with managing knowledge associated with interorganisational

Journal of Business Research 56 (2003) 145 – 152 Managing knowledge associated with innovation Richard Hall*, Pierpaolo Andriani Durham University Bu...
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Journal of Business Research 56 (2003) 145 – 152

Managing knowledge associated with innovation Richard Hall*, Pierpaolo Andriani Durham University Business School, Mill Hill Lane, Durham City DH1 3LB, UK

Abstract This article reports the results of empirical work carried out in a project funded by the UK Government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The project was concerned with operationalising knowledge management concepts in the context of interorganisational innovation. The companies that collaborated in this project were a major manufacturer of powered garden machinery and a major mobile telephone operator. The technique, which has been developed, operationalises the concepts of: tacit and explicit knowledge, radical and incremental innovation, and the five basic knowledge management processes: externalisation, dissemination, internalisation, socialisation, and discontinuous learning. The technique involves each participating party identifying the features that the successful innovation needs to possess. This is followed by the identification of the knowledge gaps that must be bridged if each feature is to be achieved. These knowledge gaps constitute the units of analysis. For each unit of analysis/knowledge gap, the size of the gap, and the nature of the required knowledge are estimated subjectively by each project team member. This allows both the identification of units which have high risk and the nature of the knowledge transformation processes, which need to be managed. The independently generated subjective perceptions are shared between the collaborating parties in a process of ‘‘perceptual synthesis.’’ At an operational level, the technique facilitates a productive dialogue between team members. At a managerial level, once a consensus regarding risk and vulnerability has been reached, improved project management becomes possible. D 2002 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved. Keywords: Strategy; Intangible resources; Tacit knowledge; Explicit knowledge; Innovation; Perceptual synthesis

1. Introduction This article will report the results of empirical work carried out in an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded project, which is concerned with managing knowledge associated with interorganisational innovation. The companies that have collaborated in this project are a major manufacturer of powered garden machinery and a major mobile telephone operator. The technique that has been developed aims to operationalise the concepts of: tacit and explicit knowledge, radical and incremental innovation, communities of knowledge, and the five basic knowledge transformation processes: externalisation, dissemination, internalisation, socialisation, and discontinuous learning. The technique involves each participating party identifying appropriate units of analysis; for each unit of analysis, the nature of the innovation and of the required knowledge is defined. * Corresponding author. Tel.: +44-191-374-4775; fax: +44-191-3743748. E-mail addresses: [email protected] (R. Hall), [email protected] (P. Andriani).

These independently generated perceptions are then shared between the collaborating parties in a process of ‘‘perceptual synthesis,’’ which facilitates a productive dialogue and a deeper mutual understanding of the challenges involved.

2. The nature of knowledge We define knowledge as including all the factors that have the potential to influence human thought and behaviour and that sometimes allow the explanation, prediction, and control of physical phenomena. This is a very broad definition and includes factors such as skills, intuition, organisational culture, reputation, and codified theory. All the factors, which are contained within the definition, may be placed on a spectrum of knowledge, which runs from tacit (uncodified) knowledge at one extreme to explicit (codified) knowledge at the other. Tacit knowledge is acquired by experience; it is knowledge of ‘‘what works’’ and it is characterised by causal ambiguity. Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has been captured in a code, or a language that facilitates communication. In its most advanced state, explicit knowledge is contained in codified

