Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, Vol. 7, No. 4, December 2006

The Critical Role Of Communication In Knowledge Organizations:

Communication Apprehension As A Predictor Of Knowledge Management Functions

C. B. Crawford, C. Sue Strohkirch, Fort Hays State University

ABSTRACT:

One of the most important characteristics of the knowledge worker is effective communication. Well documented and organized information carries less impact if there is diminished communication involved. This study (N = 1046) focused on the relationship communication apprehensiveness (as a measure of communication effectiveness) and knowledge management. Findings revealed that communication apprehensiveness negatively predicted knowledge management acquisition, creation, and application skills, accounting for over 15% of the variance. This study found that individuals less comfortable with communication in a variety of contexts are significantly less effective with a variety of knowledge management functions.

Keywords: Knowledge Management, Knowledge Sharing, Communication Apprehension


1. Management Functions

Over the past fifteen years the term “knowledge management” has evolved to represent the changing nature of the workplace – a true paradigm shift. In coining the phrase “knowledge society” Peter Drucker convincingly argued that land, labor, and capital – the classical factors of production – have been largely replaced by knowledge (Drucker, 1993) and “that knowledge has become the resource, rather than a resource, is what makes our society ‘post-capitalist’”(pp. 45). The modern knowledge organization has become a social environment designed by the specialists to meet the needs of the market and the specialists in the most efficient and quickest way possible. Lang (2001) clarifies the importance of the knowledge worker in this new age: “while the knowledge worker may need the tools of production the organization owns, while she may well have to work in organizations, she nevertheless owns the means of production” (pp. 44). Rowley (1999) definitely suggests that “the knowledge based society has arrived, and those organizations that can succeed in the global information society are those that can identify, value, create, and evolve their knowledge assets” (pp. 416). Rowley continues by suggesting that effective management of knowledge, change, and innovation are central or “core competencies” that must be mastered for organizations to succeed. Neef (1999) expanded the more micro-level view of knowledge management by commenting:

A knowledge based revolution is taking place, and it comes in a matching set: knowledge management for organizations and the knowledge-based economy for nations themselves. Both are part of a major evolutionary economic movement which is beginning to reshape the global economic structure, and knowledge management should be seen as one of the most concrete and important set of practices and policies that an organization can adopt, marking a significant step in an enterprise’s evolution toward becoming a global, learning organization that can survive in the knowledge based economy. (pp. 72)

One can safely assume that the changes to come will certainly be as staggering as the organizational and global paradigm shift we have encountered over the last 20 years. Knowledge workers that have the ability to effectively communicate their formal and informal knowledge certainly have significant value to their own learning organization.

2. Basics Of Knowledge Management

Baines (1997) puts the knowledge management process squarely at the intersection of technology, organizational structures, and cognitive-based strategies. In this case, technology becomes the tool, the organizational structure becomes the context, and the knowledge becomes the “stuff” of great advances. While prima facie it seems obvious, the reality is that knowledge is quite complex (Clark & Rollo, 2001). Knowledge is often situated within the context of other cognitive elements (Clark & Rollo, 2001). The type of knowledge that organizations are forced to manage is of central importance to organizations. The function of knowledge management would be little more than compliance if all knowledge were codified and formal (explicit). The reality is that much of the information that organizations try to manage is held within the personal and collective experiences of the workforce; it is tacit knowledge. Bollinger and Smith (2001) explained, “Tacit knowledge is unarticulated knowledge that is in a person’s head that is often difficult to describe and transfer. It includes lessons learned, know-how, judgment, rules of thumb, and intuition…it is the key characteristic of team-based learning organizations” (pp. 9). Further clarifying this point, Lang (2001) stated that, “knowledge is both produced and held collectively rather than individually in tightly knit groups or ‘communities of practice’… organizational knowledge is social in character” (pp. 46). Tacit knowledge is an important resource of organizations given that 42% of corporate knowledge is held within employees’ minds (Clarke & Rollo, 2001).

