Individual Ethics and Knowledge Management: Arising Conflicts

Gonçalo Jorge Morais da Costa, Mary Prior and Simon Rogerson


The knowledge revolution in the last decade has set the basis for the so-called knowledge economy, which is becoming far more complex and involved. Organizations and individuals are increasingly required to learn more and more. Hence to achieve a competitive advantage knowledge and understanding is becoming far more important than data and information.

However, the quest for obtaining knowledge and in fact utilizing it is not original. This effort is old as the history of human thought (Spiegler, 2000). For example, Plato, Descartes and Kant have all made attempts to define and understand the nature of knowledge and to unearth the forces underpinning various phenomena in life. In fact, the diverse schools of thought regarding knowledge management underpin such reality, but primarily we need to describe the concept of knowledge management

Research in knowledge management has gained tremendous pace since its inception in the last decade as evidenced by the extensive existing literature and its further growth (Ponzi and Koenig, 2002). Knowledge management is a multi-faceted phenomenon and integrates dissimilar inter-linked processes (Egbu, Botterill and Bates, 2001). The purpose is to create a thriving working and learning environment that fosters the continuous creation, aggregation, use and reuse of both personal and organizational knowledge in the pursuit of a new business value (Kikawada and Holtshouse, 2001). Quintas, Lefrere and Jones (1997) express the same view about KM where they consider it as the process of continually managing knowledge of all kinds to meet existing and emerging needs, to identify and exploit existing and acquired knowledge assets to develop new opportunities.

Clearly such concept engages two analytical levels: foster learning and organizational knowledge. And finally, these levels are approached by the existent schools of thought: Japanese, European and American; in accordance to their cultural and societal environment as Cardoso et al. (2003) plead.

In fact, such reality is easily perceived if we pay attention to the philosophical systems that characterize each region: the concept of “ba” in Nonaka´s model (1991, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2002) is clearly based on the philosophical Asian systems, such as: Budhism, Confucionism, Daoism and Taoism. The American school engages information and communication technology as a relevant mean to achieve knowledge management (see for example Nikolaos et al., 2005), which translates a more individualistic perception of life supported by Aristotelian philosophical system. Finally, the European school may be seen as mix, because it assumes as presupposition the attempt to measure knowledge resources (Kaplan and Norton, 1997; Edvinsson and Malone, 1997; Stewart, 1997; Sveiby, 1997; Roos et al, 1998).

Plus, and more importantly, knowledge management incorporates a strong personal dimension that enables a possible success or not regarding an organizational knowledge management project designing unforeseen ethical challenges; therefore, the need to discuss individual ethics should be a reality and not a hype.

Given the previous facts, the aim of this paper is to link the local philosophical systems into the knowledge management process allowing a comparison, regarding the ethical and moral dilemmas that may arise to knowledge workers individually. Moreover, we will demonstrate that such challenges are similar, and in fact, the need for individual transparency is unconditional.

But, how can we define individual transparency? The expression “transparent” comes from the Latin word “transparere,” a combination of trans- (“through”) and parere (“come in sight, appear”). Focusing into the etymological foundation we may state that transparency is a “state of mind” or praxis for ethical behaviours.

Finally, we will demonstrate that Floridi´s information theory (1999; 2004; 2006) may provide important answers to that personal dimension of knowledge management, through two levels of justification:

  • the characteristics of such theory;
  • and, how information and communication technologies empower people individually.
  • The name information ethics is appropriate to Floridi´s theory, because it treats everything that exists as “informational” objects or processes. In fact, all entities will be described as clusters of data, that is, as information objects. More precisely, any existing entity will be a discrete, self-contained, encapsulated package containing because:
  • the appropriate data structures, which constitute the nature of the entity in question, that is, the state of the object, its unique identity and its attributes;
  • a collection of operations, functions, or procedures, which are activated by various interactions or stimuli (that is, messages received from other objects or changes within itself) and correspondingly define how the object behaves or reacts to them.

At this level of abstraction, informational systems as such, rather than just living systems in general, are raised to the role of agents and patients of any action, with environmental processes, changes and interactions equally described informationally (Floridi, 2006).

Information and communication technologies allowed an unseen level of information dissemination, and simultaneous allowed that people obtain a novel character by thus absorbing its unique sources of social power. But such reality also enhances exponentially the ethical challenges too. As Floridi (2006) states, ICT engages a tragedy of the Good Will.


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