Knowledge Transfer & Bottom-Up Knowledge Management

In much of the literature, organizational knowledge management is presented as a form of knowledge management in which knowledge is closely tied to the institution in which it was generated. Organizational knowledge transfer requires the creation of a meaningful capability for transferring tacit knowledge alongside the explicit, as the former is required to properly frame the latter.

We can observe this line of thought in one of the two oldest articles on our reading list, in which the authors argue that a prescriptive, top-down approach to organizational knowledge management is doomed to fail at its intended purpose, forcing members of the organization to improvise more in response to the decreasing flexibility of officially accepted approaches to common organizational issues (Brown & Duguid, 1991).

Furthermore, Brown & Duguid propose a model of organizational learning and knowledge management which, although it is framed in different language, intrinsically demands a strong base of commonly held tacit knowledge and mutual understanding between individuals within the organization. They identify two key components of organizational knowledge, describing it as “collaborati[ve]” and rooted in “narration”, meaning that organizational knowledge is always organizational rather than individual, and is formed through actual practice and the relation of those practical experiences between members of the organization. They go on to claim that sterile organizational knowledge transfer is impossible, and that both the sender and receiver of knowledge must share an intrinsic understanding of the context in which the knowledge was created and has existed (1991).

Much of this, as seen in the rest of the literature, has come to be accepted as common practice, though not always discussed in the terms that Brown & Duguid used. An article from the late ’00s discussed a potential approach to knowledge management which initially appears to risk the exact sort of disconnect between sender and receiver which Brown & Duguid identified as fatal to knowledge transfer attempts–the authors called it “knowledge outsourcing” (Lam & Chua, 2009).

Lam & Chua describe the process of knowledge outsourcing essentially as this: a third party organization identifies client knowledge needs, locates potential knowledge providers, and facilitates negotiations between client and provider, followed by provision of quality assurance checks. They identify as primary risks low standards of information provided and under-utilization of received information (2009), both of which are closely tied to knowledge transfer without shared tacit knowledge: the provider may not understand what the receiver needs or what they already know, and the receiver might not understand how to use the knowledge they obtain and may lack awareness of the context in which it was generated.

Indeed, the authors explicitly note that the process of knowledge outsourcing is best applied to narrow problems with little complexity behind their context.

Knowledge outsourcing on the other hand takes place when knowledge is generated by providers external to the organisation, typically under some specific contractual arrangement. Such knowledge tends to be less contextual and proprietary in nature and can be produced without significant prior knowledge about the organisation’s setting or its internal workings. However, such knowledge also tends to be more narrowly focused and specific to a problem area (2009).

As we have seen in other works, deliberate shaping of organizational culture to promote the growth of the exact sort of narrative, collaborative knowledge which Brown & Duguid have discussed has proven to be exceptionally valuable for organizations which do so successfully. In particular, Lang & Wu’s study of AMTC and the ECR recall crisis provides an exceptionally well-shaped model for how an organization which relies on bottom-up knowledge management and inter-individual relation of stories about specific cases can be more flexible, more adaptable, and more effective than one which attempts to prescribe narrow, standard reactions to problems.


Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation. Organization Science, 2(1), 40-57.

Lam, W., & Chua, A. Y. (2009). Knowledge outsourcing: An alternative strategy for knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 13(3), 28-43.

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 & Bottom-Up Knowledge Management

8 thoughts on “Knowledge Transfer & Bottom-Up Knowledge Management

  1. It doesn’t matter — it’s true that they are intertwined, but whether one determines the other depends on the question we’re asking and the problem we’re trying to solve. So, attempting to get to some kind of objective truth (chicken or egg first), look for causality within context.


  2. mlieskeblog says:

    You mention knowledge outsourcing (like so many of our classmates), and with your comments I just had the idea that it’s like hiring seasonal workers through a temp agency. Like you state above, a third party (the temp agency) identifies a client’s needs, locates knowledge providers (seasonal workers), and negotiate the relationship (manage hours, pay, etc.). It’s a little bit different since seasonal workers aren’t really knowledge “providers”, but are being hired to use their knowledge to handle seasonal workloads, but I think I like the idea. (It can also apply for interns or consultants hired through a third party.)


    1. It also, I think, reflects the limited nature of knowledge outsourcing, both in terms of a generally lower level of expertise compared to a dedicated employee (or knowledge base) being taken as an acceptable exchange for not needing to maintain that resource when it isn’t necessary, and that a temp probably won’t mesh well with the internal dynamic of an established firm. That’s quite a good comparison.


  3. I read Brown and Duguide (1991) as well and enjoyed the study. Your overview provided a slightly different perspective. I might even have to go back and read the article again to catch some the points you raise. But then again, it is the last day of class. So maybe Ill just take a moment and reflect back on my own blog. Nice work overall though.


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