Can Knowledge Management work in Healthcare?

Barnes (2001) defines Knowledge Management as an attempt to improve or maximize the use of knowledge that exists in an organization. He bases his definition of knowledge on the sequential definitions of data and information.

Data, he states, is observations of facts outside any context; information is data within a meaningful context; and knowledge is ‘information plus’ or information combined with experience, context, interpretation, and reflection within a very highly contextual environment.

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Knowledge is a high-value form of information that is ready for application to decisions and actions within organizations (Davenport, 1998). Knowledge is therefore a type of value-added information.

A further distinction is made between two categories of knowledge – tacit or implicit and explicit knowledge. Tacit Knowledge is defined as the type of knowledge that is both understood and applied at the subconscious level. It is knowledge difficult to deliberately expressed, manifested or articulated, and said to be developed, again subconsciously or involuntarily, through personal interactions, conversations, storytelling and shared experience.

Explicit knowledge, on the other hand “is more precisely and formally articulated, although removed from the original context of creation or use…” (Zach, 1999).

The concepts of explicit and implicit knowledge lead to the definition of what is termed as Organizational Knowledge. According to Brown & Duguid (1998, pp. 40), organizational knowledge exists in a ‘core competency’ comprising both explicit and implicit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is only the surface knowledge required for execution of any activity and represents the tip of the iceberg, the iceberg itself being the implicit knowledge.

Again, explicit knowledge is individualistic or may be associated entirely with individuals, while implicit knowledge is a shared resource and exists in a shared environment. Implicit knowledge is “both created out of and revealed in collaborative practice” (Lintern, Diedrich & Serfaty, 2002).

These shared and collaborative characteristics of implicit knowledge make it the Organizational Knowledge.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT), as we know it, incorporates within its ambit the creation, organization, management, communication and delivery of data and information.

When we speak of Knowledge Management, however, we are transcending the frontiers of information and crossing over to the domain of knowledge. Barnes (2001) defines Knowledge Management as an attempt to improve or maximize the use of knowledge that exists in an organization.

A very relevant way of improving or maximizing knowledge in an organization is to ensure continuity of knowledge. It is in this context that we speak of the ‘IT track’ and the ‘People Track’ of Knowledge Management.

Sveiby (2001) states that Knowledge Management comprises of two functional aspects: the Technology Aspect and the Management of People Aspect.

He terms them as the ‘IT (Information Technology) Track’ and the ‘People Track’ respectively. While the IT Track deals with the data and information-related factors and is primarily handled by the Information Technology; the ‘People Track’ of Knowledge Management falls outside the domain of IT, and according to Lesser & Storck (2001), is largely a concern of human resources management or people management.

The ‘People Track’ of Knowledge Management concentrates of sharing of knowledge by building up what are known as ‘Communities of Practice’.

Put very simply, a Community of Practice is a group of people who share similar goals and interests. They employ common practices, work with the same tools and express themselves in a shared vocabulary (Wenger, 1998). Organizational Community of Practice is defined by Gongla & Rizutto (2001) as “knowledge networks, referred to as institutionalized, informal networks of professionals managing domains of knowledge (organizational)”.

Communities of Practice are instrumental in fostering knowledge development and creative interactions among members. They are a key element in the learning organization.

In any organization, organizational knowledge is the result of a process in which a community of personnel, workers or employees come together in a synergy to produce a collaborative and shared resource that is far superior to the individual contributions.

Organizational knowledge is distributed because it is the result of continuous interaction between people and between knowledge representations and artefacts in the environment.