Mission impossible? Communicating and sharing knowledge via information technology


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Journal of Information Technology
, 165


Mission impossible? Communicating and sharing

knowledge via information technology


Shef. eld University Management School, University of Shef. eld, 9 Mappin Street, Shef. eld S1 4DT, UK

his paper critiques the perspective that information technology can play a central role in knowledge

processes. Fundamentally, it suggests that the nature of knowledge itself makes it extremely dif. cult and

that quite speci. c conditions are requi
red for information technology
based knowledge sharing to occur

successfully. The paper proceeds by criticizing the objectivist philosophy of knowledge, which typically underpins

the literature advocating information technology
based knowledge management.
The centre point of

this critique involves questioning one of the foundational assumptions of the objectivist perspective, namely

the dichotomy made between tacit and explicit knowledge. Instead, a ‘practice’
based philosophy of knowledge

is proposed that
suggests that all knowledge has both tacit and explicit components, is to some extent

embodied in human brains and bodies and is embedded in organizational routines, practices and contexts.

These characteristics therefore suggest that the role of informati
on technology systems in the sharing of

knowledge is likely to be somewhat limited.


One of the dominant themes in the contemporary

knowledge management literature is the importance

of the role accorded to information technology. This

is witne
ssed both by its centrality in much academic

discourse on the subject (Scarbrough and Swan,

2001) and also by the predominance of information

based knowledge management initiatives

being implemented in practice (Ruggles, 1998).

Writing embedded
in this perspective is typically saturated

in an optimism about how either an organization’s

knowledge assets can be shared directly via

information technology systems or that such processes

can be supported and facilitated by information technology.

perspective on knowledge management is

however based on a very particular objectivist

perspective on knowledge.

This paper outlines a contrary perspective based on

a fundamentally different philosophy of knowledge,

which is substantially mo
re pessimistic about the role

that information technology systems can play in the

processes of knowledge sharing. This perspective,

which Cook and Brown (1999) referred to as an

of practice’, suggests that the intrinsic character

of all knowl
edge makes it is extremely dif. cult

to share it using information technology.

Even over the relatively short space of time that

knowledge management issues have been in vogue

there has been a signi. cant evolution in the way knowledge

is conceptualized an
d in the way that knowledge

management and knowledge
sharing processes have

been theorized. An information systems/information

technology perspective that focused primarily on

issues dominated much of the early literature

and suggested that i
nformation technology could

play a central role in the management of an organization’s

knowledge (Scarbrough
et al
., 1999; Storey

and Barnett, 2000). This literature has been rightly

criticized for over
emphasizing technological issues and

for neglecting s
ocial and cultural factors, which can

lead to a number of problems. For example, the

success of knowledge management initiatives has been

shown to be at risk when such social factors are

(Storey and Barnett, 2000; Storey and

Quintas, 2001).

Too great an emphasis on technologically

based knowledge management initiatives

has been shown to reinforce existing cultures rather

than help transform them (McDermott, 1999; Newell

et al
., 2000). Too great a focus on an objectivist

perspective on knowle
dge can lead to an ‘expert

approach to knowledge management that is incapable

of dealing with highly tacit and distributed organizational

knowledge (Sørensen and Lundh
Snis, 2001).

Trust between individuals has been shown to be necessary

in order t
o facilitate knowledge sharing (Roberts,

2000). Finally, the sharing of knowledge has been

shown to involve the active agency and cooperation of

individuals, which the nature of employment relations

does not guarantee (Scarborough, 1999).

However, there is

still a substantial literature that

argues for a strong role for information technology

systems in knowledge
sharing processes (see Boland

et al
., 1994; Boisot and Grif. ths, 1999; Bolisani and

Scarso, 1999; Meso and Smith, 2000). Further, there

is still
an active ongoing debate about the role of information

technology systems in the processes of knowledge

sharing and knowledge management more

generally (Swan and Scarbrough, 2001).

While there have been a number of papers that have

compared and contrasted
the different philosophies of

knowledge examined here (Blackler, 1995; Scarbrough,

1998; Cook and Brown, 1999; Empson, 2001) these

papers have generally not examined the implications of

the arguments made for the role of information

technology in the proce
sses of knowledge management.

This paper therefore develops these arguments through

examining the implications of the epistemology of

practice perspective for information technology

knowledge management. The contribution of the paper

to knowledge is
therefore related to the fact that the critique

developed here about the limited role for information

technology systems in knowledge

processes is less related to the neglect of social and cultural

issues (which has been examined) and more

to the fundamental character of knowledge

(which has not been fully examined).

The paper contains two main sections, both of which

are structured similarly and concludes with a summative

discussion. The . rst section outlines the objectivist

view of knowle
dge before considering how these

ideas underpin arguments advocating the use of information

technology systems in knowledge

processes. The objectivist epistemology will be shown

as being founded on one foundational assumption: the

distinction betwe
en tacit and explicit knowledge. It is

then argued that, while the characteristics of tacit

knowledge make it dif. cult to share via information

technology systems, the sharing of explicit knowledge

electronically is straightforward.