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protected with intellectual property rights (Antonelli, 1995; Teece, 1986). The model of knowledge space, which has been used to inform the development of the analysis technique, comprises the following three dimensions: The codification axis is the same as the tacit/explicit spectrum described above. The diffusion axis identifies the degree to which the knowledge has been communicated: from one individual to another, from an individual to a group, or from a group to an individual. The mindset axis is required in order to plot discontinuous movements in the knowledge space — the sort of knowledge transformation that takes place in radical innovation, e.g., the replacement of Newtonian Mechanics with Quantum Mechanics. The model of knowledge space shown in Fig. 2 is derived from Boisot (1995), Nonaka (1994), and Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995). The movements through this space may be described as follows: Externalisation describes the codification of tacit knowledge — the transformation of knowledge from tacit to explicit. In the case of music, externalisation describes the process that a composer goes through when (s)he captures a tune on sheet music. It should be noted that the musical codification system allows not only the easy communication of the knowledge ‘‘at a distance,’’ it also allows the composition of music, which without the codification system could not be created, e.g., a symphony. Dissemination describes the process of disseminating codified knowledge by means of a code or language. In the case of music, sheet music not only allows rapid dissemination, it also allows musicians to coordinate the composer’s knowledge of a symphony when they play together as an orchestra.


Fig. 1. The knowledge spectrum.

theory, which not only explains why things work but also enables the prediction of the outcome of novel phenomena. A spectrum of the different types of knowledge is given in Fig. 1. The historical development of many disciplines, such as medicine and engineering, can be traced as a progression along the knowledge spectrum from tacit to explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, acquired by experience, allows the prediction of previously experienced phenomena; whereas codified theory, as exemplified by natural science, enables the prediction of previously not experienced phenomena. The disadvantages of tacit knowledge are clear and most organisations strive to make explicit the bulk of the knowledge they possess so that:

The organisation is not ‘‘internally vulnerable’’ to knowledge being lost when employees leave and take their personal knowledge with them.  The knowledge, which the organisation possesses, can be disseminated to large numbers of employees over large distances and applied to a wide range of applications.  Theory, which allows the simulation and operation of ‘‘what if’’ scenarios and which will indicate appropriate corrective action to be taken when things go wrong, exists. Notwithstanding these advantages, there are certain disadvantages associated with operating with large explicit and small tacit knowledge bases (Snowden, 1998). Whilst a small tacit knowledge base renders a firm ‘‘internally safe’’ because employees leaving cannot take irreplaceable knowledge with them, the firm may be ‘‘externally vulnerable’’ because competitors can more easily identify and copy the explicit knowledge than they can the tacit knowledge base. Clearly, this is not the case if the explicit knowledge can be

Fig. 2. Knowledge space (adapted from Nonaka, 1994; Boisot, 1995).

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Internalisation describes the learning by doing, which embeds the explicit knowledge so that it becomes ‘‘second nature,’’ at which point one has lost the need to refer consciously to the explicit knowledge base; it has reentered the tacit domain — what Polanyi (1958) called ‘‘subsidiary knowledge.’’ Once knowledge has been codified, the process of internalisation cannot lose the codification. This is why the axis is described as ‘‘consciously codified’’ and ‘‘not consciously codified.’’ A concert pianist internalises both the conscious control of the fingers as well as the explicit knowledge contained in the sheet music. Socialisation describes the process of communicating and enhancing tacit knowledge. A child learning to speak its first language by imitation and observation is an example of ‘‘one-to-one’’ transmission of tacit knowledge. An individual assimilating an organisation’s culture is an example of ‘‘many-to-one’’ transmission of tacit knowledge. The transmission of tacit knowledge is usually a time-consuming process requiring frequent physical proximity and the development of trust. Folk music has traditionally been transmitted, and enhanced, by shared experience; and some would argue that capturing the knowledge of folk music on sheet music is to put it into a strait jacket, which may inhibit further development.

2.1. Discontinuous learning Whereas the process of internalisation describes a continuous movement along the learning curve — learning to do things better, discontinuous learning describes the process of learning to do better things; discontinuous learning constitutes paradigm shift (Hamel and Prahalad, 1991).

3. A technique for managing knowledge associated with innovation The analysis technique presented here has been devised and tested in the context of innovation involving more than one party; we believe that the technique also has application in other contexts such as project management and the management of change. The approach involves each party to a project carrying out independently an analysis of the challenges contained in the project as (s)he sees them to be. These independently generated perceptions are then exchanged in a process we term ‘‘perceptual synthesis.’’ The outcome of this process at an operational level is a productive dialogue. The principal stages of the process are outlined in Table 1.

