Knowledge Management Initiatives and Power in Firms

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From the very beginning, at the time of Adam and Eve, knowledge has already been something desired by men. The serpent tempted the first humans to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and much as they wanted to obey their maker, the desire to be knowledgeable had a much stronger pull, so they gave in. This cost them their exile out of the Garden of Eden and onto a life of suffering. Such is the value of knowledge that, in its pursuit, it wields its power to drive people to do things unexpected to them.

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This paper attempts to explore what knowledge is and how important it is to people and organizations. It will explain how knowledge is associated with power and how efficient and effective knowledge transfer may help improve individual and organizational performance in the pursuit of goals.

Readers will benefit much from reading this essay, as it enlightens them on how knowledge must be dealt with in order for it to work to their advantage.

The adage that “Knowledge is Power” has been adhered to by many people as a rule of strategy in achieving personal or professional empowerment and advantage or as a protective measure against the uncertainties and unstable conditions of life’s situations. The wisdom derived from this proverbial phrase has proven to withstand the test of time, as well as the rigidity of critical analysis and evaluation of philosophical inquiry and other social sciences.

It was Francis Bacon who first coined the phrase “Knowledge is Power.” Power implies the exercise or use of force, permissive authority, or substantial influence upon another individual or groups of individuals; on the other hand, knowledge consists of those facts or ideas acquired by investigation, observation, or experience.

Today, knowledge and power are subject matters that continue to be of significant interest and maintain a high degree of relevance and importance in the study and understanding of the dynamic movement of the human sociological environment, conduct, and behavior. The complexity and diversity of human activity and social order carry with it the inception of uniquely new problems arising from the structural changes in contemporary society. It is then essential to know the various elements and factors that knot the ties of human relations and to identify the causes affecting the same, whether adversely or beneficially.

Knowledge is defined by the dictionary as:

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  1. the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association
  2. acquaintance with or understanding of a science, art, or technique
  3. the fact or condition of being aware of something or,
  4. the range of one’s information or understanding the fact or condition of having information or of being learned.

Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines power, among others, as

  1. the ability to act or produce an effect
  2. capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect
  3. legal or official authority, capacity, or right or,
  4. possession of control, authority, or influence over others.

These two concepts have often been used interchangeably to refer to one or the other, or to some extent, treated as a component of each other, and hence, the adage “knowledge is power” has been misinterpreted to be synonymous. However, unlike power, not all instances of knowledge connote power.

The question arises, when does knowledge become power?

On this point, Nagel E. (1961) presents a spectrum that may be used to determine the extent to which the different forms of knowledge empower institutions and, likewise, individuals. This spectrum of knowledge ranges from the “hard” to “soft”- i.e., knowledge that satisfies the criteria of providing explanations that are systematic and controllable by factual evidence is categorized as hard, while those that fall short of this yardstick belong to the soft form of knowledge. The hardness of a particular form of knowledge is characteristically based on its practice of the scientific method, wherein the integrity of the methods and procedures used in gathering data and the formulation of the conclusions are fully substantiated by probative evidence. The accuracy, measurability, and systematic process of scientific knowledge carry a lot of persuasive influence as a source of truth, and in effect, knowledge of this kind is possessed of power that can bring about a change.

To exemplify, let us discuss the indigenous knowledge of tribal communities. Practicing some traditional medicine for ages with the unwavering belief that the gods are working in their favor, hence making their concoctions do wonders for healing the injured (soft knowledge), elders would be adamant about accepting scientifically proven medicines (hard knowledge). Soft knowledge, in this sense, is highly contestable. The scientific community may respect the beliefs of the tribe but not accept them as hard truth because of evidence gathered to support scientific explanations in medicine. Thus, the soft knowledge of the tribe does not have enough power to influence more people. On the other hand, the hard knowledge produced by scientific discoveries may wield more influence on more people who would accept the evidence as to the truth, making the hard knowledge an instrument of power.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lie the softer forms of knowledge or those which, according to Lindblom and Cohen (1979), belong to the “ordinary knowledge” or “common sense.” Since this form of knowledge is based on general explanatory principles, deriving power therefrom cannot be expected.

Although Bernard Loomer (1976) recognizes scientific knowledge to be essential and specialized knowledge, he nevertheless argues that this type of knowledge merely becomes a “prime servant” of unilateral power. Scientific knowledge only functions as the means and not an end for power. Consequently, universities have become training grounds in the practice of this kind of power.

On the contrary, Michael Foucault (1977) asserts that both concepts of knowledge and power should be used interchangeably because he advances the view that those who are in power have specialist knowledge, and so power is not possible without knowledge. Thus, “the production of knowledge and the exercise of administrative power intertwine, and each begins to enhance the other.” This is the reciprocal nature of these two words, which he titled “power/knowledge” (Allen, 1999, 70) and explains the nature of the relationship of knowledge to power in this wise: Power is situated among a cacophony of social practices and situations. The discourse within these social formations is manifested in an economy of discourse. For Foucault, then, power is directly tied to the economy of discourse itself.

