Knowledge Management Solutions and Foundations
By Dr. G C Mohanta, Professor, Al-Qurmoshi Institute of Business Management,
Knowledge management depends on two broad aspects: KM solutions, which are specific in
nature and KM foundations, which are broader and long term.
Knowledge Management Solutions
KM solutions refer to the ways in which specific aspects of KM (discovery, capture, sharing and
application of knowledge) can be accomplished. KM solutions include KM processes and KM
systems. KM mechanisms and KM technologies support multiple KM solutions. The KM
infrastructure supports (through KM mechanisms and KM technologies) all KM solutions.
Knowledge Management Foundations
KM foundations are the broad organizational aspects that support KM in the short and long term.
They include KM infrastructure, KM mechanisms and KM technologies. Thus KM solutions
depend on KM foundations.
Knowledge Management Mechanisms
KM mechanisms are organizational or structural means used to promote knowledge
management. They enable KM systems and they are themselves supported by KM infrastructure.
They may (or may not) involve the use of information technology, but they do involve some kind
of organizational arrangement or social or structural means of facilitating KM. They depend on
KM infrastructure and facilitate KM systems.
Examples of KM mechanisms include learning by doing, on the job training, learning by
observation and face to face meetings. More long term KM mechanisms include the hiring of a
Chief Knowledge Officer, cooperative projects across departments, traditional hierarchical
relationships, organizational policies, standards, initiation process for new employees and
employee rotation across departments.
Knowledge Management Technologies
KM technologies are information technologies that can be used to facilitate knowledge
management. Thus KM technologies are intrinsically no different from information technologies,
but they focus on knowledge management rather than on information processing. KM
technologies also support KM systems and benefit from the KM infrastructure, especially the
information technology infrastructure.
Knowledge Management Processes
KM processes are the broad processes that help in discovering, capturing, sharing and applying
knowledge. These four KM processes are supported by KM systems and seven important types
of KM sub-processes, with one sub-process – socialization supporting two KM processes
(discovery and sharing). Of the seven KM sub-processes, four are focusing on the ways in which
knowledge is converted through the interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge. The four
ways of managing knowledge are: socialization, externalization, internalization and combination.
The other three KM sub-processes are: exchange, direction and routines.
Socialisation facilitates the sharing of tacit knowledge in cases in which new tacit knowledge is
being created as well as when new tacit knowledge is not being created. There is no intrinsic
difference between the socialization process when used for knowledge discovery or knowledge
sharing, although the way in which the process may be used could be different. For example,
when used to share knowledge, a face to face meeting (a mechanism that facilitates socialization)
could involve a question and answer session between the sender and recipient of knowledge,
whereas when used to create/capture knowledge a face to face meeting could take the form of a
debate or joint problem solving.
Externalisation involves converting tacit knowledge into explicit forms, such as, words,
concepts, visuals and figurative language. It helps translate individuals’ tacit knowledge into
explicit forms that can be more easily understood by the rest of the group. An example of
externalization is a consultant team writing a document that describes the lessons the team has
learned about the client organisation, client executives and approaches that work in such an
assignment. This captures the tacit knowledge acquired by the team members.
Internalisation is the conversion of explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge. The explicit
knowledge may be embodied in action and practice so that the individual acquiring the
knowledge can re-experience what others have gone through. Alternatively, individuals could
acquire tacit knowledge in virtual situations, either by reading manuals or others’ stories or
experientially through simulations and experiments.
Combination refers to the creation of new knowledge through the exchange and combination of
explicit knowledge held by individual in the organisation. A deeper integration of knowledge
into the current knowledge base of the organisation leads to the development of more creative
new products. Organisation can create new knowledge and can learn by combining the
information and/or knowledge that is disseminated and shared by different units. Accordingly,
the combination process most closely resembles the use of knowledge in facilitating new product
Exchange, in contrast to socialization, focuses on sharing of explicit knowledge. It is used to
communicate or transfer explicit knowledge among individuals, groups and organisations. In its
basic nature, the process of exchange of explicit knowledge does not differ from the process
through which information is communicated. An example of exchange is a product design
manual being transferred by one employee to another, who can then use the explicit knowledge
contained in the manual. Exchanging a document could also be used to transfer information.
Direction refers to the process through which the individual possessing the knowledge directs the
action of another individual without transferring to that individual the knowledge underlying the
direction. Directions involve the transfer of instructions or decisions and not the transfer of the
knowledge required to make those decisions, and hence it has been labeled as knowledge
substitution. Direction is the process used when a production worker calls an expert to ask him
how to solve a particular problem with a machine and then proceeds to solve the problem based
on the instructions given by the expert. He does this without himself acquiring the knowledge so
that if a similar problem reoccurs in future, he would be unable to identify it as such and would
therefore be unable to solve it himself without calling the expert.
