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Knowledge Management (Gestion des connaissances)

Lilly Lemay, Professor
École nationale d'administration publique


In the world of organizations, knowledge management commonly refers to the preservation, sharing and development of knowledge deemed critical, strategic or important.[1]

A logic of knowledge began to emerge from the prevailing industrial logic starting in the 1960s, with Drucker's work (1967) on the “knowledge worker,” and continuing in the 1970s with the research of Argyris (1976) and Argyris and Schön (1978) on learning organizations and the theory of reflective action, as well as the research of Lindblom and Cohen (1979) on what is termed “actionable knowledge.”

In the 1970s and afterward, the prevailing view of data and information management systems was technological (Alvesson and Kärreman 2001; Ferrary and Pesqueux, 2006; Zhenzhong and Kuo-Hsun, 2009). Then, in the 1990s, an entire stream of research developed that focused on social and organized relations in the sharing and development of tacit and explicit knowledge, as proposed by Nonaka and Takeuchio (1995), Nonaka and Toyama (2007), Nonaka and von Krogh (2009), Davenport and Prusak (1998), and Quinn, Anderson and Finkelstein (1996).

Far from being a trend, knowledge management in the organized world (Alvesson and Kärreman, 2001; Zhenzhong and Kuo-Hsun, 2009) is now a key issue in the way organizations and societies function (Ferrary and Pesqueux, 2006). It is a strategic part of organizational development and a topical issue in intergenerational knowledge transfer (Koskinen and Pihlanto, 2006; Lamari, 2010; Lagacé, Boissonneault and Armstrong, 2010; Rinfret et al., 2010; Piktialis and Greenes, 2007). In this context, the concept of “human capital” derives from the fact that workers no longer have to be assimilated to a “work force” but are instead considered “capital” due to their expertise and knowledge (Drucker, 2002).

Two major streams of research characterize the literature on knowledge management: the first stream assimilates it to information management and information and communication technologies (Rivard and Roy, 2005; Zhenzong and Kuo-Hsun, 2009), whereas the second stream associates it with social relations and organizational culture with a focus on knowledge explication, sharing and transfer[2] (Alvesson and Kärreman, 2001, p. 1015).

In the first case, knowledge management means managing virtual libraries with databases and research and communications systems. It promotes the exchange of information and embodies the concept of “organizational memory.”

In the second case, knowledge management is community-based and thus able to harness tacit or implicit knowledge through idea sharing (Alvesson and Kärreman, 2001; Gloet and Berrell, 2003; Olivier and Brittain, 2001; Wenger, 1996). The concept of a “learning organization” is related to knowledge management (Argyris, 2004; Easterby-Smith and Lyles, 2003; Senge, 1991; Sparrow, 1998).

The current concept of an “intelligent organization” (Bogner and Bansal, 2007) seeks to synthesize these two approaches by incorporating technological, managerial and social mediums, such as communities of practice (Gravel, 2010; Wenger, 1996), into individual, group and organized learning in order to develop organizations. This is an “exploitation-exploration” view of knowledge, known knowledge in the case of exploitation and new and innovative knowledge in the case of exploration (March, 1991 and 2006).

At the same time, some researchers have been building holistic management models (Boder, 2006; Diakoulakis et al., 2004; Lemay, 2009; Nonaka and Toyama, 2007) that support knowledge management.

According to the currently prevailing conception, knowledge management consists in codifying knowledge through virtual libraries (NICT) and social networks (organizational learning). Although it is now recognized as a field of research, the paradigms it covers and the key themes it studies are still being developed (Zhenzhong and Kuo-Hsun, 2009, p. 187).

In this context, and as Alvesson and Kärreman argue (2001), current knowledge management is mainly limited to people and information management and does not result in management that facilitates the creation of knowledge (for more on this topic, see Nonaka and von Krogh, 2009; Drucker, 2002).

