Common Knowledge By Nancy Dixon Harvard Business School Press 188 pages, $47.95 Working Knowledge By Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak Harvard Business School Press 197 pages, $26.95 The water cooler is the place in many companies where employees traditionally meet to exchange knowledge about their jobs. But as an organization grows, perhaps even straddling the globe, how does the company recreate the water-cooler effect across many sites and ensure its workers are sharing what they know? As former Hewlett-Packard chief executive officer Lew Platt once moaned, "If HP knew what HP knows, we could be three times as profitable."
In Common Knowledge, Nancy Dixon, a professor of administrative sciences at George Washington University, says managers must begin not by focusing on how to collect and store knowledge in technological warehouses that may never be used, but by looking at how knowledge gets reused, notably through contact between people.
In doing so, three issues are crucial:
Does the intended receiver of someone's knowledge carry out similar tasks in a similar context, such as workers in different auto assembly plants?
Is the task done repeatedly in the same manner or does it occur infrequently, with elements varying according to the situation, such as oil exploration?
Is the knowledge explicit, with procedures that can be stated clearly, or is it tacit, existing primarily in the heads of people and not easily written down?
Based on those criteria, which emerged from studying leading organizations in the field, she sets out five categories for knowledge transfer:
Serial transfer: A team carrying out a task repeatedly stops to figure out how to prevent mistakes and to increase efficiencies. The knowledge, therefore, is being transferred within the team, as in the U.S. Army's after-action reviews. When a battle or project is completed, the team immediately gets together and openly discusses what happened and what lessons can be learned.
Near transfer: Knowledge is transferred to a receiving team doing a similar task in a different location. Each Ford automobile plant has a designated person who, over the corporate intranet, receives five to eight best practice innovations weekly from other plants and is responsible for ensuring they are given careful consideration.
Far transfer: Tacit knowledge about a non-routine task is transferred. For example, when a British Petroleum team takes on a new oil exploration job, it can at any point call upon peers from around the globe who have handled similar problems to share ideas on the best way to proceed.
Strategic transfer: Very complex knowledge, such as how to launch a product, is shared by teams that may be separated by both time and space. This transfer differs from the previous as the knowledge affects a large part of the operation, as occurs when a company is acquired. An example, again from BP, is its knowledge specialists, who capture information about major strategic change in various arms of the company and record it, making sure to convey alternative viewpoints, so other units can benefit when facing a similar challenge.
Expert transfer: Explicit knowledge is transferred about a task that is done infrequently, such as when a technician e-mails an on-line network to ask how to increase the brightness of an out-of-date monitor.
The book brims with examples for each type and then, in the final two chapters, Prof. Dixon leads managers through various steps for figuring out how to tackle knowledge transfer in their own shop. The book is clear, eminently practical and tackles an important emerging issue in an era where knowledge is considered the key to success.
Working Knowledge, which came out two years ago but has just been released in paperback, extends beyond the transfer of knowledge to consider the broader elements of its management in organizations. It ranges from the factors that encourage or discourage people from seeking knowledge; to how to ensure it is being gained in an acquisition; to the effectiveness of various technologies for its management.
"If we were to construct a single test for how open to knowledge generation an organization is, we would ask how often its executives question their own knowledge," authors Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak write.
Their ruminations are intriguing, but it's only in the last chapter, by the authors' own admission, that they tackle the pragmatics of knowledge management. So the work is appropriate primarily for those of a philosophical bent or who have a specific responsibility for the new field of knowledge management. Just in: Brian Tracy offers The 100 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws of Business Success (Berrett-Koehler, 319 pages, $39.95), covering business issues, leadership, money, selling, negotiating and time management. In The Accidental Salesperson (Amacom, 204 pages, $28.95), Chris Lytle, who wanted to be the next Walter Cronkite but ended up in the sales department instead of journalism, looks at how to take control of your sales career if you never planned on entering that field. Going Global? (Global Business Press, 285 pages, $79.95) by Toronto-based international business lawyer James Klotz promises power tools for negotiating international business deals; it's available only from Books for Business in Toronto. Harvey Schachter is a freelance writer based in Kingston. He can be reached by e-mail at