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Foucault states that human understanding exists in discourse, in an economy of discourse. As Scholar Barry Allen (1999) clarifies, having knowledge “is to have the privilege of making a statement pass among others as known or true…speech acts are dialogical, intersubjective exchanges with reciprocal effects on many speakers. Knowledge has its object (what is known) and its “other,” the person to whom it is offered and received as knowledge, passing over the other as “truth” (Allen, 1999, p. 71). This becomes an “economy” of statements, with statements as currency and dialogues as monetary exchange. It is as arbitrary and shallow as its premises imply.

Kogan (2005) claims that the power generated by knowledge might thus be affected by three sets of characteristics. One concerns its persuasiveness and appeal to social utility. The second concerns who determines the objectives of inquiry – researchers or government, or industry. The third gets to the heart of our concerns, following Whitley (1977) and Weingart (1977), in relating the epistemic style and status of the research to its power. Being aware of this helps us manage our new learnings well and use them to our best advantage.

A simple example of power in organizations is the fact that most managers and supervisors possess knowledge that most of their staff do not. Information such as confidential matters and technical or specialized expertise learned from education or experience definitely sets them apart from the rest of the organizational members. This may be correlated to Loomer’s unilateral conception of power.

In order to succeed working as a team, organizations must be aware of relational power, or the give and take of power and knowledge. Hence, this would involve knowledge transfer from individuals who possess it to those who do not. For many activities, such as product development (Hansen, 1999) and diffusing best practices across the organization (Darr, Argote, & Epple, 1995), expertise must be transferred and shared among units. Indeed, companies that are more effective at knowledge transfer have been shown to have a greater likelihood of organizational survival and higher levels of productivity (Dart et al., 1995; Dyer & Nobeoka, 2000; Galbraith, 1990). It just proves how knowledge is a critical organizational asset.

To illustrate how knowledge transfer is critical in a work environment, consider the hospital setting. It will help if professionals have access to the patients’ history and medical chart, which indicates all of the therapy treatments they are being provided. It would be upsetting to recommend a certain exercise that would strain injured muscles or prescribe medication that triggers allergies, but these may happen if the information provided to the workers is not adequate enough. To monitor each patient’s case thoroughly, it is suggested that there is one chart per patient for diagnostic and treatment purposes, and all involved professionals write their remarks on the chart. These charts of the patients’ cases shall be copied for all the professionals concerned for easy reference during case evaluation meetings and for their own files.

Despite a growing understanding of the importance of knowledge transfer, the sharing of information within organizations remains a challenge. Burgess (2005) reasons that “one impediment to developing successful knowledge transfer initiatives seems to be the tendency of practitioners and researchers to focus on tools (e.g., technology) and tasks (e.g., routines), with less attention paid to knowledge-transfer among people (Argote & Ingram, 2000; Cabrera & Cabrera, 2002; Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Huysman & de Wit, 2003). However, because a significant amount of knowledge is embedded in individual employees, communication of knowledge among members is a critical aspect of knowledge transfer. Moreover, member-to-member knowledge transfer is especially beneficial to an organization’s competitive advantage because this type of transfer is less susceptible to “external knowledge spillover” than transfer involving tools and tasks, which often results in codified knowledge that can be more readily “leaked” to competitors (Argote & Ingram, 2000).”

Such leakage of organizational knowledge expected to be exclusive is what is guarded by managers or those in positions of power. One strategy is to limit the amount of knowledge transferred from upper management to the rest of the organization. This is part of knowledge management.

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Jones (2006) says, “The power of knowledge isn’t about having it, it’s about using it.” This goes not only for managers and others with supervisory positions in organizations but even for their staff. Employees who come upon a great deal of knowledge should use it to their advantage in stepping up the ladder of success and, more importantly, use it for the common good. An example is truly studying a particular organizational decision to its fruition. Dedicated employees may objectively research its pros and cons and share their findings with management. That way, they use their knowledge to influence those in power, and when they are considered, they likewise share in the organizational power.

Motivational barriers to knowledge transfer included a lack of extrinsic rewards, stronger levels of group versus organizational identification, reciprocity norms, and the view of knowledge as a means of achieving organizational upward mobility. (Burgess, 2005). Workers will be more encouraged to transfer knowledge to another professional from another discipline if this sort of behavior is rewarded by management either by external means such as merit or salary increases or internal means to boost their self-esteem such as praise or simply appreciation. A sense of loyalty to the organization is also necessary for workers to be motivated to go beyond just doing their job. Mostly, it takes above average standards of personal and professional characteristics to uphold such company integrity. This is something to think about as a worker and for management to evaluate the kind of worker they really want.

“Because sharing knowledge can be a time-consuming task that leaves employees less time to pursue their own work, it is important that organizations send clear and consistent messages about the types of knowledge-exchange activities that they want to encourage and provide adequate credit, recognition, and time for employees who engage in those activities.” (Burgess, 2005)

Another strategy for promoting “intra-firm” knowledge sharing would be to increase employees’ identification with the company and promote cooperation between business units. This may be done by emphasizing external rather than internal competition.

