Knowledge Sharing and Communities of Practice
This chapter provides an introduction to the study of knowledge management (KM). A brief history of knowledge management concepts is outlined,
noting that much of KM existed before the actual term came into popular use.
The lack of consensus over what constitutes a good definition of KM is
addressed, and the concept analysis technique is described as a means of clarifying the conceptual confusion that persists over precisely what KM is. The
multidisciplinary roots of KM are enumerated, together with their contributions to the discipline. The two major forms of knowledge, tacit and explicit,
are compared and contrasted. The importance of KM today for individuals,
for communities of practice, and for organizations are described, together with
the emerging KM roles and responsibilities needed to ensure successful KM
1. Use a framework and a clear language for knowledge management
2. Define key knowledge management concepts such as intellectual capital,
organizational learning and memory, knowledge taxonomy, and communities of practice using concept analysis.
3. Provide an overview of the history of knowledge management and identify key milestones.
4. Describe the key roles and responsibilities required for knowledge management applications.
The ability to manage knowledge is becoming increasingly more crucial in
today’s knowledge economy. The creation and diffusion of knowledge have
become ever more important factors in competitiveness. More and more,
knowledge is being regarded as a valuable commodity that is embedded in
products (especially high-technology products) and in the tacit knowledge of
highly mobile employees. Although knowledge is increasingly being viewed as
a commodity or an intellectual asset, it possesses some paradoxical characteristics that are radically different from those of other valuable commodities.
These knowledge characteristics include the following:
■ Use of knowledge does not consume it.
■ Transferral of knowledge does not result in losing it. ■ Knowledge is abundant, but the ability to use it is scarce. ■ Much of an organization’s valuable knowledge walks out the door at the
end of the day.
The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web have made unlimited
sources of knowledge available to us all. Pundits are heralding the dawn of the
Knowledge Age supplanting the Industrial Era. Forty years ago, nearly half of
all workers in industrialized countries were making or helping to make things;
today that proportion is down to 20% (Drucker, 1994; Bart, 2000). Laborintensive manufacturing with a large pool of relatively cheap, relatively homogeneous labor and hierarchical management has given way to knowledge-based
organizations. There are fewer people doing more work. Organizational hierarchies are being put aside as knowledge work calls for more collaboration.
The only sustainable advance a firm has comes from what it collectively knows,
how efficiently it uses what it knows, and how quickly it acquires and uses
new knowledge (Davenport and Prusak, 1998). An organization in the Knowledge Age is one that learns, remembers, and acts based on the best available
information, knowledge, and know-how.
All of these developments have created a strong need for a deliberate and
systematic approach to cultivating and sharing a company’s knowledge base—
one populated with valid and valuable lessons learned and best practices. In
other words, in order to be successful in today’s challenging organizational
environment, companies need to learn from their past errors and not reinvent
the wheel again and again. Organizational knowledge is not intended to replace
individual knowledge but to complement it by making it stronger, more coherent, and more broadly applicative. Knowledge management represents a deliberate and systematic approach to ensure the full utilization of the organization’s
knowledge base, coupled with the potential of individual skills, competencies,
thoughts, innovations, and ideas to create a more efficient and effective organization. The Iaccoca Institute found that “CEOs, when asked how much of
the knowledge that is available to the organization is actually used, responded
‘only about 20%.’ Yet if this figure represented average utilization of production capacity, it would only be acceptable to the most foolhardy CEOs”
2 KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
(Agile People Enterprise Development Group Newsletter, Iacocca Institute,
Pennsylvania, November 1996).
Knowledge management (KM) was initially defined as the process of applying a systematic approach to the capture, structure, management, and dissemination of knowledge throughout an organization in order to work faster, reuse
best practices, and reduce costly rework from project to project (Nonaka and
Takeuchi, 1995; Pasternack and Viscio, 1998; Pfeiffer and Sutton, 1999;
Ruggles and Holtshouse, 1999). KM is often characterized by a “pack rat”
approach to content: “save it, it may prove useful sometime in the future.”
