Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, February 2003

Trends In Corporate Knowledge Asset Protection

Jeffrey Alstete, Hagan School of Business, Iona College, NY


This paper examines the perceptions of corporate managers regarding changes in security practices related to knowledge assets at their organizations in light of recent perceived increases in security and competitive intelligence threats.  The study presents and analyzes the responses and ensuing discussion to questions posed to 36 individuals in two graduate business courses in the New York area.  Using a controlled Internet discussion board, an interactive dialogue developed among participants.  According to the qualitative research findings, a majority of participants in the study perceive that although their company is aware of the value of knowledge asset management, the organization has not increased security to guard the valuable corporate knowledge.  Many of the respondents indicated that their company increased the physical security aspects for employees, but did little or nothing to increase protection of knowledge assets.   However, one common reason that there was no increase is that many large companies already believe that their knowledge protection procedures currently in place are enough to ward off new security threats.  Recommendations are made for further qualitative and empirical research for protecting knowledge assets at corporations today. 


There has been noteworthy publicity in the news media and professional publications regarding the threat of illegal industrial espionage and terrorist threats to corporate information and knowledge assets  (Mark 1997; Gallagher 2001; Konicki, Garvey et al. 2001).  Even though systems of knowledge management often overlap with counterintelligence efforts (Shaker and Gembicki 1999), the strategic value of knowledge assets and the importance of building safeguards in the new era of heightened security is becoming more of concern to corporate leaders today (Bollinger and Smith 2001).  Corporate processes to protect proprietary information have tended to follow the classified-protection model developed to thwart clandestine or illegal intelligence operations, which can leave firms unprepared to defend against organized competitive intelligence (Mark 1997).  However, even as those concerns are still valid, chief information and knowledge officers must now address the growing threat that companies face against technological, informational, and physical attacks on their corporate knowledge base.  It would be assumed that companies are properly organizing strategies to protect against both competitive intelligence threats and the new terrorist activities, with sound planning and adjustments to their knowledge management processes.  The recent slowing of the economy and the large number of widely-known attacks on corporations may have an effect on the actions and perceptions of individuals who are involved in these matters.  This research study is intended to help identify and begin exploring some of these perceptions, and offer nascent ideas for further consideration by knowledge management professionals and others.  

Literature Review

This section provides a brief review of selected literature related to knowledge management and issues in protection of knowledge assets.  This is important to not only help provide context, but also to demonstrate more explicitly the originality and contribution of this research by placing this study in the larger context of research on knowledge management strategies and security issues.

As a field of study, knowledge management has been undergoing expanded and updated definitions that builds on past institutional experiences and creates new mechanisms for exchanging and creating knowledge (Lytras, Pouloudi et al. 2002).  Many of the definitions in the literature focus on similar fundamental ideas, including the concept that knowledge management involves information technologies, business processes, knowledge repositories and individual behaviors.  A definition was recently offered by Shane and Lytras and others (2002) which defines knowledge management as:

The cumulative ability to utilize the value incorporated in the various stakeholders in of an organization.  Knowledge management is the integration of knowledge assets in reusable formats, that sets a win-win relation for all the parts of the knowledge Web. (p.42)

In addition, it has been suggested that knowledge management is a conscience strategy for moving the right knowledge to the right people at the right time to assist sharing and enabling the information to be translated into action to improve the organizational performance (O'Dell and Grayson 1997).  The issues of knowledge utilization, transference and storage have concerns for those aware of security and protection of these knowledge assets. While organizations are generally aware that information systems need increased security each year and higher degrees of oversight, many organizations are also beginning to recognize their technology-based competitive advantages are usually fleeting and the true competitive advantages they have is the knowledge of their employees (Black and Synan 1997; Martensson 2000).   A serious question today is whether organizations are properly planning to protect both the explicit knowledge stored in information technology, the transference pipeline, and the tacit knowledge in the minds of their employees.  If these perceptions can be better understood, new strategies to help organizations plan for better protection and security of their knowledge can be explored and developed. 

