University of Lund, Sweden
Warwick University, United Kingdom

Knowledge management (KM) is one of those rare, fashionable ideas that has been celebrated by practitioners but also by academics across a broad range of disciplines. KM is, in this sense, similar to organizational culture in the early 1980s. It is less similar to other fads (e.g., business reengineering, e-trading, quality) that seem mainly to appeal to practitioners but attract considerable degrees of academic skepticism regarding their theoretical base. It also differs from notions such as identity and, especially, discourse, which do not appear as practical or managerial enough for managers.
KM certainly has a strong rhetorical appeal. It couples the characteristics of simplicity and ambiguity seen in other popular management fads (Clark & Salaman, 1996). Who could deny that “the creation, acquisition, capture, sharing and use of knowledge, skills and expertise” (as Quintas, Demaid,&Millar, 1996, define KM) is important, especially in the so-called Knowledge Society? The notion of knowledge in (increasingly) knowledge-intensive companies is an appealing image. Everybody understands that education, science, learning, competence, and innovation, as well as the development, sharing, and exploitation of ideas and experiences, are important. KM indicates away of dealing with all these. Knowledge is, by definition, to be celebrated. Management is something one can have mixed feelings about, but the idea of making knowledge useful, relevant, and focused is appealing, if elusive.

KM is also ambiguous. It covers broad terrain as “a term which has now come to be used to describe anything from organizational learning to database management tools” (Ruggles, 1998, p. 80). It can also be seen as encompassing the sourcing, mapping, and measuring of knowledge, as well as its creation and sharing (Storey & Quintas, 2002). Moreover, the concept is broad and ambiguous enough to be appropriated in different ways by professional groups seeking to advance their own knowledge domains and claims to legitimacy. Thus, the broader notion has been translated variously into “KM systems” among IT professionals, “knowledge elicitation techniques” among artificial intelligence experts, “the development of human and intellectual capital” among personnel management specialists, “the measurement of intangible assets” among accountants, and so on (Swan, Bresnen, & Robertson, 2001). KM also has the capacity to be reinvented through time as different professional groups begin to increase their purchase on the term. This high degree of interpretive flexibility across professional domains, coupled with interpretive closure within them (see, for example, Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987), has helped to broaden the spread and appeal of the idea but also to narrow its potential impact, due to fragmentation (Scarbrough & Swan, 2001).

Labels that attract a broad audience and have a strong rhetorical appeal are, however, often problematic in terms of coherence. In this case, there are fundamental problems with the idea of the manageability of knowledge, at least in amanagerialist sense (Alvesson &Kärreman, 2001). The concept ofKMis inherently problematic; many uses tend to be either tension ridden or trivial. In the remainder of this article we identify three common departures from knowledge and two departures from management in KM.


Knowledge is celebrated as the clue to corporate performance in contemporary and future business. The problem is that enthusiasts have great problems theoretically defining knowledge and empirically describing it. Grant (1996), for example, in outlining a knowledge-based theory of the firm, modestly says, “All I offer beyond the simple tautology of ‘that which is known’ is the recognition that there are many types of knowledge relevant to the firm” (p. 110). The definitions offered by influential texts (e.g., Davenport& Prusak, 1998; Nonaka, 1994) are quite broad and vague. The influential resource-based view typically black-boxes knowledge and competence, confusing input, transformation, and output (for a critique, see Scarborough, 1998).

A common approach is to slice up the idea of knowledge in different forms. Frequently this is based on rather arbitrary and peculiar dichotomies. Hence, knowledge is said to be either tacit or explicit, personal or codified, individual or organizational, procedural or substantive. It is popular to combine dimensions and create four-field typologies (e.g., Blackler, 1995; Cook & Brown, 1999; Nonaka, 1994). Perhaps the most common distinction is between tacit and explicit knowledge, and here, authors frequently refer to Polanyi (1975), who is credited with coining, or at least developing, the idea of tacit knowledge. However, whilst frequently (mis)used to justify dividing up knowledge into different forms, Polanyi’s approach actually undermines the logic of this practice. According to Polanyi, all knowledge includes a personal and a social/organizational element; no knowledge is fully explicit, no can it work without involving meaning and judgment. So tacitness is always vital.

