Does KM Work?

A journal article in from the Journal of Knowledge Management caught my eye, so here is my personal review.  It had an inspiring theme: to take a systematic look at KM studies to see what conclusions could be drawn about their success in delivering organisational benefit. The article in question is: Review of Empirical Research on Knowledge Management Practices and Firm Performance, by Henri Inkinen.  It was published in the Journal of KM Vol 20, Issue 2 (2016), pp230 – 57 by Emerald Group Publishing.

 This article describes research that the author believes is the first to provide a systematic literature review of studies that look at the results of Knowledge Management on firm performance. This is clearly a valuable approach to addressing how we can understand the mass of research given to this subject.  If there are general results to be drawn out, this must strengthen our understanding of what KM can or cannot achieve.

The article reaches two main conclusions.

On the one hand, the author is forthright in explaining that too many other factors influence financial performance figures so the contribution of KM is not susceptible to quantification. However, he suggests that the results do indicate that KM practices are useful in supporting innovation.

Secondly, he suggests that the review demonstrates the need to pay attention to specific KM leadership attributes and organisational arrangements that can contribute to achieving improved organisational performance through KM.

The idea of taking a broad and methodical look at the literature on KM appears to have great potential and these are interesting though modest outcomes.  However, there are some concerns about his methodology.  The study uses Heisig’s four categories of KM practices as its framework, (Heisig 2009).  This allows him to sort out the different types of KM involved in his collection of studies. These are KM practices based on:

  • Human oriented factors, culture, people and leadership
  • Organisation oriented factors ie processes and structures
  • Tech oriented factors eg infrastructure and applications
  • Management processes oriented factors eg strategy goals and measurement

The problem with this approach is that some of these categories would appear to be overlapping, given the cross disciplinary focus of KM. And once sifted for relevance and then placed into the categories, his sample sizes become rather small.  From an initial group of 2221 possible inclusions, the final sets are much lower. The article outcomes are based on samples of 23, 12, 8 and 5 studies for each of the four categories.  Of course, very disparate studies cannot be compared appropriately, but equally the small numbers in each category makes it more difficult to confidently generalise the results.

In conclusion, the author does says that knowledge based organizational and managerial practices are influential factors for firm performance outcomes. It can be assumed therefore, that this study endorses the knowledge-based theory of the firm, which argues that successful firms will use and develop their current knowledge.  This is a result with which all KM specialists will no doubt agree!  It may be that this study is a useful pointer to how we can begin to pull together the many research projects written up in journals such as this in order to gain more confidence in the contribution of KM to organisational performance.

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