One of the dominant themes in the contemporary knowledge management literature is the importance of the role accorded to information technology. This is witnessed both by its centrality in much academic discourse on the subject (Scarbrough and Swan,
2001) and also by the predominance of information technology-based knowledge management initiatives being implemented in practice (Ruggles, 1998).
Writing embedded in this perspective is typically saturated in an optimism about how either an organization’s knowledge assets can be shared directly via information technology systems or that such processes can be supported and facilitated by information technology.
This perspective on knowledge management is however based on a very particular objectivist epistemological perspective on knowledge.
This paper outlines a contrary perspective based on a fundamentally different philosophy of knowledge, which is substantially more pessimistic about the role that information technology systems can play in the processes of knowledge sharing. This perspective, which Cook and Brown (1999) referred to as an ‘epistemology of practice’, suggests that the intrinsic character of all knowledge makes it is extremely dif. cult to share it using information technology.
Even over the relatively short space of time that knowledge management issues have been in vogue there has been a signi. cant evolution in the way knowledge is conceptualized and in the way that knowledge management and knowledge-sharing processes have been theorized. An information systems/information technology perspective that focused primarily on technological issues dominated much of the early literature and suggested that information technology could play a central role in the management of an organization’s knowledge (Scarbrough et al., 1999; Storey and Barnett, 2000). This literature has been rightly criticized for over-emphasizing technological issues and for neglecting social and cultural factors, which can lead to a number of problems. For example, the success of knowledge management initiatives has been shown to be at risk when such social factors are underemphasized
(Storey and Barnett, 2000; Storey and
Quintas, 2001). Too great an emphasis on technologically based knowledge management initiatives has been shown to reinforce existing cultures rather than help transform them (McDermott, 1999; Newell et al., 2000). Too great a focus on an objectivist perspective on knowledge can lead to an ‘expert-driven’ approach to knowledge management that is incapable of dealing with highly tacit and distributed organizational knowledge (Sørensen and Lundh-Snis, 2001).
Trust between individuals has been shown to be necessary in order to facilitate knowledge sharing (Roberts,
2000). Finally, the sharing of knowledge has been shown to involve the active agency and cooperation of individuals, which the nature of employment relations does not guarantee (Scarborough, 1999).
However, there is still a substantial literature that argues for a strong role for information technology
Journal of Information Technology (2002) 17, 165–177
Mission impossible? Communicating and sharing knowledge via information technology
Shef. eld University Management School, University of Shef. eld, 9 Mappin Street, Shef. eld S1 4DT, UK
This paper critiques the perspective that information technology can play a central role in knowledge-sharing processes. Fundamentally, it suggests that the nature of knowledge itself makes it extremely dif. cult and that quite speci. c conditions are required for information technology-based knowledge sharing to occur successfully. The paper proceeds by criticizing the objectivist philosophy of knowledge, which typically underpins the literature advocating information technology-based knowledge management. The centre point of this critique involves questioning one of the foundational…