In some ambitious empirical studies the black-boxing of knowledge and competence is avoided in favour of in-depth description. A problem here—at least in the context of a resource-based view (e.g., Prahalad&Hamel, 1990) and other efforts to capture broader organizational patterns—is that the research often focuses on highly localized examples of what particular workers do and how they think and interact (e.g., Tsoukas & Vladimirou, 2001). These studies illuminate what people carrying out a particular task do but are informative about work tasks rather than broader organizational patterns. In very small and homogeneous organizations the work task and the organization go together (Cook&Yanow, 1993), but in complex organizations, looking through the lens of a particular group may lead to a focus on a very limited part of the core competence of the organization.


Problems in theoretically defining knowledge—and empirically studying it—in organizational contexts may account for tendencies to depart from knowledge and emphasize something else, such as information, assets, or networks. Such concepts are obviously related to knowledge. However, emphasizing these concepts avoids directly defining and examining the much messier concept of knowledge.


A well-known departure or shift of emphasis is from knowledge to information. However, taking knowledge seriously suggests a clear difference between knowledge and information. Knowledge is more than contextually relevant data and refers to the exercise of judgment based on insight, experience, and/or theory (Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Tsoukas & Vladimirou, 2001). That said, some authors talk about a codification approach to KM(Hansen, Norhia, & Tierney, 1999). Here, the usage of databases combined with an inclination to, as far as possible, reuse earlier solutions is viewed as a strategy for KM. However, a large amount of critique has been directed against such an approach (McKinley, 2000; Swan, Newell, Scarbrough, & Hislop, 1999).


In more macro-oriented approaches such as the resource-based view (e.g., Prahalad & Hamel, 1990), the shift is to reify organizational knowledge and treat it as an asset (albeit intangible). According to Scarbrough (1998), “Knowledge is presented not as a lived experience but as an objectified entity to be manipulated by top management” (p. 229). Here, knowledge or core competence becomes an asset that is, at least to some extent, managed from the central control room of top management.


Another shift is to focus on issues of networking rather than knowledge. Thus, some argue for a community model emphasizing dialogue and sense making, both of which occur through active networking (Swan et al., 1999). From this perspective, knowledge-asobject is downplayed and wrapped into practices of sharing, networking, and developing social relations. The key element around knowledge in organizations becomes a matter of people supporting each other for either altruistic or opportunistic reasons (von Krogh, 1998).


Most authors on KM make little attempt to theorize management. In the context of knowledge creation, Nonaka (1994) claimed that managers are best viewed as “catalysts.” However, his use of management remains vague and ultimately seems to be strongly rooted in the rather commonsense idea that a manager “sets the direction, provides the field of interaction, selects the participants in the field, establishes the guidelines and deadlines for projects, and supports the innovation process” (p. 31). This conceptualization does not relate specifically to knowledge issues and is so general that it may be valid for all forms of management. Thus, we are left with very little clarity on just what it means to manage knowledge.

The term management is most informative when it refers to an agent with considerable authority and discretion, grounded in a formal position, and with an asymmetrical relation to non-managers. By definition, a manager calls for somebody, or something, to be managed. Of course, management is not omnipotent, and power relations may be more or less asymmetrical and/or varied. But an emphasis on knowledge means that it is the “knowledge-able” who is in a superior position to deal with a particular issue and, as a result, how management functions as a controlling institution is not clear. Sometimes management in the KM literature seems to be merely administrative work. Here, the kinship with conventional notions of management is so remote that the management label risks being stretched out too far; thus, administration seems amore descriptive label for much of what passes for management in KM.

Hansen et al. (1999) pointed to two contrasting strategies for knowledge management: codification and personalization. The personalization strategy relies heavily on socialization; knowledge can be managed by selecting and orchestrating a mix of situations and individuals. Codification, on the other hand, attempts to exploit the promises of information technology; the idea is that organizational knowledge can be extracted from individuals and converted into databases. The stored knowledge provides templates for thinking as well as action, thus making relatively unskilled workers productive on a higher skill level. Both strategies move the focus from knowledge, and knowledge creation, to management. However, as a result, KM seems to become a generic managerial tool. For example, what Hansen et al. (1999) label as codification is captured in the concept of formalization, which, of course, is a cornerstone in the bureaucratic organizational form. Personalization, on the other hand, is another word for what most students of knowledge-intensive firms always claimed to be essential for that type of organization: the reliance on the competence of individuals (Alvesson, 1995).


