Since the beginning of the 1990’s knowledge management has gained a significant role in research as well as in practice in today’s global organisations. This is due to several changes that took place in the last 20 years, one of the most important ones being the general and global shift from manufacturing to service business (Evans, 2003), increasing global competition and the rise and development of information and communication technology (ICT) (Davenport & Prusak, 1998).
Information and knowledge today are often seen as the main determining factors of competitiveness of organisations (Evans, 2003). Modern organisations therefore have to ask themselves how to implement an effective knowledge management.
The terms knowledge and knowledge management are difficult to define and differ in meaning according to the context. Therefore, in order to keep it simple, both terms should be seen, in this essay, in the context of an organisation’s knowledge management system which is “a system that enhances organizational learning through facilitation of knowledge (both tacit and explicit) exchange and sharing” (Yahya & Goh, 2002, p. 458).
This essay will deal with the link between knowledge management and human resource management (HRM) and in particular with the question how HRM can contribute to share tacit knowledge within an organisation.
At first, it will be explained why an organisation’s knowledge, especially the tacit knowledge, can be a source of competitive advantage. After that, the two general strategies of knowledge management will be explained and then brought in connection with the role of HRM. Finally, the question how HRM can contribute to share tacit knowledge within an organisation will be answered.
Knowledge as a source of sustainable competitive advantage
Knowledge and its management become more and more important sources of competitive advantage.
In the recent decades, many theorists came to the conclusion that in general organisations derive their competitive advantage from a specific set of resources rather than from the environment and other external determining factors, which is referred to as resource-based view of the firm (Wernerfelt, 1984). These resources are not only tangible ones like land, capital and labour (Narasimha, 2000), but are more often intangible, like customer know-how, experience, creativity and so forth. Whereas the tangible assets can easily be imitated by competitors, the intangible ones like an organisation’s specific knowledge and its management system are hard to imitate and therefore create a source of sustainable competitive advantage (Prahalad & Hamel, 1990). As Davenport & Prusak (1998) point out, knowledge should be seen as a “corporate asset” and therefore knowledge-based activities should become the “primary internal functions of an organisation” (Davenport & Prusak, 1998, The Changing Global Economy, para. 4)
Knowledge and its capacity to create a competitive advantage depends on different dimensions of knowledge. One dimension that is examined in this essay is the question whether and to what extent knowledge is explicit or tacit.
Tacit and explicit knowledge
As it is especially tacit knowledge that creates a competitive advantage the next paragraph will explain the differences between explicit and tacit knowledge and the role of the latter.
The notion of tacit knowledge was first philosophically developed by Polanyi (1961). He stated that “knowledge of a problem is [...] a knowing of more than you can tell” (p. 466). Explicit knowledge is obvious and is possible to be expressed verbally or in a written form, like for example facts, symbols or data, and is therefore easy to store and to access (Aït Razouk, Bayad, & Wannenmacher, 2009). This kind of knowledge refers to what the organisation knows, in contrast to have the knowledge of how to do something (Kogut & Zander, 1992), which implies a more personal or subjective component (Polanyi, 1961) and leads to the notion of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is a term which is really difficult to define in a general way (Taylor, 2007) and can have complex interactions and interdependencies with explicit knowledge, as was pointed out by Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995). In order to keep the essay short, in the following, only the main characteristics of tacitness will be descriped:
Tacit knowledge is about “know-how” (Kogut & Zander, 1992, p. 386) that is more intangible and cannot be easily expressed in words and numbers, for example personal experience, creativity and so forth. Therefore it is more difficult to deal with. According to Aït Razouk, Bayad, & Wannenmacher (2009) explicit knowledge might be seen as a – rather small – part of tacit knowledge that can be exteriorised at a certain time if necessary. As knowledge in general seems to be made of more tacit knowledge than explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge is even more important to focus on.