On Knowledge Management and the Role of the Library in the Process of Knowledge Management

Wenxiang Yang
Hebei University
Beverly P. Lynch
University of California, Los Angeles
United States

I. Introduction

Much of the theory relating to the organization, administration, and management of libraries has its underpinnings in the study of organizations in the for-profit sector. This is despite the fact that most libraries are in the non-profit sector, either agencies of local government such as the local public library, or school libraries, which are found in the agencies responsible to local government, or college and university libraries which are, by and large, the responsibility of agencies supported by the state. There are special libraries in the non-profit sector and the for-profit sector, but these have been declining in number as organizations seek to reduce overhead costs and believe that an organization’s information needs can be met in on-line information systems. Libraries generally are considered to be well run and well managed agencies and the managers of these agencies pay close attention to the trends and practices found in the business environment.1 Thus many of the new management trends, emerging first in the for-profit sector, find their way into the thinking and writing about library management. Knowledge management is one of the recent ones.

As the for-profit sector shifted away from the industrial model, thoughtful and insightful observers such as Peter Drucker began talking about the knowledge organization and the knowledge worker.2 The management theories developed through the 1980s to help people understand the organizational structure of the agencies were seen to be old and out of date. New models were needed to help understand the changes going on within organizations. Amrit Tiwana describes the development of new approaches to understanding organizational design and structure, presenting a chronology that summarizes the developments in the management of organizations which led to the current interest in Knowledge Management:

II. Definitional Issues

As is the case with most new theoretical models, definitional problems emerge. “Just what is knowledge management?” and “Just how is knowledge management manifested in organizations?” are two questions asked by thoughtful managers. There is growing agreement that knowledge management is more than the implementation of sophisticated technological systems within an organization. The information-processing definition of knowledge management was the prevalent view for some time and some still assert that knowledge management is the management of information, the result of the development of sophisticated information management systems. It was often assumed that the adaptation of the organization was based on the organizational memory of the past as a reliable predictor of the future. Capturing that organizational memory into sophisticated information structures was a major activity. Malhotra offers ten 20 interpretations of the information processing paradigm of knowledge management.4 Among these:

Others propose that knowledge management is the management of people, that the interpretation of important aspects of the environment and the harnessing of the knowledge of that must be carried out and can only be carried out by people. And still others believe that knowledge management not only manages people and information, but seeks to combine the two into one concept so as to integrate the ability of information processing with the ability of innovation. These theorists believe it is the combination of the two that strengthens the organization’s adaptive abilities to its environment. In the west, the Gartner Group’s definition of knowledge management has growing influence:

[Knowledge management] is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving, and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously uncaptured expertise and experience in individual workers.5

And the work of Holsapple and Joshi has contributed greatly to an understanding of the concept and its definitions. Holsapple and Joshi offer a foundational definition:

Knowledge Management – An entity’s systematic and deliberate efforts to expand, cultivate, and apply available knowledge in ways that add value to the entity, in the sense of positive results in accomplishing its objectives or fulfilling its purpose.

Holsapple and Joshi propose that knowledge management can be studied within several levels: personal knowledge management, that is, activities conducted by an individual; organizational knowledge management, activities conducted by an organization; transorganizational knowledge management, activities conducted by multiple collaborating organizations; and national knowledge management, conducted by a nation.6

Most work in the West places knowledge management in the context of organizations; and. work in China does too. A recently published Chinese definition proposes:

KM is a kind of management that takes knowledge or knowledge resources as its objective, managing the whole process of the knowledge movement, including knowledge generation and innovation, identifying and acquiring, classifying and arranging, recording and storing, distributing and exchanging, exploiting and utilizing, transferring the captured knowledge and skills to organizations or individuals, so as to enable them to make the best decision and realize the largest output.7

In the context of these definitions, knowledge management is of importance to organizations. As such it is centered on the efficient organization and exploitation of information and knowledge resources. It is a process by which an organization seeks to adapt itself to its environment and to grow and to flourish in its environment. The definition of knowledge management proposed in this paper is:

Knowledge management is a process of knowledge generation and innovation through an efficient organization and sufficient exploitation of information and knowledge resources.

Theorists in knowledge management identify the various forms of knowledge, particularly tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge as being important, especially when studying knowledge management in organizations.

III. Three Levels of Knowledge Management

Drawing upon the Holsapple and Joshi concept of levels of knowledge management, we comment on the individual level of knowledge management, the organizational level, and the social level in which we place multi-organizational levels, national levels, and transnational levels. The organizational level is the one of greatest interest, for knowledge management has emerged as a concept for study in the management of organizations. The interesting development has been the recognition of the knowledge management of individuals and a concern within organizations of how an individual worker’s knowledge can be captured for the benefit of the organization. Techniques and practices in the capturing of individual knowledge are little known and little understood. How to mine and discover a certain individual workers’ own knowledge and innovation abilities so as to enhance the work and the development of an organization is a question contemplated by organizations and by managers. Students of individual behaviors in organizations seek answers to such questions. The use of information technologies in order to capture an individual’s work knowledge continues to be explored.

