Potential improvements to the externalization of knowledge

Research at Steinbeis University Berlin

According to Peter Drucker, the American business guru, knowledge workers are a new breed of employee that is replacing a whole class of industrial workers. The new nature of work requires higher levels of training than the jobs of the industrial worker. Also, people need to be prepared to keep learning new things and continuously retrain. A defining feature of knowledge workers is their degree of specialization. They tend to work as a cog within an organization to which they contribute with their specialist knowledge. These were the conclusions Latifa Yakhloufi-Konstroffer came to as part of research carried out for her Ph.D. at Steinbeis University Berlin. The key issue she examined: How does leadership influence people’s willingness to externalize knowledge?

Specialist knowledge can only be used meaningfully and result in good performance through close collaboration with an organization. As a result, knowledge workers will be employees with a direct-line boss. They will be managed. But they will also be bosses themselves, who manage others. Sometimes they will be both managed and manager.

When experienced knowledge workers move to different jobs or enter retirement, their successors initially face new challenges until they are also experienced in the area. How long it takes someone to work their way into a job depends mainly on whether co-workers are prepared to share their experience and knowledge with the new worker. One of the aims of knowledge management is to standardize such processes with systematic procedures. The Japanese scientists Nonaka and Takeuchi have provided us with a theoretical foundation for knowledge sharing. They make a distinction between tacit and explicit (or formal) knowledge. Tacit knowledge cannot be captured in writing. It can be seen as the kind of knowledge that Michael Polanyi referred to when he said that “we know more than we can tell.”

Nonaka and Takeuchi have a model in which they show the transferal, or conversion, of tacit knowledge into tacit knowledge, tacit to explicit knowledge, explicit to explicit knowledge, and explicit to tacit knowledge. They coined terms for the corresponding transferals: socialization (tacit to tacit), externalization (tacit to explicit), combination (explicit to explicit) and internalization (explicit to tacit). Each conversion in the sequence can be seen as one possibility for generating new knowledge in an organization. Socialization occurs when a new coworker receives personal supervision when learning a new job, or is shown how to do something. The externalization process happens when a new co-worker thinks through new ways of working acquired during socialization and writes up notes. Combination happens when different knowledge – which is already explicit – is linked up, resulting in new knowledge. During internalization processes, the application of knowledge is no longer perceived as conscious. This is a stage described in the four-stage psychological competence model as “unconscious competence.” Individuals are so versed in a task that they can carry it out without even thinking about it.

The issue Latifa Yakhloufi-Konstroffer researched was which leadership styles make a positive contribution to the knowledge externalization captured in Nonaka and Taekuchi’s SECI model (socialization, externalization, combination, internalization) and which leadership behaviors should be encouraged by organizations with an interest in this kind of knowledge sharing. Linked to this is the issue of which measures an organization should introduce to support knowledge externalization.

Until now, little research has been conducted into the influence of leadership on knowledge management and there are few studies on the issue. There is no empirical evidence to prove a link between knowledge externalization and leadership. The aim of Latifa Yakhloufi-Konstroffer’s study was to make a recommendation on how to shape leadership and thus improve knowledge externalization in keeping with the Nonaka and Takeuchi model. It also aimed to pinpoint untapped potential to externalize knowledge.

Based on the results of an empirical study, the researcher concluded that organizations that are interested in encouraging workers to externalize knowledge should train managers to lead in a way that fosters intelligence, cognitive processes and considered problem-solving amongst workers (intellectual stimulation). Also, high expectations should be communicated and symbols should be provided to focus effort. Important objectives should be articulated in a simple way (inspirational motivation). According to the researchers Bass and Avolio, these approaches can be seen as “transformational leadership.” Specific behaviors of a manager that foster these attributes of intelligence, cognitive processes and considered problem-solving amongst workers should be monitored continuously to ensure that underlying assumptions are still valid.

This encourages managers to question assumptions that would otherwise be considered given in the organization, immediately motivating workers to deliberate more. Managers seek solutions to problems from a variety of angles. Ultimately, this behavior results in managers also encouraging their workers to look at issues from different perspectives. When people question givens and think about problems in a different way, managers are then able to suggest different approaches and ways to proceed with projects and assignments. All in all, this results in a greater willingness amongst workers to externalize knowledge. Managers demonstrate tangible behaviors that express the extent of their expectations and signal this. Efforts are focused on the task at hand and important objectives are articulated in straightforward terms. This includes managers expressing optimism about the future, showing enthusiasm about the tasks that should be achieved, talking, formulating visions of the future convincingly, and feeling extremely confident that the goals that have been agreed will be reached.

Organizations that are interested in their workers externalizing knowledge should keep giving managers instruction on leadership behaviors that encourage workers to plan how they will achieve work objectives and then discuss these. They should also encourage workers to discuss the responsibilities that come with different roles and key areas of responsibility.

According to the American entrepreneurs and business theorists Hersey and Blanchard, this style of leadership is part of directive leadership. These directive behavioral traits belong to “directing” and “coaching” methods.

To go beyond leadership and support knowledge externalization further, organizations interested in encouraging workers to externalize knowledge should keep their IT systems up to date. This makes it easier for workers to externalize their knowledge as IT, especially intranets and wikis, facilitates the publication of and access to externalized knowledge – new know-how is made available more easily and is thus of more use to the organization.

Another issue encountered in the empirical study (which looked at the willingness of workers to externalize knowledge) was collegiality. Organizations interested in encouraging workers to externalize knowledge should encourage collegiality amongst workers and motivate them to recognize others for their efforts. They should share experiences and insights, and support one another to manage their work more effectively. Checks should therefore be carried out on incentive systems at organizations interested in encouraging workers to externalize knowledge, to see if they actually do foster these behaviors amongst workers.

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