exact  any/all
  The original knowledge-management publication
denotes premium content | May 5 2015 


posted 1 Sep 1998 in Volume 2 Issue 1

An Anthropological Approach

Observing employees going about their day-to-day tasks is an important way of externalising tacit knowledge - just one of the ways in which anthropology can make a significant contribution to the implementation of Knowledge Management. By Patricia Burke, founding director of Workspace International.

Anthropologists are interested in how knowledges are constituted by different peoples and how knowledge is 'managed' in terms of how it is secured and deployed. Understanding Knowledge Management in an organisational context brings anthropology together with a number of other disciplines such as psychology, business theory and information modelling. This can enhance our understanding while simultaneously creating new forms of organisational knowledge. The relevance of an anthropological approach to Knowledge Management touches on a gamut of issues, including the popularity of the 'culture' concept and its concomitant, ethnicity, issues of globalisation and rapid change, issues of difference and sameness, and the deconstruction of how an organisation `organises'.

Anthropology's main distinguishing method is participant observation. This involves the anthropologist spending a protracted period (often several years) doing fieldwork in an effort to gain an in-depth understanding of the society under study. By virtue of its eclecticism and experience of facilitating understanding of the processes of change across institutions and other social phenomena, anthropology can make a significant contribution to the implementation of Knowledge Management.

This article introduces a simple model representing the key areas likely to be affected by the introduction of Knowledge Management. It describes some of the theories and methods on which an anthropological approach would be based that have some relevance for the business application of Knowledge Management.

What does anthropology have or do that is of value to Knowledge Management?

Before progressing to the model for managing the knowledge space, the following is a brief summary of some of the key areas where an anthropological approach can have a direct bearing on Knowledge Management.

Participant Observation

One of the main dilemmas of Knowledge Management is that much of the knowledge within organizations is personal or individual. In other words, the application and daily operation of business rules, procedures, decisions and communications depend on the availability of personal knowledge that is a combination of information stored in people's heads, experiences, behaviours, attitudes and abilities or competencies. This personal knowledge is not stored in any data or knowledge base or in any other form of corporate asset. If key individuals leave the organisation, their personal knowledge leaves with them.

How can organizations access this knowledge, assess its value and use it productively? How can individuals be motivated to part with this knowledge? Is it possible to translate this tacit knowledge into an explicit form? Even if individuals are prepared to transcribe their knowledge into a tangible format, what criteria should they use to identify the forms of knowledge of interest to the organisation, and how should such knowledge be presented? These are clearly issues of judgement and interpretation that require some thought. Participant observation provides a head start here.

At its most simple, people are observed going about their daily tasks, routines and decision-making processes. The observer is required to note  everything', with the aim ultimately of reconstructing the categories and operating frameworks of those being observed. This tends to throw up a host of ethical and practical issues, not least how to observe without getting in the way or unduly influencing behaviours. The end result is a creative reconstruction that is validated by use of other research methods in the fieldwork situation and by checking premises and explanations with informants.

Classification systems

Another hallmark of anthropology is the continual drive towards classification in order to unravel, or recreate, the implicit metalogic of naming systems. Tools are available which provide a useful starting point to assist in this process. They can provide a generic classification and set of definitions covering such areas as organisation structures, strategies and skills based on common management theory and practice.

Ideas and values

Ideas and values are often seen as the cohesive agents that bind an organisation as a single entity. This is a common premise underlying both the concept of organisational culture and the belief that this can be affected in various ways to bring about desired change. According to this view,  culture' is predominantly an ideological construct, hence open to direction. The culture concept has come to have an overarching significance that in an organisational context could be translated as the dominance of a single driving culture that spans regional differences, for example in contexts of merger or acquisition. The notion that culture produces patterns of behaviour in turn leads to the assumption that behaviour is predominantly the product of social conditioning and hence to the production of behaviourist models to influence that behaviour.

Tacit knowledge

Although many organizations are data rich, with vast databases containing the history of customer transactions over many years, much of an organisation s knowledge is tacit and cannot readily be stored in more traditional information repositories. Can and should tacit knowledge be made more explicit? Is it possible to take personal knowledge and transform it into a corporate intellectual asset? Some of the key issues here include the costs involved in objectifying or commoditizing knowledge versus the benefits to be gained, mechanisms for rewarding/compensating individuals for transferring such knowledge and issues of validation and  truth'. For example, a market for personal knowledge creates the need to separate useful knowledge from that of a more spurious nature.

Traditional data processing is largely a process of combining or reconfiguring existing data into new patterns or structures. By contrast, changing tacit into explicit knowledge requires more time for reflection and dialogue - something that is difficult to schedule into a busy work routine. If the effort is to amount to more than just a catalogue of facts or statements, there needs to be an understanding of the underlying mental models and theories that direct individual thought processes and communication. The success of the process for externalising tacit knowledge depends partly on selecting an appropriate representation.