Routine involve the utilization of knowledge embedded in procedures, rules, and norms that
guide future behavior. Routines economise on communication more than directions as they are
embedded in procedures or technologies. Routines could be automated through the use of IT,
such as in systems that provide help desk agents, field engineers, consultants, and customer, end-
users with specific and automated answers from knowledge base. Similarly an inventory
management system utilises considerable knowledge about the relationship between demand and
supply, but neither the knowledge nor the directions are communicated through individuals. Also
enterprise systems are coded with routines that describe business process within the industry
Knowledge Management Infrastructure
KM infrastructure reflects the long-term foundations for knowledge management. KM
infrastructure, which is at the organizational level, supports KM mechanisms and KM
technologies. However, over time, KM infrastructure itself benefits from KM mechanisms and
KM technologies, as well as, KM processes.
KM mechanisms and KM technologies rely on the KM infrastructure, which reflects the long
term foundation for knowledge management. In an organizational context, KM infrastructure
includes five major components: organisation culture, organisation structure, information
technology infrastructure, common knowledge, and physical environment.
Organizational culture reflects the norms and beliefs that guide the behaviour of the
organization's members. It is an important enabler of knowledge management in organizations.
Attributes of enabling organizational culture include understanding the value of knowledge
management practices, managing support for knowledge management at all levels, incentives
that reward knowledge sharing, and encouragement of interaction for the creation and sharing of
Knowledge management depends to a considerable extent on the organisation structure. Several
aspects of organisation structure are relevant.
Hierarchical structure - First the hierarchical structure of the organisation affects the people with
whom each individual frequently interacts, and to or from whom he is consequently likely to
transfer knowledge. Traditional reporting relationships influence the flow of data and
information as well as the nature of groups who make decisions together, and consequently
affect the sharing and creation of knowledge.
Decentralization - By decentralizing or flattening the organisation structures, companies often
seek to eliminate organisation layers, thereby placing more responsibility with each individual
and increasing the size of groups reporting to each individual. Consequently, knowledge sharing
is likely to occur with a larger group of individuals in more decentralized organisations.
Matrix structures - In addition, matrix structures and emphasis on “leadership” rather than on
“management” also facilitates greater knowledge sharing primarily by cutting across traditional
Communities of practice - Second organisation structures can facilitate knowledge management
through communities of practice. A community of practice is an organic and self organized
group of individuals who are dispersed geographically or organizationally but communicate
regularly to discuss issues of mutual interest. For example, a tech-club at Daimlerchrysler
included a group of engineers who didn’t work in the same unit but met regularly, on their own
initiative, to discuss problems related to their area of expertise. Similarly, at Xerox Corporation,
a strategic community of IT professionals involving frequent informal interactions among them,
promotes knowledge sharing.
Communities of practice provide access to a larger group of individuals than possible within
traditional departmental boundaries. Consequently, there are more number of potential helpers,
and this increases the probability that at least one of them will provide useful knowledge.
Communities of practice also provide access to external knowledge sources. An organisation’s
external stakeholders – for example, customers, suppliers and partners – provide a far greater
knowledge reservoir than the organisation itself. For instance, relationships with university
researchers can help new biotechnology firms to maintain their innovativeness.
Although communities of practice are usually not part of a company’s formal organisation
structure, company executives can facilitate them in several ways. For example, they can
legitimate them through support for participation in them. Moreover they can enhance the
perceived value of participation in communities of practice by seeking advice from them. They
can also help communities of practice by providing them with resources, such as, money or
connection to external experts and access to information technology that supports their virtual
meetings and knowledge sharing activities. Communities of practice benefit considerably from
other emergent information technologies, including blogs and social networking technologies.
Specialized Structures and Roles - Third, organisation structure can facilitate knowledge
management through specialized structures and roles that specially support knowledge
management. Three possibilities deserve special mention.
Chief Knowledge Officer - First, some organisations appoint an individual to the position of
Chief Knowledge Officer and make this individual responsible for the organisation’s KM efforts.
Separate Department for KM - Second, some organisations establish a separate department for
knowledge management, which is often headed by the Chief Knowledge Officer.
R&D Department and the Corporate Library - Finally, two traditional KM units – the R&D
department and the corporate library also facilitate knowledge management, although they differ
in focus. Whereas the R&D department supports management of knowledge about the latest, or
future developments, the corporate library supports business units by facilitating knowledge
sharing activities and serving as a repository of historical information about the organisation, its
industry, and competitive environment.
Information Technology Infrastructure
Knowledge management is also facilitated by the organisation’s information technology (IT)
infrastructure. Although certain information technologies and systems are directly developed to
pursue knowledge management, the organisation’s overall information technology infrastructure
includes data processing, storage and communication technologies and systems. It comprises the
entire spectrum of the organisation’s information systems. It consists of databases (DB) and data
warehouses, as well as enterprise resource planning systems. One possible way of systematically
viewing the IT infrastructure is to consider the capabilities it provides in four important aspects:
reach, depth, richness and aggregation.
