your nous: knowledge management from first principles
Anyone growing up in the north of England will frequently be invited -
by parents and teachers alike - to use yer nous (rhymes
with mouse) which in the vernacular means use your brain or
apply your mind. But far from being simply a provincial dialect figure
of speech, this is a concept at the heart of Aristotles philosophy,
where nous is the mental faculty by which first principles
How many so-called knowledge management programmes in organisations today
move rapidly and ill-advisedly from weak assumptions about what
we need to know to expensive technological solutions in the absence
of any clear consideration of first principles or understanding of what
knowledge means for the particular organisation or what management
might imply in the context of knowledge? Indeed, knowledge and management
may seem to be essentially paradoxical. While we can manage data or information
as tangible, accessible, permanent and largely context free how can we
manage knowledge which is more often than not intangible, inaccessible,
transient, context specific and in peoples heads?
To shed some light on these issue, in this article I want to share with
you some of what we see as the first principles of knowledge management
which are at the core of a major cross-sector research project in progress
at Cranfield School of Management in collaboration with the Brighton Business
School. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council,
the project is entitled: Teamworking for Knowledge Management - Building
Capabilities in Complex Environments.
We have received widespread and enthusiastic support form a range of collaborating
organisations from aerospace, electronics, construction, plastics, whisky
bottling, off-shore and health sectors. By making this cross sector study
we are seeking indications of shared contexts not superficially evident
at sectoral level which could enable good practice to be identified as
having contextual rather than sectoral relevance, and then applied across
sectors in innovative ways. Importantly this will avoid both trivial generalised
significance and highly sector or organisation specific significance.
It will, if successful identify real trans-sectoral contextual significance.
We are considering a central question:
How can organisations whose business is characterised by low-repetition,
high complexity project type work mobilise teamworking for
improved knowledge management?
We are half way through the project (one year of two) and data collection
is almost complete. At this stage then we have no answers and so what
follows presents a series of questions derived from first principles which
are guiding our research and which we hope will stimulate debate in the
wider practitioner community. Let us first look at the three interrelated
A key driver of knowledge based competitive advantage is the move away
from traditional models of mass and commodity production towards niche
strategies based on some element of customisation, varying from mass customisation
in high volume industries through specific project and small batch approaches
to one-off bespoke solutions. In all cases the knowledge component is
In the past work on knowledge management has focused largely on repetitive
environments with stable and well-established products and processes.
Here, opportunities for learning and development of knowledge were largely
incremental through repetitive problem finding and solving routines. However,
in more complex environments such routines are inappropriate since they
can not deal with high levels of differentiated tacit knowledge content
in non-repetitive processes. If we add to this the high intra- and inter-organisational
mobility of team members and the increased potential for losing knowledge,
then knowledge management in complex environments poses significant problems
- some of which may be solved by reviewing concepts of teamworking.
Our perspective on teamworking is the emergence of a range of context
specific cognitive, behavioural and structural routines. We also believe
that such routines are not an accident, rather they are the result of
design and modification in what might be termed organisational engineering
with no one size fits all model but archetypal forms which
match team type to operating context. As a consequence the identification,
codification and sharing of learning developed in the context of application
is not only the focus of teamworking initiatives but also the focus and
key ingredient of the research agenda. This suggests that a major challenge
for organisations is to engineer teamworking routines which create competitive
advantage through effective knowledge management.
One contemporary view of strategic advantage is that it derives less from
positioning and responding to external environmental influences and more
from the creation and exploitation of opportunity from internal, firm-specific
resources. While such resources may be facilities and firmware, these
are often too easily imitable and therefore offer little advantage. However,
firm specific knowledge is less easily (if at all) imitable by virtue
of codification (databasing), protection (patents etc), tacitness (in
the brains of the team) or by being embedded in routines and procedures
superficial copying of which is ineffective since it ignores the underlying
knowledge base or context.
So, as traditional resource advantage is eroded in the globalising economy
advantage derives increasingly from value-added through the knowledge
component of product and process, rather than through labour and capital.
