Act: Knowledge Reuse

In previous subsections, I have identified how knowledge is identified, organized, and shared. These issues were discussed from a broad perspective, relevant to both knowledge reuse and knowledge creation (as will be discussed later). In this subsection, I will look at the specific situations involved in knowledge reuse and discuss the different managerial challenges. At the end I summarize the findings and present recommendations.

In this subsection I will focus primarily on the explicit and tacit knowledge distinctions as defined in the subsection on the different types of knowledge.

Three Roles for Knowledge Reuse

First, a quick overview of the knowledge reuse process, and some useful definitions. Markus (2001) identifies three roles in the reuse of knowledge:

  • Knowledge producer: The original creator of the knowledge
  • Knowledge intermediary: The one who packages and prepares the knowledge so that it may be stored, retrieved, and shared. This may involve any number of functions such as indexing, categorization, standardizing, publishing, mapping, etc.
  • Knowledge consumer: The person who is the recipient and user of the knowledge in question.

As Markus points out, these three functions may involve different people or they may all be done by the same person. e.g. knowledge reuse by a person accessing the documented (explicit) research of someone in a different part of the organization requires that the producer created the documents, that either he or someone else prepared them so that they may be understood and retrieved, and that the knowledge consumer retrieved and used it. In other words the roles were filled by two or three people and the process included explicit knowledge capture and sharing across the organization. Alternatively, in another scenario someone may want to use their own documentation later on. This process involves just one person in all three roles and the only function performed is capturing the knowledge in a way that will allow retrieval at a later point.

I would add that for tacit knowledge, the role of intermediary could be defined as the expert himself - since he must present the knowledge (through practice and socialization) in a useable way to his student, team mates, etc. It may also fall upon the person who identified this expert and made it possible for others to reach him, e.g. if a knowledge manager creates an expert profile for publishing on the intranet; this way, the knowledge manager creates an explicit account of what the expert knows rather than promoting externalization of the knowledge itself.

To sum up, someone has to produce the knowledge, someone has to make this knowledge available, and someone has to search for and use this knowledge. This implies not just the capability, but also the willingness to share, to search, and to retrieve.

Knowledge Reuse Situations

Fruchter and Demian (2002) identify two very general types of knowledge reuse:

  • Internal: Where the knowledge producer uses his own knowledge at some future point.
  • External: Where the knowledge consumer uses someone else's knowledge. The authors point out that the latter has a much higher failure rate for reasons that include the loss of contextual knowledge and information, and knowledge that is not properly captured due to the costs involved.A more detailed framework is offered by Markus (2001) who identifies four knowledge reuse situations. These are defined below, drawing also upon the work of Timbrell and Jewels (2002) who found support for Markus's work through their study. The recommendation segments also draw upon some of the issues discussed under knowledge-sharing, as well as some of my own insights.
  • Shared Work Producers: People working in teams producing knowledge for their own reuse. They are closest in knowledge-distance. They generally will have a good understanding of what they need and where to find it (including both documents and experts). Knowledge reuse will however be harder within cross functional teams. Markus also warns that the rationale for the decision making is often forgotten. They need knowledge about how/what/why it was done, what improvements could be made.
  • Shared Work Practitioners: People who perform similar work in different settings (e.g. same position in different locations). Knowledge is produced for someone else's use. Defining the knowledge needs is usually easy, as is locating the right experts within the network (which is used frequently). Basically, they need to know how to do something or why something works.
  • Expertise-Seeking Novices: People who seek out knowledge they do not normally work with. They are furthest in knowledge-distance. They have great difficulty "defining the questions, locating and judging, the quality of the knowledge sources, and applying the expertise." (Timbrell & Jewels 2002).
  • Miners Secondary Knowledge: People who try to find knowledge in work produced in different contexts, so as to apply it in other situations. The knowledge and context of the consumer may be very different to the producer. The main challenge here is defining the question. Often requires complex search algorithms which are hard to create (such as those used within text and data mining).

Problems and Recommendations for Managing knowledge reuse

In the article above, I presented several situations of knowledge re-use that have different advantages, disadvantages, and requirements. I also discussed some general issues that affect the process of reuse.

Drawing upon the work thus far, and bringing in the knowledge sharing issues discussed in the previous subsection, the managerial issues regarding knowledge reuse can be summarized as follows:

  • Cost: The time and money necessary to organize, package, store, and retrieve the knowledge. This is particularly true in the cases when tacit knowledge is externalized into explicit knowledge such as documents. A great deal of cost is associated with capturing context (something that is often impossible) and with preparing the document for retrieval. Even with IT, the latter includes categorization, summarizing, use of metadata, etc. Content management is also necessary to check language and presentation, and also to keep the repositories relevant and up to date. The cost associated with the re-use of tacit knowledge involves setting up the right circumstances for it to take place e.g. teams, mentoring, teaching, projects, etc, as well as the systems that support communication and expertise location.
  • Specific requirements of specific individuals and groups: Presented in Markus's four roles above. Management must be aware of the different requirements, and support each situation accordingly. Articles on knowledge reuse are still dominated by IT theories which focus largely on organizing, presenting, and retrieving explicit knowledge. Again, I draw the reader's attention to the importance of socialization and informal networks, which serve as the backbone of the sharing of rich tacit knowledge (expertise). Below I present the recommendations for each re-use category, drawing again on the work of Markus (2001), on the knowledge sharing principles outlined in the previous subsection, as well as some of my own insights.
  • Shared work producers, recommendations: For explicit knowledge, try to maintain context; pay attention to indexing, categorization, and other search related functions; document rationale behind the knowledge. For cross-functional teams assign a generalist to bring the knowledge together and to ensure consistency. For tacit knowledge support communication and informal networks (e.g. between former team members). For cross-functional teams, use the generalist to help define non-codified tacit expertise with individual team members. Record this expertise together with the individual team roles.
  • Shared work practitioners, recommendations: If explicit, decontextualize knowledge and provide all relevant information regarding indexing, searching, and relevance. Use knowledge push to make potential recipients aware of it. For tacit knowledge, create the right situations for socialization, e.g. teamwork, projects, informal communication, etc. Use IT as an expertise locater and communication support, but understand its limitations in tacit knowledge transfer.
  • Expertise-seeking novices, recommendations: For explicit knowledge decontextualize knowledge but support recontextualization in the context used by the novice. For both knowledge types, try to codify the contents of the knowledge source e.g. by defining the content of a document or the knowledge of an expert. Provide awareness training. For tacit knowledge do as for shared work practitioners.
  • Miners Secondary Knowledge: Record context information such as metadata. Provide relevant training regarding knowledge, data, and information repositories, as well as analysis and search techniques. Implement IT systems that match the needs of the consumer e.g. data mining and analysis tools, text mining tools, etc.
  • Willingness: Both to package knowledge on the part of the producer or to seek it out on the part of the consumer. This brings us back to issues like culture, which promote knowledge reuse and knowledge sharing. The cultural aspect will be dealt with in the section on organizational culture change.

Written by Emil Hajric Emil Hajric

Published August 4th, 2023

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