Knowledge Management: The Organizational Context

This will be the first of a two-part set on knowledge management; the second will focus on the use of social media and other new technological tools within knowledge management. For now, we’ll discuss some of the broader issues and ideas of knowledge management.

It is argued in the knowledge management literature that information is of flexible utility and value; the context in which a piece of information will be used, both organizationally and in terms of other pieces of information which will be used alongside it can drastically affect either. A large part of that context, it is held, is the organizational knowledge framework which is used to parse the information (Kimble 2013)(Alavi & Leidner 2001).

If you’ve read the last entry in this blog, you’ll likely have spotted something already. Indeed, this bears a close resemblance to the role of organizational culture and shared tacit knowledge in information transfer. From a certain perspective, it is the same argument approached from a different angle, emphasizing the importance of organizational knowledge in the efficient utilization of information in a way that an external actor or institution could not easily replicate, as opposed to the same being described primarily in terms of the process of knowledge and information transfer (a subset of the processes of knowledge management) rather than the effects on the knowledge/information that is being transferred. As Alavi & Leidner note, with the effect of producing a substantial advantage, provided that the information has some utility to the organization to begin with (2001).

Additionally, it is noted that a large portion of work on knowledge management is specifically due to organizations which have concluded that they possess the necessary knowledge for various tasks, but remain unable to effectively leverage it (Alavi & Leidner 2001). This emphasis is mirrored by the more recent perspective on tacit knowledge which Kimble describes as the norm (2013), Nonaka’s, which specifically describes tacit knowledge as being personal and difficult to transmit (1994). While roughly accurate, when this is paired with his definition of explicit knowledge, it is quite clearly focused on the organizational perspective of knowledge, dealing primarily with the ability to codify and formalize knowledge above other aspects of it.

Kimble delves into Cowan et al.‘s three-pronged model of knowledge, primarily concerned with codification and utility (2000)–again, issues relating primarily to the application of knowledge within organizations, particularly capitalistic ones (2013)–departing to some degree from Nonaka’s work. Interestingly, the latter develops a concept of what he calls the “Spiral of Organizational Knowledge Creation” (1994). Although the specifics and context are different, the idea of a cyclical pattern in which different types of knowledge lead to the development of further knowledge bears more than a little resemblance to Cook & Brown’s “generative dance” (1999).

In truth, this bears little resemblance to what I intended to write; indeed, I only used two of the four articles I read in preparation last week. It took on a life of its own, I suppose, and led me by the nose to something else entirely. These connections which emerged from the woodwork as I wrote are quite remarkable; it has been a rare experience for me to write on a subject in which so much of the literature is so closely interrelated–not just in terms of explicit citation, but also, appropriately, in a shared (one might even call it tacit) awareness of others’ ideas that they begin to emerge in similar-but-different forms in relatively separate contexts.

Additionally, Nonaka’s actual operational models will be folded in to a later post on practical applications in knowledge management, possibly the next one as a dual focus on the changes wrought by social media and more traditional approaches to KM. Likewise, although Cowan et al. were mentioned here in passing, they certainly deserve more than a single line.


Alavi, M., & Leidner, D. E. (2001). Knowledge management and knowledge management systems: Conceptual foundations and research issues. MIS Quarterly, 25(1), 107-136.

Cowan, R., David, P. A., & Foray, D. (2000). The explicit economics of knowledge codification and tacitness. Industrial & Corporate Change, 9(2), 211-253.

Kimble, C. (2013). Knowledge management, codification and tacit knowledge. Information Research, 18(2).

Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.

Knowledge Management: The Organizational Context

Knowledge Transfer: Effective Practices in Adverse Circumstances

Knowledge transfer is a key behavior for virtually every organization which has ever existed, allowing different elements to both better coordinate joint action and more effectively pursue their individual objectives. Effective knowledge transfer is of even greater importance in time-critical, high-risk, and high-stakes situations, particularly because such circumstances tend to have a deleterious effect on routine procedures, including established knowledge transfer protocol. Moreover, different organizations often have relatively different bodies of critical knowledge, internal structures between which knowledge is transmitted, and types of high-stress situations to confront and overcome.