Knowledge management is jointly a goal and a process. As an outcome or goal, knowledge management is entirely focused on sharing information for the benefit of the organization, as Bollinger and Smith (2001) conclude. They reasoned, “the knowledge management process is not so much about control as it is about sharing, collaboration, and making the best possible use of a strategic resource” (pp. 14). Explicit knowledge is generally easy to access and manage, but tacit knowledge often defies capture given its highly personal and subjective, but critical, nature. Clarke and Rollo (2001) assert that knowledge management is primarily about making tacit knowledge more accessible since it accounts for a majority of an organization’s collective knowledge. Lang (2001) explains the goal of knowledge management as “Knowledge management systems must connect people to enable them to think together and to take time to articulate and share information and insights they know are useful to their company” (pp. 44). Stonehouse and Pemberton (1999) definitively suggest, “it is the role of knowledge management to ensure that individual learning becomes organizational learning” (pp. 132). Birkinshaw (2001) refers to this process as “recycling” old knowledge.

The process of knowledge management is based on the ability of all members of the organization to add value to the basic business processes through the creation, communication, codification, and coordination of both explicit and tacit knowledge stores (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Specifically, Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) theorized that the flow of knowledge transitions from socialization, to externalization, to combination, and finally to internalization i.e. from the raw experience, to understanding, then to categorization, and finally to the creation of personal mental models that transcend the experience. Davenport and Prusak (1998) identified specific objectives of any knowledge management project:

        To create knowledge repositories to store knowledge and information,

        To improve knowledge access or transfer,

        To enhance the knowledge environment to facilitate creation, transfer, and use of knowledge, and

        To manage knowledge as an asset and to recognize its value.

Bollinger and Smith (2001) suggest that the goals of knowledge management should be to effectively manage explicit knowledge through better systems and to build an organizational culture supportive of sharing and creating tacit knowledge.

Various authors discuss the specific processes associated with knowledge management. Seng et al (2002) theorize five distinct steps in the process of managing knowledge:

        Capturing knowledge. Record steps involved in solving a problem.

        Storing knowledge. Captured information must be stored in a database, warehouse, application, or some other production system.

        Processing knowledge. Involves sorting, filtering, organizing, analyzing, comparing, correlating, and mining the knowledge.

        Sharing knowledge. Distributed through information systems or through personal interaction, synchronously or asynchronously.

        Using knowledge. Solving problems to advance the objectives of the organization.

Barth (2003) provides perhaps the most effective and developed comprehensive categorization of personal knowledge management tools. Barth included the following elements as representative of effective knowledge management:

        Accessing. Search strategies, research, inquiry.

        Evaluating. Judgment, confirmation of information, qualification.

        Organizing. Filtering, discarding, filing and archiving.

        Analyzing. Critical thinking, sense-making, testing hypotheses.

        Conveying. Explaining, presenting, written and spoken conveyance.

        Collaborating. Messaging, sharing documents, meetings and conversations.

        Securing. Self-discipline, backup, inoculation, threat awareness.

This list, though certainly not inclusive of all thought on the subject, effectively synthesizes into three basic functions of knowledge management: knowledge acquisition, knowledge creation, and knowledge application.

In much of the knowledge management research, the term learning organization and knowledge organization are used interchangeably to reflect workplaces that “are continuously seeking data from the environment, are fluid and adaptable, and learn from their previous experiences. They share knowledge and contain systems and process for sharing knowledge” (Johnson, 2002; pp. 242). Rowley (2000) summarized the concept of the learning organization as follows:

        Facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself,

        Facilitates participative and innovative development with and between people and institutions commercially, technologically, and socially,

        Forms the strategy, structure, and culture of the enterprise into a learning system,

        Encourages double loop learning in which learning informs and impacts on strategic directions,

        Responds to changes in the internal and external environment of the organization by detecting and correcting error, and

        Has as its primary aim rapid and continual regeneration of the total organization depending on rapid and continual learning.

Stonehouse and Pemberton (1999) considered the issue of an interaction between individual and organizational learning. In their model, they link the processes of individual and organizational learning together through a four-stage process:

        Organizational knowledge is diffused and coordinated into individual learning,

        Individual learning generates explicit and tacit knowledge,

        Individual explicit and tacit knowledge becomes formalized into organizational learning, and

        Organizational learning generates organizational knowledge.

One of the most important outcomes of effective knowledge management is the ability to share that knowledge with others. Without effective communication, knowledge management simply serves as a repository of business intelligence rather than ever realizing the full synergistic effect of the open knowledge work environment.

