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Using 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 Aristotle’s philosophy, where nous is ‘the mental faculty by which first principles are grasped’?

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 people’s 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 themes.

Complex Environments

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 increasing.

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.

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 recaptured?

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 saying:

‘Of course, if we knew what we were doing we couldn’t 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 management challenge.

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 implementation

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


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 Adams*
* Cranfield School of Management
** Brighton Business School

The research project is funded by EPSRC Grants M72869 and M74092

Author contact details

Malcolm Young
Research Fellow
Cranfield School of Management
Cranfield Bedfordshire MK43 0AL

Tel: 01234 754556
Fax: 01234 754488
email: [email protected]


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