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VSE 188 - Vie et Sciences de l'Entreprise

Ethical Paradoxes in Knowledge Management

 Résumé :

La gestion des connaissances (KM) est généralement considérée comme un processus positif pour une organisation, permettant d’atteindre un avantage concurrentiel par une meilleure gestion des informations, la compilation de savoir-faire et une réaction rapide aux fluctuations de l'environnement. Toutefois, dans certains cas, la gestion des connaissances existe dans un univers de tension dynamique entre les besoins contradictoires de respecter la vie privée et la propriété intellectuelle, de se prémunir contre le vol de données, de protéger la sécurité nationale et de respecter les lois. Alors que la littérature de gestion des connaissances met l'accent sur le côté brillant du paradigme, il y a aussi une autre facette dans laquelle la connaissance est faussée, supprimée ou détournée en raison de motifs personnels ou organisationnels. Cet article décrit les paradoxes éthiques de la gestion des connaissances. Il suggère que reconnaître à la fois les promesses et les pièges du KM nécessite une certaine sagesse.


Knowledge management (KM) is generally considered to be a positive process in an organisation, facilitating opportunities to achieve competitive advantage via better quality information handling, compilation of expert know-how and rapid response to fluctuations in the business environment. However, in some instances, knowledge management exists in a universe of dynamic tension among the conflicting needs to respect privacy and intellectual property (IP), to guard against data theft, to protect national security and to stay within the laws. While the Knowledge Management literature focuses on the bright side of the paradigm, there is also a different side in which knowledge is distorted, suppressed or misappropriated due to personal or organisational motives. This paper describes the ethical paradoxes and suggests that recognising both the promises and pitfalls of KM requires Wisdom.


Knowledge has become one of the most critical driving forces for business success and intelligent organisations recognise that knowledge is an asset that grows with time and gives the organisation the ability to continuously compete and innovate (Gupta et al, 2000), [27]. It is sometimes claimed that knowledge is one of the resources that provides a sustainable competitive advantage. However, knowledge as such will not have much value for the organisation in building its competitive advantage – only relevant knowledge can do this (Choi et al, 2008). Modern organisations are hiring “minds, rather than hands” to leverage the value of knowledge [28]. In contrast to information stored in a library or the hard-drive of a PC, the person who ‘knows’ has information and is able to use that information to solve problems by reflecting on that information and experience and drawing insights in creative ways. Styhre (2002) says that “knowledge is the residue of thinking.” It cannot easily be stored and is ineffectual if it is not used. Knowledge is “always in a state of becoming, undergoing modifications and changes”.       

The area of Knowledge Management (KM) has emerged from two fundamental shifts, namely downsizing and technological advances (Martensson, M., 2000). Downsizing is a popular strategy to reduce overhead and increase profits, which often leads to the loss of valuable information and expertise as employees are made redundant and forced out, taking their experience and know-how with them. A need to capture, manage and share this knowledge was identified and Knowledge Management evolved as a strategy to store and retain employee knowledge for the future benefit of the company. Technological development refers to the explosive growth of information resources such as the Internet and the development of ever more sophisticated Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) and the accelerating pace of technological change, resulting in the continual flow of information that often leads to information overload. Knowledge Management is an attempt to cope with the explosion of information and capitalise on the increased knowledge in the workplace.

The literature on KM predominantly takes the positive view that KM enables organisations to capture essential knowledge and processes and make them available where needed, under the assumption that it will be collected and distributed accurately, appropriately and with good intentions, leading to efficiency, improved decision-making and protection of intellectual property. The so-called “utopian view” (Alter, 2006) or “KM Nirvana” fails to incorporate the ethical issues namely the underlying motives for the use and impact of KM systems on individuals, the organisation and society. The focus is therefore on the ‘bright side’ of KM while the other side, in which knowledge is distorted, suppressed or misappropriated due to personal or organisational motive (the paradox), is rarely mentioned. Such manipulation (and often distortion) of knowledge is referred to by Land (2004) as the dark side of knowledge management. This paper aims to demonstrate the conflict between the knowledge management paradigm and the paradox of ethical issues such as freedom of information, privacy of data, the protection of intellectual property and the intellectual capital of organisations.

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