There are four main types of challenges in knowledge management:

  • Technical: designing human resource and information management systems that make information accessible and help individuals be reflective with each other (McDermott, 1999, p. 116), all of which is accompanied by the technological issues of availability, familiarity and integrated use of learning processes;
  • Social: developing communities of practice (Gravel, 2010; Wenger, 1996) and maintaining diversity in connection with the issues of identifying and defining knowledge that should be preserved, shared and developed;
  • Managerial: creating an environment that leverages knowledge[3] – the main challenge issue then being how to unite conditions that are conducive to improving productivity in terms of knowledge (Drucker, 2002);
  • Personal: with openness to ideas and others and idea sharing, the real issue is then how to promote knowledge production. There are six major factors (Drucker, 2002) determining knowledge production by individuals: (1) they must understand the task and its relationship to knowledge production; (2) they must have some autonomy, whether given or taken; (3) they must be encouraged to be innovative; (4) they must be encouraged to continue to learn and share; (5) they must embrace the idea that the quality of knowledge production takes precedence over its quantity; (6) they must be considered assets and not costs.

As early as 1982, Chris Argyris argued that managers should have a better understanding of their reasoning method (theory-in-use), which is most often implicit, and indeed at times tacit, and leads in many documented cases to repeated errors. Can knowledge of their reasoning method be transferred to organizations? We can assume that it would cause changes in managerial styles and result in organizations acquiring a memory and becoming learning, even intelligent organizations.


Alvesson, M. and D. Kärreman (2001). “Odd Couple: Making Sense of the Curious Concept of Knowledge Management,” Journal of Management Studies, vol. 38, no. 7, pp. 995-1018.

Argyris, C. (2004). Reasons and Rationalizations the Limits to Organizational Knowledge, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Argyris, C. (1982). “The Executive Mind and Double-Loop Learning,” Organizational Dynamics, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 5-22.

Argyris, C. (1976). “Single-Loop and Double Loop Models in Research on Decision Making,” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 363-375.

Argyris, C. and D. A. Schön (1978). Organizational Learning, Reading, Addison-Wesley, 2 books.

Boder, A. (2006). “Collective Intelligence: A Keystone in Knowledge Management,” Journal of Knowledge Management, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 81-93.

Bogner, W. and P. Bansal (2007). “Knowledge Management as the Basis of Sustained High Performance,” Journal of Management Studies, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 165-188.

Davenport, T. and L. Prusak (1998). Working Knowledge, Cambridge, Harvard Business School Press.

Diakoulakis, I. E. et al. (2004). “Towards a Holistic Knowledge Management Model,” Journal of Knowledge Management, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 32-46.

Drucker, P. (2002). “Knowledge Work,” Executive Excellence, vol. 19, no. 10, p. 12.

Drucker, P. (1999). “Knowledge Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge,” California Management Review, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 79-94.

Drucker, P. (1967). The Effective Executive, New York, Harper & Row.

Easterby-Smith, M. and M. A. Lyles (2003). The Blackwell Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, Malden, Blackwell Publisher.

Easterby-Smith M., J. Burgoyne and L. Araujo (1999). Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization: Developments in Theory and Practice, Thousand Oaks, Sage.

Earl, L. (2003). Knowledge Management in Practice in Canada, 2001, Statistics Canada, no 88F0006XIE2003007.

Ferrary, M. and Y. Pesqueux (2006). Management de la connaissance : Knowledge management, apprentissage organisationnel et société de la connaissance, Paris, Economica.

Gloet, M. and M. Berrell (2003). “The Dual Paradigm Nature of Knowledge Management: Implications for Achieving Quality Outcomes in Human Resource Management,” Journal of Knowledge Management, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 78-89.

Gravel, N. (2010). “Pour un développement durable des savoirs : l'approche collaborative d'une communauté de pratique au service de l'apprentissage organisationnel,” Télescope, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 168-192.

