Management Approach That Offers the Best Outcomes
for Knowledge Development
Understanding business, and what that process contains, is extremely complex. It takes years of study and focus to gain even a rudimentary idea of all a company has to do to remain viable. A company has to have employees who understand their jobs, clear work goals for all concerned in the business, accounting practices that tell the actual financial workings of the company and keep government agencies happy, along with many other processes among the strata. Threads run through all of the working practices of an organization which tend to bind it together. These can be tangible communication channels (email, phone lines, other forms of information technology), or they can be intangible. These intangible communication lines are another layer of complexity which the organizations managers have to control and mold. How people deal with one another is the way an organization actually functions because the people are the actual glue that binds a company more than any other single asset that the organization may have. These people also add the most complexity to the organization, and how they are managed determines the relative success or failure of an enterprise.
The members of the organization also provide the knowledge upon which it is based, and they can absorb further knowledge that will help maintain the company. Knowledge development and management are critical because an industry is always changing as processes improve, and an organization has to be continually developing its knowledge base or it will fail. Management of employees with regard to knowledge development is also crucial, but how to manage that development can be daunting. Encouraging cooperation among the various participants is one way to generate knowledge, but fostering some amount of conflict also helps the knowledge base grow. This paper focuses on these two methods of developing knowledge and tries to uncover which process is the more efficient method according to collected research.
The central question is that in order to achieve the best outcomes for knowledge development what management approach is best: one that encourages cooperation between staff or one that encourages conflict? Within this question three terms need to be better understood before an analysis can be conducted: knowledge development, cooperation between staff, and conflict between staff. Delineating these three terms will form the basis for the following discussion.
Knowledge can be simply defined as “awareness or learning” (Knowledge), but the development of this process is more involved. Knowledge, some have also called this intellectual capital (“nonfinancial measures and other related information” (Moon & Kym)), development provides that there has to be a method by which the knowledge is acquired; therefore, it is not necessarily something that the individual has had previously. The management aspect of knowledge development is assisting the individual to continuously acquire knowledge that will benefit the entire organization by helping the person experience different aspects of the organization or by giving them the means to educate themselves (Cohen). Of course this can come through cooperation or conflict.
The cooperation aspect has been the most studied in the new field of knowledge management (Mischen & Jackson). Cooperation among employees means that they share the knowledge that they have and that they try to improve the overall knowledge base in any way that they can. Researchers have studied this under the guise of such phenomena as community of practice (Liu & Fisher), and social network analysis (Mischen & Jackson). It would seem intuitive that people would be better able to gain knowledge if they were able to learn from willing colleagues, but this is not always the case.
Many times, throughout the history of organizations, companies have specifically worked to pit departments, groups or individuals within the organization against one another for the betterment of the entire company (Morris, Kocak & Ozer). This is not a pugilistic practice, but one in which the groups work against each other to improve the knowledge base for the good of the whole. Many examples of this practice exist within technological companies. One specific example is the individual work that Bell lab scientists conducted to come up with many of their early innovations including the transistor. This style of management would seem counterintuitive, but only if the conflict and competition does not result in an eventual addition to the total knowledge of the company.
Conflict can also be used directly in meetings and workgroups. If people are allowed to experience a rise in conflict between individuals they may be more able to realize a positive outcome (Fischler). Sometimes what seems to be a viable solution is not, and what seems to be a detriment works out to be just what the company needed to add to its knowledge base (Fischler).
Cooperation vs. Conflict
The research has had much to say about fostering cooperation among employees to grow knowledge for an organization. This idea stems from the belief that an organization is not a collection of individuals, but an interconnected whole where the individual adds to the knowledge base as they are able to work within the group structure. One group of researchers studied how the formation of alliances improves the knowledge base of a company. They said;
“Recently, there is an escalating number of academic literature that suggests that the achievement of benefits from alliances is closely related to the ability of the partners to share knowledge and learn from each other. Organisations are increasingly employing strategic alliances to quickly learn new knowledge to speed up the rate of innovation in response to meeting diverse and changing customers’ demands and needs. Such joint cooperation enforces partners to create an environment not only to enhance the development of their own core competencies to achieve their objectives, but also to enable the development of new knowledge” (Suseno & Ratten)
The authors of this study found that organizations were encouraging people to form alliances with others (not exclusionary cliques, but working alliances) because of the benefits gained. The greatest benefit of these alliances seems to have been that the employees both brought the corporate knowledge level up because everyone knew what everyone else knew, but it also enabled individual employees to innovate and fostered the creation of new knowledge.