The second part of the

paper outlines and develops

the critique of this perspective, which is based on an

epistemology of practice. This perspective will show

that, once the foundational assumption concerning the


explicit dichotomy is challenged, all secondary


about the nature of explicit knowledge

that are built on it also come into question. Following

this, the second half of the paper examines the implications

of these ideas for the way knowledge is shared,

which are profound. Fundamentally, this epistemolog

signi. cantly circumscribes the role that information

technology systems can play in the sharing of knowledge

and problematizes the idea that it is straightforward

to share any knowledge electronically, no matter

how explicit. The main body of the paper

concludes with a discussion about the circumstances

in which it may be possible to share knowledge via

information technology systems

The objectivist epistemology and the role

of information technology in knowledge


This part of the paper outli
nes the objectivist epistemology

of knowledge and describes the optimism it

has regarding the ability to share explicit knowledge

electronically. The section begins by outlining the way

the tacit

explicit dichotomy is articulated within this

perspective. F
ollowing this, the rest of the section then

outlines how, from this perspective, tacit and explicit

knowledge are seen to have fundamentally different

and distinctive characteristics, which signi. cantly in
• uence

the ways in which they can be shared.


explicit dichotomy

cornerstone of the

objectivist perspective

Knowledge can be categorized in two different categories:

explicit and tacit knowledge (Nonaka &

Takeuchi 1995) (Johannessen
et al
., 2001, p. 4).

The tacit

explicit dichotomy represents
one of the

most widely accepted distinctions between different

types of knowledge and is embedded in the vast

majority of the contemporary writing on knowledge

in organizations (Hedlund, 1994; Nonaka, 1994;

Spender, 1996; Pan and Scarbrough, 1999; Bolisani

and Scarso, 2000; Roberts, 2000). The quotation by

et al
. (2001) embodies this distinction, as

well as illustrating one of the main references from

which this distinction is developed (Nonaka and

Takeuchi, 1995). Explicit knowledge represents

that can be codi. ed in a tangible form, for

example scienti. c theories published in documentation.

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, represents

knowledge that people possess, but which is inexpressible

and incorporates both physical skills an

cognitive frameworks (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995).

This distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge

is by no means unique to the objectivist epistemology

of knowledge, but the speci. c way that the distinction

is theorized within this perspective is
quite particular

and has important consequences for explaining the

ways in which tacit and explicit knowledge are shared.

Within the objectivist epistemological framework

there is an ‘either/or’ logic to the dichotomy, with

knowledge typically being regard
ed as either tacit or

explicit. Thus, from this perspective tacit and explicit

knowledge do not represent the extremes of a spectrum,

but instead represent two pure and separate

forms of knowledge (Tsoukas, 1996; Leonard and

Sensiper, 1998, p. 113; Prichar
d, 2000). This distinction

represents one of the most fundamental elements

of the objectivist epistemology as, once this foundation

has been erected, other assumptions build from

it. Thus, as will be shown immediately below, tacit

knowledge and explicit kn
owledge are argued to

possess completely different characteristics and are

shared in completely different ways as well.

Tacit knowledge and the mechanisms for

sharing it

. . . tacit knowledge . . . is something that we know

but cannot express (Baumard, 199
9, p. 2).

Primarily tacit knowledge is knowledge that is dif. cult

to express in words or to codify in documentation.

Tacit knowledge includes both physical skills, such as

the ability to ride a bike and cognitive frameworks,

such as the value systems peop
le possess. One of the

main characteristics of tacit knowledge is therefore that

it is personal (Roberts, 2000), i.e. it primarily resides

within individuals and is dif. cult to disembody.

There is an element to which tacit knowledge can

be regarded as col
lective in nature as it is acknowledged

as being embedded within particular cultural

and social contexts (Szulanski, 1996; Leonard and

Sensiper, 1998). For example, the value systems that

people possess have a collective element as they are

related to idea
s that circulate within the particular

social milieu that people exist within (Pan and

Scarbrough, 1999). One speci. c type of collective

knowledge that is increasingly being referred to is that

possessed and held within communities of practice

(Brown and
Duguid, 1991, 1998; Lave and Wenger,


These characteristics make the sharing of tacit

knowledge dif. cult and time
consuming to achieve

(Leonard and Sensiper, 1998; Roberts, 2000). Von

Hippel (1994) used the term ‘sticky’ for neatly summarizing

property of tacit knowledge. The embodied

nature of tacit knowledge means that successfully

sharing it requires active direct communication

between individuals (Lam, 1997; Storey and Barnett,

2000). Thus, tacit knowledge is typically shared

socially throug
h language and stories (Brown and

Duguid, 1991), through the observation of practices

that others undertake or through a process of learning

by doing within a communal context (Lave and

Wenger, 1991). The embeddedness of tacit knowledge

in social and cultu
ral values further increases the dif.

culty of sharing it. This is because some level of appreciation

of these underlying values is required for the

effective sharing of tacit knowledge (Roberts, 2000).

A general consensus on these characteristics of tac

knowledge leads to the almost universal conclusion that

the sharing of tacit knowledge via information technology

systems is extremely dif. cult if not impossible

to achieve. Fundamentally, the dif. culty of disembodying

tacit knowledge into an explicit

and objective

form prevents it being shared by information technology

systems. (Exceptions to this conclusion are

Boisot and Grif. ths (1999, p. 665), Bolisani and

Scarso (1999) and Boland
et al
. (1994) who suggested

that it is possible (or will be possib
le in the near future)

to share tacit knowledge electronically. The position

of Boland
et al
. (1994) will be examined in the second

half of the paper, as their arguments are founded on

the ‘knowledge as practice’ epistemology.)

Characteristics of explicit

explicit knowledge represents . . . objective knowledge

. . . Explicit knowledge comes from a rationalization

of the information about facts and can be

codi. ed in the form of formulas, designs, reports

. . . (Bolisani and Scarso, 2000, p. 118).

In stark contrast to the above outlined descriptions of

tacit knowledge, the objectivist perspective suggests

that explicit knowledge has fundamentally different


The . rst major assumption about the nature of

explicit knowledge is that it
is regarded as objective.

