In an effort to validate or refute the literature, a small study was undertaken to examine factors influencing the diffusion, as well as the continued, effective use of a knowledge management collaborative technology within one small business. Knowledge sharing is acknowledged as a critical component within a knowledge management system. Because this small business, a contract research organization, was considered knowledge intensive, the effective diffusion and implementation of a knowledge sharing technology was considered a significant goal.
In this study, an assumption was made that within an organizational setting, top managers make most adoption decisions. Therefore, the adoption by subordinate users throughout the organization represented a forced adoption. Therefore, the initial adoption decision was not considered. Rather, the primary focus was on the continued and effective use of the technology after the initial adoption; a specific focus on how and why people might be willing and motivated to use or to resist using a particular technology effectively.
The sample consisted of 37 users of a knowledge-sharing collaborative technology. This technology, called BSCW (Basic Support for Cooperative Work, http://bscw.gmd.de/ ) represented a Web-based system that enables collaboration over the Web, allowing users to share knowledge irrespective of time or location. The convenience sample was drawn from a total user population of approximately 50. There were approximately 250 employees in this small business. E-mail was sent to all 50 users requesting an in-depth interview. Thirty-seven people agreed to be interviewed on their perceptions of use, benefits, and obstacles in knowledge sharing. This sample included five of the six top executives, who represented the heaviest users of the system. These individuals included the president/CEO, three of the four vice presidents, and the chief financial officer. In addition, five of the six business development (marketing) managers, who represented moderate users, were interviewed as well as the director of information systems. Finally, from the remaining pool of approximately 37 occasional-moderate users, 20 were selected by using a quota system to represent the remaining functional areas. Eight managers, four quality-assurance/compliance, and eight data entry people agreed to be interviewed. In addition, actual usage of this collaborative technology was monitored on a daily basis during an eight-month study period.
While this was an exploratory study in one small business, the results both supported and refuted the literature. One general finding was that, in this business, not all of the factors were found to be equally important in the diffusion and effective use of a knowledge sharing system.
The major finding was that perceived relative advantage was the major influence on usage to facilitate knowledge sharing. The second major finding was that leadership influence was also very important in the effective use of a knowledge sharing system. While this was a forced adoption situation, this finding is based on the issue of accountability in using the system. When employees knew that they were being monitored and evaluated in terms of their use, it motivated their effective and continued use of this knowledge sharing system. Therefore, the second finding combines the aspect of leadership influence with a reward/compensation structure that is integrally tied in with a knowledge sharing initiative.
Did this create performance improvements and make this small business a better intelligent enterprise? Respondents clearly articulated their enthusiasm for using BSCW to share information and knowledge with statements emphasizing the large efficiency, timesavings, and quality gains derived from having access to needed information regardless of time or physical location. Another benefit cited from relative advantage was the ability to share information with multiple users as well as the issue of accountability introduced by the collaborative system. Accountability provided by a version control system was perceived as increasing quality and timeliness of input. Therefore, it does appear that the successful adoption and diffusion of this knowledge management system did contribute to some extent to some performance gains in the organization. It could also be asserted that this small business did increase its learning capability and became a better and more effective intelligent enterprise because people who used the KM systems were able to better share knowledge, solve problems, and increase efficiency and customer satisfaction.
Why did people in this small business adopt this KM system? Again, relative advantage emerged as the factor that contributed to the adoption and continued, effective use of this knowledge sharing system. The employees could clearly see that using this system saved them time and improved their performance. They were also able to see that sharing ideas led to better ideas and better solutions to problems.
Many researchers including Pan and Scarbrough (1999), Reisenberger (1999), and Puccinelli (1998) among others stressed the critical need for strong and active executive commitment to and support of a collaborative technology to facilitate knowledge sharing. They suggested that leaders not only champion the collaborative system and knowledge sharing, but also possess the power and authority to invest in the needed technology, create the collaborative culture to enable it, and to create reward/incentive structures to reinforce it. In this particular organization, the forced adoption of a new technology appeared to have a powerful influence on adoption and continued, effective use of the collaborative technology to facilitate knowledge sharing.
Scheraga (1998) suggests that the best way to overcome employee resistance to sharing their knowledge was to reward them for it. Reisenberger (1999) similarly contends that top management needs to develop new reward systems to recognize and reward knowledge sharing activities. Pan and Scarbrough (1999) documented the success of rewarding employees for sharing their valuable knowledge at Buckman Laboratories. Rogers (1995) found that the main function for incentives was to increase the degree of relative advantage for the innovation. In this study, many respondents in the interviews acknowledged the benefit of some sort of incentive or reward system with the belief that people do what they are rewarded for. Interestingly, a large number of respondents indicated that incentives would be useful to initially help people overcome their fear of or resistance to using a new technology or sharing knowledge.
By understanding the factors that motivate employees in a small business to adopt and embrace the new systems and culture necessary for knowledge management, it may be possible for small business owners and managers to recreate this. The first factor involved the importance of relative advantage. Perhaps we can speculate that human nature provides the answer here. The "what's in it for me" effect may provide the common sense answer. When people see a clear reason for using the new technology such as reduction in time leading to greater efficiency in their work, they see a compelling reason to actively use this new technology regardless of the size of the company. Therefore, in any organization, it is wise to demonstrate the benefits (relative advantage) it will provide the users.
In addition, consistent with the literature, was the need to gain top leadership commitment and support before introducing new technologies for effective diffusion. Inherent in this recommendation is a reward/compensation structure directly related to the initiative. Users should be held directly accountable for their relevant and valuable contributions to knowledge sharing as well as use of the system. A direct cause and effect relationship with the annual performance evaluation appears to work well.
Another consistency with the literature was that users expect innovations to be compatible with their normal work routines and easy to use. This is especially important in a small business where resources for training and time are especially scarce. Users also expect a knowledge sharing system to be recent and relevant. The element of trust is also crucial. Davenport and Prusak (2000) explain that if employees do not trust the information or knowledge contained in the system, they will not use it. Similarly, if people do not trust that they will be rewarded for sharing their valuable knowledge, they will not be motivated to do so.
One small study cannot provide the generalizations needed to promote acceptance of theories by small business practitioners. However, it was rewarding to see that the results of this one small study did reinforce the findings of many researchers from larger studies including the importance of relative advantage, leadership support, and cultural change. In addition, the context of this study was industry specific, focusing on a contract research business in the scientific arena. Therefore, we cannot assert that these findings would be generalizable to other, dissimilar industries. However, in the context of understanding human nature, it seems reasonable to speculate that these variables may be consistent across different industries.
Based on the limitations mentioned in the previous section, we recommend continued research on the strongest variables including relative advantage, leadership support, and cultural change in different industries and across different cross sections of SMEs with varying sizes, cultures, and product/service lines. In addition, research is greatly needed on causal relationships between the use of knowledge management practices and their impact on real transformation into learning organizations/intelligent enterprises, and whether significant performance improvements can be measured and correlated. The field of metrics associated with knowledge management, intelligent enterprises and specific performance improvements is still in its infancy and represents a fruitful line of research in itself.