We’ll examine three articles this time, each dealing with a different type of organization dealing with different stresses and the knowledge transfer practices they use to overcome those circumstances. The intent is to use that collation to form a broader perspective on useful, generally applicable methods for streamlining and encouraging transfer of useful knowledge in a timely manner in trying situations, as well as ways in which organizations can design their knowledge transfer systems to avoid or minimize the effects of crises before they happen.

Lucas deals primarily with the last of those, emphasizing the importance of trust and reputation between individuals both within a single organization and as representatives of cooperating organizations. More specifically, his three hypotheses (each supported by the data) are that trust between colleagues, the reputation of the knowledge provider, and the reputation of the knowledge receiver each play a role in facilitating the smooth transfer of knowledge. As he notes, his study is of a single organization’s practices–however, the findings are general enough to apply to many others which operate under similar conditions (2005).

Most importantly for our purpose here, Lucas argues that:

 From a practical perspective, one cannot overemphasize the importance of creating an appropriate environment for knowledge transfer. The success of any strategy aimed at improving the chances for the successful transfer of organizational practices requires a major shift in the thinking of employees. Employees must see these practices as things to be shared throughout the company and not to be controlled for the benefit of their departments. (2005).

In other words, he has provided us with a strong general rule for any organization which has a regular need to transfer knowledge between different internal elements, one focusing on the elimination of factionalism within the organization, instead implicitly encouraging the propagation of knowledge and skills to any and all individuals and groups within the organization that can make use of them.

In their illumination of AMTC’s reaction to the ECR recall crisis of the mid to late 2000s, Wang & Lu make repeated mention of a similar practice in the Taiwanese company, specifically in terms of employee cross-training as a core goal of knowledge transfer both before and during the event of interest; this was accomplished through job transfer opportunities which allowed AMTC employees to directly gain knowledge and experience regarding different facets of its business, which in turn made it easier to coordinate efforts between departments during the crisis (2010). Additionally, they discuss AMTC’s hierarchical mentoring system, which ensures that…

…every newly recruited employee is assigned a mentor on their first day at work. The mentors are responsible for coaching their individual mentees to learn and practice the skills and knowledge necessary to perform their work well through the process of learning by doing. In the crisis investigated, the mentoring system was used as an important means to transfer knowledge… (2010).

Wang & Lu specifically single out this practice as an efficient way of ensuring that tacit knowledge is transmitted to all new employees in the way that a less personal, more formal training program might not.

Likewise, AMTC had developed communities of practice to discuss and share knowledge regarding various issues and operations, which continued to occur throughout the crisis (2010)–this echoes Lucas’ idea of facilitating knowledge transfer by optimizing environmental conditions (2005). Wang & Lu do not directly discuss trust or reputation, but one can reasonably assume that such were present between AMTC employees in order for their formal and informal community meetings to function as effectively as they did. Ultimately, they go on to propose that such communities of practice facilitate knowledge transfer in a way which improves an organization’s ability to recognize and resolve threats with relatively minor harm compared to the same situations if poorly handled (2010).

Finally, Wang & Lu also discuss the role of thorough documentation as a key resource for critical decision making. They make particular note of AMTC’s internal information system, e-Service:

The e-Service system can be generally divided into two subsystems, which are the intelligence information system (INIS) and the discussion board. The INIS collects and stores all the operational information, including the sales, motorcycle maintenance records, and customer services from over 2000 contracted agencies on a daily basis. The information gathered is analyzed, either automatically or manually, by the AMTC staff, based on a set of predefined principles in order to detect the warning signals of unusual events. (2010)

This system was, as they note, used to predict the crisis, and to coordinate the response to it on all levels from high-level pattern monitoring down to individual technicians exchanging helpful information regarding the repair of individual vehicles.

Thus far, we have dealt with organizations operating either in wholly stable times, or undergoing a single crisis event. Jones & Mahon offer a different perspective on knowledge transfer, focusing on how it is conducted in environments of constant high stress, discussed within the context of military operations.

They combine previous work on the subject of such “high velocity/turbulent environments” (henceforth HVTEs) into a single package for the sake of their argument; we’ll need to understand that to examine the rest of the article.