4. The ‘‘trimmer’’ case study The purpose of this case study was to test the robustness of the technique described above. The analysis was carried out ex post on a project, which involved radical innova-


Table 1 An outline of the technique for managing the knowledge associated with innovation (1) Define the brief: What is the vision? (2) Identify the innovative features: What are the innovative features that will achieve the goals? (3) Identify the knowledge gaps that need to be bridged in order to achieve each feature: Each gap between the current (‘‘platform’’) state of knowledge and the future (‘‘target’’) state of knowledge constitutes a unit of analysis. Each unit, i.e., each knowledge gap, becomes the focus of the subsequent analyses. The analyses are carried out independently by each party collaborating in the project. For each unit of analysis, the following questions are asked: (4) With respect to innovation: What is the nature of the innovation? Is it incremental or radical? Is the new required knowledge additive or substitutive? (5) With respect to knowledge: What is the nature of the knowledge? Is it tacit or explicit, or both? Of the codified knowledge, which exists in the world; how much do we have, and how much do we need? (6) With respect to communities: What are the relevant knowledge communities? Who owns the ‘‘platform’’ knowledge? Who will need to own the ‘‘target’’ knowledge? These independently generated perceptions are shared between the collaborating parties in a process of ‘‘perceptual synthesis,’’ which produces the following benefits: (7) A productive dialogue: The analyses provide the parties with a language with which to communicate their perceptions, thereby releasing the tacit knowledge they possess regarding the interorganisational innovation. (8) Messages for management: These concern the fundamental knowledge processes of ‘‘Externalisation,’’ etc. The types of issue that may be addressed are: How much of the tacit knowledge we possess can we/should we ‘‘externalise’’? How can we communicate the ‘‘target’’ knowledge (tacit as well as explicit) to the relevant communities, etc.?

tion. The project was concerned with the relaunch of a grass-cutting machine designed to edge lawns with a vertical cut and to trim borders with a horizontal cut. The old machine, which was to be replaced, was able to carry out both functions by turning the head containing the rotating cutter through 90°. The visionary brief for the new machine was: ‘‘Develop an innovative product in half the normal time.’’ The vision was quickly translated into the following goals: no increased cost, higher margin, and the elimination of the movable head, which market research had established consumers did not like. The radical innovation involved a breakthrough, which followed the recruitment of an industrial designer who suggested in a brainstorming session that the cutting functions could be changed by turning the whole instrument over, not the just the cutting head. As stated above, this case study was an ex post analysis. It was designed to test the robustness of the approach rather than to deliver the benefits that we believe will be experienced when it is carried out in ‘‘real time.’’ As a result of this ex post analysis, the technique was judged sufficiently robust to be used on a major innovative project initiated by a mobile telephone operator; this application is described below.


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5. The ‘‘messaging architecture’’ case study

The objectives, which were given to each of three major suppliers, were as follows:

5.1. The context 

This project, which is concerned with the transmission of data as opposed to voice, is currently still in progress. Due to the nature of the project and the timing of the research, this article will focus more on the methodological issues involved in practising the technique than on the content of the analysis. The context for the project is fundamentally different from that of the lawn trimmer described above. The trimmer project was initiated by the marketing function using market research to define a brief, i.e., it was a classic ‘‘market pull’’ (Mowery and Rosemberg, 1982), situation. The messaging architecture project is a ‘‘technology push’’ situation occurring in an environment that is experiencing the following changes: From incremental adaptation in response to a slowly evolving environment (the basic architecture of the telephone has changed little over the last century) to a rapid succession of radical incremental changes (mobile telephony, Internet protocol, data/voice transmission). From engineering companies servicing customers in voice-related communications to companies that act as service providers and network maintainers. From tangible asset-dominated businesses with massive investment in physical networks to businesses dominated by knowledge and innovation (Chalmers, 1998). From cumulative/additive learning to substitutive learning, which requires the unlearning of old knowledge as well as the learning of new knowledge (Hall and Andriani, 1998). From long to short product life cycles and from long to short concept to market times. From a low variety of product to a proliferation of product variety with increasing incompatibility between a slowly changing platform and rapidly changing products and services. Recognising this context and the fact that the sources of innovation are increasingly to be found at suppliers, the mobile operator has changed its approach to strategic foresighting. Suppliers have been asked to generate sets of scenarios that can be used by the operator as inputs to the strategy formulation process. The operator has effectively asked the suppliers, ‘‘What benefits will your technology enable us to offer our customers in 5 years’ time?’’ This situation arises because of the extremely turbulent state of telecommunication technology and it represents a fundamental rearrangement of the responsibility for foresighting. It moves the emphasis from a ‘‘downstream/sales market perspective’’ to an ‘‘upstream/supply market perspective.’’ It requires the suppliers to develop a deep understanding of their customer’s likely future needs and wants.