The assumption is that it is possible to develop a type

of knowledge and understanding that is free from individual

subjectivity. Thus, while tacit knowledge is

highly subjective, being embedded within the cultural

values and assu
mptions of those who possess it and

use it, explicit knowledge does not possess such baggage

and can be solidi. ed into a pure and objective

form. This represents what McAdam and McCreedy

(2000) described as the ‘knowledge is truth’ perspective,

where expl
icit knowledge is seen as equivalent to

a canonical body of scienti. c facts and laws which are

consistent across cultures and time (Swan
et al
., 1999,

p. 273).

Second, explicit knowledge is assumed to exist

of human bodies. While tacit knowl
edge is

personal, residing in the human body, explicit knowledge

is regarded as being codi. able and objecti. able

into a disembodied entity (Blackler, 1995, p. 1033;

Scarbrough, 1998). Such knowledge can exist in a

number of forms including documents, dia
grams and

computer systems or be embedded in physical artefacts

such as machinery or tools (Pan and Scarbrough, 1999;

Roberts, 2000). From the objectivist perspective on

knowledge the idea that explicit knowledge can exist in

a textual form stems from a nu
mber of assumptions

about the nature of language including the assumptions

that language has . xed and objective meanings and that

there is a direct equivalence between words and that

which they denote (Bolisani and Scarso, 2000, pp. 122

3). Thus, from th
is perspective a text
based manual of

operating procedures represents a form of explicit

knowledge, which can be tapped into and used by relevant

organizational staff.

The third and . nal major assumption is that the

development and creation of explicit kn
owledge can

be separated from its usage and application. This

model of knowledge creation is embodied in Rodin’s

The Thinker
. From this perspective the

and production of knowledge is regarded as a

purely intellectual process (Barnes,
1977; Gherardi,

2000). This process of knowledge creation and development

is regarded as completely separate from the

application and use of knowledge in the accomplishment

of speci. c practices. Thus, from this perspective

two dichotomies are assumed to e
xist between knowing

and doing and between the brain and the body.

Objectivist perspectives on the sharing of

explicit knowledge

explicit knowledge is revealed by its communication.

This ease of communication is its fundamental

property (Grant, 1996, p. 11

As outlined earlier, while the sharing and communication

of tacit knowledge was seen to be a dif. cult,

uncertain and time
consuming process, no such dif.

culties are assumed to inhibit the sharing of explicit

knowledge. In fact, from the objectivist

perspective the

easy transferability of explicit knowledge represents one

of its de. ning characteristics (Pan and Scarbrough,

1999, p. 362; Meso and Smith, 2000, p. 225; Roberts,

2000, p. 432). This straightforward communicability

is intimately related t
o the assumptions outlined immediately

above regarding the character of explicit knowledge.

The sharing of knowledge from an objectivist

perspective represents what Bolisani and Scarso (2000,

p. 121) referred to as the ‘conduit’ model, but which

could also

be referred to as the postal model or


receiver model. This model, which is

outlined in Figure 1, suggests that knowledge is shared

by the unidirectional transferral of explicit codi. ed

knowledge (in the form of text, a diagram or an electroni

document) from an isolated sender to a separate

receiver. The idea behind this model is that the

sender, in isolation from the receiver, can produce

some wholly explicit knowledge and then transfer it

remotely to the receiver. The receiver is then assume

to be able to take this knowledge and understand it

and use it without any other form of communication

or interaction with the sender. Further, it is assumed

that no important aspects of this explicit knowledge

are lost in the transfer. Szulanski (19
96), for example,

explicitly used this model of knowledge sharing when

investigating the ‘stickiness’ of organizational knowledge.

Much of the contemporary knowledge management

literature, while being less explicit about it, is

also based on this model of
knowledge sharing.

Based on this perspective information technology

simply represents one channel through which explicit

knowledge can be shared and unproblematically

assumes that explicit knowledge can be captured and

shared electronically (Swan
et al
., 1
999, p. 273). Thus,

for example, Meso and Smith (2000) suggested that

‘technology infrastructure comprises the hardware,

software and middleware that allow the encoding and

electronic exchange of knowledge’ (p. 229).

This represents what has been referred
to as the

‘knowledge management as technology’ perspective

(Swan and Scarbrough, 2001). Further, this is by no

means an isolated viewpoint as a signi. cant proportion

of the contemporary literature on knowledge

management also advocates a strong role for i

technology systems in supporting the sharing of

explicit knowledge (Boland
et al
., 1994; Boisot and

Grif. ths, 1999; Bolisani and Scarso, 1999; Roberts,


The embodied nature of knowing and the

limits of knowledge sharing via information


This half of the paper challenges the ideas just outlined

concerning both the fundamental character of knowledge

and also the nature of knowledge

processes. This is done through outlining an alternative

and completely different epistemolog
y of knowledge.

As will be shown, from this perspective the use

of information technology systems for the sharing of

knowledge is suggested to be somewhat limited.

The late 1990s witnessed the development of an

extensive body of work that fundamentally cha

the objectivist view of the nature of organizational

knowledge just outlined (Brown and Duguid, 1991,

1998; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Blackler, 1995;

Tsoukas, 1996; Lam, 1997; Cook and Brown, 1999).

This perspective represents what Cook and Brown

re 1
Postal model of knowledge sharing

(1999) called an epistemology of practice and what

Scarbrough (1998) referred to as the relational perspective

on knowledge (1998). (Based on research into

the sharing of scienti. c knowledge Collins (1985, p.

