Note: The following article was published in the November/December 2008 issue of TechTrends (Volume 52, Number 6). The publication agreement allows me to publish it on my personal website, so here it is for you to enjoy.
The concept of managing an organization’s knowledge has caught on in recent years (Sallis & Jones, 2002). Dubbed knowledge management, the field has grown as it addresses key characteristics of knowledge, like the concept that knowledge cannot be separated from a knower (Hilsop, 2002; Sallis & Jones, 2002) and the idea that there are two types of knowledge: tacit, which is intangible know-how, and explicit, which is objective and formal knowledge that can be communicated easily (Sallis & Jones, 2002). One of the great challenges of the knowledge management field is sharing tacit knowledge in a way that passes it along to others or even converts it into something like explicit knowledge (Carroll et al., 2003; Santo, 2005).
Sallis and Jones (2002) and Santo (2005) note that education has not been quick to adopt techniques of knowledge management. While addressing the reason is well beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth mentioning that the slow adoption is not for lack of need. With high stakes testing and high pressure for improvement burdening schools-especially those in K-12 public education-educators have a need to use the knowledge that resides in their local communities as strategically as possible. They also have a need to create new knowledge that will launch innovative approaches to their local and specific concerns (Carroll et al., 2003; Coakes & Smith, 2007). Strategic use of knowledge management should ultimately help these schools improve in tangible ways. Santo (2005) suggests that an “accumulation of both explicit and tacit knowledge can contribute to data-driven decision making” and an organization’s effectiveness (p. 45), a characteristic few school administrators would overlook.
Attempting even a small knowledge management effort, however, needs to be an intentional effort. There is no reason to assume that employees will seek to share their knowledge (Hilsop, 2002), particularly teachers, who can be protective of their work (Parr & Ward, 2006). To succeed, an environment conducive to knowledge sharing is a must-a culture of trust where incentives and rewards exist for sharing knowledge instead of hoarding it (Hilsop, 2002; Foon Hew, & Hara, 2007; Parr & Ward, 2006).
Creating such an environment is a difficult task, and implementers of knowledge management must recognize characteristics of knowledge and of the individuals under their influence. If knowledge resides in people, knowledge management cannot be controlled or distributed by a few administrators or executives. An organization’s knowledge is spread throughout the organization, which means when one seeks to harness, distribute, and create knowledge and innovation, one must consider the entire scope of people in the organization-for a school, this means the staff as well as the faculty (Carroll et al., 2003; Santo, 2005).
Teachers share knowledge for various reasons in various contexts. Foon Hew and Hara (2007) found that teachers shared knowledge because they sensed they would gain something from it personally-whether it be a stronger understanding of an idea or a better reputation-and because they felt an obligation to their community-whether the obligation arose from a sense of principle or compassion. Schlager and Fusco (2003) observed that teachers also share this knowledge most often within their specific areas of work, with their immediate colleagues, or in response to the real difficulties of their working day-as opposed to sharing it within special in-services or professional development programs. Such a situation is not surprising when one considers that the very knowledge they are sharing is so intimately tied to the environment where it is used and the manner in which it is used (Hilsop, 2002).
Knowledge management efforts in education should therefore spread their fingers into all parts of the school and its existing organizational boundaries, growing an environment where sharing within the daily routine is encouraged and nurtured.
Communities of Practice
The most obvious strategy for managing knowledge in the educational context would be nurturing communities of practice. Communities of practice, as defined by Wenger (1998 ), are the communities in which there exists “the sustained pursuit of shared enterprise” (p. 45). In these communities, knowledge sharing is actually a by-product of the engagement that regularly exists (Carroll et al., 2003; Wenger, 1998 ). Hilsop (2002) points out that the community of practice attains such a high level of common language and assumptions that sharing knowledge becomes a “relatively straightforward” process (p. 173).
Straightforward maybe, but setting up the context for that exchange is not an easy task. Parr and Ward (2006) observed that a common state in schools is for teachers to engage in only a partial collaboration, where independence is respected so highly that members of a community do not probe deeply into professional issues with one another. Thus, the teacher is generally isolated from colleagues, working in a separate classroom with separate students teaching separate lessons, often totally unaware of what any other teacher is doing (Carroll et al., 2003). Where collaboration does occur, it occurs on a voluntary basis, which at best creates pockets of innovation that do not penetrate beyond the volunteers’ reach (Parr & Ward, 2006). Ironically, all the teachers-not just the pockets of collaborators-are working toward the same goal; but they work essentially separately from one another, creating a dynamic Weick (1976) dubbed “loose coupling” (as cited in Parr & Ward, 2006, p. 783).
The independence and isolation is magnified by the touchy nature of the teaching business. Teaching is a deeply personal pursuit and when one critiques the teacher’s practice, one is critiquing that person (Santo, 2005). Thus, a teacher might not share with colleagues for fear of the vulnerability involved – what they share could be determined not good enough (Parr & Ward, 2006; Foon Hew & Hara, 2007) and admitted weaknesses or observed failures could be used against them by administrators (Carroll et al., 2003).
Despite the obstacles, the community of practice model can work in education for a number of reasons. For one, the bottom-up feel to the creation of knowledge eliminates some of the fear teachers may have when sharing knowledge under the direct observation of an administrator (Carroll et al., 2003; Parr & Ward, 2006; Santo, 2005; Schlager & Fusco, 2003).The bottom-up aspect asserts itself when the community of practice is encouraged to capitalize on social interactions. Social interactions cannot be overlooked. Though commonly dismissed as “water cooler talk,” these exchanges are necessary for building the trust required to express a genuine vulnerability-to admit that one needs new knowledge (Santo, 2005). When opportunities to build trust are supplied, it becomes easier, even for independent-minded teachers, – to submit to the interdependent nature of a community of practice and to adopt a collective responsibility for the actions of the group (Hartnell-Young, 2006; Wagner, 2006). In fact, Hilsop (2002) warns explicitly that if these social factors of knowledge-exchange and communities of practice are ignored, a knowledge management plan is at risk of collapse.
Additionally, the community of practice transfers the acquisition of knowledge to the point of need (Schlager & Fusco, 2003). Tacit knowledge is most often passed along through conversation (Wagner, 2006) and stories of personal experience (Yi, 2006), and these stories tend to surface when the subject is most appropriate-in conversation with those closest to the situation and most trusted by the seeker of knowledge (Hilsop, 2002; Schlager, Fusco, & Schank, 1998; Wagner, 2006). Granger, Morbey, Lotherington, Owston, and Wideman (2002) found this “just in time learning” to be the preferred method of knowledge acquisition for teachers, a finding that meshes well with the propositions of Schlager, Fusco, and Schank (1998 ) and Schlager and Fusco (2003) that teacher professional development is most effective when delivered in the context of practice instead of in separate professional development opportunities. Thus, key characteristics of a community of practice-its root at the point of practice and its dependence upon social interactions-specifically address some of the traditional obstacles of K-12 teachers’ practice.
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