Define the ‘‘state of the art.’’ Explore three possible scenarios: a ‘‘most likely,’’ an alternative ‘‘most likely’’, and a ‘‘radical.’’  Propose a new method of working with respect to product and service development.  Explore and define a new way of initiating strategy formulation.  Define a specific route map for the messaging architecture project. 

The response to this ‘‘beauty contest’’ way of working represented such a major digression for two of the suppliers’ normal ways of working that they were not able to respond as requested; apparently, they could not unlearn.

5.2. Vision, innovative features, and units of analysis

At the time of writing, four analyses have been carried out: two by the mobile operator (the project manager and the architecture engineer) and two by two suppliers (account managers). In the sections that follow, we will present some issues that have something to do with the units of analysis chosen, and describe, in general terms, the nature of the analyses that were applied to each unit.


5.2.1. With respect to the vision and the innovative features The vision, as reported by the messaging project manager was: ‘‘Define an approach to messaging which is able to integrate messaging technologies and messaging marketing strategies in a unified, coherent platform.’’ The two innovative features, which resulted from this vision, were: (a) the particular methodology devised for the project and (b) the technical issue of using a platform based on Internet protocol in the context of messaging. 5.2.2. With respect to the units of analysis The units of analysis, which were identified by one of the participants, are shown in Table 2. Each unit can be classified as being concerned with one of the following issues: 

Process issues regarding the new approach to strategy formulation and interfirm collaboration.

Table 2 The units of analysis (A) The methodology of the new development process. (B) The integration of the messaging architecture strategy with the existing marketing strategy. (C) The harnessing of the required technologies. (D) The translation of the espoused messaging architecture strategy into a successful implementation.

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Communication issues — between functions and organisations.  Learning issues regarding, e.g., Internet protocol (TCP/ IP) and the impact that IP will have on messaging.  Learning issues that have something to do with the customer’s organisation. Each of these issues will be discussed below. 5.2.3. With respect to process issues The attempt to recognise that the origin of much potential innovation rested with suppliers caused some problems: The approach put the supply chain manager, and the suppliers, in a proactive rather than the more normal reactive mode; this met with significant resistance due to the ‘‘role reversal’’ that was involved — customers like to tell and suppliers expect to be told. Suppliers had an interest in proposing scenarios that were based on their existing products and technologies. The rich variety of scenarios presented an evaluation problem and an acceptability problem on the part of those managers who were used to low-risk incremental innovation. From the point of view of the suppliers, the following problems arose: (1) Some of the suppliers felt that they were being asked to give free consultancy. (2) The suppliers were not able to anticipate what was going to be well received by the customer. (3) If this were to be a ‘‘one off’’ exercise, was it going to be worth much time and effort?


