posted 3 Aug 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 10
Knowledge Creation and Management
Edited by: Kazui Ichijo and Ikujiro Nonaka
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price: £26.99 / $45
By Tom Knight
ANYONE WHO has worked in knowledge management (KM) for any length of time will probably have a well-thumbed copy of Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management somewhere on a shelf. Published in 1998, this little blue volume, not much over 200 pages and consisting of HBR articles published over several years in the mid-90s, set out to summarise current thinking in what was then an emerging discipline.
In this it succeeded very well. Indeed, HBR’s little manual caught the wave of what very soon became a mini-industry in the corporate world. From Peter Drucker on new kinds of organisations to Ikujiro Nonaka’s ‘knowledge spiral’, HBR on KM marked out the territory, providing a map that is still completely recognisable today (notwithstanding a few outlying islands that were still terra incognita at the time).
Nine years on, Ichijo and Nonaka have brought together a volume with comparable ambitions. Similar in format to HBR on KM – a collection of articles from a rather academic viewpoint – the editors have used the topic of globalisation to provide a unifying theme.
But while the speed and impact of globalisation have certainly increased during the past decade, it is hardly a new phenomenon. Is globalisation now to be regarded as the main driver of KM programmes or does it merely serve as a useful entry point for discussion?
KM practitioners on the ground – at whom this book is principally aimed – certainly should have a strategic view of the role of knowledge in their organisation. However, the hard work of implementation is all about the detail of local and regional initiatives, as well as the changing of individual thinking and working practices, as much as it is of grand strategic designs. Globalisation may, indeed, be a complicating factor and perhaps adds some urgency into the equation, but it is hardly a starting point for most practitioners.
The good thing about the bulk of the book is its practicality. As with HBR on KM, it presents a summary of current thinking from leaders in the field (including many long-standing KM gurus from the mid-1990s). The new one is much more substantial than the earlier book, at more than half as long again, and better structured, too.
What is very clear is that the world has moved on and this collection captures how KM thinking has matured in the intervening years. For example, where HBR on KM has Nonaka’s much misunderstood ‘knowledge spiral’, specific in many ways to Japanese manufacturing methods, the new book has Nonaka’s much more generalised (and useful) introduction to the knowledge-based firm. This relates knowledge ‘vision’ to organisational purpose and provides useful insights into the dynamics surrounding knowledge assets.
Laurence Prusak follows this by providing a solid critique of early attempts at corporate KM, as well as thoughts on how typical pitfalls can be avoided. His conclusion – that KM has missed its opportunity to become embedded in corporate culture and that linking KM to learning initiatives is the way forward – will be of no surprise to readers of Inside Knowledge, but it nevertheless remains contentious.
Knowledge transfer is a hot topic in both academic and business circles at the moment and it is well-covered with several chapters, not least from Leonard. But perhaps the most useful section for most practitioners will be the one by Thomas Davenport, writing on the role of technology.
Many early KM programmes were so technology-focused that the reaction against this, when it came, was extreme. The next wave of KM leaders so played down technology’s role in favour of people-focused programmes that it became a topic many preferred to avoid. This, in turn, helped foster a view among many senior managers that KM was a fluffy topic of no practical business value.
Davenport gets back to basics by pointing out that without technology, and the potential that collaborative and information-sharing applications offer, KM as a discipline would never have got off the ground. The majority of initiatives still centre on exploitation of technology, and Davenport’s model of organisational technologies for different types of knowledge work is one of the most useful KM models to emerge for some time.
The remainder of the book goes step by step through various other KM disciplines. Globalisation as a topic only really emerges in the final chapters, where the topics of information governance and globalisation of local knowledge are discussed in chapters by Jay Lorsch and Xavier Gilbert.
Gilbert’s chapter is one of the few disappointments, being grounded very much in psychological and organisational theory rather than practice, and reinforces the view that globalisation is the wrong hook to hang the book on. But this should not detract from what is, overall, a very strong summary of current thinking, perhaps as indispensable today as HBR on KM was almost decade ago.
Tom Knight is a managing consultant in Fujitsu’s information-management practice and co-author of Knowledge Management: A Blueprint for Implementation. He can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.