In some organizations, there may exist multicultural issues that need to be dealt with if successful knowledge management is to ensue. Culture is defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguished the members of one human group from another… Culture, in this sense, includes systems of values; and values are among the building blocks of culture” (Hofstede, 1994). From this definition, one can perceive how much influence culture has on people. If people are considerate and understand other cultures, and make the necessary adjustments to accommodate the needs of others, then they can earn the cooperation of others. Most conflicts that surface in a culturally diverse setting are caused by miscommunication and misunderstanding. Ethical considerations are subject to interpretation. “The reason there are cultural differences is that there are differences in how the situation is understood. Almost everyone agrees that ‘ethics’ is doing the ‘right thing’ but how to reach an ‘ethical’ decision is open to debate.” (Brisbane Institute, 2005). Coming up with a final business decision depends on situational factors such as organizational goals, organizational codes of ethics, the legal environment and the perception of the other party. Organizational goals may be set but people from different cultures may have different approaches in reaching them (Brisbane Institute, 2005). There will also be cross-cultural differences in how code of ethics are understood depending on the familiarity with, and tradition or longevity of, codes of ethics within individual business organizations.” (Brisbane Institute, 2005). That is why it is essential that no matter who they are, employees’ values must be aligned to the company’s. Differing values create conflict and will impede goal achievement. According to Mishra and Morrissey (1990), the following factors propagate trust: open communication; giving workers a greater share in decision making; sharing of critical information and true sharing of perceptions and feelings.

Management must be consistent in communicating to each worker its philosophy, mission, and vision. Each worker should be able to feel that he is part of a great team that sets high goals and successfully attains them. “Creating the conditions that engender knowledge transfer entails significant structural and cultural changes by top leadership, which will require leaders to be convinced that the benefits of knowledge transfer outweigh the costs. In the absence of this commitment, it is unlikely that attempts to increase knowledge flow will succeed (Burgess, 2005). Leaders should be cautious about publicly touting the virtues of “knowledge sharing” without a substantive commitment to change, as this may result in the failure of well-intentioned knowledge transfer initiatives, bringing with it lowered employee morale and the potential for resistance against future knowledge-transfer initiatives.” (Burgess, 2005)

References

Allen, B. (1999) Power/Knowledge. Critical Essays on Michel Foucault. Ed. Karlis Racevskis. New York: G.K. Hall & CO.

Argote, L., & Ingram, P. (2000). Knowledge transfer: A basis for competitive advantage in firms. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82, 150-169. Brisbane Institute, Business Ethics, 2005.

Burgess, D. (2005) What Motivates Employees to Transfer Knowledge outside Their Work Unit? The Journal of Business Communication. Volume: 42. Issue: 4.

Cabrera, A., & Cabrera, E. F. (2002). Knowledge-sharing dilemmas. Organization Studies, 23, 687-710.

Davenport, T., & Prusak, L. (1998). Working knowledge: How organizations manage what they know. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Darr E., Argote, L., & Epple, D. (1995). The acquisition, transfer and depreciation of knowledge in service organizations: Productivity in franchises. Management Science, 41, 1750-1762.

Dyer, J. H., & Nobeoka, K. (2000). Creating and managing a high-performance knowledge-sharing network: The Toyota Case. Strategic Management Journal, 21, 345-367.

Foucault, M. (1977) Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon.

Galbraith, C. S. (1990). Transferring core manufacturing technologies in high technology firms. California Management Review, 32, 56-70.

Hansen, M. T. (1999). The search-transfer problem: The role of weak ties in sharing knowledge across organization subunits. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44 (1), 82-111.

Hislop, D. (2005) Knowledge Management in Organizations: A Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press.

Hofstede, G.(1994) Cultures and Organizations: Intercultural cooperation and it’s importance for survival –software of the mind, London: McGraw-Hill/HarperCollins.

Huysman, M., & de Wit, D. (2003). A critical evaluation of knowledge management practices. In M. S. Ackerman, V. Pipek, & V. Wulf (Eds.). Sharing expertise: Beyond knowledge management (pp. 27-55). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Jones, D.S. (2006) Expanding our Influence. Professional Safety. 2006.

Kogan, M. (2005) Modes of Knowledge and Patterns of Power, Higher Education (2005) 49: 9-30.

Lindblom, C.E. and Cohen, D. (1979). Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Loomer, B. (1976) Two Conceptions of Power. Criterion, 1976, pp. 12-29.

Mishra, J., & Morrissey, M. A. (1990). Trust in employee/employer relationships: A survey of West Michigan managers. Public Personnel Management, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1990, pp.443-463.

Nagel, E. (1961). The Structure of Science. Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Weingart, P. (1977). ‘Science policy and the development of science’, in Blume, S. (ed.), Perspectives in the Sociology of Science. Chichester: John Wiley & Son.

Whitley, R.D. (1984). The Intellectual and Social Organization of the Sciences.

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