Management in Information Systems

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Schultze & Leidner/Knowledge Management in IS Research

RESEARCH ARTICLE

STUDYING KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT IN
INFORMATION SYSTEMS RESEARCH:
DISCOURSES AND THEORETICAL
ASSUMPTIONS1
By: Ulrike Schultze
Cox School of Business
Southern Methodist University
P.O. Box 750333
Dallas, TX 75275-0333
U.S.A.
uschultz@mail.cox.smu.edu
Dorothy E. Leidner
Hankamer School of Business
Baylor University
Waco, TX 76798-8005
U.S.A.
Dorothy_Leidner@baylor.edu

Abstract
In information systems, most research on knowledge management assumes that knowledge has positive implications for organizations. However,
knowledge is a double-edged sword: while too
little might result in expensive mistakes, too much

might result in unwanted accountability. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the lack of attention paid to the unintended consequences of managing organizational knowledge and thereby
to broaden the scope of IS-based knowledge
management research. To this end, this paper
analyzes the IS literature on knowledge management. Using a framework developed by Deetz (1996), research articles published between 1990
and 2000 in six IS journals are classified into one
of four scientific discourses. These discourses
are the normative, the interpretive, the critical, and
the dialogic. For each of these discourses, we
identify the research focus, the metaphors of
knowledge, the theoretical foundations, and the
implications apparent in the articles representing
it. The metaphors of knowledge that emerge from
this analysis are knowledge as object, asset,
mind, commodity, and discipline. Furthermore, we
present a paper that is exemplary of each discourse. Our objective with this analysis is to raise IS researchers’ awareness of the potential and the
implications of the different discourses in the
study of knowledge and knowledge management.
Keywords: Epistemology, knowledge, knowledge
management

1

Daniel Robey was the accepting senior editor for this
paper.

ISRL Categories: IB02, AL01, AJ

MIS Quarterly Vol. 26 No. 3, pp. 213-242/September 2002

213

Schultze & Leidner/Knowledge Management in IS Research

Introduction
Despite the difficulties associated with defining
and identifying knowledge, knowledge has
become a primary resource in organizations.
Organizations are implementing knowledge
management practices and technologies on the
promise of increasing their effectiveness, efficiency, and competitiveness. These promises are based on an assumption that knowledge is good
and that there are at worst negligible negative
consequences of knowledge management. Scrupulous consideration might suggest, however, that knowledge is a double-edged sword: while too
little leads to inefficiencies, too much results in
rigidities that tend to be counterproductive in a
dynamically changing world (March 1991); while
too little might result in chaotic social relations, too
much implies the silencing of diverse perspectives
(Bowker and Star 1999); and while too little might
result in expensive mistakes (e.g., faulty new
product), too much might result in unwanted
accountability (e.g., the class action law suits filed
against the tobacco industry in the U.S. because
it hid knowledge about the negative health effects
of smoking).
We argue that in order to understand the ways
that information systems can support the management of knowledge in organizations, consideration must be given to not only the intended, positive
consequences of knowledge and its management,
but also the negative, unintended ones. This
requires that researchers have an awareness of
the diversity of possible theoretical assumptions
about knowledge and its management, and the
extent to which the field of knowledge management research represents—or fails to represent— this potential theoretical diversity. In this paper,
our objective is to raise IS researchers’ awareness
of the different discourses of knowledge and...
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