MET:Organizational Knowledge Sharing Practices
This page originally authored by Ariane Montcalm (2013)
Organizational knowledge sharing practices include all of the activities and processes, both formal and informal, by which knowledge is shared and created throughout an organization. Knowledge sharing is a phase in knowledge management, which is defined as being an organization's ability to identify, acquire, create, process, share and retain knowledge.
In order to compete in today’s business world which is characterized by increased globalization, hyper-competition and reduced product life cycles, organizational knowledge is becoming an increasingly valuable asset. Instead of relying on traditional top-down communication, organizational knowledge sharing practices enhance the more rapid horizontal flow of information and knowledge.
Organizational knowledge (vs. knowledge) has distinct characteristics given its action-centered, contextual and collective nature. It is composed of both explicit manifestations as well as intangible forms of knowledge. Various knowledge sharing strategies and enabling technologies can be implemented according to the forms of knowledge that are the most important to the organization. For example, a personalization strategy enhances the transfer of tacit knowledge, which is challenging to facilitate via traditional organizational learning strategies (See Organizational Issues).
Because technology is an integral part of the knowledge sharing process, careful consideration must be made in selecting and implementing the right products, systems and software that will meet the needs of the organizations and its employees. However, many scholars have concluded that technology can only act as an enabler; effective knowledge sharing greatly depends on social and psychological factors such as favourable organizational cultures, existing organizational networks and groups and the reward-systems in place.
Knowledge - An Organization's Greatest Asset
The rapid shift towards the information era and knowledge organizations has changed how we value knowledge in the organization. The organizational ability to create, share and translate new knowledge into new products and technologies is increasingly being viewed as a strategic asset, if not the most important source of competitive advantage for many organizations.  
Knowledge not only adds value but has the potential to create new value within the organization as it possesses the unique characteristic of growing when it is shared. It can be transacted over and over again without the transacting party ever giving up the value of the item being transacted, resulting in the possibility of endless returns. Furthermore, the combination of previously unconnected pieces of knowledge leads to the collective creation of new knowledge, beyond the simple transfer of existing knowledge.
As a sub-category of knowledge, organizational knowledge is not exempt from the ongoing epistemological debate amongst academics. The definition of organizational knowledge and what it consists of varies but there is general consensus that organizational knowledge emerges from interaction and dialogue between members of an organization. Although interaction and communication play a key role in the knowledge sharing process, information and knowledge, should not be used as interchangeable terms as information refers to the flow of messages, while knowledge is created and organized by the very flow of information. Organizational knowledge is unique to each organization and hard to appropriate by third parties because it is path-dependent; no two organizations have undergone the same history of learning experiences.In contrast with the broader concept of knowledge, organizational knowledge can be viewed as action-centered processes of generating, sharing and utilizing knowledge in organizations.
Explicit versus Tacit Knowledge
Much of the literature on the surrounding topics of organizational knowledge, knowledge sharing and knowledge management distinguishes between 2 types of knowledge: explicit and tacit, a classification of knowledge proposed by Michael Polanyi (1966) in his work “The Tacit Dimension”.
Explicit knowledge refers to the types of knowledge that are transmittable through formal and systematic languages such as facts, concepts or frameworks whereas tacit knowledge involves hard-to-communicate skills, know-how or practical knowledge; it is difficult to verbalize, let alone codify. This is explained by its more personal and subjective nature, making it difficult to be formalized and communicated. While it is generally agreed that both are involved in organizational knowledge sharing, there are differences in opinion in regards to the relation between the two and their respective roles in the knowledge sharing process and the related strategies.
Knowledge Sharing Strategies
“Companies can pursue different knowledge-management strategies depending on what type of knowledge they consider to be most valuable.” In studying knowledge management strategies of a variety or firms, Hansen, Nohria & Tierney (1999) determined that there exist two very different knowledge management strategies: codification strategy and personalization strategy.
Codification strategy intends to codify and store knowledge in databases in order to make the knowledge accessible to others. This strategy aims to achieve scale in the quantity of knowledge reuse and must be well supported by technology. This strategy is more adequate to adopt when a company’s employees rely on explicit knowledge to do their work.
Personalization strategy emphasizes the sharing of knowledge through direct the person-to-person contact and relies heavily on the networks created amongst the members. When employees require tacit knowledge to solve problems (scientific expertise, operational know-how, business judgment, etc..), the person-to-person approach emphasized in this strategy is recommended. The complexity of the technology systems required to support this type of knowledge sharing is much lower than what is required within a codification strategy.
The choice of which strategy to use is very critical and it should not be left to chance. The knowledge sharing strategy should reflect the company’s competitive strategy and the type of knowledge its employees most require to deliver serivces.
Technologies that Support Knowledge Sharing
Although organizational knowledge sharing is not new (i.e. expertise being passed down in family businesses), the recent rise in networked computers have made it possible to store and share certain kinds of knowledge in ways never imagined before. Technologies that can enable knowledge sharing vary from basic (telephone, email, databases, web conferencing, intranet, wikis, repositories and instant messaging applications) to more complex and elaborate (knowledge management systems, workflow technology and knowledge sharing products). In a recent review of some more elaborate knowledge management technologies that support the knowledge sharing process, Hedgebeth (2007) listed the capabilities of systems such as SalesForce.com, BMC Software, DCASoft and Atlassian. In general , these systems were found to possess the capability to integrate vast assortments of applications or third party solutions, such as document management, virtual meetings, training and expert repositories.
