Home Resources Blog October 2016

Organizational Knowledge within ISO Management Systems

25 October 2016
This article will explore everything that you need to know about organizational knowledge in order to implement ISO standards effectively. 

Modern ISO Management Systems that are aligned with Annex SL; require organizations to determine, maintain, monitor, and acquire new organizational knowledge. This is one of the most interesting and fast-evolving areas of management practice in recent years. 

“Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” - T. S. Eliot

When information enters an organization, it undergoes a process called internalization which allows it to be recalled. This is important because “information” can only be called “knowledge” when it is internalized. There are two types of internalization:  knowledge communication refers to what most people think of as knowledge transfer, knowledge elicitation describes assisting others in generating their own knowledge. In this sense, individuals with your organization can actually add value to information held by your organization.

The way to test whether you have correctly internalized organizational knowledge is to look for signs of knowledge acquisition. For example, a common problem in many organizations is failure to acquire legal compliance information in a timely-enough fashion in order to avoid prosecution. To describe the effect of this phenomenon over an organization (as opposed to the individuals) we call this ability organizational learning. Of course, if you think about it, these warning signs are temporally-bounded and can affect the efficiency of your management system; to learn, adapt and survive.  

When knowledge is transferred between individuals, it undergoes a process called externalization. Externalization can be measured by the retention and retrieval of knowledge. Some organizations are simply too bureaucratic and slow in communicating information between individuals; whereas others will lose knowledge through ineffective management practices. There is also a tendency for knowledge to become increasingly codified, which means that it can become increasingly diluted and remote to the end user. To describe the effect of this phenomenon over an organization (as opposed to the individuals) we call this ability organizational memory

Knowledge transfer is a cyclical process. Externalized information can be internalized and re-internalized numerous times, but that does not mean that the information is lost. It just means that additional labour is required in order for the organization to re-interpret this information.
There are two more common terms:  tacit knowledge is something that is roughly guess work, and explicit knowledge is something that tends to evolve from experience. We can therefore generalize that tacit knowledge is readily externalized, and explicit knowledge is readily internalized. 

Under certain conditions tacit and explicit knowledge can pass between individuals without any information:  this process is called socialization, and it occurs when people speak directly to one-another to share knowledge within an organization. Having experienced people around allows them to tell others what to do (supervision). It is for this reason that certain industries, including construction, will focus on a high degree of socialization to elicit knowledge in new members of staff.   

Implementation

The purpose of this article is to give you a flavour of the challenges and dilemmas facing managers and leaders in organizations that wish to really understand why organizational knowledge is important to an organization. Of course, there are numerous examples of methods that you could apply to implement knowledge management in ISO management systems, notable examples include:  after-action reviews, peer-to-peer learning, and cross-project learning.

However, the significance of integrating organizational knowledge, which was introduced by the Annex SL revision in 2015, is its ability to affect other clauses within each standard. For example, understanding both the context of an organization, and the needs and expectations of interested parties is directly relevant to organizational knowledge:

"When addressing changing needs and trends, the organization shall consider its current knowledge and determine how to acquire or access any necessary additional knowledge and required updates." 

Hence…"changing needs and trends" can be interpreted to involve aspects of managing interested parties, wherein the clause states: 

"The organization should monitor and review the information about external and internal issues".
Failure to monitor customer requirements can lead to an adverse impact on satisfaction. But the reason that organizational knowledge was included in these industry standards is that it can pin-point these impacts, and exactly how this led to non-conforming products. This level of integration is truly systemic across each standard, meaning that you can find references to it in many different clauses.

Conclusion

Introducing organizational knowledge into ISO management systems promotes and embeds a modern perspective on the nature of business and trade. Organizational knowledge is critical to many organizations because it can be commoditised:  it has a value, and it can be traded. 

If employees leave, they take more than just intellect away from your organization - potentially placing their knowledge into the hands of a competitor. When you implement an ISO management system you are diminishing this risk and enhancing your organizations ability to evolve.