57) dev
eloped two similar models of learning, which

he labelled the ‘algorithmical’ and ‘enculturation’

models. Barnes (1977, pp. 1

2) also made a similar

distinction about scienti. c knowledge. In general

terms, the literature on knowledge management could


a lot from the sociology of scienti. c knowledge,

which has a rich tradition considering the nature of

knowledge.) Overall, it conceptualizes knowledge not

in objecti. able entitative terms, but instead emphasizes

the extent to which it is embedded within

and is

inseparable from practice. The following sections

outline the different elements of this perspective on

knowledge, showing the vast differences that exist

between it and the objectivist perspective outlined


The indivisibility of tacit a
nd explicit knowledge

The ideal of a strictly explicit knowledge is indeed

contradictory; deprived of their tacit coef. cients,

all spoken words, all formulae, all maps and graphs,

are strictly meaningless (Polanyi, 1969, p. 195).

One of the central p
oints of departure between the

objectivist perspective on knowledge and the epistemology

of practice is in the conceptualization of the

relationship between tacit and explicit knowledge.

While the objectivist perspective argues that tacit

knowledge and exp
licit knowledge represent two separate

and distinct types of knowledge, in stark contrast

the epistemology of practice perspective suggests that

tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge are inseparable

and are mutually constituted (Tsoukas, 1996).

Prichard (
2000) further suggested that such an interpretation

is true to the sense in which Polanyi (1969)

used these terms. For example, to expand on the

example touched on by Polanyi’s (1969) quotation

above, written texts of any kind do not represent a

form of fu
lly explicit knowledge. For example, without

a (tacit?) understanding of the language in which they

are written or the grammar and syntax used to structure

them any text will appear as a somewhat random

series of letters, numbers and images. Thus, there is

no such thing as fully explicit knowledge as all knowledge

is ‘either tacit, or rooted in tacit knowledge’

(Polanyi, 1969, p. 195). Alternatively, to state it

succinctly, ‘all knowledge has tacit dimensions’ (Leonard

and Sensiper, 1998, p. 113). Clark (20

embodied this idea in the term ‘explacit knowledge’,

which symbolizes the inseparability of tacit and explicit

knowledge linguistically.

This point has signi. cant implications for the ease

with which and the extent to which any knowledge,

no matter ho
w explicit, can be shared electronically.

If all knowledge has tacit components and tacit knowledge

is dif. cult to codify and share electronically this

suggests that the sharing of explicit knowledge may

not be as straightforward as articulated by the obj

perspective. However, this point will be dealt with

and examined in more detail later.

The embodied nature of knowing and the

embeddedness of knowing in practice

when you have a bar of iron in front of you which

has to be twisted and wrought into
a certain shape

. . . then you learn to apply ideas to things. You

become practical.
You cannot think the iron into the

position and shape that is wanted, but you cannot do

it without thought
. Your thoughts, if you are to

succeed in your purpose, must be l
imited, circumscribed,

bound down to the facts of the situation

(McKinlay, 1996, p. 86, emphasis added).

Two distinct but closely inter
related elements of the

epistemology of practice perspective on knowledge are

that knowledge/knowing does not exist outs
ide of

knowing subjects and, secondly, that knowledge is

deeply embedded within and is inseparable from the

practices and activities that people undertake. These

attributes bear more than a passing resemblance to the

characteristics of tacit knowledge, as
articulated by the

objectivist perspective, but are substantially different

from the de. ned characteristics of explicit knowledge.

The central importance of the indivisibility of tacit and

explicit knowledge to the epistemology of practice

that the unarticulated and uncodi. ed

elements of any knowledge means that it will always,

to some degree, resemble tacit knowledge.

One of the consequences that
• ow from the assumption

that knowledge can exist in a fully explicit and

codi. ed form is tha
t knowledge can exist independently

of human agents. The epistemology of practice

perspective fundamentally challenges this position

(Tsoukas, 1996; Gherardi, 2000; Gottschalk, 2000).

This perspective suggests that, paraphrasing Polanyi

(1969), ‘all knowin
g is personal knowing . . . participation

through indwelling’ (pp. 151

2). Thus, knowledge/

knowing involves the active agency of people

making decisions in light of the speci. c circumstances

they . nd themselves. This re
• ects what Tsoukas

(1996) referre
d to as the ‘indeterminacy of practice’

where the essential distinctiveness of all situations that

human agents act in requires them to make personal

judgements continually. No matter how explicit and

well de. ned the rules are that may guide action there

will always be some element of ambiguity or uncertainty,

which creates a need for actors to make inferences

and judgements. Building on these ideas Tsoukas

and Vladimirou (2000) suggested the following formal

de. nition of knowledge: ‘knowledge is the indi

ability to draw distinctions within a collective domain

of action, based on an appreciation of context or

theory, or both’ (p. 8).

The importance of this de. nition is that it stresses

the importance of human agency. Drawing on Polanyi

(1969) Pricha
rd (2000) made a similar observation by

suggesting that knowing is an integration process (a


cognitive process) that involves active agents

bringing their embodied/embedded knowledge to bear

on a focal object. There is an extent to which the

tivist perspective acknowledges the role of human

agency in the development and use of knowledge. This

is related to the knowledge


data distinction

where knowledge is argued to be data and/or information

with some human intellect/labour added (

and Stack, 1993; Roberts, 2000). However, the objectivist

perspective assumes that the results of this effort

can be codi. ed and embodied into fully explicit knowledge,

whereas the epistemology of practice perspective

does not.