5.2.4. With respect to communication issues Both suppliers and customers commented on the importance of communications. In order for the new way of working to be effective, an acceptance of the new process had to achieved at different levels within the customer organisation between customer and supplier organisation, and within the supplier organisation.

partnerships are continuously under strain. Tensions have been caused by quality and delivery problems and by the rapid rate of organisational change (including high staff turnover in the customer organisation. Notwithstanding the problems outlined above, the suppliers accepted the challenges inherent in the messaging architecture project (and the lack of immediate return) because they saw a possibility for learning about what was going on in the customer organisation and also an opportunity for influencing the customer’s strategic thinking. 5.3. An outline of the analysis technique For each unit of analysis, the following issues were addressed. 5.3.1. With respect to innovation Acquiring the ‘‘target’’ knowledge can involve using knowledge in an additive fashion or in a substitutive fashion. In the former case, the process builds upon the existing pool of individual skills, organisational routines, and general knowledge; in the latter case, the knowledge has the potential to disrupt the existing ‘‘state of the art’’ and may require significant unlearning of existing knowledge, skills, routines, and leapfrogging to a new type of knowledge. It can be instructive to plot each unit of analysis on a map that has ‘‘amount of new knowledge’’ and ‘‘the degree to which the knowledge is substitutive’’ as its two dimensions. Such a map is shown in Fig. 3. If the unit of analysis falls in the ‘‘major radical innovation’’ quadrant, then there is a significant challenge involved in ensuring that the relevant community is able to unlearn the old knowledge.

5.2.5. Learning issues regarding Internet protocol The Internet protocol (TCP/IP) is rapidly acquiring acceptance as the best carrier system for data transmission and is a serious competitor for the traditional systems of telecommunication. However, the technology is novel and rapidly evolving and its validity in the world of telecoms (and messaging in particular) is the subject of debate. 5.2.6. Learning issues regarding the customer’s organisation The messaging project was perceived by the suppliers as an opportunity to learn more about the customer’s organisation. Whilst the customer and the two supplier organisations described their relationship as a partnership, the rate of change had been so turbulent that their


Fig. 3. The ‘‘innovation plot.’’


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Table 3 Statements designed to identify the nature of the knowledge associated with each unit of analysis have no knowledge; we need to find the answer by trial and error.  We We have only tacit knowledge* in the form of personal knowledge. have tacit knowledge contained in ‘‘rules of thumb.’’  We Explicit/theoretical knowledge exists but the firm has not used it.  Explicit/theoretical knowledge is held in the firm. Whilst a protocol exists

will last only as long as the tacit knowledge base can be sustained. 5.3.4. With respect to the knowledge communities Who has the ‘‘platform knowledge’’ and who needs the ‘‘target knowledge’’?

for using the theoretical knowledge, practice may involve tacit knowledge in addition to the explicit knowledge contained in the protocols. The tacit knowledge content is: high ( ) medium ( ) low ( ) Tried and tested theoretical knowledge is held in the firm. The outcome of new circumstances can be predicted; simulation is possible. Whilst tried and tested theoretical knowledge is held in the firm, practice may involve tacit knowledge in addition to the explicit knowledge contained in the theory. The tacit knowledge content is: high ( ) medium ( ) low ( )

5.3.5. With respect to the exchange of perceptions — the ‘‘perceptual synthesis’’ The independently generated perceptions are exchanged and a productive dialogue ensues.

5.3.2. With respect to the nature of the knowledge Which of the statements shown in Table 3 are appropriate?

5.4.1. Release of trapped personal/tacit knowledge Analysing the project under the new perspective of knowledge resulted in the emergence of a series of perceptions and helped to link those perceptions into a more coherent frame. For instance, running the technique highlighted substantial differences between suppliers’ and customer’s organisations regarding fundamental issues such as the role and extent of co-operation and trust.


