvaluing and rewarding knowledgeable individuals, difficulty in admission, belief in the suitability of knowledge for specific groups, and an inability to accommodate errors or ask for help. Developing a uniform taxonomy and fostering trust among individuals is crucial for successful knowledge transfer. Factors influencing knowledge transfer include:

  • Knowledge Giver Status: People often evaluate knowledge based on its owner's status.

  • Ability to Absorb and Utilize: Knowledge transfer involves sending/presenting and receiving. Knowledge must be absorbed to be effectively utilized.

  • Speed and Abundance: The speed and richness of obtaining lacking knowledge impact its usefulness. Alongside other components of knowledge management, allocating time and space for transfer is vital. Caution is necessary, focusing on document transfer and engaging in conversations for a more profound transfer of richness.

Knowledge management roles and skills

For knowledge management to endure over time, an organization must define appropriate roles and skills to capture, disseminate, and utilize knowledge. Roles related to knowledge encompass:

  1. Knowledge Workers: Employees engaged in producing, sharing, encountering, and using knowledge for their work, spanning various positions from managers and secretaries to engineers. In organizations rich in knowledge workers, such as consulting companies, it is advisable to:

    a. Maintain a flat organizational structure where possible

    b. Structure continuous learning, whether formal (training) or on-the-job (OJT)

    c. Encourage risk-taking

    d. Select employees based on their learning abilities and attitude

    e. Minimize attendance monitoring and emphasize rewarding results

  2. Knowledge Management Workers: Possess diverse abilities, including "difficult" skills like structuring knowledge and technical proficiency, as well as "soft" skills related to personal, political, organizational, and cultural aspects of the subject.

  3. Knowledge Project Managers: Leaders of specific knowledge management activities require a combination of technological, psychological, and business understanding and regular project management skills.

  4. Chief Knowledge Officer: A complex and multifaceted role with essential capabilities, such as advocating for knowledge and learning, overseeing the organizational knowledge management infrastructure, managing external collaborations, providing critical input for knowledge development and use, measuring and managing the value of knowledge, leading the knowledge management team and internal partnerships, building professional standards, and developing a knowledge management strategy.

In all these roles, three critical components include:

  1. Building a knowledge-sharing culture

  2. Establishing a knowledge management infrastructure

  3. Ensuring the economic feasibility of the entire process

The position of the knowledge manager in the organization may vary, with three classic options suggested by the authors:

  • In Human Resources

  • In Information Systems

  • As an independent position, preferably subordinate to the CEO

One fundamental principle regarding roles is that they must be accurate, responsibilities precise, and resources provided.

Knowledge Management Technologies

This chapter was authored nearly a decade ago. Although the technological landscape of knowledge management has significantly evolved since its writing, we aim to make the content relevant to our current day. The paramount importance of technology in sharing and managing knowledge is evident. Technology is an integral component of knowledge management. Systems like expert systems and artificial intelligence, which initially sought to provide comprehensive solutions, have not stood the test of time, particularly in the case of Case-Based Reasoning (CBR) Systems, which adapt to particular needs.

Defining the boundaries of knowledge management systems remains challenging within the main avenue. Questions arise, such as whether phones and video conference systems fall under this category. When do information systems transform into knowledge management systems, and vice versa? How do we distinguish between various technological systems categorized as knowledge management systems, and what are the key characteristics influencing the choice of one family of tools? The authors initially mentioned a few families: broad knowledge repositories, specialized tools (like expert systems), real-time knowledge systems, and analytical systems (such as data mining). Today, the landscape has expanded to include numerous families, particularly in broad knowledge bases encompassing portals, communities, websites, search engines, expert maps (as previously discussed), lessons learned management tools, and more.

What remains certain is that while technologies advance, they alone will never transform an organization into one that develops knowledge (and, we dare say, becomes a knowledge-sharing organization). The human aspect is crucial. Nevertheless, technology is indispensable, and as the authors suggest, even if uncertain about which technology to adopt initially, it's better to start with something, recognizing that technology may evolve in the future.

Knowledge Management Projects

Conversations often veer into abstract and sometimes philosophical realms when discussing knowledge management. However, knowledge management is fundamentally practical—entailing budgets, schedules, politics, and organizational leadership. It operates in a realm of projects. An examination of 31 knowledge management projects unveils the main project types in this domain:

  1. Knowledge Repositories: Involves establishing databases of three types – external knowledge (e.g., competitive knowledge), structured internal knowledge (e.g., marketing information), and informal internal knowledge (e.g., discussion databases, Lessons Learned).

  2. Knowledge Access and Transfer: Unlike knowledge bases, this category aims to map knowledge and employ complementary tools that facilitate access to knowledgeable owners.

  3. Knowledge Environments: Projects primarily focus on creating awareness and a culture that fosters knowledge sharing, recognizing its value, and enhancing existing knowledge-sharing processes. Integrated projects may involve multiple types beyond those mentioned. While today's project types have evolved and expanded, the critical success characteristics remain consistent. These indicators of success include:

    a. An increase in resources related to knowledge management

    b. An expansion in the volume and use of knowledge

    c. Extending project boundaries into organizational processes

    d. Organizational comfort with the concepts of knowledge and knowledge management

    e. Partial evidence of return on investment (ROI) in knowledge management

Factors contributing to the success of knowledge management projects encompass:

  • A knowledge-oriented culture

  • Supportive organizational and computing infrastructure

  • Endorsement from top management

  • Alignment with business or organizational value

  • A degree of process orientation

  • Clarity of vision and language

  • Non-trivial assistance and incentives

  • A certain level of structured knowledge

  • Multiple channels for knowledge transfer

While the examined projects varied, they all shared a common feature: support from senior management. In each project, management believed knowledge management benefits the organization. As previously emphasized, successful knowledge management requires a unique blend of human, computing, and business skills. This amalgamation manifests not only throughout the entire process but also in each project undertaken.

Practicality in Knowledge Management

Here are a few tips to kickstart your knowledge management journey:

  1. Start from a Point of High Value: Initiate from a place where knowledge holds significant value

  2. Commence with a Targeted Pilot: Launch a focused pilot; the requirements identified will guide further development

  3. Engage in Multidisciplinary Activity: Embark on a multidisciplinary approach encompassing culture, organization, computing, and, we emphasize, processes within

  4. Address Significant Issues Early: Tackle the most significant problems early on, avoiding delays that could hinder effective solutions.

  5. Leverage Early Assistance: Seek assistance from various organizational elements as early as possible.

Hot recommendation:

Refrain from discussing the project until tangible outcomes are worth discussing. Be cautious of common pitfalls:

  1. Assuming that if a good solution is built, people will naturally come

  2. Filling the portal/website with mostly procedural content and organizational structure

  3. Avoiding alternative names for knowledge management to disguise its identity

  4. Believing that everyone is a knowledge manager, rendering the role unnecessary

  5. Relying solely on the manager's belief in knowledge management without further justification

  6. Focusing only on making existing information accessible

  7. Working from the bottom up without securing management support

Above all, striking a balance is crucial:

  • Balancing knowledge management with other organizational efforts

  • Balancing the diverse disciplines within knowledge management

  • Striking a balance between managing knowledge and taking action

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