The knowledge management literature also suggest that the truly valuable “corporate memory” is quite complex, where every element has some explicit and some tacit knowledge components in which exchanges are done on a needs basis (Beckett 2000).  This concept may help explain why many corporate managers have difficulty understanding the seemingly simple idea of transferring, managing, and now (hopefully) securing this knowledge today.  Valuable corporate knowledge can be viewed as highly complex and fluid, with inherent difficulties in managing it from traditional thinking perspectives (Allee 1997).  Qualities of this knowledge include that it is messy, self organizing, seeks community, travels on language, is slippery, likes looseness, experiments, is a social phenomenon, grows organically, and is multi-modal.  It is obvious how properly protecting and securing anything valuable with these qualities would be a challenge to organizational leaders and knowledge managers.  A knowledge management process that incorporates a solid planning model with concerns about strategic knowledge asset security seems to be needed in today’s world of multiple threats from competitors and others who seek to steal or destroy knowledge assets.

It has also been proposed that to be a strategic asset (which is of value and therefore needs to be well guarded) the asset must be valuable, rare, inimitable, and non0substitutable (Michalisin, Smith et al. 1997).  Bollinger and Smith (2001) argue that based on these characteristics, organizational knowledge is indeed a strategic asset.  Their conclusion then suggests that if organizations wish to remain competitive, they should develop processes for capturing relevant knowledge, dispersing it correctly, periodically, concisely and at the appropriate times.  The current state of security concerns in other literature would seem to therefore build toward adding the need for protection of strategic knowledge assets as an added part of the knowledge management process today.  This research study seeks to begin to explore the perceived need for increased security of knowledge assets.


For the purposes of this qualitative research study, the participants selected were located in the New York metropolitan area in the Spring of 2002.  Most were employed at medium to large sized corporations, many in the corporate global headquarters.  They were questioned regarding their perceptions about security of knowledge assets not only in light of the recent changes after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but also in broad terms that explored general increases in security procedures at their organization.  The fact that most of the participants fit this profile of working for a large global corporation is an indicator that they meet the requirements of the criterion sampling that was established.  Criterion sampling can add important qualitative components to research and helps ensure more accurate in-depth analysis because the cases that are picked meet the predetermined criteria (Patton 1990).

The 36 study participants were enrolled in two business course sections at a college in the New York metropolitan area, consisting of one undergraduate (baccalaureate-level) for returning adults and one graduate (MBA) course.  Most of these participants are full-time professionals working at larger corporations who are studying part-time in evening courses.  A smaller portion are full-time students, who often work part-time while in college.  The majority of participants range in age from 20 to 40, and nearly all of the students expressed an interest in the topic area by enrolling in the course and offering their perceptions by actively participating on the course discussion board.  The course format was via distance learning, and used an e-Learning platform to facilitate teamwork and group discussion (Alstete 2001).  The online discussion boards enabled thorough examination of individual comments for inductive analysis and subsequent analyst-constructed typologies to be developed.  This inductive analysis enabled the researcher to identify patterns, themes, and categories from the data, rather than being imposed on them prior to data collection and analysis (Patton 1990).  In addition, the type of Internet discussion board used in this study enables participants to continue discussion “threads” on various sub-topics.   Although the selected respondent postings shown in this paper do represent the discussion threads related to any of the categories derived, the researcher labeled respondents with a letter codes to enable readers to see any individual respondents who may have made follow-up comments.


Through an examination of the hundreds of comments made by the participants, it was possible to classify their perceptions about whether they believe their company is aware of the value of knowledge assets and if they have changed their protection policies in light of the recent increase in global security.  The analysis of results found that there are generally four categories of perceptions, namely: 1) aware of the value of knowledge management; 2) not aware of knowledge management; 3) no increase in security; and 4) increased security, with a variety of reasons that are clustered in several categories.  The last two categories can be broken into three subcategories or typologies:

1.      Already had effective procedures in place.  These respondents believe that the reason their company has not increased protection of knowledge assets is that the organization is under the belief that their security procedures are already strong enough to withstand any perceived or real increase in threats.  Whether these beliefs and perceptions by the organizations is correct is probably a matter of perception, but the researcher believes that many of the respondents seemed to agree that their company’s efforts at protection will be enough to protect the strategic knowledge assets.