Many documents tend to be warehoused, sophisticated search engines are then
used to try to retrieve some of this content, and fairly large-scale and costly
KM systems are built. Knowledge management solutions have proven to be
most successful in the capture, storage, and subsequent dissemination of
knowledge that has been rendered explicit—particularly lessons learned and
The focus of intellectual capital management (ICM), on the other hand, is
on those pieces of knowledge that are of business value to the organization—
referred to as intellectual capital or assets (Bontis and Nikitopoulos, 2001).
Although some of these are more visible (e.g., patents, intellectual property),
the majority consist of know-how, know-why, experience, and expertise that
tend to reside within the head of one or a few employees (Klein, 1998; Stewart,
1997). ICM is characterized by less content—because content is filtered and
judged, and only the best are inventoried (the “top ten,” for example). ICM
content tends to be more representative of a person’s real thinking (contextual
information, opinions, stories) owing to its emphasis on actionable knowledge
and know-how. As a result, endeavors are less costly and the focus shifts to
learning (at the individual, community, and organizational level) rather than
to the building of systems.
A good definition of knowledge management incorporates both the capturing and storing of the knowledge perspective, together with the valuing of intellectual assets. For example:
Knowledge management is the deliberate and systematic coordination of an
organization’s people, technology, processes, and organizational structure in
order to add value through reuse and innovation. This coordination is achieved
through creating, sharing, and applying knowledge as well as through feeding
the valuable lessons learned and best practices into corporate memory in order
to foster continued organizational learning.
When asked, most executives often state that their greatest asset is the
knowledge held by their employees. They also invariably add that they have
no idea how to manage this knowledge! It is essential to identify that knowledge that is of value and is also at risk of being lost to the organization, through
retirement, turnover, and competition using the intellectual capital or asset
approach. In addition, the selective or value-based knowledge management
approach should be a three-tiered one. That is, it should also be applied to
three organizational levels: the individual, the group or community, and the
organization itself. The best way to retain valuable knowledge is to identify
INTRODUCTION TO KM IN THEORY AND PRACTICE 3
intellectual assets and then to ensure that legacy materials are produced and
subsequently stored in such a way as to make their future retrieval and reuse
as easy as possible (Stewart, 2000). These tangible by-products need to flow
from individual to individual, between members of a community of practice,
and, of course, back to the organization itself, in the form of lessons learned,
best practices, and corporate memory.
Many knowledge management (KM) efforts have been largely concerned
with capturing, codifying, and sharing the knowledge held by people in organizations. Although there is still a lack of consensus over what constitutes a good
definition of KM (see the next section), there is widespread agreement as to
the goals of an organization that undertakes KM. Nickols (2000) summarizes
these goals as follows: “the basic aim of knowledge management is to leverage knowledge to the organization’s advantage.” Some of management’s
motives are obvious: the loss of skilled people through turnover, pressures to
avoid reinventing the wheel, pressures for organization-wide innovations in
processes as well as products, management of risk, and the accelerating rate
at which new knowledge is being created. Some typical knowledge management objectives are to:
■ Facilitate a smooth transition from those retiring to their successors who are
recruited to fill their positions. ■ Minimize loss of corporate memory due to attrition and retirement. ■ Identify critical resources and critical areas of knowledge so that the corporation “knows what it knows and does it well—and why.” ■ Build up a toolkit of methods that can be used with individuals, with
groups, and with the organization to stem the potential loss of intellectual
WHAT IS KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT?
An informal survey conducted by the author identified over 100 published
definitions of knowledge management, and of these, at least 72 could be considered very good! Clearly, KM is a multidisciplinary field of study that covers
a lot of ground. This finding should not be surprising, for applying knowledge
to work is integral to most business activities. However, the field of KM does
suffer from the “Three Blind Men and an Elephant” syndrome. In fact, there
are likely more than three distinct perspectives on KM, and each leads to a different extrapolation and a different definition.