In selecting and implementing technologies to support knowledge sharing, the organization must choose products that are integrative and flexible enough to facilitate the interaction between different sources of knowledge. Furthermore, selecting technologies that make is easy for people to share information will improve knowledge sharing by reducing the perceived costs of individual contribution to the process. Even when having selected technologies that can adequately support knowledge sharing, it cannot be expected that employees will quickly adopt the new processes without the necessary training as well as the motivation and support from management. Moreover, organizations who choose to implement more elaborate knowledge management systems must be also be prepared to allot appropriate and qualified human resources to the implementation and management of the knowledge sharing applications.
Despite the existence of these highly specialized technologies that support the transfer and creation of knowledge across the organization, practitioners and academics alike are coming to realize that technology can only serve as an enabling factor; effective knowledge sharing greatly depends on social and psychological aspects such as the organizational culture, the existing networks amongst employees and the incentive structures in place.
Whereas the technologies that are currently available to support knowledge sharing are generally considered to be adequate, the non-technological aspects of the process seem to be present many barriers to effective knowledge sharing. This section reviews different organizational characteristics and practices that influence the organization's ability to effectively share knowledge.
Several scholars have argued that certain elements must be present in the organizational culture in order for knowledge management initiatives to succeed such as creativity and continuous improvement. A culture of collaboration is also necessary for effective knowledge sharing, especially in knowledge-focused organizations.
The Importance of Networks
In a study aimed at understanding an organization’s capacity to share knowledge, Cross et al. (2002) found that knowing what others know combined with the ability to access others were important predictors of organizational performance. By having strong networks, employees are aware of what others know, which connects them to the right resource, thus allowing knowledge transfer to occur.
A network analysis of an organization can allow one to identify areas in the organizational structure that lack strong networks/social relationships (a known barrier to learning) and to implement knowledge sharing strategies aimed at strengthening those weak links.
- "Knowledge flows along the existing pathways in organizations. If we want to understand how to improve the flow of knowledge,we need to understand those pathways" (Cohen and Prusak, 2001, as cited in Anklam, Cross & Gulas, 2005, p.539)
Communities of Practice
Communities of practice is a common theme in knowledge sharing literature as these types of social groups are recognized for their ability to enhance knowledge creation and transfer, especially the more intangible forms of tacit knowledge. In studying participation of individuals in knowledge sharing practices, Wasko and Faraj (2000) surveyed members of organizational communities of practice to find that people participated because they wanted to feel a part of, and promote, a professional community that they valued and that helped them stay up-to-date with current ideas and innovations. The strong group identity typically shared by these groups plays a key factor in the knowledge sharing process. It has also been advanced that communities of practice can help overcome technological and geographic barriers related to technology-supported knowledge sharing.
Although formalized communities of practice are gaining presence in organizations due to their ability to replicate the knowledge and learning advantages achieved in naturally occurring communities, Snowden (2005) warns against atomizing the networks by artificially aggregating individuals focused on particular functions which could actually weaken the organizational network.
A common problem associated with knowledge sharing has to do with employees not being rewarded for their contributions, thus deterring them from participating. By increasing the incentives associated with sharing one’s knowledge, it is possible to increase one’s participation.
Effective incentives include monetary as well as non-monetary rewards such as recognition. That being said, certain reward systems can diminish the quality of the knowledge by increasing the volume of contributions. Careful consideration must be taken when selecting the method for measuring, monitoring and rewarding contributions made by individuals and, the system in place should be adapted to the knowledge sharing strategy selected. If a codification strategy is in place, individual contribution can be easily tracked (i.e. number of entries in the database) and rewarded. When the organization adopts a personalization strategy whereby individual contribution is difficulty measured, a group based reward system is then recommended.
Finally, with the sharing of knowledge gradually becoming a business imperative, it is recommended to integrate this activity into the organization's definition of performance:
- “In a scenario where employees’ incentives are aligned with extraordinary performance, sharing one’s skill with others may harm one’s capacity to outperform the rest. In order to eliminate this barrier, organizations could expand the concept of performance to include, in addition to business results, contributions towards building the organization’s strategic capabilities.”
Stop Motion Artifact
Organizational Knowledge Sharing Practices by Sydney Hamilton https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3VCFuxz0l8&rel=0
- Davis, J. G., Subrahmanian, E., & Westerberg, A. W. (2005). The "global" and the "local" in knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(2), 101-112.
- Cabrera, A.; Cabrera, E. F. (2002). "Knowledge-sharing Dilemmas". Organization Studies 23 (5): 687–710.
- Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.
- Tsoukas, H., & Vladimirou, E. (2001). What is organizational knowledge? Journal of Management Studies, 38(7), 973-993.
- Hansen, M. T., Nohria, N., & Tierney, T. (1999). What's your strategy for managing knowledge?. Harvard Business Review, 77(2), 106-116.
- Hedgebeth, D. (2007). Making use of knowledge sharing technologies. The journal of information and knowledge management systems, 37(1), 49-55.
- Laycock, M. (2005). Collaborating to compete: Achieving effective knowledge sharing in organizations. The Learning Organization, 12(6), 523-538.
- Anklam, P., Cross, R., & Gulas, V. (2005). Expanding the field of vision. The Learning Organization, 12(6), 539-551.
- Snowden, D. (2005). From atomism to networkds in social systems. The Learning Organization, 12(6), 552-562.
- Lee, D., & Ahn, J. (2007). Reward systems for intra-organizational knowledge sharing. European Journal of Operational Research, 180, 938-956.