Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration


6 Νοε 2013 (πριν από 3 χρόνια και 7 μήνες)

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Knowledge Sharing and Collaboration
Knowledge Cafés

Do it yourself knowledge sharing?


Dan Remenyi

Visiting Professor

Trinity College Dublin



It is now clear that knowledge management is not just another fad which

has been hyped up by the
management consultants and technology vendors. In fact it has a long pedigree with considerable
support from a number of management thinkers of our times. Although knowledge management has
much to offer it is no simple matter to i
mplement it successfully. Although very large sums of money
have been spent, technologically based knowledge management solutions have produced questionable
results. Simply knowledge management is far more than a technological issue and thus, what is reall
needed is a rethink with an emphasis on the people side of knowledge management. One such approach
is the use of a knowledge café. A knowledge café may be defined as
a way of brining together a group
of people who have some sort of common interest and wh
o will be able to benefit from talking together
and listening to each other on the subject of issues related to and surrounding that common interest.
The individuals who will benefit from a knowledge café need to have an open mindset, have a common
ve and have similar shared values and be people who like to collaborate in their working
relationships. The operation of a knowledge café is actually more complex than it first appears

and this
paper discusses how to operate a successful knowledge café.

Key words and phrases

Knowledge, knowledge management, intranet, knowledge hierarchy, knowledge cafés

The owl was the wisest of animals. A centipede with 99 sore feet came to him
seeking advice. 'Walk for two weeks one inch above the ground; the air unde
r your
feet and the lack of pressure will cure you,' said the owl. 'How am I to do that?' asked
the centipede. 'I have solved your conceptual problem, do not bother me with the
trivia concerning implementation,' replied the owl.

Shubik M, A Game
Approach to Political Economy, The MIT Press, USA,

Knowledge management and knowledge itself are both very slippery concepts. In
some sense everyone knows what knowledge is

it takes knowledge to know how to
drive your car and it takes knowledge to

know how to find your way home from work

but when it comes to a formal definition of knowledge, even the most astute
philosophers run into problems and paradoxes (Davenport and Prusak 1998; Nonaka
and Takeuchi 1991; Senge 1998; Snowden 2003)

There is s
imply no clearly
articulated and generally agreed definition of knowledge (Pierce 2002; Suresh 2002).
But at least many people know in both business and academe that knowledge
management is very important and it is very important to both individuals and t
organisations (Drucker 2000; Toffler 1990; Quinn 1993). This notion of the
importance of knowledge goes back a very long way indeed. Sir Francis Bacon made
reference to the central importance of knowledge when he said, “
Knowledge is
(Bohn 1994).

Davenport and Prusak (2003) point out that both Adam Smith
and Alfred Marshall highlight the importance of knowledge. In modern times
Ackoff developed the hierarchy

data, information, knowledge and wisdom that is


used in many textbooks and arti
cles that talk about knowledge management (Ackoff
1978). In this description the things that are known come in a variety of forms and as
we process them their usefulness improves. Thus data are just simple facts and
figures, which have not yet been given
any structure. Information is the result of
processing data and putting it in a form with which decisions can be made.
Knowledge then becomes how we facilitate the use of information to achieve our
. In this analysis wisdom is some higher level o
f superior understanding,
which some people achieve. Although the definition of knowledge is challenging the
definition of wisdom is considerably more problematic. This approach to trying to
understand knowledge is of course all very interesting, but it is

not that useful and it is
easy to find different interpretations of the Ackoff model and the different levels of

To make knowledge and knowledge management useful some organisations have
spent millions and millions of dollars or pounds on
technology (International Data
Corporation 1999; Price Waterhouse Coopers 2000), specifically information and
communications technology (ICT). The belief behind this approach was that if we
could capture knowledge and put it in a computer then it could be
shared. This sharing
would ensure the highest possible utilisation of knowledge across the entire
organisation. As electronic communications have become easier and cheaper over the
past ten years, having knowledge captured in a computer in one part of the
ensured that it would be available worldwide and that organisations could aspire to
having “
best practice
” policies implemented in every office, branch or outlet. It is
argued that such collaboration could only lead to improved performance.

The advo
cates of this ICT approach to knowledge management went on to argue that
even better than sharing across geographical space during a given time period, the use
of ICT would allow knowledge sharing to take place cross multiple time periods. The
basis of thi
s argument is that if “
best practice
” is captured in silicon then it is retained
by the organisation and available to it even when key individuals retire, resign or in
some other way leave. In this thinking the siliconisation of the organisational memory
rovides continuity and reduces the organisations’ reliance on specific individuals.

The technology here is normally referred to as an intranet and it has been responsible
for selling many large and powerful computers as well as terabytes of mass storage t
many organisations around the world. But despite the huge investment it is not very
clear how much knowledge sharing has been achieved (Bain 2003, Computer World
2000) by the use of ICT. The problems or challenges of knowledge sharing are now
known not t
o be in the area of fast processor, mass storage, speed of retrieval or
bandwidth. The problems or challenges are much more subtle than any of these issues.