Simply put, in high velocity/turbulent environments the pace of changes, the magnitude of changes, the interactive effects of change and magnitude, the evolving competitive environment and relationships in the environment place the acquisition, storage and transfer of knowledge in a distinctively new position than that found in lesser environmental situations. (2012).

Jones & Mahon are suggesting that there is a fundamental divide in practice between organizations operating under such conditions and those which have relatively routine, stable knowledge needs. Furthermore, in discussing types of knowledge, they argue that “it is tacit knowledge that is crucial to survival and long-term success”, and that “[tacit] knowledge yields insights necessary for the understanding of explicit knowledge and for the placement of that knowledge in context”, concluding that “tacit knowledge is crucial for success in HVTEs” (2012).

Jones & Mahon go on to describe various elements which assist in knowledge transfer for organizations operating in HVTEs, noting (listed here in no particular order) organizational culture, interpersonal relationships and trust, cross-training, and easy-access high-speed information sharing systems (2012). Notice a trend there?

In fact, virtually all of the practices identified by Jones & Mahon as crucial for organizations in HVTEs were also pinpointed by Lucas, Wang & Lu, or both as important practices for organizations which operate in more stable, slower-paced conditions, which need only to prepare for occasional crises. Jones & Mahon propose that a “tacit knowledge-based approach” to knowledge transfer is better in HVTEs, but suggest that one rooted more in explicit knowledge might be more appropriate for more stable conditions (suggesting that such environments allow for more time to absorb both types of knowledge, whereas HVTEs limit how much explicit knowledge can be absorbed when dealing with a given situation).

The first is sound and well-reasoned, particularly in examples like the one discussed by Jones & Mahon. However, given the situations examined by Lucas and by Wang & Lu, it appears that such a tacit knowledge oriented approach is also crucial to the establishment and maintenance of good knowledge transfer practices even in stable environments. The formation of strong interpersonal relationships based on mutual trust and good reputation deals heavily with tacit knowledge: “impressions” of others, exchange of effective work habits, the building of a working dynamic, &c. Likewise, the formation of an efficient and cooperative organizational culture and the pursuit of cross-training within the same, although assisted by elements relating to explicit knowledge (such as AMTC’s e-Service system), is fundamentally a matter of establishing a shared understanding of elements of tacit knowledge regarding how organizational operations should be conducted.

Essentially, the most basic and widely applicable practices, which form the basis for a great deal of effective knowledge transfer within many organizations, are rooted in the establishment and transfer of shared tacit knowledge regarding the “hows” and “whys” of effective knowledge transfer–tacit metaknowledge regarding knowledge transfer, if you will.



Jones, N. B. & Mahon, J. F. (2012) Nimble knowledge transfer in high velocity/turbulent environments. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(5), 774-788.

Lucas, L. M. (2005). The impact of trust and reputation on the transfer of best practices. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(4), 87-101.

Wang, W. T., & Lu, Y. C. (2010). Knowledge transfer in response to organizational crises: An exploratory study. Expert Systems with Applications, 37(5), 3934-3942.

Knowledge Transfer: Effective Practices in Adverse Circumstances

Bounded Awareness in the context of an Epistemology of Practice

When Polanyi (2009) describes his vision of tacit knowing, he emphasizes the hierarchical nature of it via the proximal and distal terms; the former comprises the components, the latter the greater whole. This concept is present in the common vernacular with a particular saying:

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

He presents a vision of the universe as stratified, consisting of these proximal and distal pairs in a massive relational tree. Polanyi does us the great favor of illuminating his intent with examples to aid in picturing what he describes, but the core idea as a whole is, as suggested at the start of the course, profoundly simple.

That’s one element of it, at any rate–more than a few exist, as others have already demonstrated with the focus taken in their blogs. For now, however, I will deal with this.

As I was perusing articles in an effort to find a focal point for this first post, I happened across an interesting turn of phrase in the Cook and Brown (1999) article.

The first contention of this paper is that each of the four categories of knowledge inherent in the explicit/tacit and individual/group distinctions is a distinct form of knowledge on equal standing with the other three…

For context, there are two main arguments at the heart of that piece:

  1. That knowledge and knowing are distinct things, but that each acts in support of the other.
  2. That knowledge is composed of four groupings composed of two mutually exclusive pairs: explicit/tacit and individual/group.

