Factors in Knowledge Transfer Failure

We have previously examined a number of different elements of organizational knowledge management; this time our focus will be on how the characteristics of organizations, the knowledge they value, and the circumstances in which they attempt to transfer said knowledge–both internally and with other organizations–can adversely affect knowledge transfer attempts.

This has been addressed in the literature from a number of angles, with appropriately varied emphases. Kang, Rhee, & Kang address knowledge characteristics specifically, describing tacitness, difficulty of transfer, and importance of the knowledge as the three key ones, testing each to determine their respective association (or lack thereof) with the degree of effort organizations expend on knowledge transfer (2010). Meanwhile, Szulanski not only examines a broader set of characteristics, but also differs from Kang, Rhee, & Kang in what he notes as key characteristics of organizational knowledge: causal ambiguity and unprovenness–that is, whether an organization can identify how and why a particular piece of knowledge being applied results in a certain outcome, and whether the knowledge has an established history of successful application.

In addition, Szulanski also discusses characteristics of knowledge sources and receivers, as well as the organizational context of the transfer process. Quite beyond that, Szulanski is concerned with what he terms knowledge “stickiness”, how knowledge is sometimes not transferred within a single organization even when it possesses said knowledge and the transfer is beneficial (1996), rather than willingness to expend effort on the transfer process, although the two do have some potential relation insofar as that an organizational unwillingness to expend effort on internal knowledge transfer could be a potential cause of knowledge stickiness.

A third perspective is offered by Trkman & Desouza in their attempt to create a framework for understanding the risks of inter-organizational knowledge transfer and sharing. In a certain sense they cover a broader range of noteworthy characteristics, being concerned with the circumstances in which knowledge sharing occurs, the importance of shared knowledge, and the relationship between knowledge sharing organizations (2011). However, their arguments rest more on how those characteristics aid in the creation of different behavioral patterns–and thus, different risk factors–which affect the likelihood, depth, and degree of success of knowledge transfer, rather than attempting to link specific characteristics directly to knowledge transfer failure.

Perhaps predictably, the framework developed by Trkman & Desouza describes a familiar knowledge sharing paradigm in which organizational trust and reputation are of paramount importance, serving to reduce interorganizational antagonism, opportunism, and creating inertia by allowing initial knowledge sharing efforts to be mutually beneficial (2011). They are quick to note that their framework was largely untested at the time of writing, but the preponderance of the literature which we have reviewed supports their assertions.

More importantly, Trkman & Desouza explicitly acknowledge the potential for ineffective or failed knowledge transfer, additionally noting that organizations should and do assess the costs of mitigating knowledge transfer risks, leading them to make decisions regarding which organizations to work with based on the core levels of risk (2011)–a low-risk relationship might be preferred over one which is more beneficial but which also bears a higher level of risk, necessitating additional expenditure of resources to curtail said risk.

In the research conducted by Kang, Rhee, & Kang, those authors find support for several of their hypotheses, parsing their results into a number of interesting conclusions. They identify a weak positive relationship between knowledge tacitness and effort expended on knowledge transfer, arguing that this is due to the potential strength of disseminated tacit knowledge as a competitive advantage being balanced by the difficulty and potential futility of attempting to transfer it–there is impetus to attempt to transfer it, but plentiful cause to cease efforts to do so. The authors find stronger support for relationships between the difficulty of learning knowledge and expended effort on transfer attempts and  between between the importance of knowledge and efforts to transfer it; in other words, they identify a strong positive relationship between importance and difficulty of acquisition (2011). The implication is obviously that important knowledge is also typically difficult to transfer–note that tacit knowledge is also typically difficult to transfer, but similar degrees of effort are not always expended on attempts to transfer it, as it is often merely advantageous rather than absolutely critical.

Szulanski’s research indicates that three characteristics are of particular importance among those he identified as potential barriers to knowledge transfer: the receiver’s ability to absorb information, the causal ambiguity of information, and an arduous relationship between source and transceiver.

Essentially, these authors together provide a synthesis of sources of knowledge transfer failure: lack of trust between organizations and poor or no reputation on the part of the source, as previously discussed in myriad posts; perceptions of knowledge being transferred as more difficult to transfer than its value warrants; a receiver’s inability to parse or learn knowledge, and a lack of awareness about the truth behind knowledge–an organization knowing that doing something in a particular way will achieve a particular outcome, but not why or how it happens.

Among our blogs we’ve discussed certain aspects of knowledge transfer and organizational knowledge management a great deal: trust, tacitness in the organizational context, the use of specific technological tools, responses to external crises, &c. I can’t remember, however, seeing much discussion of situations in which knowledge transfer outright breaks down and either fails to work or works in an adverse manner–the closest was Abigail’s discussion of Connelly et al.’s work on knowledge hiding, which is related but not exactly the same thing. Barring, of course, discussion of failure in the context of the Challenger disaster, as we’ve quite thoroughly covered that.

I’m curious as to what you each think might be behind this gap. Were the articles discussing downsides to and failures of knowledge transfer simply less interesting? Was it that the early forays tended more towards other topics, shaping discourse through the rest of the semester?


Kang, J., Rhee, M., & Kang, K. H. (2010). Revisiting knowledge transfer: Effects of knowledge characteristics on organizational effort for knowledge transfer. Expert Systems with Applications, 37(12), 8155–8160.


Szulanski, G. (1996). Exploring internal stickiness: Impediments to the transfer of best practices within the firm. Strategic Management Journal, 17, 27-43.

Trkman, P., & Desouza, K.C. (2012). Knowledge risks in organizational networks: An exploratory framework. Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 21(1), 1-17.

Factors in Knowledge Transfer Failure

6 thoughts on “Factors in Knowledge Transfer Failure

  1. mlieskeblog says:

    rhugenwrites talks a little about it here: https://rhugenwrites.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/what-are-you-not-telling-me-relationships-and-distasters/ , though that is primarily questioning why we choose to trust some and make others outsiders to the KM community. The challenger disaster got me thinking about it some in a post (https://mlieskeblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/11/boundaries-on-awareness/), but not as a complete failure of knowledge transfer.

    I think I, personally, tend to focus more on the success of KM so I can attempt to replicate what goes right, though understanding failure is just as important as understanding success. Maybe understanding success makes it seem like a more positive look? Less “you failed because you did this” and more “it may have worked if I had done this instead”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fairly close to what I was thinking: we can derive productive results from considering either success or failure states, allowing us to gravitate towards positive cases to study without consequence. I do definitely think that there’s a different sort of constructive purpose to studying failure, in that it can facilitate innovation; if we know how to do something correctly, we can repeat that process, but if we know how to avoid doing something it becomes easier to develop new methods that don’t rely on proven knowledge or techniques.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting, because so many failures often turn out to be successes. For example, the technology for microwaves was originally intended for radar, but turned out when the guy talked to other people about it, that it could be useful for cooking. It seems like Nonaka is right- knowledge exchange can transform how we think about things.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I did appreciate that Trkman & Desouza did ‘note that their framework was largely untested at the time of writing’ and agree that what they were getting at is highly likely to be true. I definitely agree with the whole ‘even if it’s a failure, you can still learn from it’ ideology.


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