Within an organization creating these cooperative alliances could mean that people from different departments, who are working on a project that requires multiple disciplines, work together (Liu & Fisher). This helps develop knowledge because there will be a different knowledge base in the separate departments. Even people who very different responsibilities within a company can share what they know to enhance the development of someone else. Since most projects require input from many different areas, it would seem that if the people work together, instead of just supplying their specific part of the project, that the overall knowledge in the company will be further developed.
These facts are born out in the research also. In research conducted on widening the knowledge of nurses, Sandra Ward, a PhD in nursing, argued that incorporating a new model of care (in this case the common sense model) was “an excellent heuristic for integrating findings from diverse lines of research and because it can generate new research in nursing.” This means that developing this knowledge among nurses in general will further create more knowledge as more research is done and nurses practice the concept. Within an individual organization the same has been found to be true. As a matter of fact this cooperation does not always occur within a single organization, but it may be between different entities in an industry (Morris, Kocak & Ozer). Especially small organizations can develop knowledge faster by working with others within their market. This can be expanded to an idea already presented, that different departments within an organization increase knowledge through cooperation instead of strict conflict and competition (Morris, Kocak & Ozer).
Of course, the flip side of this coin (cooperation) is conflict. Again, it may seem counterintuitive to believe that conflict can be on par with cooperation in increasing an organization’s knowledge base. However, there has been a significant amount of research conducted which suggests exactly that.
First of all, conflict within an organization can come from many elements both internal and external. In the global sense, it can be seen that knowledge is developed through necessity when there is an external conflict which threatens a company. Many world-changing technologies would not have been developed were it not for the extreme conflict of war. In this way, an external force dictated that a group of people increase their knowledge to deal put down a threat. The Atomic age was created because German and American scientists were working against each other to discover an ultimate end to a conflict.
Organizations also realize the same external forces when a competitor is able to create a new product that revolutionizes an industry. The recent rush to copy Apple’s iPad is an example of this phenomena. Many different companies have a version of the iPad (or tablet computer) because a direct competitor was able to realize financial success when it developed the technology.
Taking this thought to the organizational level, Porter, et al., found that conflict encourages the growth of knowledge within an organization. Individuals seemed to crave the competition and conflict created within certain organizations and they were able to increase the knowledge development of the entire organization (Porter, Lyon, Adamu, & Obefemi). They did research in the market places in Africa, but the same has been found to be true in larger organizations in the West.
In a section of the book “Using Conflict in Organizations” the authors talk about the dangers of “groupthink” (de Dreu & Vliert, 53). NASA is one of the largest government sponsored organizations in the United States, and that organization has both monumental successes and devastating failures. Among the failures are those which occurred because scientists within the organization had become too arrogant of their knowledge and were blinded to problems with their product. In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after taking off, killing all of the astronauts on board. The engineers involved realized later that they allowed cooperation to blind them to the problem of faulty O-rings. In 1992, the same agency launched the Hubble space telescope. When it did not work as it was supposed to, the investigators found that scientists, working together, had dismissed a problem that was voiced but not investigated. The authors argue that;
“when groups are susceptible to groupthink, their goals are transformed from the pursuit of effective problem resolution (i.e., identifying possible problems, evaluating different alternatives) to the suppression of conflict at all costs (i.e., launch despite any concerns or contradictory indications)” (de Dreu & Vliert, 53).
It can be easily acknowledged that in these cases, some voice of conflict would have introduced an element that would have added to the overall knowledge and suppressed the groupthink that can occur when there is too much cooperation.
