A Final Perspective on Organizational Knowledge

It’s already this time again, isn’t it? Over the  course of the semester we’ve discussed organizational knowledge half to death, from a multitude of angles and using a substantial array of sources. Let’s take one more stab at it.

What is organizational knowledge, and why does it matter? Tsoukas & Vladimirou (2001) ask even more fundamental questions: what is knowledge itself, and how does it relate to action? How does knowledge differ from information? How does it become organizational? They tell us that two things are required: a theory of knowledge, and a theory of organization. Moreover, knowledge is both personal-tacit-and collective. Organizational knowledge emerges when individuals work according to generalized assumptions based on collective tacit knowledge of past events (Tsoukas & Vladimirou, 2001).

We’ve seen this idea arise again and again, both in the literature and in our own discussions of it; within the past month alone some expression of the concept of collective knowledge has arisen in the majority of our blogs, including Audrey’s piece on knowledge learning and unlearning, Mary’s discussion of narrative in knowledge and learning, Abigail’s post regarding organizations and individuals, Kamryn’s work on knowledge sharing, and posts within this blog as well.

In a word, it’s pervasive. Mary was the one who clued me in on what was going on underneath, and Sean’s recent comment regarding introducing work dealing with narrative epistemology sealed things. Knowledge so often is seen and expressed as something collective, something which is intended for (or difficult to) transfer, because storytelling is the fundamental form of human knowledge transfer and we are inherently social creatures. That is the heart of what organizational knowledge is: the ability we possess in which a single individual can gain tacit awareness of some piece of knowledge and then, through their social ties, transmit that knowledge to their peers without needing to explain it, possibly without even realizing that they’re doing so.

When a technician or engineer solves a peculiar problem that doesn’t match normal troubleshooting guides, they tend to relate the knowledge of that problem and solution to others not by writing up a report and disseminating it, but by telling the story-this sort of knowledge transfer is more effective, despite its apparent inefficient nature.

Blackler’s (1995) work, although somewhat dated, underlines another important point: knowledge, particularly tacit knowledge, is not static. This is part of why the social, collective expression of tacit knowledge is so effective: it continually develops as each individual applies their collective knowledge, refines it based on their experiences, and passes those refinements on, often without being consciously aware of the exact significance of what they are doing. His suggestion that more attention should be paid to the “cultural” systems in which individuals exchange knowledge (1995) is apt, and much of the more recent work we’ve studied has reinforced that point.

That is the note I will conclude the active portion of this blog on: organizational knowledge, tacit knowledge, and organic systems of knowledge transfer are natural constructs. Efforts to replicate them as designed systems should keep that in mind-too much constraint and the underlying processes will fail.

 

References

Blackler, F. (1995). Knowledge, knowledge work and organizations: An overview and interpretation. Organization Studies, 16(6), 1021-1046.

 

Tsoukas, H. (2001). What is organizational knowledge. Journal of Management Studies, 38(7), 973-993.

A Final Perspective on Organizational Knowledge

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