Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, December 2002

Socialising Knowledge Management: The Influence Of The Opinion Leader

Cheng MingYu, Multimedia University, Malaysia

ABSTRACT:

This paper looks at knowledge management and the importance of knowledge management in today’s organisations.  Even though knowledge management has gained its popularity recently due to the drastic changes in business ecology, there is still confusion on how to implement the knowledge management strategy successfully.  Therefore, this paper aims to investigate and suggest possible ways to communicate the concept of knowledge management more effectively so that the knowledge management concept could be implemented more successfully.  The communication of knowledge management concept is done through knowledge management socialisation process and it is suggested that the socialisation process be carried out by the so called “opinion leader” who is presumably to be a more knowledgeable person and be able to influence others in changing their perception and behaviour.


Introduction

Today organisations are fundamentally different as compared to organisations existed in one or two decades ago in terms of their functions, structures and style of management.  The new organisations put more premium on understanding, adapting and managing changes and competing on the basis of capturing and utilising knowledge to better serve their customers, improve the operations or to speed their products to markets.  The emergence of these new organisations calls for a new way of management, which is generally known as “knowledge management”.  What is knowledge management?  Why is it so important to adopt this new methodology of management? How to successfully implementing knowledge management in the old and new organisations? One of the conceivable ways to initiate knowledge management in organisations is to socialising knowledge management.  In the process of knowledge management socialisation, what would be the role of opinion leader so that knowledge management could be understood and accepted easily by the organisations? Who are the opinion leader and how to identify the opinion leader? Why is there a need of the opinion leaders in knowledge management socialisation?  These are some of the important issues to be discussed in this paper.

Knowledge Management

It is almost impossible to trace exactly the origin of knowledge management - when it started and how it started.  In fact, mankind has always been managing knowledge, ever since in the hunter-gatherer society. During the hunting-gathering era, efforts were made to accumulate and disseminate knowledge regarding hunting and gathering activities. Through their experiences in the hunting and gathering activities, hunter-gatherers managed to develop and accumulate extensive understanding of their environment such as the sources of food, the dangers, and the opportunities, which exist within their territory.  The society was continuously looking for new knowledge and technology for survival and to protect themselves from animals and natural disorders. The way of life was gradually improving and the knowledge was enhanced through experience.  Even though there was no proper and systematic way of managing, storing and sharing knowledge at that time, relevant knowledge was passed on from generation to generation.  During the later ages in the agricultural and industrial eras, knowledge was managed, distributed and applied accordingly to cater the needs of societies at the different particular time period.  Therefore, strictly speaking, knowledge management is not an entirely new concept in the history of human development.

However, the term “knowledge management” became popular only within the last few years. Although knowledge management has now been seen as used widely in companies, governments, institutions and other organisations, there is no one unique definition of knowledge management.   In fact, despite all the various definitions, what is “knowledge management” actually referring to?

A review of literature suggested that knowledge management is generally defined as “'the collection of processes that govern the creation, dissemination, and leveraging of knowledge to fulfil organisational objectives.”  It has also been interpreted as “a business philosophy that includes a set of principles, processes, organisational structures, and technology applications that help people share and leverage their knowledge to meet their business objectives." (Gurteen, 1999). More specifically, Bukowitz et al (1999) define knowledge management as “the process by which the organisation generates wealth from its intellectual or knowledge-based assets”. Koulopoulos & Frappaolo (1999) note that “knowledge management emphases on the re-use of previous experiences and practices, but its focus is on mapping these to the changing landscape of the market”. 

Knowledge management has gained its popularity as a result of the emerging needs to incorporate dynamic changes into the business and information architecture and to develop and grow systems that can be readily adapted for the dynamically changing business environment. Organisations operating in the new business environment therefore need to be adept at creation and application of new knowledge as well as ongoing renewal of existing knowledge archived in company databases.  Even though knowledge management relies heavily on technology for database management and has been narrowly defined as technology-based management in most cases, it means more than technology per se. Davenport (1997) suggested that the elements of knowledge management should include:

      culture - the firm’s values and beliefs about information and knowledge

      behaviour and work processes - how people actually use information and knowledge and what they do with it

      politics - pitfalls that can interfere with information and knowledge sharing

      technology - what information systems are already in place

Thus, knowledge management embodies organisational processes that seek balance combination of data and information processing capacity of information technologies, the environment of using and sharing information and knowledge and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings.

Why knowledge management? The most common goals motivating a corporation to undertake an effort to manage knowledge better include retaining key talent, improving customer service, boosting innovation and promoting the development of unique market offerings and increasing revenues and profits.