How Management Should React
The evidence show significant benefits for both approaches. This means that both conflict and cooperation have their good and bad points. Conflict can result in a divided workplace that accomplishes nothing, or it can be the voice of sanity among a group of people who have become too narrowly focused. Cooperation can lead to a group of people who always look to each other for a solution and become unimaginative because they dislike conflict, or it can lead to a group that feeds off of one another’s individual abilities and increases each other’s knowledge base. It would be simple to say that since both approaches have positives and negatives, that a manager who uses both approaches would actually come out ahead in the end. However, this is not necessarily the case because that manager would have to be able to discern when the team could most use one or the other approach. This is, many times, difficult to ascertain, and could lead to a halt to knowledge development because of a wishy-washy leader. A good manager will look at how their organization runs and determine the appropriate leadership style that is needed to develop the knowledge that the workers require.
It would seem, from the research that has been accumulated for this report, that encouraging conflict, while managing same, would be the best alternative for developing knowledge. This conclusion is reached based on the realization that people can get too complacent with how they are working and they need some form of conflict to motivate them (de Dreu & Vliert, 101). Other researchers have found that although cooperation tends to add to within groups knowledge, this often does not translate to the entire organization as readily (Zhang, Shu, Jiang & Malter). These authors argue that both conflict (they generally use the term competition, but interchange that with conflict) and cooperation are needed for healthy growth of organizational knowledge, but they contend that conflict is what determines how fast a company is able to develop greater knowledge.
One conflict strategy has been used for many years successfully by a wide range of organizations — brainstorming (de Dreu & Vliert, 103). Brainstorming may seem to be the epitome of cooperation, but it is actually a process that is born in conflict. Every individual at a meeting is given the ability to voice their own opinion without regard to what anyone else has said. Also, the group will pick apart all of the ideas that are presented and add their own ideas. The conflict is that every individual in the group believes that they have a viable solution that is workable and they must be able to back that suggestion up against rival suggestions. Sometimes this process has a difficult time succeeding because individuals are too tied to the ideas that they propose and they are offended by the group rejecting what they have to say. However, this stratagem often works to increase the knowledge development of the entire group because a single individual could not have come up with all of the ideas presented by the group (de Dreu & Vliert 103).
The issue that a manager must remember is that conflict can easily cause an organization to become disjointed; it is a delicate process that must be carefully managed. Conflict occurs “when an individual or group feels negatively affected by another individual or group, for example for perceived divergence of interests, or because of another’s incompatible behavior” (de Dreu & Vliert, 1). A manager wants there to be conflict because an individual believes that they have a better idea (divergence of interests), but they do not want conflict to occur because there is “incompatible behavior.” That is why the management of conflict in the pursuit of knowledge development is so critical. The manager acts as a referee through a process that is inherently volatile. This also means that the manager has to be comfortable with some amount of conflict themselves. In the end there will be cooperation among the team when they have reached an agreement and have developed the appropriate knowledge, but the process of gaining the knowledge is better born through conflict.
The Pacific Rim is an area in that resembles a large bath tub in which a large portion of the Pacific Ocean is ringed by islands born through volcanic activity. These islands were formed because there was a need for gases and molten rock to escape from the increasingly constricted space it had once occupied. People are much the same. An idea occurs, but in the interest of cooperation many will not voice an opinion. However, if this is something that will help the company the individual will have to eventually create some amount of conflict and introduce it. Even if the process is completely new and unique, if it increases the profitability and viability of the company, it needs to be spoken.
A manager who understands that conflict is not a negative force that must be quashed at all costs will be able to increase the knowledge within the organization better than the manager who uses only cooperation. There has to be some element of conflict and this is better when knowledge is being developed because people are more accepting of conflict when an idea needs to be introduced than when cooperation is needed to complete a process (Fischler).
Managing conflict is the key though. A manager with poor skills can do more harm to an organization than good if he or she tries to use a strategy of conflict generation when they are not able or willing to manage it. A team also has to be able to work together once the knowledge is developed, and if they cannot do that because they are too hurt by the conflict, then they will not function properly. Being able to manage conflict effectively is the key to effective knowledge development.
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