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Knowledge management and beyond?

Ackerman, Mark, Pipek, Volkmar, and Wulf, Volker. eds. Sharing expertise: beyond knowledge management. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. xx, 418 pp. ISBN 0-262-01195-6 33.50

Bontis, Nick, ed. World Congress on Intellectual Capital readings. Boston, MA: Butterworth Heinemann, 2002. xxix, 392 pp. ISBN 0-7506-7475-X

Both of these books are composite publications. In one case, i.e., Ackerman et al., the editors have put together a relatively coherent set of chapters, stimulated by a conference, but not made up of conference papers. In the other case, we have a 'collection of readings from the World Congress on Intellectual Capital,' but it is not clear whether these are papers presented at the Congress or derived from such papers. The blurb seems to indicate this is the case, but the Introduction (p. xxxiii) points out that Chapter 2 was presented at an earlier conference. Interestingly, one uses the term 'knowledge management' in the title simply to indicate that the text goes beyond that concept, while the other doesn't use it at all in the title, but proves to be full of papers that use the term frequently.

Although the term 'intellectual capital' (IC) is rather fuzzy and has a variety of definitions, it seems to me to be defensible. It certainly can be argued that such things as patents, trade marks, brands, designs, etc., all of which are the product of intellectual effort, constitute 'intellectual capital' for a company. However, the 'softer' the basis upon which we claim 'intellectual capital rights', the more difficult it becomes to measure the size and, perhaps more important, the impact of IC. Claims are made, for example, that the knowledge possessed by employees is part of the IC of the firm, but however much the firm has invested in a person's training and development, the knowledge that a person possesses is his or her IC - it constitutes the basis, for example, on which the person will gain a new job in a different firm, or enable them to set up in business on their own. This, of course, is one reason why firms are so reluctant to invest in training: they know that the employee can walk out of the door at any time and the return on their training investment will be zero, or negative if the person takes their new skills to a competitor.

These problems are discussed to some extent in the volume edited by Bontis, but there is a lack of coherence among the papers and no discernible thread connecting them. Some excellent accounts are presented: for example, Beaulieu and others (Chapter 8) discuss 'Intellectual capital disclosures in Swedish annual reports', on the basis of actual empirical research, using a measure of profitability (return on capital employed or ROCE, a standard accounting measure) and a measure of 'intellectual disclosure', i.e., the extent to which companies (a random sample of thirty) disclosed the extent and nature of their intellectual capital. The authors conclude that their research failed to reveal any significant association between these two measures. Interestingly, there was an association between company size and the extent of disclosure - the bigger companies disclosing more - and, even more interesting, a negative correlations between R & D spend and disclosure - the higher the spend, the less is disclosed about IC. Presumably, IC is of even greater importance for companies that have high R & D budgets and so they are less willing to tell the world about it.

Annual reporting of IC is discussed in 'Relevant experiences in measuring and reporting intellectual capital in European pioneering firms' by Patricia Pablos of the University of Oviedo, Spain (Chapter 9). The 'pioneering firms' were Danish and the paper is based on a survey of the reporting practices of nineteen firms, all of which are collaborating with a Danish agency on the development of IC reports. The paper, therefore, does not tell us anything about Danish companies in general, but only about those that already believe such reporting to be useful. The author concludes from the data that these companies are taking the issue seriously, that the accounts provide narrative information about IC as well as measures, that the human resources perspective dominates, that firms use mainly the Scandia Navigator or Sveiby's Intangible Assets Monitor, and that non-financial measures of IC are adopted, as well as the financial.

The only other paper based on empirical research comes from Finland: 'Knowledge sharing in networked organizations', by Järvenpää and Mäki (Chapter 20), which compares 'knowledge sharing' (actually information sharing) in industrial networks and museum networks. The authors conclude (in a paper that does not really present all the evidence for the conclusions) that 'networked organizations did not fully utilize the benefits of networks'.

In addition to these few, empirically-based papers, a number of papers present case studies in the application of, for example, IC reporting in various organizations, and others deal with methodological problems of measuring IC. One or two deal with 'knowledge management', generally without an adequate definition of the term, and there are the usual exhortatory papers concerned with 'vision' and 'motivation'. There is also at least one amazing statement from the editor: 'Although the importance of knowledge can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, the first evidence of codification of knowledge may have its roots in scientific management.' (p. 20) Amazing - out of the window go Aristotle, Bacon, Linneaus, Melvil Dewey, and the rest!

'Sharing expertise' is a different kind of compilation altogether. It is divided into three parts: I) Overview and background; II) studies of expertise sharing in organizations; and III) Exploring technology for sharing expertise. These parts have, respectively, three, five, and seven chapters, indicating, perhaps, that the technological orientation (which I always find the most suspect) dominates. Because I find the technology suspect as a means of communication, I'll deal with that last section first.