3. Communication Apprehension

During the past three decades much research has examined anxiety experienced in communicative situations. Communication apprehension (CA) is probably the most widely used term to describe the phenomena (McCroskey, 1977). Communication apprehension is “an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real of anticipated communication with another person or peers” (McCroskey, 1977; pp. 78). CA is a broad-based fear held by a large number of individuals - a pervasive fear of speaking in front of others (McCroskey et al, 1976). McCroskey and Richmond (1976) suggested that individuals suffering from CA are likely to withdraw from communicative encounters or avoid them altogether, and are perceived less positively.

Perhaps the most intensely researched aspect of CA has been in the area of “state” and “trait” apprehension. McCroskey (1977) maintains that trait apprehension is fear or anxiety with respect to many different types of oral communication encounters, from dyadic to public settings; trait apprehension is a stable personality issue. State apprehension is specific to a given oral communication situation; state apprehension is entirely dependent on the situation, and therefore, more normal. Levine and McCroskey (1990) studied the measure of both types of apprehension via the use of the PRCA-24 instrument, finding it reliable as a measure of both trait CA (measure is summed) as well as indicative of four different states (measure is broken into four discriminated subscales: dyadic, group meeting, group discussion, public speaking) where an individual might be apprehensive. Research by McCroskey and Beatty (1984) provides further support for this bi-dimensional modeling associated with the PRCA-24 asserting that nearly 50% of the variance of CA is accounted for by the combined model of all four states.

Characteristics of the highly apprehensive individual include: introversion, low assertiveness and cooperation, competition and risk avoidance, slow to take action, a “go-along” person lacking in self esteem, self control and emotional maturity (McCroskey, 1977; McCroskey et al., 1976; Merrill, 1974). The individual with low apprehension is characterized as adventurous, extroverted, confident, emotionally mature, high in self esteem, disclosive, tolerant of ambiguity, and willing to accept change (McCroskey, 1977). This description implies that low apprehensive individuals are also self-accepting. McCroskey (1978) found that CA was related to introversion, self-esteem and self-acceptance problems, verbal reticence, communication avoidance, and other general personality variables. McCroskey (1982) rationalized the causes of trait-based CA as centering on learned helplessness and learned responsiveness and negative reinforcement models.

Many studies have been done on the nature of CA in organizational settings. Scott et al (1978) found that individuals with high CA stayed longer in their organizations, had less desire for advancement, and were in positions of low communication expectations. Richmond et al (1986) found that there was a substantial relationship between supervisor’s affinity seeking strategies and subordinate apprehension in communicating with the superior. McCroskey et al (1986) found that trait-like CA was strongly linked to audience based CA in a superior-subordinate setting. Hawkins and Stewart (1991) found that “observers rated higher apprehensives significantly lower in emerged leadership than lower apprehensives … and higher apprehensives rated themselves lower in emerged leadership than did lower apprehensives (pp. 7).” Winiecki and Ayres (1999) found a “strong inverse relationship between trait CA and position within the company” (pp. 435). A recent study by Cole and McCroskey (2003) found that supervisors perceived as apprehensive were seen as less credible and viewed more negatively. Finally, McCroskey et al (2004) found that “higher upward mobile orientations are associated with lower communication apprehension (pp. 7).”

The most common measure employed to assess communication apprehension has been the Personal Report of Communication Apprehension (McCroskey, 1970). The PRCA has been shown to be particularly reliable and valid (Levine & McCroskey, 1990; McCroskey, 1978). Specifically, McCroskey (1978) reasoned that the PRCA was capable of predicting behavior consistent with the construct of communication apprehension, is correlated with variables consistent with communication apprehension, and provides a measure of a stable characteristic that can be altered through substantial intervention. McCroskey et al (1986) suggested that further research be done in the organizational context to assess state and trait CA in superior-subordinate relationships.

4. Methods

What clearly emerges from a discussion of these variables is that knowledge management is likely to deteriorate when communicators are ineffective. Knowledge workers that do not possess important communicative skills will fail to effectively manage knowledge compared to more effective communicators. This model stipulates the following basic research question:

(R1) Does communication apprehensiveness predict less effective knowledge management ability?

Subjects

Subjects (N = 1046) were selected from a sample of students taking classes in a non-traditional graduate degree program and other associated individuals. Over 50% of the subject population was over 30 years of age. More females (n = 581) completed the assessment than males (n = 487). Well over 50% had been employed for over five years, and well over 50% were in positions of management (ranging from supervisory to executive level). Finally, over 90% of the sample indicated that they used computer technology more than irregularly, and by far, most used computer technology on a daily basis.