From the business perspective:
Knowledge management is a business activity with two primary aspects:
[T]reating the knowledge component of business activities as an explicit
concern of business reflected in strategy, policy, and practice at all levels of the
organization; and, making a direct connection between an organization’s intellectual assets—both explicit (recorded) and tacit (personal know-how)—and
positive business results. (Barclay and Murray, 1997)
4 KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT IN THEORY AND PRACTICE
Knowledge management is a collaborative and integrated approach to the creation, capture, organization, access and use of an enterprise’s intellectual assets.
From the cognitive science or knowledge science perspective:
Knowledge—the insights, understandings, and practical know-how that we all
possess—is the fundamental resource that allows us to function intelligently. Over
time, considerable knowledge is also transformed to other manifestations—such
as books, technology, practices, and traditions—within organizations of all kinds
and in society in general. These transformations result in cumulated [sic] expertise and, when used appropriately, increased effectiveness. Knowledge is one,
if not THE, principal factor that makes personal, organizational, and societal
intelligent behavior possible. (Wiig, 1993, pp. 38–39)
And, from the process/technology perspective:
Knowledge management is the concept under which information is turned into
actionable knowledge and made available effortlessly in a usable form to the
people who can apply it. (Information Week, Sept. 1, 2003)
Leveraging collective wisdom to increase responsiveness and innovation. (Carl
Frappaolo, Delphi Group, Boston, posted at http://www.destinationkm.com/
A systematic approach to manage the use of information in order to provide
a continuous flow of Knowledge to the right people at the right time enabling
efficient and effective decision making in their everyday business. (Steve Ward,
Northrop Grumman, posted at http://www.destinationkm.com/articles/default.
A knowledge management system is a virtual repository for relevant information which is critical to tasks performed daily by organizational knowledge
workers. (What Is KM?, posted at http://www.knowledgeshop.com)
Wiig (1993) also emphasizes that given the importance of knowledge in virtually all areas of daily and commercial life, two knowledge-related aspects are
crucial for viability and success at any level. These are knowledge assets that
must be applied, nurtured, preserved, and used to the largest extent possible
by both individuals and organizations; and knowledge-related processes to
create, build, compile, organize, transform, transfer, pool, apply, and safeguard
knowledge that must be carefully and explicitly managed in all affected areas.
Historically, knowledge has always been managed, at least implicitly. However,
effective and active knowledge management requires new perspectives and techniques and touches on almost all facets of an organization. We need to develop
a new discipline and prepare a cadre of knowledge professionals with a blend of
expertise that we have not previously seen. This is our challenge! (Wiig, in Grey,
INTRODUCTION TO KM IN THEORY AND PRACTICE 5
Knowledge management is a surprising mix of strategies, tools, and techniques—some of which are nothing new under the sun. Storytelling, peer-topeer mentoring, and learning from mistakes, for example, all have precedents
in education, training, and artificial intelligence practices. Knowledge management makes use of a mixture of techniques from knowledge-based system
design, such as structured knowledge acquisition strategies from subject matter
experts (McGraw and Harrison-Briggs, 1989) and educational technology
(e.g., task and job analysis to design and develop task support systems; see
This makes it both easy and difficult to define what KM is. At one extreme,
KM encompasses everything to do with knowledge. At the other extreme, it is
narrowly defined as an information technology system that dispenses organizational know-how. KM is in fact both of these and many more. One of the
few areas of consensus in the field is that KM is a highly multidisciplinary
Multidisciplinary Nature of KM
Knowledge management draws upon a vast number of diverse fields such
■ Organizational science.
■ Cognitive science. ■ Linguistics and computational linguistics.
■ Information technologies such as knowledge-based systems, document and
information management, electronic performance support systems, and
database technologies. ■ Information and library science.
■ Technical writing and journalism. ■ Anthropology and sociology.
■ Education and training.
■ Storytelling and communication studies. ■ Collaborative technologies such as Computer Supported Collaborative Work
and groupware, as well as intranets, extranets, portals, and other web