2.      Lack good security.  This perception by employees is interesting and should be of concern to senior managers of knowledge assets.  The employees with this type of response seemed to believe that their company is not viewing the current or increased threat to security as significant and therefore have not increased their protection efforts.  Perhaps if improved knowledge management strategies and systems are designed with strong protection procedures in place through the relevant documentation and manuals, then typical managers as surveyed here may  be inclined to answer differently.

3.      The new protections processes largely involve physical assets.  Many managers believe that most of the new schemes that were installed were merely for physical assets, personnel access, travel procedures, and so on.  They believe that the company has not greatly increased the protection of information and knowledge assets.  However, this category could be partly or largely due to misperceptions by uninformed employees who are not truly aware of the extent of the changes in knowledge management security procedures at the large organizations where they are employed.  However, if this perception is accurate, then this is another area for concern by knowledge managers.

During the discussion period with the participants, the facilitator informed everyone about a recent news article announcing a supposed decline in self-employed entrepreneurs.  The news article stated that there was a slight increase in the percent of individuals who work for larger employers, possibly due to the increase cost of health care, more loneliness, lack of involvement on teams, and other factors.  There were also quotes from entrepreneurs who returned from entrepreneurial small business to larger companies.  The participants in this study were asked if they believe this is true, and if they believe that more people may be returning to larger companies and why that may be true.  The summary of selected participant responses are as follows:

Believe Their Company Understands the Value of Knowledge Management

Most of the participants (81%) who responded to this inquiry stated that they believed agreed with the decline.  The study facilitator first stated that the key asset of most companies is not the buildings, market share, or products.  It is the knowledge and skills of the people in the company.  The participants were then asked if they believe their company is aware of this value and has a strategy for retaining and exploiting knowledge effectively. 

I do think that my company has some strategies in place for knowledge management.  I will list a few items that helps managing knowledge in my company …

Knowledge repositories - a huge database of information by function/business process etc.
Knowledge exchange forums - like user groups that you could use to share your knowledge, exchange ideas, get more information on topics of interest etc. These exist on the corporate intranet and is for technology and business related topics.
Cross training - the company is big on cross training of employees. There are various activities within each team that supports this so that all team members are aware 'high level' what each other person does and the knowledge they carry with them.
Intranet sites - each SBU and each team within each SBU has an intranet site- describes what key business process each team supports, various outputs, technologies used etc.
Multiple roles within each team - each function has primary, secondary and tertiary role attached with it so that more than one person knows about the function he/she supports.
Big push on documentation - time is specifically assigned to complete documentation on projects worked.
Access to research papers/white papers etc supports sharing of knowledge.  P.V.

I do believe that to a large extent the company I presently work for effectively utilizes knowledge management.  A.M.

I know with. . . (company name). . . before it was sold they were very big into knowledge of their people.  They believe that people brought almost everything to the business. N.D.

(my company). . . is very much into protecting whatever codified knowledge they can. . . like any other institution they have problems managing tacit knowledge.  Until you get the information out of someone’s head and onto paper and published you cannot manage or control it.  In order to retain tacit knowledge, you have to retain people.  Management, no matter what level or type, has to identify the amount of tacit knowledge a person has (or refuses to document) and determine a value for it.  If the value of this knowledge is priceless then you pay and give them ANYTHING to keep them.  The inverse will also be true.  (my company) is very good about keeping such people.  J.L.

There seems to be a clear understanding at (company name) that knowledge management is key to efficiency and maximizing individual competencies. For instance, (company name) used to hire interpreters anytime they needed one, until a poll of multilingual employees revealed that 14 languages were available through the employees. Using the secondary knowledge and competencies of the employees not only saved money, but increased employee value.  Currently there is a strong effort to reduce duplication of effort at (company name), almost all of which involves information management and dissemination. The main hurdle is how to disseminate the information when there is so much to communicate and limited time and channels through which to deliver and receive it.  P.W.