The business community world-wide is confronting radical and discontinuous change; the focus on this ever-changing environment has been on developing innovative strategies that continue to make the business enterprise competitive. A continuous reassessment of business processes and routines is essential in order to foster continuous learning and innovation. Thus knowledge management in the organizational sense relies on the data processing capability of information technologies AND on the creativity and innovation of people. It is the continuous assessment of organizational routines, procedures, programs, and outcomes that organizations in the public sector also must undertake in order to be successful and survive. It will be in this sense that knowledge management will be adopted within libraries. The sense of urgency brought about by radical discontinuous change within the business environment is less evident in the non-profit and public sector. That may bode ill for some organizations such as libraries which are unable to see the change going on in the environment, nor able to seek the potential for the organizational decline of the library.

While the theoretical developments of the concept of knowledge management continue to be explored, the practical manager seeks solutions to practical problems. The manager sees knowledge management as a concept that may be useful, but is a concept that the manager adds to the toolbox of managerial ideas that may be useful. The manager knows that the importance of technical information systems and information gleaned from those systems must be combined with the talents and skills of the organization’s staff in order for the organization to be successful in the tasks it has designed for itself. Knowledge management is a component of management but it is not the be all and end all of it. Management first requires a mission which, in order to be carried out successfully, must emphasize quality performance. The manager must constantly evaluate whether the organization’s design fits its mission and will lead to successful accomplishment of its purpose. The organization’s ultimate test is

Does it deliver the results it has promised? Execution lies in setting goals and tracking measures of progress, in innovating to balance today’s performance with tomorrow’s, in setting priorities and allocating resources to them, in delegating responsibility and holding people accountable, and in energizing and inspiring people to manage themselves in pursuit of the common mission. If management doesn’t do all these things well, it will not succeed..8

Knowledge management is based upon the utilization of information resources. The social function of all libraries is inherently connected with the utilization of information resources, thus the entire process of a library's operation is an important and organic part of knowledge management. At the individual level, the quality of the performance of each individual is based on that person's knowledge foundation. While the main method of gaining knowledge is reading, it is necessary that there be stores of information and knowledge resources to read. While vast amounts of information in many formats are accumulated in the library, it is the innovation of the staff that makes that information available in appropriate formats and quantities.

Within the organization the library functions as an important database so that the information acquired and made accessible to the organization's members informs the organization and enhances its performance. The knowledge management systems will help management with its task; it is the people within the organization, however, making use of all of the information available to them, in order to make the appropriate and essential decisions necessary to the accomplishment of the mission, that will ensure the organization’s success and its future.

Finally, at the social level, it is apparent that the historical development of society is actually a course of knowledge generation, knowledge innovation, and knowledge development. So we can say that our highly advanced modern society is an historical result of knowledge management, bringing information and people together. Society cannot exist without knowledge. Libraries, especially public libraries, can provide every citizen with an environment of learning knowledge without any obstacle or limitation.

Knowledge management is the very core domain of society based on information and knowledge resources. And the library has emerged as an important part of this domain.


1 Lynch, Beverly P. (1985). Management Strategies for Libraries. New York: Neal-Schuman.

2 Drucker, Peter. (1968). The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society. New York: Harper.

3 Tiwana, Amrit. (2000). The Knowledge Management Toolkit. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Cited in Guy St. Clair, “Knowledge Management”, Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. New York, M Dekker, 2003. p. 1486.

4 Malhotra, Yogesh. (2000). "Knowledge Management and New Organization Forms: A Framework for Business Model Innovation." Knowledge Management and Virtual Organizations. Hershey, USA: Idea Group Publishing. p. 6.

5 Srikantaiah, T. Kanti. ( 2000). “An Introduction to Knowledge Management.” Knowledge Management for the Information Professional. Medford, NJ: Published for the American Society for Information Society by Information Today. p. 3.

6 Holsapple, C.W., & Joshi, K.D. (2004). “A Formal Knowledge Management Ontology: Conduct, Activities, Resources, and Influences.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55(7). pp. 593-612.

7 Wu, Weici, & Liu, Ziheng. (2004). The Fundamentals of Library Science. Beijing: Higher Education Press.

8 Magretta, Joan. (2002). What Management Is? New York: Free Press. p. 217.

Originally published on the 3rd China-US Library Conference website (http://www.nlc.gov.cn/culc/en/index.htm).
Copyright © 2006 Wenxiang Yang & Beverly P. Lynch
Yang, Wenxiang, & Lynch, Beverly P. (2006). "On Knowledge Management and the Role of the Library in the Process of Knowledge Management," Chinese Librarianship: an International Electronic Journal, no.21 (June 1, 2006). URL: http://www.iclc.us/cliej/cl21YangLynch.htm