Does Knowledge Sharing Deliver on Its Promises?

+ azza adil , hind tag elsir

describe linkFor nearly two decades, consulting firms, technology companies, R&D-driven corporations and other knowledge-intensive organizations have made significant investments in "knowledge management" initiatives. These initiatives are intended to facilitate the capture and transfer of company expertise as a way to spur learning and innovation.

But research by Wharton management professor Martine Haas and Morten Hansen, professor of entrepreneurship at INSEAD, indicates that knowledge sharing efforts often fail to result in improved task outcomes inside organizations — and may even hurt project performance. However, organizations that plan carefully before launching a knowledge-sharing initiative, and support these efforts along the way, have a much better chance of adding value, the researchers say.

Haas acknowledges that, initially at least, the premise of their research appears to contradict accepted wisdom.

"The expectation has been that knowledge gathering should be beneficial for project teams," Haas says. "This thinking is consistent with strategic management theories [suggesting] that knowledge resources provide a critical source of competitive advantage for firms."

Yet in practice, according to Haas, the types of knowledge shared and the design of the organization's project teams are likely to influence the success or failure of a knowledge-sharing effort. "Companies and other organizations are spending large sums of money to capture and disseminate their stores of knowledge," she notes. "But a significant number are not getting the full value of their investment. In fact, project teams that are badly designed or use the wrong type of knowledge for their task can see their performance suffer rather than improve as a result of efforts to use knowledge from other parts of the organization."

In a paper titled, "Different Knowledge, Different Benefits: Toward a Productivity Perspective on Knowledge Sharing in Organizations," Haas and Hansen identify two distinct ways in which knowledge sharing usually occurs in organizations. "The first way is through direct contact between individuals, typically when one person advises another about completing a specific task," says Haas. "The defining characteristic of this mode is that the handover of knowledge requires direct contact between the provider and receiver — through meetings, by phone or via e-mail." Direct contact allows for the transmission of tacit or non-codified knowledge that may be difficult to put in writing.

"In contrast, another way to obtain knowledge is through the use of written documents available from databases or libraries," Haas notes. "This mode is appropriate for knowledge that can be readily codified, including certain procedures and other data."

Using Codified Knowledge
In a study of 182 sales teams that were bidding for new client contracts in a management consulting company, Haas and Hansen found that using personal advice from experienced colleagues can improve work quality. As an example, their paper notes that colleagues with experience in areas related to a sales proposal can provide complementary expertise that a team can draw on to generate ideas and identify possible solutions for a prospective client.

The relative richness of direct personal contact also enables colleagues to help a team develop customized and creative products for its client, since they can tailor their advice to the specific situation and engage in two-way discussions to gain insight.

Enlisting the assistance of experienced colleagues who can directly communicate to external constituencies, such as clients, also sends a signal that the organization has deep competence in their area, Haas notes. "Consultants frequently travel to sales meetings with potential clients accompanied by experts from the firm who help them convey the message that the consulting work will be done by competent individuals. Also, the names and credentials of advisors often are listed in proposal documents, identifying them as contributors to the proposal and to the future project work."

The strategy of obtaining personal advice, however, also involves processing costs. Having colleagues attend meetings or appear on client documents can backfire if these colleagues are unwilling to exert the effort needed to fully understand the client's situation, adapt their knowledge to the task at hand or respond to client demands. "Teams need to be aware", says Haas, "that the signaling benefits of expert colleagues can be offset by the possible problems involved."

Further, contacting colleagues who might be able to assist the team and securing their help takes valuable time, both directly and indirectly, when the need to reciprocate arises. Considering the costs of personal advice, the net effect of using this type of knowledge on time savings is unclear and likely to be weak.

One way around this is to utilize codified knowledge, typically electronic documents. According to the researchers, electronic documents affect project performance through the mechanism of reuse, or the proportion of a document's content that a team can incorporate directly into its project outputs. "In the management consulting context, electronic documents often include detailed information and well-developed analyses, such as market data, algorithms, software code and competitor profiles," says Haas. "Reuse of existing information and analyses can help teams to avoid duplicating the efforts already expended by others."

But here, too, processing costs are involved, she notes, since the documents may have to be reworked or augmented to adapt the knowledge they contain to a specific task.

"We find that using codified knowledge in the form of electronic documents saved time during the task, but did not improve work quality or signal competence to clients, whereas in contrast, sharing personal advice improved work quality and signaled competence, but did not save time," Haas says. "This is interesting because managers often believe that capturing and sharing knowledge via document databases can substitute for getting personal advice, and that sharing advice through personal networks can save time. But our findings dispute the claim that different types of knowledge are substitutes for each other. Instead, we show that appropriately matching the type of knowledge used to the requirements of the task at hand — quality, signaling or speed — is critical if a firm's knowledge capabilities are to translate into improved performance of its projects."

While part of the challenge is to use knowledge appropriate for the task, Haas notes that organizations also face the problem of setting up teams in ways that help them take full advantage of the knowledge they use. As the researchers note in their paper, many project teams in knowledge-intensive organizations operate in environments than can interfere with their ability to perform well because they are characterized by overload, ambiguity and politics.

These characteristics create problems when teams attempt to obtain and use knowledge from other parts of their organization. "In overloaded environments, project teams face a multitude of possible issues to address and solutions with which to address them, and as a result of ambiguity, there is little way to know which problems and solutions to select," Haas says. "Beyond these problems, multiple stakeholders may have personal agendas and interests in the team's selections that may actually work at cross-purposes with the team's own efforts."

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License