I am certain that my company is aware of the values of "Knowledge Management" and uses these values to create a competitive advantage for our company. Our company has the most experienced and longest tenured staff of sales and support people in the industry.
Our Vice President of Engineering and our National Service Manager have been with the compnay for 40 years each. Our sales staff averages 15 years with the company. I have been with the company for only five years but there is a wealth of talent and knowledge that I can call on at any time to solve any of my customers belting situations. The staff our company has put together is an awesome array of talent and experience. We are the class of our industry and we are the market leader.
When a customer hears me rattle off the credentials of our staff, they are impressed and intrigued at the same time. Most companies today do not keep their employees the length of time that we do. This is a rarity in today’s marketplace. We can offer service and knowledge that many companies cant.
With this in mind, we can see that my company takes full advantage of the "Knowledge Management" strategy. Like many firms in other industries, we take the information we get in the field, and the knowledge we have gained through the years and turn it into an advantage. We need to keep learning and growing to keep our lead over our competition. L.C.

In addition to employee stability, some of the participants who believed their company valued knowledge assets also discussed the importance of organizational size:

I would suspect that most large-sized organizations are aware of this, and as such, try to retain their most valued employees.  But the profit-generating aspect of the puzzle also plays a role in the way organizations operate, and whenever a re-organization takes place, sometimes some of the most skilled employees are laid off.  J.M.

The flow of information will be very different in a large vs. a small organisation. I think it is important to include the structure of the organisation when we argue about how information flows. in example, in a small technical company, the developer may be able to join a sales person in a sales call, this is hardly seen in larger organisations. The developer will then be able to talk about futures etc.  D.E.

This is true in my company where I have engineers, scientists, Service managers, National Sales managers and VP of sales at my disposal when I make a sales call. Appointments with these type of personnel involved, need to be set up in advance and are rare but they can happen. I have utilized all of these people to help me convey my sales message and to help the customer further understand our product.
My company does approximately $75,000,000 a year but we try to function as a small firm. We attempt to give a personal touch to our customers so they feel like a customer and not a number.  L.C.

think that the size of the company matters a lot. As the company becomes larger and larger the assets (whatever kind of assets may be) will be big and there will be more anonymity and security will be a difficult process. If there is no competition you can be peaceful. T.N.

I work for a small company, about 400 people! We have great information, but sometimes it takes awhile for it to circulate. Sometimes it hits the sales force at the same time it hits the clients. That's bad! . . .  yes even small companies have this problem. It may be a cultural thing!  T.K.

Readers who are familiar with knowledge management and organizational size may know it has been argued that the growth of knowledge management may not be related so much to the original size of the company as it is to company downsizing and technological development  (DiMattia and Oder 1997).  When companies downsize there is often a loss of important knowledge that they may have accumulated  over the years, and many organizations are now more determined to protect themselves from experiencing these losses again with knowledge management strategies (DiMattia and Oder 1997; Piggott 1997; Martensson 2000).

Disagree That Their Company is Aware of the Value of Knowledge Management

Some of the participants believe that the way the organization treats its employees is an indicator of how knowledge assets are valued.  As mentioned earlier, the type of internet discussion board used in this study enables participants to continue discussion “threads” on sub-topics.

I think my company considers it's name and reputation it's biggest asset and it's personnel secondary. I say this because i see the turnover of talented people leaving the company year after year with no effort to retain them. I think this leads to us having to constantly retrain people and as importantly, re-build relationships with our clients. M.K.

There was an employee that was trying to let go some key people in order to save money. Fortunately enough, the VP new better than to let go these key people. It was obvious, to me anyway, that this person was just trying to eliminate the people that she considered a threat. As I learned in my Organizational Behavior class, this person had very little emotional intelligence. Consolidating can save a company money but getting rid of the most knowledgeable is not the best thing for the organization.  F.F.

I don't think my company does this well at all even though it is highly important that they do. My company has certain individuals with a substantial amount of knowledge of our technology. It is extremely important that this knowledge be captured in some way shape or form and they have done a very, very poor job of doing so. When you have so called "golden workers" that have all the knowledge of that company and there are very few of them, you are in a very dangerous situation. A company relying on just a few people or even one puts itself in a very scary situation. This is what my company has done and as a result has created much conflict and uncertainty. The lack of ability to transfer that knowledge has presented a very big problem.  F.Z.

Some of these participants perceive that knowledge is the greatest asset of the company, and they believe that some organizations do not value the knowledge properly, manage it effectively, and do attempt to restrict departure of important knowledge. 

