Knowledge Management Challenges in the Non-Profit Sector

Knowledge Management Challenges in the Non-Profit Sector

Paula M. Bach, Roderick L. Lee, John M. Carroll
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch372
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The concept of knowledge management is rooted in cognitive psychology and organizational theory. Knowledge management is concerned with the creation, storage, and distribution of knowledge by groups, organizations, and communities. Two theoretical frameworks are instrumental in shaping the knowledge management discourse: organizational knowledge creation (Nonaka, 1994) and organizational knowledge (Spender, 1996). Widely cited in the literature is Ikujiro Nonaka’s (1994) explication of the epistemological and ontological dimensions of organizational knowledge creation. Michael Polanyi (1966), makes a distinction between tacit and explicit (codi- fied) knowledge in the epistemological dimension, whereas social interaction is the foundation of the ontological dimension. Over the years, the term knowledge management has been conflated with organizational learning and memory. Realizing that knowledge, memory, and learning are all interrelated, John-Christopher Spender (1996) proposed a knowledge-based theory of the firm. The knowledge-based theory of the firm is primarily concerned with the collective capabilities of generating, combining, and applying knowledge. Given the advances in computing and telecommunications technologies, scholars have considered how information technologies can be used strategically to facilitate knowledge management (Alavi & Leidner, 2001). For example, wikis, blogs, content management systems, and the like provide dynamic infrastructures that support the creation, transfer, and application of knowledge. More importantly, these tools enhance organizational memory that can subsequently be shared across time and space. However, a knowledge friendly culture (Davenport & Prusak, 1998) precedes an effective knowledge management program. The purpose of this article is to explore the challenges that arise in nonprofit settings, particularly the ways in which knowledge is stored and transmitted through an organization’s culture. We propose two key challenges that influence organizational culture: acceptance of change and leaders’ ability to develop a knowledge friendly culture. We conclude with a discussion on the role that these factors played in constraining a knowledge friendly culture in two case studies.
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While the historical definition outlines knowledge management traditionally in firms where knowledge workers possess and share knowledge that is critical for the firm to capture, nonprofit organizations, in principle, benefit from some of the same goals. The goals of knowledge management in for-profit firms include competitive advantage, greater innovation, better customer experiences, consistency in good practices, and facilitating organizational learning. Although competitive advantage may not be a worthy goal for a nonprofit organization (NPO), consistency in good practices and facilitation of organizational learning are. Addressing the key knowledge management goals and challenges in a nonprofit setting has its own set of unique challenges.

Nonprofit organizations range from small, diverse community-based organizations that address local issues and rely primarily on volunteer labor, to large, nationally-based organizations such as the Red Cross. Nonprofit organizations consist of such groups as arts and culture, education and research, health services, social and legal services, religion, fraternities and sororities, civic and social services, and foundations. As such “their knowledge capital is heterogeneous, widespread, rarely formalized, and unstable” (Lettieri, Borga, & Safoldelli, 2004). These groups depend on temporary volunteers to help them work on specific projects (Boris, 1998). Yet some NPOs use paid labor. These workers can be classified as part- or full-time employees or consultants. Employees usually occupy a leadership position such as executive director and consultants and lead specific projects based on their expertise such as technology infrastructure. Because nonprofits do not offer high salaries and are more strongly linked to a cause, they may not attract people with strong leadership skills. The lack of strong leadership and permanency pose a problem for knowledge management.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Organizational learning: A social process in which individuals in organizations enhance decision making and problem solving by improving knowledge and understanding.

Organizational Knowledge Creation: Knowledge that is created through a continuous dialogue between tacit and explicit knowledge through the processes of socialization, combination, internalization, and externalization.

Communities of Practice: Knowledge-based structures that facilitate knowledge sharing and development, and support learning.

Participatory Action Research: An interventionist method that involves close collaboration between the researcher and practitioners.

Organizational Culture: The values, norms, and assumptions that are widely held by members of the organization that subsequently shape their behavior.

Knowledge Management: The creation, storage, and distribution of knowledge by groups, organizations, and communities.

Knowledge Management Systems: Information systems that are designed to support the creation, capture, storage, and distribution of expertise and knowledge.

Organizational Knowledge: Tacit and explicit knowledge that is part of the organization’s culture and identity, routines, standard operating procedures, and is expressed in documents.

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