Even when the intranet orientation to knowledge management is accepted there are
two major challen
ges for this “hardware” or technology approach to knowledge
management and these are to decide what knowledge should be recorded and then
how to elicit this knowledge from the appropriate individuals who have it (Ruggles
1997; Brown and Duguid 2000). Being

able to ascertain what knowledge is require


Ackoff model has been used by those who wish to take an information systems view of
knowledge, suggesting that the further processing of data through the information state will eventually
deliver knowledge. This is not a
received notion, except of course by those who are interested in
marketing and selling computer power.


and then who has it and finally how to encourage them to deliver it so that it could be
deposited in a computer is no mean task. The methodologies suggested for these tasks
have not shown themselves to be partic
ularly robust and many problems have arisen
while trying to achieve these goals.

But even in those cases when the knowledge has been carefully and accurately
recorded in silicon there is the major job of getting other people to know that it is
there and
then to want to use it. Knowledge sharing in this rather impersonal way
through the use of intranets has been difficult (Bain 2003, Storey and Barnett 2000).
Despite the large amounts invested in intranets, this has not been an easy area in
which to work a
nd the results of this hardware or technology approach to knowledge
management have generally been poor. This has lead to further suggestions that
knowledge management may simply be just another management fad (
2002) created by management consu
ltants and computer vendors.

Although there are some academics, consultants and professionals who believe that
knowledge management is a fad, they are in the minority. The belief in the importance
of Knowledge Management is surprisingly resilient. The cur
rent interest in
Knowledge Management has now been on the corporate agenda for over a decade.
Despite the slowness of many organisations to make great headways with the
technology solutions to the knowledge challenge it is increasingly understood that
e who can mobilise and focus their corporate knowledge have a distinct
competitive advantage (Porter and Millar, 2004). Indeed it is true that the amount that
has been achieved by knowledge management initiatives is highly variable. But this is
not because

knowledge is an unimportant issue or that knowledge management is
simply a hyped up issue. The patchiness of achievement has been in many cases due
to the fact that knowledge management is not a technological issue but rather a human
interaction issue, wh
ich has to be approached in a different way. Changing human
interactions is difficult and needs a completely different approach than just the
availability of technology. What has been learnt in the past few years is that
implementing knowledge manageme
nt is not a trivial matter at all and requires a
rethinking of organisational processes, strategies and maybe even objectives. Time
and again we hear that knowledge is still stuck in well
protected organisational silos
and sometime organisational executive
s are heard saying

If only we knew what we
(Brown and Duguid 1999; Goodhue
et al.

Today most people recognise that knowledge sharing is a key issue for knowledge
management and thus for organisational success. But real knowledge sharing has li
to do with hardware or technology and a lot to do with people and their attitudes
(Wenger and Synder 2000). To make knowledge sharing work well three conditions
are required. There are:


an open mindset for the individuals involved


people who have a c
ommon objective and who have similar shared values


and people who like to collaborate in their working relationships.

Creating the environment where these conditions exist is the central challenge for
many organisations wishing to promote knowledge shari
ng. Many readers will
recognise this problem when they think about how difficult it can be to get people to


just talk openly to one another other about their specific corporate interests,
opportunities and responsibilities.

The creation of Communities o
f Practice in some organisations has been an important
step forward in achieving the sharing of knowledge. This approach tries to bring
people together that have mutual interests and who want to collaborate and share
knowledge. But it has not been all that

easy to get these Communities of Practice
started. What has really been lacking is a technique to initiate or “kick
start” these
Communities of Practice as well as a way of helping them continue and evolve
(Wenger and Synder 2000, Snowden 2003).

One way
of energising an organisation to achieve real knowledge sharing benefits is
to use Knowledge
Cafés. A Knowledge
Café is an effective vehicle for opening up
conversations and discussions that will lead to knowledge sharing (Pierce 2004). The
term Knowledge
Café is interesting in that it may suggest a venue such as a coffee
house or some other location where hot drinks are served and consumed. But a Café is
also a venue where people meet and where people also talk. It is the talking and
perhaps thinking aspe
ct of the notion of a Café that is the important dimension here.

Thus a Knowledge
Café may be defined as
a way of brining together a group of
people who have some sort of common interest and who will be able to benefit from
talking together and listening

to each other on the subject of issues related to and
surrounding that common interest.

To operate a Knowledge
Café drinks, hot or cold, do not have to be served. Also it
needs to be pointed out that when people meet in a Café they generally do so in sm
groups unlike the way they come together in a church or at a political rally. Much of
the action in a Knowledge
Café occurs in small groups. There is a plenary group at
the beginning of the Knowledge
Café and again towards the end of it where all the
articipants come together, but the main value obtained from the Knowledge
experience, reported by most people, occurs in the small group discussions.