Closely related to th
is idea of the embodied nature

of knowledge is the inseparability of knowledge from

activity, which represents one of the central planks of

the epistemology of practice perspective (Tsoukas,

1996; Cook and Brown, 1999; Gherardi, 2000). This

very much chall
enges the idea of what knowing and

the use and development of knowledge is. As outlined,

the objectivist perspective, drawing on the classical

images of science, conceptualizes knowing to be

primarily a cognitive process carried out by individuals

ing a period of isolated and extended

• ection (Barnes, 1977, p. 2). In contrast, the

of practice perspective suggests that knowing

and doing cannot be so easily separated.

The inseparability of knowing and doing challenges

the mind

body dic
hotomy inherent in the cognitive

model of knowing (Gherardi, 2000) and instead views

knowing and the development of knowledge as occurring

on an ongoing basis through the routine activities

that people undertake. Knowing can thus be seen as

less of a purel
y cognitive process and more of a holistic

process involving the whole body. This sense can be

derived from Polanyi (1969) who suggested that we

know with our senses, muscles and sinews and our

brains. From this perspective, thinking and doing are

ly fused in knowledgeable activity, i.e. the

development and use of embodied knowledge in

speci. c activities/tasks.

These ideas can be illustrated through considering

some examples. Firstly, drawing heavily on Orr’s

(1990) well
referenced stud
y of photocopier engineers

Brown and Duguid (1991) emphasized how the knowledge

of the photocopier engineers studied developed

through application by a process of dialogue and

improvization, which involved the adaptation of

existing knowledge to new and no
vel situations. This

represented what Brown and Duguid (1991) referred

to as ‘non
canonical’ learning, i.e. learning which does

not occur through a formal process of education and

further suggested that this represents an important and

undervalued source o
f learning. DeFillipi and Arthur

(1998) reinforced these . ndings in their study of . lm

production, which showed that, for apprentice technicians,

the processes of learning by watching were

crucial. Knowing in this context thus tended to develop

through s
ocialization, observation and practice. Leonard

and Sensiper (1998) emphasized this by

suggesting that ‘tacit knowing that is embodied in physical

skills resides in the bodies muscles, nerves and

 exes and is learned through practice ‘ (p. 113).

The soc
ially constructed and culturally

embedded nature of knowledge

knowledge is not produced by passively perceiving

individuals, but by interacting social groups engaged

in particular activities. And it is evaluated communally

and not by isolated, individual j

(Barnes, 1977, p. 2).

The . nal two elements that sum up the epistemology

of practice perspective on knowledge are the socially

constructed nature and culturally embedded nature of


In stark contrast to the knowledge is truth assumption

of the objectivist perspective on knowledge

(McAdam and McCreedy, 2000), where it is suggested

that codi. ed knowledge can exist in an objective form,

the epistemology of practice perspective argues that all

knowledge is socially constructed in nature and


highly subjective (Leonard and Sensiper, 1998; Baumard,

1999, p. 19). While the objectivist perspective

assumes that language has . xed and objective meanings

and that there is a direct equivalence between

words and that which they denote, the epistemo

of practice perspective suggests that language has no

such . xed meanings and that the meaning of language

is inherently ambiguous (Boland and Tenkasi, 1995).

Thus, not only does language not have . xed meanings

but the relationship between words and
what they

signify is
• uid. This subjectivity or interpretive • exibility

in language thus undermines any claims about

the objective status of any knowledge, whether it is

totally tacit and personal or whether it is partially

explicit and codi. ed in a tex

The socially constructed nature of knowledge applies

to both its production and its interpretation. Polanyi

(1969) referred to these two processes as sense giving

and sense reading. (Boland and Tenkasi (1995) used

the terms perspective making and perspe
ctive taking

to describe similar processes.) Thus, both the production

of partially explicit knowledge in the form of a

text and the reading/interpretation involved in developing

an understanding of it involve an active process

of meaning construction/infe
rence (McAdam and

McCreedy, 2000, p. 159). Further, knowledge is never

totally neutral and unbiased and is, to some extent,

inseparable from the values of those who produced it

(Brown and Duguid, 1998, p. 99).

Further, this process of meaning construction/

inference is typically culturally embedded. The meanings

that people attach to language/events tend to be

shaped by and, to some extent, re
• ect the values and

assumptions of the sociocultural milieu in which people

exist (Baumard, 1999; Bolisani and Scar
so, 1999).

One way in which pre
existing values and assumptions

• uence these processes of knowledge construction/

knowledge interpretation is through the . ltering of


information in deciding what is relevant and what

is not. A dramatic and tragic e
xample of such a . ltering

process was one of the contributory factors to the

Challenger Space Shuttle accident (Starbuck and Milliken,

1988; Baumard, 1999, pp. 38

40). In this case

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

engineers neglected w
hat turned out to be

important information regarding O
ring erosion as,

based on the assumptions they had, such a situation

presented an extremely small risk.

One level at which knowledge is culturally embedded

is within what Lave and Wenger (1991) referre
d to as

the ‘communities of practice’ that people work within.

This stems from the acknowledgement that working

and learning are typically social

communal activities

(Barnes, 1977; Brown and Duguid, 1998). Work activities,

where non
canonical processes of

knowledge development occur, are embedded in the

particular social occupational groups that people work

within (Lam, 1997; DeFillipi and Arthur, 1998;

et al
., 1998; Liedtka, 1999). Communities of

practice typically develop their own ways

of working

and their own values and assumptions, which shape the

way activity occurs and in
• uence they way knowledge

is developed and events are interpreted. The DeFillipi

and Arthur (1998) example and the Orr (1990)

studies (Brown and Duguid, 1991) refe
rred to previously

both illustrated how work activities are embedded

in occupational communities of practice. Further, the

example of the Challenger shuttle disaster also showed

how the values and assumptions of such communities

shape the way meaning and k
nowledge is developed.

