Creating a knowledge advantage: making knowledge management everybody's job

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Publication date: 1 February 2000



Bristow, N. (2000), "Creating a knowledge advantage: making knowledge management everybody's job", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 28 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Creating a knowledge advantage: making knowledge management everybody's job

Nigel Bristow

Abstract Knowledge has been described as the only source of sustainable competitive advantage in an information economy. The author defines knowledge work, and shows how managers can harness the potential of knowledge workers to expand the knowledge base of their organizations. Reporting on an in-depth study of over 2,000 knowledge workers, he identifies five distinct but interdependent roles being performed by knowledge workers and the value each role is perceived to contribute to the organization's strategic objectives. Citing examples of how some companies support their knowledge workers in communities of practice, he shows how an organization can give more people more opportunities to acquire, apply, create, share, and leverage knowledge.

Keywords Knowledge management, Knowledge worker, Intellectual capital, Learning organization

Knowledge has been described as the only source of sustainable competitive advantage in an information economy. And since knowledge is the product of knowledge workers, Peter Drucker has identified the effective management of knowledge work as "a primary task of management in the developed countries in the decades ahead." Furthermore, Drucker notes that, "Because it is essentially a new task, we know even less about [managing knowledge workers] than we know about the management of the manual worker." Despite the flurry of interest in intellectual capital, the learning organization, and knowledge management, surprisingly little attention has been given to knowledge workers and how they can be engaged in the process of growing the knowledge base of an organization.

So what is knowledge work? How do we manage knowledge workers? And how can organizations harness the potential of knowledge workers to expand the knowledge base of the organization? In order to answer these questions, Targeted Learning and Watson Wyatt recently completed an in-depth study of over 2,000 knowledge workers. We identified five distinct but interdependent roles being performed by knowledge workers. Each role describes a different way in which knowledge workers contribute to the growth of an organization's knowledge base. These roles are as follows.

Role One – acquiring knowledge. People in this role learn how to access and use the existing knowledge of the organization in order to complete their assigned work. They acquire the knowledge (i.e. theories, models, principles, and information) required to make effective decisions and take appropriate action.

Role Two – applying knowledge. People in this role use the knowledge of the firm (i.e. theories, models, principles, and information) to independently plan and complete important tasks – without having to defer decisions about their work to others.

Role Three – creating knowledge. Employees in this role identify gaps in the organization's existing knowledge base, and then create new knowledge to fill those gaps. They do this by challenging the status quo; by adapting existing knowledge to address new challenges; by finding creative new ways to solve previously unsolved problems; and by inventing potential new products, work processes, tools, technologies, and so forth.

Role Four – sharing knowledge. By sharing their knowledge and experience, Role Four contributors help others acquire and apply knowledge to the tasks of making effective decisions and taking appropriate action.

Role Five – leveraging knowledge. Role Five contributors create the cultural and strategic context that shapes the minute-by-minute decisions and actions of people throughout the organization. They exert significant influence on the decisions that define what the organization does, how the organization does its work, and how it competes in the marketplace. One task of this role is to make knowledge more widely accessible by transforming the knowledge in people's heads into expert systems, structures, processes, policies, norms, and strategies.

Measuring knowledge-worker value

One critical element of our research involved asking managers to force-rank their knowledge workers based on "the value of each worker's contribution to the organization over the past 12 months." (Those ranked above the 50th percentile were classified as "above average.") We then asked managers to identify the roles in which each employee was consistently contributing, and correlated these roles with the rankings data. Exhibit 1 summarizes the results and shows the strong connection between the five roles of the knowledge worker and perceived contribution.

The three most important patterns that can be identified in Exhibit 1 are:

  1. 1.

    The increase in perceived value as people master additional roles. (Only 15 percent of those identified as making Role One contributions were ranked above the 50th percentile. Ninety-four percent of those identified with Role Five were ranked above the 50th percentile.)

  2. 2.

    The small difference in the average age of people contributing in the different roles.

  3. 3.

    The large jump in perceived value between applying (Role Two) and creating (Role Three).

Furthermore, we learned that while some knowledge workers focus on performing only one or two of these roles, the most highly valued knowledge workers usually perform several of the roles simultaneously.

We also found people performing these roles independent of position. In other words, we found new CEOs who were heavily focused on acquiring knowledge, while technical employees were leveraging knowledge. Based on our findings, it appears that the tasks of the learning individual and the learning organization are one and the same: to become adept at acquiring, applying, creating, sharing, and leveraging knowledge that will enhance the organization's competitiveness.

In order to thrive in an information economy, organizations need the contributions inherent in all five of the roles. And as competition intensifies, Roles Three, Four, and Five become increasingly important. The five roles, called the contribution continuum, provide a framework for analyzing the organization's knowledge management strengths and weaknesses. For example, some organizations are great at creating new knowledge, but poor at leveraging it. Others are excellent at acquiring and applying knowledge, but fall short when it comes to creating new knowledge.

The contribution continuum also provides a framework for identifying barriers to each of these five roles. For example, the inability to learn from criticism is a common barrier to acquiring knowledge. A management style that fosters dependence can be a major barrier to applying knowledge. An organization culture that promotes conformity and punishes risk-taking is a major barrier to creating knowledge. The reward systems of the organization can discourage sharing. And an elitist notion of leadership often discourages non-managers from trying to leverage knowledge. By using the model as a diagnostic tool, organizations can identify the factors preventing them from using knowledge as an effective competitive strategy.

Exhibit 1 The link between knowledge roles and percieved value

A new definition of knowledge management

Our research findings led us to frame knowledge management as follows:

Knowledge management is the process whereby we engage every employee, regardless of position, in the important business of acquiring, applying, creating, sharing, and leveraging knowledge.

Communities of practice and knowledge management

Communities of practice are informal groups of people who collaborate to exchange knowledge and build the knowledge base of the organization. Consequently, the two roles that are most evident in communities are sharing knowledge (Role Four) and acquiring knowledge (Role One). The quotes shown in Exhibit 2 are from community members. They illustrate how communities of practice can engage employees in all five knowledge worker roles.

Exhibit 2 Quotes from knowledge workers in communities of practice

Communities of practice work best when they are held together by a shared commitment to a specific area of expertise. Given its informal and voluntary nature, a community cannot be "installed" like a piece of equipment, "managed" like a work group, or mandated like a policy. Organizations can, however, nurture communities of practice by creating a supportive environment. Best practices some companies have found for creating a supportive environment include:

  • Allow people to participate in community events on company time (3M).

  • Provide IT support to connect community members across the globe (Xerox).

  • Provide staff/logistics support to schedule and set up meetings for internal communities of practice (World Bank).

  • Cover expenses for meetings, workshops, or knowledge expansion projects undertaken by the community (American Management Systems).

  • Provide consulting support (on request) to people who emerge naturally as community leaders (World Bank).

  • Provide consulting support to any person who wants to develop a new community of practice (Shell).

  • Provide staffing, financial, and logistical support for communities of practice among vendors within the supply chain (Toyota).

  • Monitor contributions to community problem solving and knowledge sharing, and connect pay to those efforts. Reward knowledge sharing, but not mere "participation" (Andersen Consulting).

  • Use information about contributions to community effectiveness in all promotion decisions (Andersen Consulting).

  • Search out concrete examples of community success and publish them in company newsletters (Shell).

  • Assign a senior manager to serve as the sponsor for ideas that emerge from these communities.

Communities of practice can enlarge the organization's knowledge base by giving more people more opportunities to acquire, apply, create, share, and leverage knowledge. And while organizations need to avoid being too intrusive, they can and should strive to harness the energy and genius that is created by these informal associations.