Conflict, power, and knowledge management

Conflicto, poder y gestión del conocimientoThe discipline of knowledge management experienced a real boom at the end of the 1990s, coinciding with the analysis of the Information Society. Since then, its basic ideas have been criticised and reformulated, paying special attention to those factors that hamper the dissemination of knowledge in the organizations. In this post, I’m going to talk about two of those factors, related to power, and which are a potential source of conflict: the nature of the employer-employee relationship, and the types of rational action of individuals / groups.

And what am I going to do based on the work of Donald Hislop Knowledge management in organizations: a critical introduction (2005). Let’s look at it in the first place the nature of the employee-employer relationship. The company is one of the basic institutions of capitalism (Ingham, 2010), and far from being a mere conglomerate of individuals, it is a framework in which to depict complex relationships of power between different stakeholders: shareholders, owners of capital, managers, officers, employees of different levels,…

Generally speaking, managers are interested in the knowledge of the employees is mobilised, thus creating an intellectual capital asset that can be used to meet the goals of the organization. And, to do this, you can use your situation to exercise a certain power over employees. Of course, this power is not exercised necessarily in the form of a direct coercion, but may take the form of a commitment, explicit or implicit of the employee with the organization according to the terms of the employment relationship. On a case study on the behavior of a few consultants in an organization, Hislop says:

Part of the reasonf or this willing self-subordination, where this workers placed stressfull work demands on their bodies and their families was due to the perception that, while work conditions were good, a climate of fear wasn’t far below the surface, where if they hadn’t committed the hours necessary, or achieved the required results, then negative consequences may have ensued (p. 101)

However, employees may exercise a certain amount of countervailing power. Keep in mind that the world of work has changed enormously in the past few decades: we are invited to banish the ideal of a job for life, to embrace the flexibility and job instability. It is possible that this change is affecting what is known as the “psychological contract” between the company and the employee, that is to say, the set of commitments and expectations that the worker’s expected of your organization (p. 48).

In this sense, one of the factors that adds value to knowledge is their nature scarce, so their retention may be considered by the employee as a way of maintaining the value of their job (p. 91).

While important, this source of conflict has been treated with a certain attention in the literature on knowledge management, although unrelated to his fundamental relationship with power. The second source of conflict has not received as much attention, and it is therefore more interesting.

This is the type of rational action that show the inviduos / groups within the organization, that is: the way in which they operate the individuals / groups in function of some criteria of action. In the fields of organizations, it is useful to consider the types of rational action proposed by the sociologist Max Weber, as well as its relationship with thus the dynamics distribution / retention of knowledge (p. 91)

In this way, we have four types of action, supported by four types of rationality, which influence in different ways on the processes of knowledge management:

First type: traditional. The rationality on which it is based is the one based on the habit. Is giving in communities of practice well-established in time, in which there is no questioning the convenience of sharing knowledge.

Second type: affective. Based on a type of rationality that is tainted by emotion, it can produce reluctance to share knowledge with those individuals or groups that has a negative opinion.

Third type – oriented values. It is based on a rationality that is linked to the means to achieve the values, which are outside the exam rational. Is reflected in the participation in those processes of knowledge management that pursue the achievement of purposes linked to specific values (for example, social benefits).

Room type: calculator. Based on an instrumental rationality (calculation of means-ends), take you to the individual / group to participate in knowledge management processes on the basis of a calculation of profits / losses.

Of course, these four types of rational action are ideal, in the sense that not always are separated from each other. In addition, they have received criticism from the sociology, in that they reflect a certain bias towards those situations in which a premium on the maintenance of power. But that is why precisely what are valuable as a theoretical framework in knowledge management: allow you to highlight the hidden relationships of power that can thwart a determined program, giving us an idea how to solve the problems presented to us.

And now, a few questions for l@s lector@s: if you have deteriorated your commitment psychological with your organization, why has it happened?, in what ways has translated this reduction?; what type of rational action put into practice, as an individual or as a member of a group, in your organization?, how does this type of action to the diffusion / retention and knowledge in your case?


Ingham, Geoffrey. Capitalism. Madrid: Alianza, 2010.

Hislop, Donald. Knowledge management in organizations: a critical introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Credits: Image taken from Lee Dubouis Technologies


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