After the discussion on the perceived value of knowledge management at organizations today, the facilitator then asked the two participant groups their perceptions regarding the recent increase in concerns about security, both domestically and globally.  The facilitator asked if they believe their company has changed their strategies and practices on protecting knowledge assets.

An analysis of the results found that a slight majority (56%) of participants do not believe that their company has changed or increased their protection of knowledge assets.   Perceptions discussed include the belief by many organizations that they already have effective knowledge protection procedures in place, or that the company does not have good security in general.  However, a significant percentage (44%) do believe that their organization has changed or increased some security aspects.  It was found that many of these changes may only be broadly defined as including protection of the knowledge assets.   Some of these changes include areas of travel procedures and confidentiality.  Others perceived that their company efforts were merely physical security increases that may not effectively increase protection of knowledge.  

No Change or Increase in Security

Many of the study participants believe that their company is not increasing protection of knowledge assets.  Again, those familiar with the true nature of knowledge management literature and research may know that the uninformed perceptions are often different from the reality they may experience as typical employees, particularly in regard to senior level strategies for protection of knowledge assets after the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the New York area.

This company has had problems not taking macro-issues into account before and the events of 9/11 are no different. This goes for everything (including knowledge assets). To illustrate this point, despite the state of the economy and unemployment, this company chose to raise fees while reducing marketing activities.  C.D.

I am not aware of any new policies to protect knowledge assets post 9/11. I think this is because the company already had effective procedures in place before 9/11. I know there have been recent measures (policies and legal measures) to make sure that the company does not do business with any client or group of clients that fund money for illegal/terrorist activities. Other than that we have global information security measures, corporate technology policy statements, standards, confidentiality policies etc that would make each employee responsible towards protecting company knowledge assets/information.  P.V.

I too am unaware of any new policies to protect knowledge information, post 9/11 however, my organization incorporates many of the same measures P.V. mentioned in his/her posting such as: corporate technology policy statements, standards, confidentiality policies etc., that restrict each employee to be responsible for protecting company knowledge, assets and sensitive information.
I must mention however, that security personnel have increased at each entrance/exit of campus buildings and their presence is much more obvious.  M.L.

I haven't been informed of any new measures taken regarding knowledge management. (organization name) had an extensive off-site computer back-up for confidential patient data prior to 9/11.  T.W.

Simply put no. There was already enough in place, security was already high.  If anything as a result of 9/11 the problem would be to retain tacit knowledge if a particular person decided that NYC was too dangerous a place to live. That could be a problem. The question then becomes how much money, power or stuff do you offer to retain a person who feels their life is at stake?  J.L.

I don't feel my company has done much to change protecting its assets. My company has a proprietary technology and has always looked at security as a highly regarded topic. The acts of 9/11 really haven't changed our outlook on security pertaining to our company because we have always taken every means necessary to protect what we need to. Then again, we are a very small company and it is a little bit easier for us to implement security than a larger company. Large corporate companies have more of an issue with security because the scale of protection is a magnitude higher.  F.Z.

I have not seen any changes in the way our company has done business since September 11th. We had been going through new procedures and safeguards for access to our website but that had been started in 2000. The events of September 11th have not brought on an increase in securtiy to our asset base in an overt way.  L.C.

Even before 911 MasterCard had the best knowledge based security in place and continues to do so today. (No details)  M.G.

Increased Security

Some employees perceive that their company has increased security and that it may help protect knowledge assets. However, a portion of the increased protection focused on physical aspects and travel procedures, or that the increases were half-hearted attempts by the company to appear as if they are being more secure. 

Working in the Financial services industry, privacy and security of our knowledge assets has always been a priority. We dedicate enormous resources to security policies and procedures and enforcement on an ongoing basis. What I've seen change after 9/11 has been an increase in reminders of the rules. We've received updated copies of the policies, e-mail and bulletin reminders from security. I know that we've revised and updated contingency plans and have had drills and/or walk-throughs. The rules for storage and shredding of documents have been reiterated. Employees that travel receive ongoing instruction for protection of themselves and equipment or information. D.F.