Reach - Reach pertains to access, connection and the efficiency of such access. Within a context
of a network, reach reflects the number and geographical locations of the nodes that can be
efficiently accessed. Keen uses the term reach to refer to the locations and IT platform which is
capable of linking, with the ideal being able to connect to “anyone, anywhere”. Much of the
power of internet is attributed to its reach and the fact that most people can access it quite
inexpensively. Reach is enhanced not just by advances in hardware but by progress in software.
For instance, standardization of cross-firm communication standards and languages, such as,
XML, make it easier for firms to communicate with a wider array of trading partners, including
those with whom they do not have long-term relationships.
Depth - Depth in contrast, focuses on detail and amount of information that can be effectively
communicated over a medium. The dimension closely corresponds to the aspects of bandwidth
and customization. Communicating deep and detailed information requires high bandwidth. At
the same time, it is the availability of deep and detailed information about customers that enable
customization. Recent technological progress – for instance, in channel bandwidth – has enabled
considerable improvement in depth.
Richness - Communication channels can be arranged along a continuum representing their
“relative richness”. The richness of a medium is based on its ability to: (a) provide multiple cues
(e.g., body language, facial expression, tone of voice) simultaneously; (b) provide quick
feedback; (c) personalize messages and (d) use natural languages to convey subtleties.
Information technology has traditionally been viewed as a lean communication medium.
However, given the progress in information technology, we are witnessing a significant increase
its ability to support rich communication.
Aggregation - Finally, rapid advances in IT have significantly enhanced the ability to store and
quickly process information. This enables the aggregation of large volumes of information drawn
from multiple sources. For instance, data mining and data warehousing together enable the
synthesis of diverse information from multiple sources, potentially to produce new insights.
Enterprise Resource Planning systems (ERPs) also present a natural platform for aggregating
knowledge across different parts of an organisation.
To summarise, the above four IT capabilities enable knowledge management by enhancing
common knowledge or by facilitating the four KM processes. For example, an expertise locator
system is a special type of knowledge repository that pinpoints individuals having specific
knowledge within the organisation. These systems rely on the reach and depth capabilities of IT
by enabling individuals to contact remotely located experts and seek detailed solutions to
Another IS solution attempts to capture as much of the knowledge in an individual’s head as
possible and archive it in a searchable database. This is primarily the aim of projects in artificial
intelligence, which captures the expert’s knowledge in systems based on various technologies,
including rule – based system and case – based reasoning, among others. But the most
sophisticated systems for eliciting and cataloging expert’s knowledge in models that can easily
be understood and applied by others in the organisation require strong knowledge engineering
processes to develop. Such sophisticated KM systems have typically not been advocated as
frequently for use in mainstream business environments, primarily because of the high cost
involved in the knowledge engineering effort.
The physical environment within the organisation is often taken for granted, but it is another
important foundation upon which knowledge management rests. Key aspects of the physical
environment include the design of buildings and the separation between them; the location, size,
and type of offices; the type, number and nature of meeting rooms and so on. Physical
environment can foster knowledge management by providing opportunities for employees to
meet and share ideas. Even though knowledge sharing there is often not by design, coffee rooms,
cafeterias, water coolers and hallways do provide venues where employees learn from and share
insights with each other. Most employees gain knowledge related to work from informal
conversations around water coolers or over meals rather than from formal training or manuals.
A number of organisations are creating spaces specifically designed to facilitate this informal
knowledge sharing. A medium sized company focused on careful management of office
locations to facilitate knowledge sharing. This company developed open plan offices with subtle
arrangements to encourage knowledge sharing. Locations are arranged in this company so as to
maximize the chances of face to face interactions among people who might be able to help each
other. For example, an employee might walk down the hall so that she might meet someone who
knows the answer to her question and she will meet such an individual not due to chance but
because a snack area is positioned where four project team’s areas intersect.
Common knowledge represents another important component of the infrastructure that enables
knowledge management. It refers to the organisation’s cumulative experiences in comprehending
a category of knowledge and activities and the organizing principles that support communication
and coordination. Common knowledge provides unity to the organisation. It includes: a common
language and vocabulary, recognition of individual knowledge domains, common cognitive
schema, shared norms and elements of specialized knowledge that are common across
individuals sharing knowledge.
Common knowledge helps enhance the value of an individual expert’s knowledge by integrating
it with the knowledge of others. However, because the common knowledge is based on the above
definition common only to an organisation, this increase in value is also specific to that particular
organisation and does not transfer to its competitors. Thus, common knowledge supports
knowledge transfer within the organisation but impedes the transfer (or leakage) of knowledge
outside the organisation.