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Knowledge Creation in Knowledge Intensive Firms

This project was Maxine Robertson's PhD thesis and was concerned with understanding the way in which knowledge creation was sustained over time within a particular type of knowledge intensive firm referred to as an expert consultancy. Expert consultancies are differentiated from generalist management consultancies in terms of their knowledge intensity i.e. the high levels of expertise of the workforce and their focus on the development of highly customised creative and innovative solutions rather than on the diffusion and implementation of pre-packaged 'best practice' solutions. Two longitudinal case studies were conducted in expert consultancies and a critical interpretative approach, characteristic of the constructivist paradigm was adopted for their analysis. Processes of knowledge creation are intrinsically complex and unpredictable. The leaders of such firms are perpetually seeking ways to manage the fundamental tensions that exist between autonomy and control and efficiency and uncertainty.

A retrospective historical analysis was developed of the way in which knowledge creation occurred and the organisational conditions that served to shape the process over time within both firms. The organisational conditions that were considered included not only structural aspects of the firm but also cultural and social conditions. The research found that a number of distinctive structural conditions contributed to sustaining processes of knowledge creation over time, including profit satisficing behaviour, an absence of professional management, and a resource rich environment. Critically, a strong yet ambiguous culture was found to be important for sustaining processes of knowledge creation. Organisational ambiguity promoted quasi-normative control, regulating individuals' dual identities as both 'consultant' and 'expert'. Quasi-normative control promoted both creative and self-disciplining behaviour such that processes of knowledge creation occurred in ways that were ultimately efficient for the firm. These findings represent a contribution to the literature with regards to organisational culture and the management of knowledge workers.  

Publications:

Robertson, M. & Swan, J. (1998). Universal Consultancy: A case study of modes of knowledge, power and egos. Organization, 5,4, 543-564. 

Robertson, M. & Swan, J. (2003). 'Control- what control?' Culture and ambiguity within a knowledge intensive firm, Journal of Management Studies, 40,4, 831-859.

Robertson, M., Scarbrough, H. & Swan, J. (2003) Knowledge creation in professional service firms: Institutional effects. Organization Studies, 24,6, 831-857