Further investigations showed that most of the organisations now focus on four uses of knowledge management: (i) to capture and share best practices (77.7 percent), (ii) to provide training or corporate learning (62.4 percent), (iii) to manage customer relationships (58.0 percent) and (iv) to deliver competitive intelligence (55.7 percent) (Dyer & McDonough, 2001).  Figure 1 shows the business uses of knowledge management initiative. In fact, effective knowledge management pays off in fewer mistakes, less redundancy, quicker problem solving, better decision making, reduced research development costs, increased worker independence, enhanced customer relations, and improved service (Becerra-Fernandez, 1999). No matter what would be the reasons given to adopt knowledge management, there is only one end purpose of knowledge management – to adjusting quickly to the changing environment in order to boost efficient and hence profitability.


Figure 1: Business Uses of Knowledge Management Initiative (Reference #1)

In conclusion, knowledge management refers to a series of processes that manages the creation, dissemination, and utilisation of knowledge. The ultimate aim of knowledge management is to organise, share and put together knowledge to create a substance value in knowledge. The field of knowledge management has advanced from the principle that the organisation’s ability to utilise and share knowledge (such as staff expertise and experience, skills, data files, development processes, and etc) are important resources that would increase and improve the organisation’s productivity, creativity, and profits.

Socialising Knowledge Management

Nowadays, the application of knowledge management is indispensable in a great range of organisations or enterprises, ranging from education institutions, health-care industry, government departments, manufacturing industry and essentially all industries have close link with knowledge management.  However, in spite of its popularity, many organisations have in fact expressed their disappointment that knowledge management has not really been helping much. Most organisations are still trying to find answers to simple questions such as: How to capture, store and transfer knowledge? How to exercise the knowledge management concept? How to ensure that knowledge workers share knowledge?

In order to successfully implementing knowledge management, it is essential for organisations to realise the importance of cultivating knowledge sharing culture in the organisations through the process called “knowledge management socialisation”.  Socialising knowledge management is critical as to get rid of misconception about the knowledge management and to help the organisation's employees understand what knowledge sharing is about and why it can be of benefit to them. Essentially, knowledge management is about making the knowledge accessible to those who need it so that employees are “doing the right thing” instead of “doing things right”. However, the optimal use of available knowledge is only possible if it is known where to find this knowledge and if this knowledge is accessible. All too often one part of an enterprise repeats work of another part simply because it is impossible to keep track of, and make use of, knowledge in other parts.

Based on the KMM/IDC survey findings, an organisation's main implementation obstacles in knowledge management stem from the absence of a "sharing" culture in the organisation and employees' lack of understanding of what knowledge management is and what benefits it offers.  Survey from KPMG Consulting highlights the main reasons for the failure of knowledge management (Reference #2):

      A lack of user uptake owing to insufficient communication (20%)

      Failure to integrate KM into everyday working practices (19%)

      Lack of time to learn how to use the system or a sense that the system was too complicated (18%)

      A lack of training (15%)

      A sense that there was too little personal benefit in it for the user (13%)

The common issue that have been mentioned so far is on the human side of knowledge management implementation. Many companies have failed in their knowledge management attempts because of the way they operate this new management concept, including how they first introduced the concepts of knowledge management to their employees.  If this is true, how should then the knowledge management concept be communicated and transferred to the members of the organisations? 

It has been suggested that in order for knowledge management to be successful, it must start at the top management level, that is, if the senior management buy it, in most cases, the concept will be successful, otherwise, it will fail.  However, it has also been argued that since knowledge is an abstract concept, the culture of sharing knowledge depends on the attitude of people who formed the culture.  If people are reluctant to share their knowledge, there is absolutely no way that they can share knowledge effectively, you can not make people share by overtly rewarding them and not even by force or authority.

One of the main challenges to introduce new concepts is always stemming from changing the existing culture to accept the new concepts. The successful establishment of new environment for knowledge sharing is dependent on a number of human factors including issues such as staff development and training and change management. In the process of this cultural change and socialisation of knowledge management, what would be the role played by opinion leader in influencing people to change their attitude and adopt knowledge sharing culture successfully?

The Opinion Leader

Who are the opinion leaders? Opinion leaders are generally defined as those individuals whose beliefs, practices and behaviours are noticed and imitated by others.  If these opinion leaders are observed by others to adopt an innovation or concept that seems valued, it can begin to spread through the population.  Ultimately the population norm changes as more and more people accept change (Reference #3).

According to Solomon (1994), opinion leaders are individuals who are knowledgeable about various topics and whose advice is taken seriously by others (Solomon, 1994). Opinion leaders can be found in all types of groups: occupational, social, community, and others (Littlejohn, 1996). They often tend to be very socially active and highly interconnected within the community (Solomon, 1994). However, they do not need to be those who hold the position as leaders by official means, even though they usually are.  It is also not necessary for opinion leaders to acquire special powers (economical, political or social power), or attaining high educational or professional training, even though they usually are.  Broadly speaking, anyone can be the opinion leader, depending on the time and issue at hand.  Opinion leaders can be found in small community, as small-scale as family, or in big community with great influence, sometimes they are as influential as to change the social movements.