Koskinen, K. U. and P. Pihlanto (2006). “Competence Transfer from Old Timers to Newcomers Analysed with the Help of The Holistic Concept of Man,” Knowledge and Process Management, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 3-12.

Lagacé, M., M.-É. Boissonneault and T. Armstrong (2010). “La cohabitation intergénérationnelle au travail : des questions de perceptions intergroupes et de transfert de connaissances,” Télescope, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 193-207.

Lamari, M. (2010). “Le transfert intergénérationnel des connaissances tacites : les concepts utilisés et les évidences empiriques démontrées,” Télescope, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 39-65.

Lemay, L. (2009). “The Practice of Collective and Strategic Leadership in the Public Sector,” The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, vol. 14, no. 1, www.innovation.ca

Lindblom, C. E. and D. K Cohen (1979). Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Problem Solving, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

McDermott, R. (1999). “Why Information Technology Inspired but Cannot Deliver: Knowledge Management,” California Management Review, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 103-117.

March, J. G. (2006). “Rationality, Foolishness, and Adaptive Intelligence,” Strategic Management, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 201-214.

March, J. G. (1991). “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning,” Organization Science, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 71-87.

Nonaka, I. and H. Takeuchio (1995). The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, New York, Oxford University Press.

Nonaka, I. and R. Toyama (2007). “Strategic Management as Distributed Practical Wisdom (Phronesis),” Industrial and Corporate Change, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 371-394.

Nonaka, I. and G. von Krogh (2009). “Tacit Knowledge and Knowledge Conversion: Controversy and Advancement in Organizational Knowledge Creation Theory,” Organization Science, vol. 20, no. 3,
pp. 635-652.

Olivier, C. and G. Brittain (2001). “Situated Knowledge Management,” Career Development International, vol. 6, no. 7, pp. 403-413.

Piktialis, D. and K. A. Greenes (2007). Bridging the Gap: How to Transfer Knowledge in Today's Multigenerational Workplace, The Conference Board of Canada, Research Report R-1428-08-RR.

Quinn, J., P. Anderson and S. Finkelstein (1996). “Managing Professional Intellect: Making the Most of the Best,” Harvard Business Review, vol. 14, pp. 71-80.

Rinfret, N. et al. (2010). “Défis et enjeux des connaissances : la réalité des cadres de la fonction publique québécoise,” Télescope, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 208-224.

Rivard, L. and M.-C. Roy (2005). Gestion stratégique des connaissances, Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval.

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline, New York, Doubleday.

Sparrow, J. (1998). Knowledge in Organizations: Access to Thinking at Work, Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.

Wenger, E. (1996). “Communities of Practice: The Social Fabric of a Learning Organization,” The Healthcare Forum Journal, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 20-27.

Zhenzhong, M. and Y. Kuo-Hsun (2009). “Research Paradigms of Contemporary Knowledge Management Studies,” Journal of Knowledge Management, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 175-189.

[1] The term knowledge management is used here to refer to both operational and organizational aspects.

[2] It is important to make a distinction between the concepts of data, information, expertise and knowledge. Data is by nature qualitative or quantitative and meaningful only in context. Information is a datum or a series of data that are articulated in a meaningful way. Expertise is a “combination of knowledge, know-how, experience and behaviour operating in a specific context.” Knowledge “concerns the specific connection made between a subject and a thing or a person. It refers to content […], and has the dual characteristic of establishing comprehension (cognitive aspect) and interpretation (hermeneutic aspect) through dissociation from action" (Ferrary and Pesqueux, 2006, p. 15-27; see also Lamari, 2010) [Our translation].

[3] For more information about specific knowledge management practices in the public sector, consult Earl, 2003.


Reproduction in whole or part of the definitions contained in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Public Administration is authorized, provided the source is acknowledged.

How to cite
Lemay, L. (2012). “Knowledge Management,” in L. Côté and J.-F. Savard (eds.), Encyclopedic Dictionary of Public Administration, [online], www.dictionnaire.enap.ca

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