Effective Knowledge Management: Capabilities

This post continues our discussion of knowledge management (KM) by identifying what an organization has to excel at to manage knowledge effectively.

What is a Capability?: A capability is something one is good at or needs to be good at to achieve an objective. For organizations, they are the sum total of the skills and expertise of its people and how they put them to use. To provide an advantage over competitors, an organization’s capabilities need to be unique, or at least difficult to replicate. Thus capabilities are at once strategic for an organization yet derived from attributes of individuals.

Two Types of Capabilities: Knowledge capabilities fall into two categories: those that support current, day-to-day functions (operational capabilities) and those required to adapt to future needs (dynamic capabilities). Each type of capability depends on an infrastructure of technologies, structures, and organizational culture and a set of processes, or activities, that make up the actual work of managing knowledge. These factors an interdependent, and having strengths in both areas is essential to effective KM.

Components of a Knowledge Infrastructure: According to management guru Clayton Christensen, organizational capabilities come from three things: its values, structures (he calls them processes), and resources. Future posts will discuss each in depth, but for now a quick overview of how each relates to effective KM:

  • Values: the beliefs and principles that we find most worthy of adherence. For effective KM these include trust, transparency, learning, comfort with adaptation, and a passion for innovation.
  • Structures: the pattern of communication, coordination and control that shape behavior and outcomes Effective KM requires roles, rules, and rewards that support learning, knowledge exchange, and direct access to relevant information.
  • Resources: assets that can be acquired, maintained, and divested. KM effectiveness rests on people who have the skills, motivation, and tools to work with others and who identify with the organizations KM goals.

What are the Knowledge Processes?: When we talk about knowledge management, we mean the things people do to combine information with their expertise and experience in the following ways:

  1. Creating
  2. Integrating
  3. Reconfiguring
  4. Replicating
  1. Developing
  2. Assimilating
  3. Synthesizing
  4. Imitating

Among these eight activities are some that contribute to applying and exploiting what is already known, such as integrating and assimilating. Others such as creating and developing have more to do with exploration and the discovery of new knowledge. Organizations may invest in some of these processes more than others, and the resulting choices make up a key part of a KM strategy.

From Capabilities to Outcomes: Simply having KM capabilities is not the same as deploying them effectively. We need to identify the mechanisms through which that can happen. My belief is that to manage knowledge effectively an organization needs 1) to foster collaboration and make it integral to how work gets done; 2) to secure commitment throughout the organization to KM goals. These two processes are essential to KM. When an organization excels in these areas, it indicates that its resources, structures and values are well designed and developed, aligned and producing the behaviors likely to lead to KM effectiveness. Without them, effective KM is not possible. Subsequent posts will explore these ideas in more detail by addressing how managers can influence the degree of collaboration and commitment in their organizations.

Bottom Line for Action: While knowledge has its basis in individuals (i.e., their brains), it takes action at the organization level to create the context to make knowledge useful to others. While academia has an enormous infrastructure for supporting faculty as they create and disseminate knowledge, most institutions all but ignore their own need for infrastructures and processes to manage the knowledge essential to improving their performance. Only by building KM capabilities can an organization use knowledge to achieve its goals.

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