Opinion leadership theory has many implications for advertising and marketing. However, in this paper, the attempt to apply the opinion leadership theory in the knowledge management socialisation is considered, as it is believed that the same diffusion power would have significant impact on socialising knowledge management.  In this paper, the opinion leaders are regarded as those information scrutinisers, strategists and visionaries who understand the implications of using knowledge management and the importance to transform the organisation.  Therefore, the opinion leaders in this paper are confined narrowly to those who have special influence on changing the attitude of employees in organisations so as to create the knowledge sharing organisations. Organisational culture is a critically important aspect for facilitating sharing, learning, and knowledge creation. Therefore, knowledge management socialisation that aims to release the cultural roadblocks in the implementation of knowledge management will needs someone to communicate the benefits of corroborating the knowledge management concept in the management and to stimulate personal interest to adopt knowledge management.  Employees should be convinced that not only “knowledge is power”, but most importantly -“sharing knowledge is power".

To fully capitalise on the organisation's knowledge, knowledge management must be integrated with business process and technology tools and must enable people to act more efficiently to create value, hence requires a conducive environment for sharing knowledge in the organisation.  To create a knowledge sharing culture, the organisations need to encourage people to work together more effectively, to collaborate and to share and ultimately to make organisational knowledge more productive.

Why is there a need to have opinion leaders in knowledge management socialisation? As gregarious beings living in collectivist society, humans are interdependent and need support from other people. There is a need of second opinions from others in order to confirm their beliefs, or to avoid confusion. The role of opinion leaders in this perspective is to cultivating personal interest in sharing knowledge.  A real knowledge sharing culture could not be formed if people can not see for themselves the benefits of knowledge sharing.  Hence, the opinion leaders play important roles to communicate and convince the followers of the benefits of knowledge management such as how knowledge sharing helps them to deliver their jobs better; helps them in their personal development as well as career progression; and brings more personal recognition, etc, to enabling organisations’ employees to appreciate the basics of knowledge sharing. 

Most organisations have in fact realised the importance of the opinion leaders in facilitating the organisational change.  The creation of the new position – the Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) is one of the evidences. CKOs are viewed as the potential opinion leaders in socialising knowledge management as CKOs, who are entrusted to maximise the creation, discovery and dissemination of knowledge in the organisation are also entrusted to possess distinctive personalities such as lively, enthusiastic and able to transmit their enthusiasm to others. They had great belief in knowledge management and were ambitious for the success of their company. They were flexible, looking to work with anyone on anything that could advance the cause of knowledge management. According to Earl & Scott (2001), the best CKOs must fulfil four roles: entrepreneur (willing to champion risky new initiatives); consultant (able to match new ideas with business needs); technologist (fully IT-literate); and environmentalist (able to design settings and processes to maximise knowledge).  However, one additional role for CKO is to be the opinion leader in shaping the knowledge sharing organisations.

Though it is generally agreed that CKOs are the potential opinion leaders in the knowledge management socialisation process, it is not necessary to be so.  The challenge to the organisations thus is to identify who are the opinion leaders in the organisations and how should they apply the opinion leadership theory in socialising knowledge management concept so that knowledge management would achieve its objectives to bring benefits to organisations.

Conclusion

Knowledge management is viewed as a new and critical issue in today’s management discussions. Knowledge management emanated as a result of the increasingly discontinuous environmental changes experienced recently.  The change in management practices is unavoidable.  In order to cater the needs of organisational adaptation, survival and competence and to keep abreast with latest development as well as to maintain organisations’ competitiveness, there is an exigent need to successfully implementing knowledge management strategy.  There are many models proposed to implement the knowledge management concept, such as the commonly adopted “top to down” organisational enforcement.  However, as suggested by the American Productivity and Quality Centre (APQC), one of the effective ways to initiate knowledge management concept is to socialise the concept to alleviate misconception on knowledge management and hence to promote the knowledge management concept more successfully.  But the question is, how to socialise the knowledge management concept effectively?  This paper suggests that instead of driving the cultural change by force or by authority, if the organisations could consider the influence of opinion leaders and thus highlight the roles to be played by these opinion leaders, it can enhance the possibility of achieving the objective of implementing the knowledge management concept successfully.

References

(1)    http://www.destinationcrm.com/km/dcrm_km_article.asp?id=822&ed=5%2F1%2F01#

(2)    http://www.jgs.net/overview_of_knowledge_management.htm

(3)    http://www.aidsprevention.org/ADAPT/who.htm

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About The Author

Dr. Cheng MingYu graduated from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), and received her Ph.D. in Economics at the same university upon completing her bachelor degree in Resource Economics. Dr. Cheng has written a number of journal articles and books. Her research interest has spanned a wide variety of topics - including development economics, economics of higher education, econometrics modeling, and information economics.

Dr. CHENG MIN, GYU, Head of Economics Unit, Faculty of Management, Multimedia University, 63100 Cyberjaya,  Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia

Phone: 6-03-83125677; Fax:-03-83125590; e-mail: myucheng@hotmail.com, mycheng@mmu.edu.my