The seven chapters of Part III, cover quite a range of topics - in varying amounts of detail. The most 'techie' of them is the first, which a groupware application using a room metaphor. It strikes me that this paper exhibits all of the problems to which a technology-driven approach gives rise. Inevitably, these systems are technology-driven and they show what the designers and programmers are capable of doing. The problem is that the resulting systems are unlikely ever to be used by anyone because of their complexity. A glance at the screen shots in this paper would be a sufficient turn-off for any typical use in a business organization to ensure that the implementation never achieved anywhere near the use forecast. 'User-friendliness' is essentially about simplicity. Figure 9 shows a screen with seventeen different windows (including 'chat' dialogue) plus three others that are also available to be called up. Given the widely known fact of the minimum use of the features of word-processors such as Word, how can one expect such a complex interface to be used effectively, other than by the designers who produced it?

I would not deny the usefulness of pursuing the potential value of alternative approaches to system and interface design, but perhaps greater attention to the words of another contributor: writing of supporting informal 'communities of practice' in organizations, Jim Eales notes: 'Technology can be used to overcome some of these [design] limitations, but the problem requires a balanced sociotechnical solution.'

Eales's paper is one of two less 'technical' of papers in this set, because it is more concerned with the principles that ought to guide design. The other by Yimam-Seid and Kobsa explores 'expert-finding systems' and, sensibly, adopts an information-seeking perspective on this issue. After analysing a number of such systems the authors propose a design architecture, which they call 'DEMOIR' - Dynamic Expertise Modeling from Organizational Information Resources. No mention here of 'knowledge bases', 'knowledge sharing', 'knowledge mapping', and much more incisive and readable because of it. 'Knowledge management' rears its head, however, in a study of a specific 'expertise-finding system' developed by the Mitre Corporation, which uses all of the 'knowledge' buzz words to no better effect. The rest deal with technology in various ways: one discusses a Personal Digital Assistant approach to an information system for journalists working outside the office. It is described as a 'knowledge management system' but what it actually does is aid the communication of information - and nothing more. Another, perhaps more appropriately than the authors realised, describes a system called 'Babble' - another system for supporting online interaction. Curiously, the authors state:

...we have argued that knowledge management is not just an information problem but is, as well, a social problem that involves people, relationships, and social factors like trust, obligation, commitment and accountability. (p.122)

In other words they are either unaware that 'information problems' have been conceived of in exactly the same way for decades, or they mean (like so many in the km fraternity) that 'information' equals 'information technology'. Surely they cannot mean that information is somehow communicated without involving people and social relationships, and that trust and accountability are not key factors in the willingness of people to communicate information?

Part II of the book, working forwards, presents five case studies of 'expertise sharing in organizations'. Of course, what is actually meant is 'sharing information about expertise' - one cannot share expertise, one can only practice it. This is evident in the first of the papers (Chapter 4), which notes:

...I discuss the ways in which expertise-sharing foundations were laid in terms of various finding-out processes—finding out information in the large, finding out information in the small, finding out what people do now, and finding out what people are like. Much of this finding out was directed towards uncovering basic information to support expertise identification and expertise selection when later needed... (p. 92)

In the case of this paper, the environment was a government strategy and policy department: the other organizations in the case studies were, a steel mill, a 'virtual organization', a software house, and an aircraft producer. In the steel mill study, engineering drawings become 'knowledge artifacts' and, surprise, surprise! the classification of such documents is identified as one of the key problems; the 'virtual organization' turns out to be a focus group, but at least the author is aware that, 'An expertise locator should facilitate conversations between people known and unknown.' However, there is no reference to the long history of attempts from at least the 1960s onwards to devise what were originally called 'indexes to expertise' and the author accepts Nonatka's flawed definition of 'tacit knowledge' without question. These grumbles apart, however, I see this paper as a useful one that, again, adopts more of an 'information seeking' perspective than and 'knowledge management' perspective.

Turning to Part I, shall be brief, since this review has considerably exceeded the normal word count! The most useful chapter is the first, which discusses 'cognitive and motivational factors affecting the transfer of expertise'. The cognitive factors arise out of the fact that '...the way experts store and process information may make it difficult for them to share that expertise with others regardless of whether or not they are motivated to do so.' The motivational factors on the other hand arise out of, '...the very structure and operating premises of most organizations, which are designed to set people and units against each other and thereby discourage the sharing of information and expertise.'

I have been critical of papers in this collection, but it seems to me to be well-motivated and some papers are very well worth reading. Indeed, if you only read that first chapter, which is by Hinds and Pfeffer, you will benefit.

Professor T.D. Wilson

How to cite this review

Wilson, T.D. (2003) Knowledge management and beyond? Review of: Ackerman, M., et al. Sharing expertise: beyond knowledge management. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. and Bontis, N., ed. World Congress on Intellectual Capital readings. Boston, MA: Butterworth Heinemann, 2002.    Information Research, 8(4), review no. R101    [Available at: http://informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs101.html]