Holistic Approach to Knowledge Management

There are different approaches in managing knowledge.  This article will look at one of the approaches, namely a holistic approach.

A holistic approach to Knowledge Management (KM) is beneficial as it helps organizations to utilize the best of both worlds regarding the two main approaches to KM – a personalisation approach and a technology-centric approach.


But before we discuss these two approaches and the benefits of a holistic approach, it is important to understand what knowledge is.  Nickols (2003) wrote an important article on explaining the different facets of knowledge and “conclude that there are two basic kinds of knowledge: (1) the kind that is reflected in a person’s internal state as well as in that same person’s capacity for action and (2) the kind that has been articulated and frequently recorded” (2003 : 3).  He then goes on by differentiating between explicit, implicit and tacit knowledge.  For our purposes, we will only focus on explicit and tacit knowledge here.

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has been codified and is available in some sort of form (documents, video, faxes etc).  Tacit knowledge is knowledge that “cannot be articulated” (Nickols, 2003 : 3) and resides mostly in people’s minds.  Shariq & Vendelo defines tacit knowledge, based on Nonaka’s definition as “knowledge that has a personal quality, which makes it difficult to formalize and communicate” (2006 : 839).  For example, after years of experience, a person might know how to drive a manual gearbox car but have difficulty in describing or teaching someone else how to use the car’s gears efficiently.  The knowledge of driving a car is tacit knowledge.  This emphasizes a very important facet of knowledge - its "connection" to human beings, and therefore its context.  Knowledge is in people’s minds and has value as it is applied by people in situations.  Kucza calls it “information in action” (2001: 15).

Knowing what we mean by knowledge, it is subsequently clear that knowledge plays an important part in organizations’ operations and specifically, in their strategic operations.  Many writers in the field of Knowledge and Knowledge Management agree that knowledge is an "asset" and cognisance of this fact is more and more necessary to maintain a competitive advantage.  Zack states that more and more organizations “view knowledge as their most valuable and strategic resource” (1999 : 125).  “Companies having superior knowledge, however, are able to coordinate and combine their traditional resources and capabilities in new and distinctive ways, providing more value for their customers than can their competitors” (Zack; 1999 : 128).  Zack goes on to say that “knowledge is the fundamental basis of competition" (1999 : 142).  Snyman & Kruger conclude that knowledge becomes an enabler of business strategies (2004 : 7). 

From these knowledge specialists, it is therefore clear that knowledge plays an integral part, not only in the strategising operations of an organization, but in organizations as a whole, and more so because of the technological era organizations work in.  Organizations need knowledge of their context, their people and their competition to strategise.  Organizations also need a strategy to be and grow as learning organizations and in so doing, expand its knowledge base.  Knowledge and strategy should be linked to assist organizations to create a sustainable competitive advantage over competitors.  It is an important asset, albeit an intangible asset which needs to be managed. (Bontis 2002 : 17). 

Two approaches to Knowledge Management

If knowledge is such an important facet of organizations that needs to be managed, it needs to be clear what we mean by Knowledge Management (KM).  Cepeda-Carrión define knowledge management (KM) “as the formalized, integrated approach of managing an enterprise’s articulated and tacit knowledge assets” (2006 : 34).  Davenport & Marchand splits the KM tasks into 2 distinct tasks namely:

  1. tasks that  “facilitate the creation of knowledge
  2. and tasks that “manage the way people share and apply it” (1999 : 41)

We agree with Brown et. al. that KM is “strategies and processes of identifying, creating, capturing, organizing, transferring, and leveraging knowledge to help individuals and firms compete” (2009 : 252).  This definition involves all knowledge processes in the management of knowledge.  It also points out the interdependency between people, context or organizational culture and organizations’ competitiveness.

This leads us to briefly explain the two approaches in KM.  The 2 approaches are clearly seen in the way organisations approach the utilisation of knowledge.  Because knowledge is such an important asset in the modern era, and because electronic technology is freely available assisting organizations in codifying and sharing knowledge, organizations approach their knowledge either by focussing on the technology or by focussing on the people who holds the knowledge.  But exactly because of the advancements in technology, many users of knowledge are under the impression that by the mere fact of using technology, they are managing knowledge.  KM is much more than just having the technology to store, index and present information. (Davenport 1999 : 41; Alavi & Leidner 1999 : 25). 


The codification approach see knowledge as something that can be codified and stored in databases, indexed and reused by using computer-based systems.  This is also called the computer-based approach (Hansen et.al.; 1999 : 107) with a higher investment in IT systems and applications (for example Electronic Document Management Systems).  The use of IT systems are primarily to codify and represent knowledge to people.  Fink & Disterer refers to this approach as the “people-to-document” (2006 : 383) approach. The main advantages of this approach is the reusability and low cost of knowledge management and is a suitable approach for more explicit and standardized knowledge (Hansen et.al. 1999 : 109).  Knowledge becomes an asset.  