My company has definitely stepped up it's security on knowledge assets and company locations.
We get security updates weekly on steps taken to secure the network and information as well as what we should do personally at our workstations etc. This was always a part of our work life but the increase in awareness is obvious.
As far as company locations are concerned, while every company as increased security, (company name) is somewhat unique. Since we own the Central Offices that control most voice and data communication, our CO's are obvious targets for terrorist activity. People used to be able to walk in and out without any questions, but now all employees, contractors, etc. are stopped by security personnel and must present ID.
It's not perfect but it's certainly better than before.  M.K.

(company name) has made significant changes -absolutely!
In the past few months the centralized IT group - based in Philadelphia - has implemented a great deal of WAN security upgrades. This IT group has always had control over the Windows-NT network, but recently, and increasingly there have been occasions on which they "take control" of my computer and download/distribute new monitoring programs. I have inquired, and have been told that these are a direct result of the desire for increased security and monitoring to protect intellectual property. It is apparent when booting-up that my computer loads many programs(middlewares)that I strongly suspect are intended for these new security measures.  T.K.

At our company, we have seen an effort to do background checks, increased safety measures, etc. However, some of these efforts are half hearted. We know that the background checks done on suppliers on site is to be performed by the supplier, at their cost, and then corporate will do spot checks to see if the supplier has done checks on the people they employ that have access to our site.
In my opinion, this task should be done by the company, however painful it is. The supplier will only raise his prices to cover the requirement, and by the company doing the background checks, I feel it will get done more efficiently. C.B.

To some degree, my company has changed a few of their strategies and practices. Travel being one and confidentiality being another, but overall, they have been very effective in initiating knowledgeable and informative procedures. . . A. M.

My office building is a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. Before everything happened it was easy to get in and out of the building. Afterwards, they made several security changes. Our old ID badges used to say (company name) on them. Now, we have no such writing on them to prevent people from knowing where we work. We have to show our ID at the front door to a guard every time we enter the building. We then have to show it again once inside. The final check point is that we have to use our IDs to buzz ourselves in. All guests must walk through a metal detector and cannot enter the building without a (company name) employee signing them in. This is the case with many offices in the area. My sister works a couple of blocks from me and security is just as tight there.  M.G.

Further research is needed to gauge the accuracy of these findings, especially considering the relatively small number of participants and the dispersion of their job positions in the various corporations.  A broader sample is needed that explores the true depth of the perceptions regarding the changes in knowledge management protection in light of heightened global security.  Variables to be potentially controlled for in a broader study may include organizational size, industry type, employee demographics, organizational location, and previous security concerns.  If further and future studies continue to yield results such as those found in this study, then there may be justification for changes in knowledge management strategies at many corporations.


In this era of heightened security for domestic and global organizations, protection of corporate assets is a vital concern.  Knowledge management and protection of knowledge assets is emerging as a field of study that with many ideas yet to be fully tested, issues to be resolved, and organizational learning that needs to be done.  This study revealed that many corporate managers believe their company has at least a rudimentary understanding of the value of knowledge management today, but many companies have not implemented effective plans to protect their knowledge assets.  As organizations begin to define what their valuable knowledge is, and create management plans to utilize the knowledge, security issues also need to be explored in both technical and strategic levels.  In addition, other research should be conducted of a broader sample of organizations, to determine the true extent of knowledge security concerns, risks, and potential benefits of increased protection. Some of the issues related to protection of the knowledge assets that need further exploration include the storage media, accessibility, types of knowledge to be protected, budget planning, inter- and intra-organizational cooperation, governmental and international association assistance, and long-range strategic planning for knowledge asset protection.


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About the  Author:

Jeffrey W. Alstete is associate dean and assistant professor of management in the Hagan School of Business at Iona College, New Rochelle, New York. He is the author of two books and various journal articles related to higher education, business education, and management.

Dr. Alstete earned an Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration from Seton Hall University, and holds an MBA in Financial Management and an MS in Computer Science from Iona College, as well as a BS in Business Administration from St. Thomas Aquinas College.

His areas of research interests include entrepreneurship, competitive benchmarking, faculty development, administration effectiveness, virtual teaming, and organizational improvement.

Mailing address: Jeffrey W. Alstete, Hagan School of Business, 715 North Avenue, Iona College, New Rochelle, NY 10801

Email:; Telephone 914-633-2265