Failure in knowledge management: whose is the ethical responsibility?

Gonçalo Jorge Morais of Costa and Nuno Miguel Araújo of Silva


The goal of the presented paper is the attempt to explain about the imputation of the ethical responsibility face to failures in knowledge management. The analysis in cause will be elaborated in way to answer to the presented subject, although it subjects to strong bibliography conditions, because the existent academic production in knowledge management worries fundamentally with the technological analysis and their implications in management.

In the threshold of the century XXI, the contemporary society is characterized by unprecedented deep mutations the all of the levels, fruit a radical evolution of values, know and perceptions of the world, which is particularly remarkable the influence of a group of effects and tendencies associated to the acceleration of the scientific and technological progress in the domain of the information.

In fact, in a global context of great dynamism and changeability, everyday appear new complexity forms, contradictions and paradoxes that are happening to a hallucinating rhythm, taking at obsolescence levels never before glimpsed in practically all of the domains of the human society.

In the epicenter of this whole change spiral we found the information technologies, which ones develop so intensely along the last decades, that they are transforming inexorably all the surrounding aspects of our life and the own essence of businesses, shaping a society characterized by the growing importance of knowledge and creativity.

But, what is knowledge management?

Knowledge management is an integrated, systematic approach to identifying, managing, and sharing all off an enterprise’s information assets, including data-bases, documents, policies, and procedures, as well as previously unarticulated expertise and experience held by individual workers. Fundamentally, it is about making the collective information and experience of an enterprise available to the individual knowledge worker, who is responsible for using it wisely and for replenishing the stock. The outgoing cycle encourages a learning organization, stimulates collaboration, and empowers people to continually enhance the way they perform work.

Having in account the definition of knowledge management, we easily deduce that face to clear failures the organization is exposed to high risks, which inclusively can take to the extinction of the same… In that situation of who is the ethical responsibility? The academic production induces us in an almost immediate way to answer that top management will be the responsible, but in fact will the answer to the presented question so lineal?

For that, and to be possible to give a plausible answer, it will be necessary to analyze the attitude of the top management in relation to knowledge management (in terms of values) and the ethical challenges that they face, the workers and eventual ethical challenges that are presented to them, and still presenting two case studies: Ford Motor Company and Shell Oil Company.

One of the main reasons for some of the strongest learning and knowledge management gains have come through active championing by the CEO. In organizations where the boundaries are very strong, CEO commitment is essential to share knowledge across the enterprise (like in Ford Motor Company). In the absence of that commitment, even well-executed and conceived practices may remain locked within a single organizational unit.

But there are ethical challenges that the CEO’s face:

  • the role of trust in the sharing of knowledge;
  • the protection of tacit and explicit knowledge that is not protected by legislation;
  • the fair/unfair exchange of knowledge;
  • the relationship between power (those who know) and dependency (know-nots).

On the other hand, a stance ethical discourse entails stringent requirements for those in the organization. The primary responsibilities inherent in the organizational ontology by the discourse ethics, then, stand or fall on two assumptions:

  • that normative claims to validity have cognitive meaning and can be treated like claims to truth;
  • that the justification of norms and commands requires that a real discourse be carried out and thus cannot occur in a strictly monological form, i.e., in the form of a hypothetical process of argumentation occurring in the individual mind.

In relation to the organizational culture this is a key barrier to success. Culture is generally defined as the beliefs, values, norms, and behaviours that are unique to an organization. In other words, “the unwritten rules” and “how work gets done around here”.

The development of a knowledge-sharing culture relies on:

  • shared vision;
  • value-based leadership at all levels;
  • open and continuous communication;
  • rewards and recognition.

Then if the settled organizational culture assumes non-ethical behaviours fruit of the “statement” of top management, that is, the non verification of the two previous suppositions previous of the communicational ethics due to management, the workers can be stimulated to present behaviours less ethical taking as example, their leader’s behaviour. On the other hand, if the workers by itself don’t present ethical professional behaviours (generosity, cooperation and pos-active posture), these can depreciate the knowledge management project, condemning him to the failure. How? If we have in attention the definition of knowledge management, we noticed that before the worker’s non-ethical professionals behaviours the empowerment process is depreciated, not creating in that way the additional know-how to the organization.

The discussion is then to the ruby-red… For a better founding we present the following examples: Ford Motor Company and Shell Oil Company as referred previously.


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