Procedure

The entire instrument battery was administered to subjects following a brief set of instructions. Subjects were asked to grant legal consent and to indicate if they wished for more information following the accumulation of results. Subjects were given ample time to complete the instrument (generally 20 minutes was sufficient). Participants were asked to return the instrument to an instructed location when they completed it. Following administration of the instrument battery, data analysis occurred.

Instrumentation

The first instrument utilized in this instrument battery was the Knowledge Management Inventory (KMI). This inventory focused exclusively on the behavioral aspects of knowledge management, and the content of the questions was derived from the Barth (2003) typology of knowledge management. Barth had seven categories of knowledge management and four questions from each of the categories were selected for the KMI. The basic context of each question centered on organizational rather than personal demands. Once created, the KMI was administered to a pilot sample (N = 99) for the purposes of establishing reliability estimates (α = .86). Two of the questions were further clarified based on this analysis to improve the instrument. The KMI achieved an alpha reliability of .89 in this sampling. Based on Barth’s typology a series of subscales were computed: information acquisition, document and information creation, and document and information application. Alpha reliabilities on the subscales were α = .70, α = .79, and α = .71, respectively.

The second instrument used was the PRCA-24 developed by McCroskey (1982). The PRCA–24 is a trait CA form. This instrument uses six items to measure apprehension in four situational contexts (dyadic, group discussion, group meeting, and public speaking). Items are measured on five point Likert scales ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Items are summed, yielding subscores for each of the four contexts and a total score across the contexts. The PRCA-24 usually exhibits reliabilities above .90 (McCroskey, 1984). There is evidence for the predictive validity of this measure (McCroskey, 1978; McCroskey, 1984; McCroskey & Beatty, 1984). In this study the reliability score for the PRCA-24 was a = .93, which is consistent with prior research.

Finally, several questions regarding basic demographics of the sample were deemed important for this investigation. Subjects were asked to report on the following: age, sex, years employed, education, type of career, use of technology, and position. In the below analyses the only variable used was the position variable where subjects self-rated themselves as entry level, supervisory level, or upper management/executive level.

5. Results

Table 1 details the descriptive statistics for each of the variables involved in this study.

Table 1. Select Descriptive Statistics Of Scales And Subscales

Variable Name

n

Min

Max

Mean

Knowledge Management Inventory

988

73

140

115.16

KM - Information Acquisition

1023

22

40

33.15

KM - Information Creation

1014

30

60

48.31

KM - Information Application

1028

16

40

33.51

Personal Report of Communication Apprehension

1005

32

108

62.12

PRCA – Dyadic

1029

9

26

15.51

PRCA - Group Meeting

1035

9

30

15.89

PRCA - Group Discussion

1038

6

30

13.85

PRCA - Public Speaking

1027

6

30

16.90

The overall measure of knowledge management was negatively related to communication apprehension (r = -.325, p > .001). Additionally, the overall measure of communication apprehension was a significant predictor of knowledge management, accounting for 15.1% of the variance in knowledge management (F = 169.60, df = 1, 954, p > .001). Table 2 details similar findings across the various knowledge management subscales. It indicates that as subjects’ level of communication apprehension increases, their ability to manage knowledge generally, as well as to acquire, create, and apply information specifically, decreases significantly.

Table 2. Correlations Between Communication Apprehension And Knowledge Management Variables

 

KMI

KMI - Information Acquisition

KMI - Information Creation

KMI - Information Application

PRCA Total

-.389

-.294

-.419

-.314

PRCA - Dyadic

-.347

-.279

-.344

-.296

PRCA - Group Meeting

-.349

-.273

-.374

-.278

PRCA - Group Discussion

-.380

-.282

-.380

-.343

PRCA - Public Speaking

-.286

-.214

-.348

-.186

All correlations significant at the p = .001 criterion level or less.

