Organizational knowledge in the making : history, breakdowns and narratives
The present study looks at the dynamics whereby organisational knowledge comes into existence and is eventually crystallised into stable structures of signification through processes of utilisation and institutionalisation. Recent years have seen an astounding explosion of writing about organisational knowledge. In different versions, organisational theorists have been paying increasing attention to the idea of the firm as a body of knowledge, stressing in turn the ability of firms to create, manage and transfer knowledge as a critical success factor. However, the current debate on the topic has highlighted the difficulty of documenting empirically the process of creation, accumulation and maintenance of knowledge in organisations. This, of course, begs the question: how is it possible to relate an empirical study to the theoretical debate on knowledge in organisations? More specifically, how does a particular knowledge system emerge and become stabilised? How does it evolve over time? In this study, we argue that the lack of attention to knowledge as an empirical phenomenon can be traced back to the assumptions underlying the mainstream knowledge-based theories of the firm, which emphasise the instrumental, functional character of knowledge in organisations. In contrast to the functionalist view of knowledge, we contend that mainstream assumptions need to be combined with those perspectives focusing on the social construction of knowledge and highlighting its contentious, provisional nature. Given the problems identified at both theoretical and methodological levels, the present study proposes a framework for studying knowledge as an empirical phenomenon based on three methodological lenses, which are echoed in the title of this work: history, breakdowns and narratives. The three lenses have to be seen as bringing into focus the tacit features of knowledge and organisation. The empirical core of the research is evidenced by three in-depth case studies conducted at Fiat Auto Italy. The findings of the study provide the backbone for constructing a theoretical model of knowledge in organisations. The model links the content, process, and context of knowledge-related phenomena in a coherent classificatory system. More generally, the empirical research highlights the systemic, institutionalised, and multi-faceted nature of knowledge in organisations.