Lam (1997) also showed how the character of organizational

knowledge can also be shaped by broader

factors such as national cultures. Lam (1997) examined

the sharing of knowledge between Japanese and

UK divisions within a multination
al corporation and

found that the ‘social embeddedness of knowledge’

made these processes complicated and extremely

Primarily, signi. cant differences existed

between the Japanese and UK divisions involved in

the joint venture in the dominan
t type of knowledge,

the degree of tacitness of this knowledge, the distribution

of knowledge within the organization and the

sharing mechanisms typically used. Further,

Lam (1997) attributed these signi. cant differences

in the character of orga
nizational knowledge to

the different societal settings in which the two divisions


In conclusion this section of the paper has shown

how the epistemology of practice perspective views

knowledge as being highly subjective in character as

meaning i
s socially constructed both by the producer

and user of any partially explicit knowledge. Further,

it also illustrated the cultural embeddedness of knowledge.

The following section of the paper examines the

implications of these ideas for the way knowledge


shared, which are profound.

Knowledge sharing and epistemologies of


. . . the problem of . . . (the) . . . integration of knowledge

in knowledge
intensive . rms is not a problem

of simply combining, sharing or making data commonly

available. I
t is a problem of perspective taking

in which the unique thought worlds of different

communities of knowing are made visible and accessible

to others (Boland and Tenkasi, 1995, p. 359).

While the objectivist perspective on knowledge is

imbued with an optim
ism about both the extent to

which and relative ease with which ‘explicit’ knowledge

can be shared using information technology, the

epistemology of practice perspective is generally more

pessimistic in this respect. However, this part of the

paper begins
by discussing an optimistic argument by

et al
. (1994) that suggests that, from an

of practice perspective, information technology

systems can play a signi. cant role in knowledgesharing

processes. Once this perspective has been


it will be criticized, revealing arguments that,

from an epistemology of practice perspective, suggest

that information technology systems are likely to have

a limited role in knowledge
sharing processes.

et al
. (1994) primarily suggested that it c

be possible to design information technology systems

for allowing people to re
• ect on the interpretations of

events that they have made, saying that

information technology can support distributed

cognition by enabling individuals to make rich

of their understanding, re
• ect upon those

representations, engage in dialogue with others

about them, and use them to inform action (p. 457).

However, there may be limits to the degree of selfre

exivity that people can achieve, which means it w

not be possible to surface all the values and assumptions

that we possess. For example, there may be values

and assumptions that are buried deep in our subconscious

that we are not aware of and cannot even begin

to articulate. Further, even if people c
an re
• ect on

their assumptions and values they may not be able to

articulate them fully or clearly. Gherardi (2000),

Polanyi (1969), suggested that ‘we know more

than we know we know’ (p. 214) and Leonard and

Sensiper (1998), in making a simi
lar point, suggested

that ‘people are unaware of the tacit dimensions of

their knowledge’ (p. 113). Therefore, Boland
et al

(1994) were perhaps over
optimistic about the extent

to which embedded knowledge can be articulated and

made explicit. The extent t
o which anyone, however

willing, diligent and re
• exive for developing an explicit

appreciation of the values on which their actions and

opinions are based, is always somewhat partial. Thus,

the problem of articulating and sharing knowledge is

not just tha
t it is tacit, but that it may be partly subconscious.

Another critique of Boland
et al
. (1994) is that their

argument was based on an idealized model of both

human behaviour in organizations and the nature of

organizational relations. They assumed that al

actors are not only able but also willing to

share with others the assumptions and values that

underpin their thoughts and actions. Scarbrough

(1999) challenged such an assumption by suggesting

that the nature of employment relations does
not guarantee

that organizational staff will be so willing to act

thus. Further, Boland
et al
. (1994) also stated little

about the potentially con
• icting nature of organizational

relations and largely assumed that organizational

staff are open and honest
about their motivations for

sharing knowledge and that there is little con
• ict of

interest in doing so. Storey and Barnett (2000) and

Hayes and Walsham (2000) illustrated the limitations

of such a perspective by illustrating the extent to which

sharing processes can be highly political in


The embeddedness and tacitness of all knowledge,

even partially explicit knowledge, is related to the

and mutually constituted nature of tacit and

explicit knowledge. As was suggested by P

(1969), there is no such thing as fully explicit knowledge

as the tacit

explicit dichotomy is argued to be

misguided (Tsoukas, 1996). Instead, all knowledge was

shown to have both tacit and explicit components and

it was shown that any partially exp
licit knowledge is

relatively meaningless without an understanding and

awareness of its tacit components (Prichard, 2000,

p. 186).

Thus, while it may be physically possible to use

information technology for transferring partially

explicit knowledge, withou
t the tacit elements that

underpin it, it will be impossible to develop a full

understanding of what this knowledge means. For

example, the epistemology of practice perspective

suggests that all knowledge is subjective due to the

ambiguity and
• uidity of
language. Thus, without an

appreciation of the tacit assumptions individuals make

in the way they use language it will not be possible to

develop a full understanding of it.