But recognition of the centrality of knowledge assets is not enough we
must also manage the process of creation, capture and sharing. So we can
ask three top-level questions:
What are the generic requirements and concomitant issues in teamworking
for knowledge management?
What are the relevant dimensions of teamworking management and how are
these contextualised in complex environments?
How do we design and implement teamworking for knowledge management?
A tacit dimension
One of the major problems facing the would-be knowledge manager is how
much of the firm specific knowledge is held tacitly - that is in the minds
of individuals. While this makes it highly mobile it can mobile itself
straight out of the business and one of the unintended consequences of
down-sizing was permanent loss of key tacit firm specific knowledge. But
another problem is that as Michael Polanyi wrote - we know more
than we can say here meaning that we often do not know what
we know and therefore can neither articulate it nor codify it. Tacit knowledge
is often only penetrable by observation in that we infer what people know
from how they behave. So the next questions are:
How can we engage tacit knowledge when we are geographically dispersed?
Is there an alternative to the face-to-face interaction possible when
co-located which will work when dispersed?
Stocks or Flows?
Knowledge stocks or what we know (tacit or explicit) while
important are meaningless without effective sharing and renewing. So the
database is only a starting point. We suggest that knowledge
is only important when it is in use, that is when it has a decision or
action focus, not only because that is its purpose but also because when
it is in use new knowledge emerges - which begs the complex question:
How can knowledge stocks be made visible, the routines of seekers and
providers be integrated for maximum leverage and emergent knowledge be
Perhaps here we can begin to propose a fundamental difference between
the essentially static nature of information and the essentially dynamic
nature of knowledge.
Through a glass darkly?
Well of course this is all very fine in an academic context but what significance
can it have for practitioners in organisations? Einstein is recorded as
Of course, if we knew what we were doing we couldnt call
it research could we?
While he meant that we may not know the outcomes he was not suggesting
that we can be effective merely by struggling in the dark and so a description
of the way we are approaching these questions may prove helpful as a project
design guide for practitioner organisations currently facing the knowledge
The core purpose is to benefit from practitioner experience by researching
in experienced companies and develop a design specification for a prototype
methodology to enable effective teamworking and knowledge management in
complex environments. And we seek to achieve this by understanding and
making explicit the vital enabling routines.
This is found on several key stages of reviewing existing literature on
teamworking and knowledge management then, researching current teamworking
and knowledge management routines in collaborating organisations from
which we can, identify context specific organisational engineering aspects
which will assist us to, develop and validate a design specification for
We describe this process as: empirically derived which means discovered
in the context of application; theoretically informed that is through
comparison with extant theory and the development of new theory and; independently
validated by intermediaries who add intellectual content, evaluate
outputs and broker fieldwork.
This is a classic three legged-stool approach, the lack of any one rendering
the process at least unstable and at worst flawed in some fundamental.
The process involves in-depth studies and fine grained inductive analysis
of interview data so that categories and characteristics emerge, but is
also coupled to an action research approach which has the
double advantage of continuous dissemination of findings among collaborators
and continuous refinement of the research agenda.
Back to basics
It seems to us that any attention to the knowledge management challenge
from either academics or practitioners will benefit by employing at least
a similar and preferably a wholly integrated approach. That approach should
be toward a solution which is derived from first principles rather than
precipitately arrived at. The outcomes should be neither trivially generalisable
nor too sector or organisation specific, rather they should be context
specific which may require a fundamentally new perspective on organisations.
Contribute to the debate
Any contributions to this debate will be welcomed.
Email [email protected]
or visit the TKM website at www.cranfield.ac.uk/som/tkm
This article represents inputs from the whole research team:
Professors David Tranfield* and John Bessant**, Doctors David Partington*
and Jonathon Sapsed**, Malcolm Young*, Jeanette Rollinson** and Richard
* Cranfield School of Management
** Brighton Business School
The research project is funded by EPSRC Grants M72869 and M74092
Author contact details
Cranfield School of Management
Cranfield Bedfordshire MK43 0AL
Tel: 01234 754556
Fax: 01234 754488
email: [email protected]