5.3.3. When the unit of analysis concerns a core competence The following questions may be addressed: ‘‘If the total codified knowledge in the world is represented by an index of 100, what percent represents the codified knowledge that we possess?’’ ‘‘If the total knowledge (tacit as well as explicit) that which we possess is represented by an index of 100, what percent is tacit?’’ When these questions have been answered for each unit of analysis, it is possible to map the different areas of knowledge in the space shown in Fig. 4 as a result of which certain strategically significant messages may be identified. The strategic significance of the different positions in this space is as follows. Position (1) is ‘‘externally vulnerable’’ because there is little tacit knowledge and what knowledge there is can be identified and copied by competitors. The position is ‘‘internally safe’’ because if employees leave, then their knowledge is not lost. This is the position that most global companies will seek so that their knowledge base can be easily diffused. At the extreme, they may wish to set industry standards. The application of intellectual property rights is particularly applicable in this position. Position (2) has vulnerability characteristics opposite to Position (1). A key issue is the scope for codifying the tacit knowledge base. Position (3) is essentially weak. Position (4) may have a temporary advantage if the company’s tacit knowledge base is strong enough to survive in spite of being deficient in terms of the explicit knowledge that is available. Such an advantage

5.4. Benefits The benefits that have emerged from the application of the technique in the context of the messaging project are as follows.

5.4.2. Knowledge gaps and the management of risks Identifying and mapping the knowledge gaps associated with the messaging project indicated an imbalance between the challenges contained in the technical and the process issues. The application of the knowledge management analysis technique demonstrated that technical units of analysis were less of a challenge than were process issues, in particular issues of communication. This suggests that a knowledge management approach can be useful in identifying organisational challenges as well as technical challenges.


Fig. 4. Mapping the body of knowledge in ‘‘strategic knowledge space.’’

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5.4.3. Productive dialogue The exchange of perceptions at the cross-analysis meeting facilitated the emergence of hidden problems and consequently created a better, shared understanding of how each partner/group/participant saw the challenges contained in the project. 5.4.4. Messages for management The knowledge management analysis helped in transferring project management decisions from an intuitive level to a more transparent level. It also enabled the project team to base their decision making on a more explicit understanding of the knowledge creation and exchange mechanism.

6. Conclusion This article has described work in progress. The ex post analysis on the ‘‘trimmer’’ project was designed to test the robustness of the technique; the ‘‘messaging architecture’’ project is not yet complete. Two types of benefit are anticipated. At an operational level, we expect that the ‘‘perceptual synthesis’’ will generate a productive dialogue from which a deeper mutual understanding of the challenges contained in the innovation will result. At a strategic level, we expect that senior management will be able to address the issues shown below with respect to the five fundamental knowledge management processes. 6.1. Externalisation The process of codifying tacit knowledge. It may not be possible to codify the tacit knowledge that is held, but where it is possible to do so the knowledge may be efficiently stored and communicated. The following considerations arise:


6.3. Internalisation, i.e., learning by doing Making the explicit knowledge ‘‘second nature’’; becoming an expert. This leads to the following considerations: ‘‘How expert are we, how can we improve the ‘learning to do things better’ process?’’ 6.4. Socialisation Communicating and enhancing tacit knowledge (knowledge that cannot/has not been codified) by means of imitation and shared experience. This leads to the following consideration: ‘‘How should we organise our affairs so that, by regular physical proximity, tacit knowledge may be shared and enhanced amongst those who need it?’’ 6.5. Radical transformation and the associated unlearning Losing old mindsets and adopting new ones — at the extreme this involves reinventing the ‘‘way we do things around here.’’ This leads to the following considerations: ‘‘How can we ‘learn to do better things’?’’ ‘‘Who will shift the paradigm?’’ ‘‘Which mindsets (which may at one time have been the source of advantage) are now acting as a straight jacket and need to be abandoned?’’ If knowledge is the firm (Davenprot and Prusack, 1998), then strategic management must be fundamentally concerned with these processes. We believe that the language and perspective made available by the approach described in this article will help managers to address these issues.

Acknowledgements ‘‘Where is the tacit knowledge held, can it be codified, should it be codified, and if so how?’’ ‘‘If it cannot be codified, how can it be communicated and enhanced?’’

The research reported in this article was financed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the United Kingdom to whom the authors express their thanks.

6.2. Education


The process of communicating explicit knowledge — making use of the codified language. This leads to the following considerations:

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