There is virtual universal recognition of the dif.

culties involved in the elect
ronic sharing of tacit knowledge,

from both the objectivist and epistemology of

practice perspectives (Leonard and Sensiper, 1998;

Roberts, 2000; Johannessen
et al
., 2001). Thus, if it

is acknowledged that, as the epistemology of practice

perspective sugge
sts, all knowledge has tacit components,

this leads to the conclusion that the extent to

which it is possible to share any knowledge through

information technology will be limited and constrained.

The epistemology of practice perspective suggests

that, not

only is the electronic sharing of knowledge

dif. cult, but that the whole conduit or transmitter

receiver model of knowledge sharing is questionable.

Polanyi (1969) articulated this critique by suggesting

that ‘the observed meaning of an experience struc

differs from one conveyed in a letter’ (p. 189).

This difference is related to the disparity between the

meaning an observer derives from an experience and

the meaning that a third party gets from reading a

hand account of it. These differen
ces stem

from the fact that ‘the . rst meaning is

[by the senses], while the second is
only present

in thought
’ (Polanyi, 1969, p. 189, emphasis in original).

Thus, the transmitter

receiver metaphor of knowledge

sharing is inappropr
iate, as the sharing of

knowledge does not involve the simple transferral of a

. xed entity (explicit knowledge) between two people.

Instead, the sharing of knowledge involves two people

actively inferring and constructing meaning from two

different experi

The epistemology of practice perspective suggests

that, in order to be effective, the sharing of knowledge

requires individuals to develop an appreciation of the

tacit assumptions and values on which all knowledge

is based. Bolisani and Scarso (2000
) referred to this

as the ‘language game’ model of knowledge sharing

due to the importance of dialogue and language to

such processes. Boland and Tenkasi (1995), whose

analysis was based on such a perspective, suggested

that effective knowledge sharing ‘
. .
requires a process

of mutual perspective taking where distinctive individual

knowledge is exchanged, evaluated and integrated

with that of others in the organization’ (p. 358).

These perspective
making and perspective

processes are necessary as
appreciating the values,

culture and assumptions of others requires the ability

to ‘adopt the perspective of different others’ and

because it is necessary that ‘the point of view of the

other be realistically imagined’ (Boland and Tenkasi,

1995, p. 358).

hese perspective
making and perspective

processes typically require an extensive amount of

social interaction and face
face communication

(Leonard and Sensiper, 1998; Roberts, 2000; Swan

et al
., 2000). This conclusion is reinforced by other

es that have shown that the effective sharing of

knowledge is predicated on an extensive amount

of direct social interaction (Leonard
Barton, 1995,

p. 103; Lam, 1997, 2000, p. 508).

Discussion: is there a role for information

technology systems in knowledg
e sharing?

electronically mediated exchange can substitute for

face interaction only when the identities of

the interactants are not very important, when the

circumstances at hand are certain and unambiguous,

when the actions necessary are standard

and routine,

and when ongoing interaction does not depend on

a robust structure of relationships (Nohria and

Eccles (1992) quoted in McLoughlin and Jackson

(1999, pp. 181


While the epistemology of practice and objectivist

perspectives on knowledge ha
ve different implications

for the role of information technology systems in

sharing processes, making general conclusions

is not straightforward. This is primarily due to

the enormous range of contexts in which knowledge

sharing can occur. For ex
ample, it may be between

people who know each other well or who are complete

strangers, it could involve a small number of people

or a large group, it may involve knowledge which is

highly tacit or which has a signi. cant explicit element,

it could be betw
een groups/people who have a lot of

opportunities for interacting socially or who will never

meet face to face, it may involve people/groups with

similar or quite different knowledge bases or any

combination of the above. In all these situations, the

ble role for information technology systems is

likely to vary greatly. In order to make some conclusions

about the role of information technology systems

in such processes this section examines some of the

main factors which affect the dynamics of knowledg

sharing and brie
• y discusses how they are likely to

affect the role that information technology systems can

play in these processes.

Arguably, the single most important factor in
• uencing

sharing processes is the degree of

tacitness of knowled
ge. Studies drawn from a diverse

range of contexts have shown that, where knowledge

is highly tacit, the effective sharing of it requires a

signi. cant amount of intense social interaction

(Collins, 1985; Brown and Duguid, 1991; Lave and

Wenger, 1991; Kogu
t and Zander, 1992; MacKenzie,

1996; Lam, 1997; Leonard and Sensiper, 1998). Thus,

information technology systems are likely to be most

useful in situations where knowledge has a signi. cant

explicit element. However, as the epistemology of practice

ctive suggests, there is no such thing as fully

explicit knowledge. Therefore, even where knowledge

is partly explicit, knowledge sharing will be most effective

where information technology
based knowledge

sharing is supported by other mechanisms.

important factor is the degree of common

knowledge that exists between the parties involved in

knowledge sharing. A number of writers have suggested

that the sharing of knowledge between people with

only a limited stock of common knowledge will always

be d
if. cult, whether done through information technology

systems or face
face interaction (Kogut and

Zander, 1992; Brown and Duguid, 1998; Bolisani and

Scarso, 2000). Information technology systems are

particularly disadvantaged in this context as they

vide a much less ‘rich’ medium of communication

than face
to face
interaction due to the loss of social

cues (Symon, 2000). One of the articulated advantages

of communities of practice is that participants in a

community develop a signi. cant stock of comm

knowledge (such as tacit assumptions, values, etc.)

through working intensively together, which makes

knowledge sharing within a community relatively

straightforward (Brown and Duguid, 1998; Leonard

and Sensiper, 1998). Thus, information technology

ems are arguably likely to have the greatest potential

role where there is a signi. cant amount of common

knowledge between the parties involved in the knowledge

sharing process, such as within a community of


The contemporary knowledge managemen
t literature

has shown that, for knowledge sharing to be effective,

people have to be willing to share their knowledge and

that an important factor shaping this willingness is the

extent to which trust exists between relevant parties

(Kim and Mauborgne, 1
998; Pan and Scarbrough,

1999; Hayes and Walsham, 2000; Roberts, 2000; Flood

et al
., 2001; Storey and Quintas, 2001). This is particularly

important where opportunities for face

interaction are limited, such as in virtual team working

(Jarvenpaa an
d Leidner, 1999; Nandhakumar, 1999).

