"Managing Knowledge Work"
by Sue Newell, Maxine Robertson, Harry Scarbrough and Jacky Swan
2002 Palgrave, Hampshire, UK/New York
Review by Madanmohan Rao
This book is useful for early-stage KM professionals and MBA students looking for an introduction to the importance of knowledge in today's workplace and strategies for managing knowledge-intensive workplaces.
The material is divided into eight chapters including hypothetical scenarios as well as real-life case studies like Buckman Labs, Microsoft, Xerox, and Midlands Hospital; there is an online companion at www.palgrave.com/business/newell2.
Sue Newell is professor of innovation and organisational analysis at the University of London; the other co-authors are at the University of Warwick.
The introduction chapter reviews the organisational knowledge-related contributions of Peter Drucker, Daniel Bell, Manuel Castells, Zuboff, Polanyi, Nonaka (tacit/explicit knowledge), Spender (conscious/automatic/objectified/collective knowledge), Blackler (embrained (cognitive), embodied (action-oriented), encultured (in organisations), embedded (in routines) and encoded (symbolic) knowledge), Tom Stewart (financial capital, customer capital, structural capital, human capital, social capital), and Frederick Windslow Taylor (principles of Scientific Management formulated in 1991, still used today in sectors like call centres and fast food outlets).
"For knowledge workers, knowledge is simultaneously an input, medium and output for their work," according to the authors, who view modern firms more as "orchestras."
"ICT systems are increasingly widespread as enabling technologies for the processing of knowledge; furnishing knowledge inputs in the form of software systems; providing the medium for knowledge work through the development of email, groupware and Intranet technologies; and becoming the means for capturing the output of knowledge work in the shape of ICT-based artefacts and presentations," the authors observe.
ICTs are simultaneously social and physical artefacts. ICTs play an important role in the globalisation of business, interorganisational networking, and cross-functional project teams.
Structuring of KM architecture should allow for the complex nature of knowledge, which can often be uncertain, difficult to capture, dynamically changing, highly context dependent, expensive to codify, and too politically sensitive to make explicit.
Highly knowledge intensive sectors even have "gold collar" workers who have a high degree of autonomy and occasional co-location requirements with clients. But conflicts can arise between professional and organisational values, between employees who may want to do the best job but organisations which may place more value on efficiency.
Much has been written about the synergy and "creative abrasion" of teams. But there can also be problems in team settings, such as conformity, loss of feeling of individual responsibility, groupthink (shared stereotypes, self-censorship, and illusions of invulnerability, unanimity and morality), group polarisation, and formation of acceptable rather than optimum decision-making.
Trust therefore has to maintained at the level of companions, competencies and commitments. Trust is not easy to develop, and requires prolonged interaction and common experiences to promote knowledge-sharing, the authors advise.
One chapter is devoted to HR strategies for managing knowledge work such as personalisation and codification. "HRM policies have an impact in three key areas which influence knowledge work directly: rewards, corporate culture and organisation careers," the authors explain. There are four types of career systems in organisations: academies (fast track), club organisations, star-promoting baseball teams, and fortresses (little commitment to employees).
One chapter each is devoted to communities of practice and innovation. Communities of practice do not appear in typical organisational charts, and should be distinguished from work teams and occupational groups. Personalised story-telling and even jokes are an important form of knowledge sharing in such communities. Communities need to be cultivated and harnessed via connectivity infrastructure, public events, leadership, and sharing of artefacts. Important kinds of knowledge brokers in such communities include boundary spanners, roamers and outposts.
A good example here is Buckman Labs' KM practice (www.knowledge-nurture.com), whose Knowledge Transfer Department (KTD) was created in 1992. The KM system called K-Netix was initially launched on the CompuServe online service, and soon spanned 90 countries, including multilingual forums like EuroForum, LatinoForum, and AAA Forum (for Asia, Australia and Africa). The community knowledge base was maintained by forum specialists, and an educational product based on LearningSpace was rolled out in 1996. The global knowledge-sharing effort has helped increase the sales of products less than 5 years old, from 14 per cent in 1987 to 34.6 per cent in 1996.
Care must be taken to roll out a KM system with a specific purpose in mind, otherwise there is a danger of information overload, increased bureaucracy, and excessive stockpiling of purposeless knowledge.
"Innovation involves different episodes. These can be identified as agenda formation, selection, implementation, and routinisation. These are not linear and sequential but are, more often, overlapping, iterative and recursive," according to the authors.
Each phase calls for different KM strategies and metrics. Key factors which play a role here include cognitive perceptions, social relations, and organisational politics. For instance, knowledge acquisition is a primary activity at the agenda formation stage and is based on a networking approach. Knowledge creation via a community approach is critical in the selection phase, and knowledge storage and re-use based on a cognitive approach are vital for the routinisation stage.
Adequate resources, appropriate breadth and depth of skills and expertise, and boundary-spanning individuals are important components of a knowledge-sharing innovative culture. Regional differences can arise in different parts of the world -- such as Japan as compared to the West -- but the book does not adequately flesh out such differences and ways of jointly harnessing or aligning them for innovation.
Madanmohan Rao is the author of "The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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