These came together to describe Cook and Brown’s central ideas, the “epistemology of practice” (intended as a mirror of the epistemology of possession, knowing paired with knowledge), and the “generative dance” in which knowledge is used as a tool of knowing within the a social and physical context, creating new knowledge as a result (1999).

image007Essentially, it is a modification and expansion of Polanyi’s conception of tacit knowing (as a great deal of writing on the subject is), one which I think has an interesting concept behind it and a general enough approach to apply in a broad range of contexts.

Consider that to be an extremely brief summary, as that article had enough content for a great many posts–and the ideas presented therein are central enough that I suspect I will be revisiting Cook and Brown in future. For now, it is enough to have a general idea of their gist.

Another of the articles I examined was the Kumar and Chakrabarti (2012) piece, which reexamined the Challenger disaster from the perspective of bounded awareness. I’ll begin with the description of bounded awareness which they borrow from Bazerman and Chugh (2006):

…decision makers [experience] bounded awareness when they overlook relevant and readily available information, even while using other available information, and take a decision that is either suboptimal or entirely erroneous.

Ultimately, they conclude that the Challenger disaster falls largely on the fact that NASA managers had bounded awareness, which they attribute to a RCR-identified (1986) and subsequently investigated (Starbuck, and Milliken 1988) combination of repeated, uninterrupted successes and a gradual acclimatization to risk-taking due to the same, allowing them to feel confident and trivialize knowledge which should have alerted them to danger.

In particular it is noted that many NASA engineers noted and alerted others to the problems which were ultimately dismissed. In that single point we can see both Polanyi’s original conception of tacit knowledge and Cook and Brown’s expanded vision. The engineers who protested the launch knew that things were wrong, that there was–to them–a clear and present danger of failure in the O-rings, but they were unable to convey the full import of it to NASA managers. Why? Cook and Brown would suggest several factors.

The individual tacit knowledge of the NASA engineers conflicted with the group tacit knowledge of NASA as a whole–the sense of impending danger due to mechanical wear didn’t mesh with the culture of confidence and increased risk-taking. Moreover, the explicit group knowledge that the O-rings were not supposed to show signs of wear was glossed over for much the same reason.

Additionally, that same explicit group knowledge was not allowed into the “generative dance”, there was in fact a deliberate failure to apply it to the knowing/practice of NASA operations.

In short, the issue of bounded awareness described by Kumar and Chakrabarti is explained and expanded upon by the concepts of Cook and Brown. It was not merely that NASA managers were confident and increasingly willing to take risks, but that those were integrated into the tacit group knowledge of NASA operations staff. They became the norm, to the point that they were only questioned by individuals with both personal tacit knowledge of danger and access to broader explicit knowledge of a potential source of that danger–and ignored even then!


I can’t exactly speak as to how I arrived at this subject, as it seemed to fall together almost too neatly. That said, after much editing, I rather like how it turned out. It was certainly a pleasure to consider and write, so I suspect I may do more in this style, taking one theoretical piece alongside one empirical piece and shaking a bit to see what ideas happen to fall out.



Bazerman, M.H. and Chugh, D. (2006a). Decisions without blinders. Harvard Business Review 84(1), 88-97.

Bazerman, M.H. and Chugh, D. (2006b). Bounded awareness: focusing failures in negotiation. Thompson, L.L. (Ed.). Negotiation Theory and Research: Frontiers of Social Psychology. New York, NY: Psychology Press. 7-26

Cook, S.D.N. and Brown, J.S. (1999). Bridging epistemologies: the generative dance between organizational knowledge and organizational knowing. Organization Science 10(4), 381-400. doi:10.1287/orsc.10.4.381

Kumar J, A. and Chakrabarti, A. (2012). Bounded awareness and tacit knowledge: Revisiting Challenger disaster. Journal of Knowledge Management, 16(6), 934-949. doi:10.1108/13673271211276209

Polanyi, M. (2009). The tacit dimension (Revised ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Starbuck, W.H. and Milliken, F.J. (1988). Challenger: fine-tuning the odds until something breaks. Journal of Management Studies 25(4), 319-40.

RCR (1986), ‘‘Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident”. Retrieved 1/27/16.

Bounded Awareness in the context of an Epistemology of Practice