Thus, without some degree of trust existing and where

opportunities for social interaction are limited people

may be unwilling to attempt to share their knowledge

via information technology systems.

The ‘best case scena
rio’, where information technology

systems may be able to play a useful role, is

thus likely to be where a (signi. cant?) degree of

common knowledge exists between the individuals

sharing knowledge, when there is such a degree of trust

between these indivi
duals that they are willing to share

their knowledge in this way and when the degree of

explicitness of the knowledge is relatively high. Not all

of these circumstances are simultaneously necessary for

effective information technology
based knowledge

ng to occur, but the more that exist the greater

the likelihood of success.

However, even in the best circumstances knowledge

sharing will follow the logic of the language game

model rather than the conduit model. The inherent

ambiguity of language, combin
ed with the fact that the

writer and reader of a piece of knowledge have different

cognitive frameworks, means that there will always be

scope for differing interpretations. Thus, as you read

this article, a piece of partially explicit knowledge which

may have accessed through some information

network(?), the meaning you take from it may

vary from the meaning it intends to convey.


Information technology has been accorded an important

role in much of the contemporary knowledge

ement literature. However, this perspective is

based on very particular assumptions regarding the

fundamental character of knowledge. When these

assumptions are challenged, the role of information

technology in knowledge management processes also

comes int
o question. This paper has outlined both of

these perspectives on knowledge and examined the way

they characterize knowledge
sharing processes.

The optimism regarding the potentially signi. cant

role that information technology can play in the

processes of

knowledge sharing is based upon what is

referred to as an objectivist perspective on knowledge.

One of the central components of this perspective is that

there is a strict dichotomy between tacit and explicit

knowledge. Thus, tacit and explicit knowledge

regarded as two separate and distinct types of knowledge.

While it is suggested that the nature of tacit knowledge

makes it dif. cult to share through information

technology, the electronic sharing of explicit knowledge

is regarded as straightforward.
This assumption stems

from the articulated characteristics of explicit knowledge.

Primarily, explicit knowledge is assumed to be

both objective and codi. able into a permanent form.

Based on these assumptions, a conduit model of knowledge

sharing is develo
ped where it is suggested that

information technology systems can be used for transferring

explicit knowledge between people with the full

sense and meaning of it remaining . xed and unmodi. ed

in the process and with no aspect of it being ‘lost’ in the


In contrast, the epistemology of practice perspective

suggests that knowledge has fundamentally different

characteristics and is extremely pessimistic about the

potential for sharing knowledge through information

technology systems as a consequence
. Firstly, this

perspective questioned the neat dichotomy between

tacit and explicit knowledge, suggesting instead that

all knowledge contains both tacit and explicit elements.

Further, these tacit and explicit components are

assumed to be mutually constit
uted and inseparable.

The epistemology of practice perspective was also

shown to assume that all knowledge (whether in the

form of highly tacit skills or partially explicit knowledge)

is deeply embodied, is embedded in the practices

and activities that peo
ple undertake, is subjective

in character, is to some extent socially constructed and

is embedded in the social values and cultural contexts

of those who develop and use it.

From this perspective the sharing of any knowledge

via information technology is t
herefore seen to be somewhat

problematic, even for partially explicit knowledge.

Firstly, the electronic transferral of a text will not transfer

the tacit elements. What will be transferred is the

partially explicit component. However, without its tacit

ements, such as the tacit values that underlie it, the

full meaning of this knowledge will not be communicated.

Secondly, the whole conduit model of knowledge

sharing is undermined by the acknowledgement that all

knowledge is to some extent subjective rath
er than

being objective with a . xed unambiguous meaning.

From this perspective the sharing of knowledge involves

its meaning being actively constructed and inferred by

those ‘sending’ and ‘receiving’ it. This therefore undermines

the assumption embedded i
n the conduit model

that the sharing of explicit knowledge involves the transferral

of a . xed objective entity. Instead, the epistemology

of practice perspective suggests that the

effective sharing of knowledge requires extensive and

direct social interac
tions between people, as it is only

during such processes that the tacit component of

knowledge can be shared.

Having said all this, it was concluded that there were

some social contexts, such as when knowledge is highly

explicit, where there is a signi. c
ant degree of common

knowledge and where trust exists between the parties

involved, that information technology systems will be

able to play a role in knowledge
sharing processes.

However, the overall conclusion of this paper is that

the optimism of the ob
jectivist perspective on information

based knowledge sharing is somewhat



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Biographical notes

Donald H
islop is a lecturer at Shef. eld University

Management School. His research interests broadly

encompass the area of technological change in

with speci. c interests in the nature of knowledge

in organizations and the role of information

ology systems in organizations. He has published

in a range of technology, innovation and management

journals including the
Journal of Management Studies

Research Policy
Technology Analysis and Strategic

and the
International Journal of Innova


Address for correspondence:
Shef. eld University

Management School, University of Shef. eld, 9 Mappin

Street, Shef. eld S1 4DT, UK.