In an effort to understand the nature of the relationship between communication apprehension and knowledge management, several multiple regressions were computed. In the first regression model all PRCA subscales were entered looking at the total variance accounted for by all aspects of communication apprehension. This model was highly significant (F = 46.15; df = 4, 951; p > .001) accounting for 16.3% of the variance of knowledge management. The second regression model, looking at the effect of all PRCA subscales on information acquisition also proved significant (F = 26.17; df = 4, 982; p < .001) accounting for 9.6% of the variance in this knowledge management subscale. The third regression model explored the effect of communication apprehension subscales on information creation, and was similarly very significant (F = 52.26; df = 4, 973; p < .001) and accounted for 17.7% of the variance in this subscale. The final regression model looked at the effects of communication apprehension subscales on the knowledge management subscale of information application revealing another significant finding (F = 36.76; df = 4, 985; p < .001) and accounting for 13% of the variance in the knowledge management subscale. Since all correlations were negative, it must be assumed that communication apprehension is a negative predictor of knowledge management.

6. Discussion

The basic conclusion is unmistakable - individuals that are less comfortable with communication are less effective with a variety of knowledge management functions. Even though no research has been conducted linking communication apprehension as a predictor of knowledge management, the relationship should be no surprise. Several research pieces (Crawford & Strohkirch, 2000, 2002; Howell & Higgins, 1990; Sypher, 1990; Zorn, 1991) have established the link between various leadership related attributes and communication strategies. This research simply extends these findings by suggesting that those individuals with communication apprehension are less capable of managing knowledge activities in a social/organizational environment.

Specifically, this research clearly demonstrated that communication apprehension was as significant predictor of knowledge management skills in the workplace. A very significant 15% of the variance of knowledge management was accounted for by the communication apprehension measure. When all subscales were combined in a multiple regression, over 16% of the variance was attributed to communication apprehension across all four communication contexts. The rationale for why this might happen is obvious - if an individual has less refined communication skills, their ability to work with information in an organization would likely be impaired.

In further exploration of the predictive model, all four subscales of communication apprehension were explored in relation to the subscales of knowledge management. It was found that nearly 10% of the variance of information acquisition was accounted for by communication apprehension, as well as 17% of the variance of information creation, and over 13% of the variance of information application. These findings reveal that information communication apprehension has a significant effect on knowledge management overall, as well as the distinct aspects of knowledge management. Additionally, communication apprehension plays a more substantial predictive role for information creation than for information acquisition and information application.

Several significant implications based on these results become apparent. First, organizational leaders are best served by raising the level of acceptance of communication if they want to improve their knowledge management functions. If an organization reinforces communication ineffectiveness, these findings underscore that the result will be degradation in the way in which knowledge is acquired, created, and applied. Organizational leaders might be well served to consider the placement of those individuals that are highest in communication apprehension reserving less social placements for individuals that have a higher degree of apprehensiveness. To accomplish communication skill building, these authors recommend following one or more of the following four solutions:

        Closely mentor individuals that struggle to communicate effectively but show promise as effective knowledge managers. Catching problems before the individual ascends the organizational hierarchy will likely have a high return on investment.

        Suggest a strong formal education process for those individuals involved in knowledge management. Taking just one public speaking might be sufficient for an individual to build confidence.

        Build practical communication skills rather than theory. The immediate yield will boost the apprehensive individual toward greater communication effectiveness.

        Put effective communicators in positions where they manage knowledge.

Any one of these solutions may be enough to move an individual toward greater success as a communicator, and thus, have greater success in moving information to others in the knowledge workplace more effectively.

As more apprehensive individuals begin to improve their communication competency, there might be a real opportunity to transition some of the tacit knowledge of the workplace into explicit knowledge. Moving knowledge from tacit to explicit has a synergistic effect on the organizational communication - the more people create the more can be shared among knowledge workers. This synergy will likely have a long-term effect on those individuals that have trait apprehensiveness. Overall, the health of the organization can be improved by fostering an environment where apprehensive communicators can receive counsel, education, or specific training to enhance any communicative deficit they might have. This research clearly suggests that there will be a direct improvement in the ability of those individuals in terms of their ability to acquire, create, and apply knowledge in their organization if their communication apprehensiveness can be decreased.

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Contact the Authors:

C. B. Crawford, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Leadership Studies, Fort Hays State University, 600 Park St., Hays, KS 67601; Tel: (785) 628-4531; Email: ccrawfor@fhsu.edu

C. Sue Strohkirch, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Communication Studies, Hays State University, 600 Park St., Hays, KS 67601; Tel: (785) 628-4531; Email: sstrohki@fhsu.edu