As described by Gurteen (2004) t
here are a number of formats for the operation of a

Some Knowledge
Café conveners require quite elaborate props or
facilities. For example it is sometimes suggested that to conduct a Knowledge
Café it
is necessary to set up a Café environment with small round tables with tablecloths and
cut flowers and wit
h a continuous supply of hot drinks. Sometimes it is said that there
can only be four chairs per table.

However for a successful Knowledge
Café event none of this is actually necessary.
The following is a sound approach for a successful knowledge sharing

First of all you need a group of people who you believe should be sharing their
knowledge more effectively. Ideally there should be about 20
to 30
people involved.
So invite these people to a
Café. Remember the sort of people
u ideally require are those who have a relatively open mind
set, who have common
objectives and values and who like to work in a collaborative way. Make sure that
everyone knows the names of all the other members of the group by supplying badges
and perhap
s a list of names and perhaps e
mail addresses. It is important that people
can contact each other after the Knowledge
Café. By the way it might be useful to


actually lay
on some coffee or some other refreshments but that’s not at all essential
and many Kn
Cafés do without this.

When all the members of the group arrive you need to explain that the object of the
meeting is to share knowledge and propose to them a question around which you want
them to share their knowledge.
The question needs to be

highly relevant to all those
participating in this event.
This explanation of the Knowledge
Café is best done by a
senior member of staff as this signals that this is a serious event and not just a casual
social gathering. This briefing should take no mor
e than 10 minutes.

Ask the group of 20 to break up into small groups of preferably 4 people and ask them
to sit together and discuss the question. It is not necessary to have tables and chairs set
out although this is sometime convenient. Sometimes the gr
oups stand in a small
. Sometimes they even sit on the floor. In some respects, the less formal the
seating arrangements are, the better.

The only important issue is that the environment
is not specifically uncomfortable or hostile.

Allow 45 to 60
minutes for this small group discussion. It is important to emphasise
that you are looking for an exchange of knowledge and that you are asking everyone
to be non
adversarial and non
threatening in his or her discussions. A Knowledge
Café is not an opport
unity to debate but rather an opportunity to listen and to
understand each other. This is important as people seldom actually learn from
arguments. The watchwords are
Try to understand the other members of your group
before trying to help them understand y

After the 45 to 60 minutes in the small groups invite everyone back and hold a full
group conversation on the subject of what individuals have learnt from their
participation in the small groups.
It at all possible this large group should be seated in

a circle or a semi
This large group conversation needs to be facilitated by
someone with experience of encouraging individuals to speak and in so doing to
describe what they have heard of interest. The large group conversation should not
become a
debate but should be an exercise in reflecting on new ideas and new insights
which individuals have been exposed to during the small group discussions. Hearing
members of different small groups reflect on what they heard will expose Knowledge
Café members
to an even wider perspective on the question posed. The discussion
should not require more than about 60 minutes.

The role of the facilitator is quite important and a poorly skilled individual can make
this part of the Knowledge
Café ineffective.

Some co
nveners of Knowledge
Cafés believe that this large group conversation
should be recorded or videoed for Café participants to take away. But this is not a
central issue to the success of the knowledge sharing which occur

during the Café.

But as Gurteen (20
04) points some organisations prefer to have a record of the event.

Participants of Knowledge
Cafés frequently report that these events have been highly
valuable. They generally state that they have obtained new insights into the issues
being discussed. T
hey often claim that not only have they learnt from the other
members of the Knowledge
Café, but that they have better understood what they
know and what they believe about the subject being discussed. Participants of


Cafés also make new acquain
tances with whom they can network in the
future. If the Knowledge
Café is run in
company it can then be the opening event of
an internal Community of Practice. If the Knowledge
Café has been a public one then
those who are interested can continue to networ
k in any way they choose.

In summary a Knowledge
Café used properly can:


Focus your organisation’s Knowledge


Strengthen your organisation’s Knowledge Network


Get a Community of Practise really going


Make Knowledge Sharing a reality for your organisation

Cafés are run by knowledg
e Gurus in many countries. I
t is a relatively
straight forward

However to conduct a successful Knowledge Café is not a
trivial matter. In some respects it is like the advice given by the Owl in the epigram

it is easy to say how to do it and quite difficult to do it well. However
rovided that
the facilitator

is skilful in encouraging

conversations and
knows how to

confrontation and debate

a Knowledge Café is a valuable start to a Community
of Pra

or just a start to having individuals share knowledge
. If you are interested
there is information about Knowledge Cafés on the web

and a useful website to start
an investigation of Knowledge Cafes procedures is

Knowledge Cafés are growing in popularity as they demonstrate that people can share
knowledge and that sharing knowledge does have the potential to make organisations
more effective. Although the words “
ignorance is bliss”

were written
by the famous
poet Thomas Gray in his renowned poem Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton
College, these words are generally not true in the modern world. What is
needed is
knowledge and the more
it is


the better for us as individuals and the better it
for the organisations for which we work. Then we may

be able to say that we
what we know!


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