Most executives seem to understand that knowledge is primarily people based, but “they are stuck with an investment model that is geared primarily toward technology implementations” (Ruggles, 1998, p. 86). However, taking seriously the idea that knowledge is based in people means that KM is not a matter of building a large electronic library, as an investment model would suggest, but one of “connecting people so they can think together” (McDermott, 1999, p. 104). Thus, in the KM literature we find management implicitly treated in ways that depart from its traditional conceptualizations.


KM is in some cases viewed as an attempt by management to exercise normative control (cf., Alvesson & Kärreman, 2001). Yet such an attempt can be problematic. Specifically, the more organic and communitarian perspective taken by many KM scholars (e.g., Ruggles, 1998; Sarvary, 1999) stands in an uneasy relationship to management and is, to some extent, antithetical to it. Several authors on KM emphasize organizational culture, although they seldom develop it or explore the connection (e.g., Ruggles, 1998; Sarvary, 1999). The interest in community building can be seen as analogous to managing or engineering organizational culture. Yet the frequently reported problems of culture engineering provide important lessons for the difficulties in managing communities (Alvesson, 2002). The KM literature may benefit from taking this literature into account. Hence, there is considerable skepticism about hard-core, technocratic approaches to KM (Scarbrough, 1998; Swan et al., 1999).


Some authors—or passages in their texts—give an even more limited role to management than Nonaka’s (1994) rather weak one discussed above. Management here becomes a matter of nurturing care. The favoured vocabulary—community, sharing, caring, nurturing social relations—is far from conventional ideas of management as a bureaucratic phenomenon associated with hierarchy, formalization, control, and direction from above through “rational” measures. Many KM scholars emphasize that community is fundamental to shaping knowledge (Cohen, 1998; Leonard & Sensiper, 1998; Swan et al., 1999). Care is said to facilitate innovation, according to von Krogh (1998). It is also said to develop high-care groups characterized by indwelling, that is, looking with others at their task rather than at others.


In the KM literature, “management” frequently becomes translated into efforts to encourage social contacts, to share ideas and experiences (e.g., storytelling) and to develop shared ideas and values around the business. Much of this falls outside the traditional remit of management (and managers). The literature is frequently ambivalent here. It partly emphasizes management as a vital source of moral, symbolic, and perhaps financial support and partly emphasizes that the vital issues go beyond bureaucracy and top-down control.
Knowledge, on the other hand, is arguably important but it is difficult to define or describe, and its partly tacit nature makes it problematic to access and even more difficult to manage. For this reason, most researchers (and practitioners) are satisfied by signalling an orientation to knowledge but then focusing on something seen as highly relevant for, and facilitative of, knowledge work. It may be networks, organizational culture, supportive social relations, or accessibility to documents that may offer input to knowledge-work. Paradoxically, then,KM appears to be a term that provides rhetorical appeal to a broad and differentiated field that neither deals very specifically with knowledge nor with management, and even less with the two together.


1. The symbol ≈ comes from formal logic and means “is roughly equivalent to.”


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Mats Alvesson works in the Department of Business Administration, Lund
University, Sweden. He is interested in critical theory, organizational culture,
leadership, power, gender, and knowledge-intensive firms. Recent
books include Reflexive Methodology (Sage, 2000, with Kaj Koldberg),
Understanding Organizational Culture (Sage, 2002) and Postmodernism
and Social Research (Open University Press, 2002).
Dan Kärreman is a lecturer in the Department of Business Administration
at Lund University, Sweden. His research interests include knowledge
work, work identities, management control, and research methodology.
Jacky Swan (Ph.D., C. Psychol.) is a professor in organizational behaviour
at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, and codirector of the
Innovation, Knowledge and Organizational Networks (IKON) Research
Unit. Her research interests are in innovation, in particular the roles of
social networks in innovation and the processes of managing knowledge in
project-based environments. She has published widely in international
journals and authored the recently published book Managing Knowledge

Last modified: Wednesday, 24 January 2007, 2:45 PM