A recent study at a leading UK financial institution demonstrated that capturing knowledge in a model-based format rendered the information more flexible than when similar knowledge was stored in a document format. The model may also be used to describe the underlying metalogic, the reasons why certain information was valued above other types, and retain information about the contextual use of knowledge.

Rather than turn tacit into explicit knowledge, it can be more beneficial to transfer tacit knowledge from one person to another through processes of socialisation. In this scenario, the organisation becomes an enabler of knowledge transfer between individuals and groups. The appropriate organisation culture and group dynamics can create an environment where knowledge, innovation and creativity are key drivers for business advantage.


An anthropological approach is also useful for its empathy with the political nature of organizations. The issue of what knowledge is is itself somewhat fraught, and the question of whose knowledge gets to become common currency is a political one. Concerning the production of knowledge in any context, we might usefully ask: What becomes interesting, useful and proper to know? What limits are places on investigation, experimentation, diffusion and reception? How do topics and discourses become authorised, constructed, regulated, supervised and subverted?

Some of these questions are not only pertinent in relation to organizations, but are manifest in the debates currently raging across the Internet and in Knowledge Management conferences, which are attempting to define standards and norms for Knowledge Management. To some extent, Knowledge Management itself may involve a process of ironing out differences and so become a form of conflict resolution.


Use of models is a technique that can speed the analysis of the business environment and identification of the key knowledge assets. Models provide a generic blueprint that can cover as much as 80 per cent of the needs of an organisation in a specific context. A model is derived from detailed observation of many similar situations, generalising the findings into a template that contains knowledge about key variables and common decision rules.

Managing the Knowledge Space

As with many powerful theories of organisational or business success, Knowledge Management requires careful thought and planning if it is to be successful. One model that helps an organisation to explore the key areas of change for Knowledge Management is 'Managing the Knowledge Space'.

The model consists of four focal areas - personal knowledge intellectual assets, sustainable advantage and the enabling workspace (Figure 1). Each of these areas needs to be explored to understand the potential value of knowledge management for a business organisation. In addition, the lines between each of the focal areas represent the set of processes that combine to form the Knowledge Management processes.

Figure 1. The 'Managing the Knowledge Space' model

Personal Knowledge

It is important to know what personal knowledge is used within an organisation. Key questions here include: What types of personal knowledge do individuals use when making decisions or performing work tasks? How did they gain this knowledge? Did they bring personal knowledge into the organisation from outside? What knowledge did they acquire on the job or from their colleagues? Is there additional knowledge that would help individuals or groups perform? What would happen if this knowledge ceased to exist or was no longer accessible or available?

Intellectual assets

Next, an organisation should explore the intellectual assets it either has or could have. What types of intellectual asset already exist in the organisation? What types could be created, developed or managed in the future? Who owns such intellectual assets? How are they protected? How are they made available to people within the organisation?

Sustainable advantage

Next the organisation should explore how personal knowledge and intellectual assets contribute to sustainable advantage. What forms of advantage does the organisation have? What forms would it ideally like? How does personal knowledge contribute to this advantage? How are intellectual assets used in forming an advantage? How could personal knowledge or intellectual assets be used more effectively? How can personal knowledge or intellectual assets be used in a way that is impossible for a competitor to emulate?

The enabling workspace

Underlying the success of any Knowledge Management program is whether the organisation has a culture that supports the development, use and application of knowledge in an effective way. In other words, is the workspace enabling or not? Key questions here are: Is sufficient time allowed for learning and securing knowledge? How is knowledge disseminated throughout the organisation? Does everyone need to have access to the same knowledge and information? Who  owns' knowledge? Who manages knowledge? What roles and skills are important? What reward systems are in place?

Linking processes

The key processes are the links between the four components that constitute the knowledge space. These processes add a dynamic aspect to the more structural elements. They include knowledge preservation processes, Information Management processes, ownership and governance, processes for innovation and personal development processes.

These processes are not so amendable to easy definition as those say, of a manufacturing operation or an industrial economy.  Attempts to manage, control or define these processes in more conventional ways may be complemented by use of additional skills that include improvision and others supporting innovation and creativity in analysis and interpretation.


In this article we have described a number of techniques drawn from anthropology and based upon our own experience.  To help focus an organization's efforts in Knowledge Management we have described the 'Managing the Knowledge Space' model that highlights the key areas and processes that should be examined using anthropological techniques in tandem with others.

Patricia Burke is a founding director of Workspace International, working in the area of applied anthropology.

Follow us on:

Copyright 2015 Wilmington Publishing & Information Ltd 2010, a division of the Wilmington Group PLC. Wilmington Publishing & Information Ltd is a company registered in England & Wales with company number 03368442 GB. Registered office: 19 - 21 Christopher Street, London EC2A 2BS. VAT NO.GB 899 3725 51