The personalization or people-orientated approach “emphasize the tacit nature of knowledge, and tend to interpret it as a social, context-dependant process of understanding that requires human communication and cognition in order to emerge” (Saito et.al. 2007 : 99).  This approach is much more time consuming as it requires “people-to-people” (Fink & Disterer; 2006 : 107) communication, and therefore its the more expensive approach to KM.  This approach is suitable for organizations that needs innovative customized knowledge solutions and where the sources are more tacit in nature (Hansen et.al. 1999 : 109).  The knowledge is obtained not by consulting a repository by using technology, but by consulting people, experts, through “dialogue between individuals, not knowledge objects in a database” (Hansen et.al 1999 : 108).  Technology in this approach is used to enhance the person-to-person contact by creating people-networks. 

Holistic Approach

Hansen et.al researched the 2 approaches as they were used in different organizations and came to a conclusion that organizations who tried to use the “best of two worlds” actually stand the chance of failing in both (1999 : 112).  According to them, the choice of which approach to follow will be determined by

  • The standard or customized nature of the products
  • The maturity or innovative nature of the products
  • The explicit or tacit nature of knowledge (1999 : 115)

Fink & Disterer, on the other hand, saw a more inclusive approach but points at that the 2 approaches “must be combined appropriately” (2006 : 383).  They see the use of technology as an important enabler of the sharing and codifying process of knowledge.  ICT provides the technology and resources to codify, store, index and retrieve knowledge (codification approach), but also provides the technology to “connect people and to mediate communication” (Fink & Disterer; 2006 : 383).

A holistic approach therefore will take cognisance of both the dangers that Hansen et.al. pointed out in trying to be both, but will also take cognisance of Fink & Disterer’s inclusive approach.  A holistic approach will even go further by also taking into account the context, as pointed out earlier, an important facet of knowledge.  Because knowledge cannot be described without the human mind, it will be abstract and difficult to contain.  In contrast, technology uses a set of algorithms and program code to solve complex problems and leave no room for human’s different reaction on the same input, reactions also determined by the context.

The context of an organization is determined by several factors, amongst others by organizational culture and behaviour.  “Culture forms the basis for how we process and use knowledge by providing belief frameworks for understanding and using the knowledge, context provides the framing for the knowledge explaining how it is created and meant to be used” (Jennex, 2008 : 7). Furthermore, if an organization is not a learning organization, an organization investing in means and ways for people to share their tacit knowledge, people will be reluctant to share their knowledge (Broadbent 1998 : 2).  Fink & Disterer also points out that “various cultural barriers need to be overcome to foster knowledge sharing” (2006 : 384) simply because it is still seen as an “unnatural behaviour” for people to share their knowledge (2006 : 384).  Knowledge is power and to share your knowledge, one is giving away your power position in an organization.  It is therefore necessary to implement “actions to foster knowledge sharing” (Fink & Disterer; 2006 : 385).  “People need incentives to participate in the knowledge sharing process" (Hansen et.al; 1999 : 113). 


This short article briefly showed the usefulness of a holistic approach in Knowledge Management.  It defined Knowledge and KM in order to understand the intricacies in knowledge as it is part of being human.  “Knowing is a human act” (McDermott, 1999 : 105) and a “residue of thinking” (McDermott 1999:106).  Because of this, knowledge also need to be understood in its context and how organisational behaviour and culture can foster or hinder the process of knowledge sharing.  Again McDermott makes a valid point in this regard by stating that “knowledge is always recreated in the present moment” (1999 : 106). 

A holistic approach to KM combines all related factors involved in knowledge and knowledge management.  A holistic approach takes into account the context, culture and the people in which knowledge is created and used.  “The willingness of individuals to share their knowledge in an organisation heavily depends on the organisational culture” (Kucza; 2001 : 22). Furthermore, knowledge is not an object existing outside of human activity and therefore, all human science related study fields will have an impact on knowledge, and subsequently to knowledge management.  On the other hand, a holistic approach will also utilise the technology available to enhance the creation, capturing, sharing, retrieving and using of knowledge (knowledge processes).

A holistic approach takes these factors into account by taking cognisance of the context, the present moment (McDermott 1999), organization culture, human factors hindering sharing etc.  “Knowledge management requires a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to management processes and an understanding of the dimensions of knowledge work” (Broadbent 1998).  A study done by the Enterprise Social Learning Architecture within the Australian Defence Organisation also concluded “that the interplay between human, social and organizational issues within an organization must be considered first, to effectively facilitate social learning and knowledge management” (Warne 2001 : 140).

Therefore, a holistic approach does offer the “best of both worlds” in knowledge management – that of a personalization approach and a technology-centric approach.  Knowledge Management is not about implementing an IT system - the system only helps with the process of capturing and reproducing knowledge.




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