Understanding business, and what that process contains, is extremely complex. It takes years of study and focus to gain even a rudimentary idea of all a company has to do to remain viable. A company has to have employees who understand their jobs, clear work goals for all concerned in the business, accounting practices that tell the actual financial workings of the company and keep government agencies happy, along with many other processes among the strata. Threads run through all of the working practices of an organization which tend to bind it together. These can be tangible communication channels (email, phone lines, other forms of information technology), or they can be intangible. These intangible communication lines are another layer of complexity which the organizations managers have to control and mold. How people deal with one another is the way an organization actually functions because the people are the actual glue that binds a company more than any other single asset that the organization may have. These people also add the most complexity to the organization, and how they are managed determines the relative success or failure of an enterprise.
The members of the organization also provide the knowledge upon which it is based, and they can absorb further knowledge that will help maintain the company. Knowledge development and management are critical because an industry is always changing as processes improve, and an organization has to be continually developing its knowledge base or it will fail. Management of employees with regard to knowledge development is also crucial, but how to manage that development can be daunting. Encouraging cooperation among the various participants is one way to generate knowledge, but fostering some amount of conflict also helps the knowledge base grow. This paper focuses on these two methods of developing knowledge and tries to uncover which process is the more efficient method according to collected research.
The central question is that in order to achieve the best outcomes for knowledge development what management approach is best: one that encourages cooperation between staff or one that encourages conflict? Within this question three terms need to be better understood before an analysis can be conducted: knowledge development, cooperation between staff, and conflict between staff. Delineating these three terms will form the basis for the following discussion.
Knowledge can be simply defined as "awareness or learning" (Knowledge), but the development of this process is more involved. Knowledge, some have also called this intellectual capital ("nonfinancial measures and other related information" (Moon & Kym)), development provides that there has to be a method by which the knowledge is acquired; therefore, it is not necessarily something that the individual has had previously. The management aspect of knowledge development is assisting the individual to continuously acquire knowledge that will benefit the entire organization by helping the person experience different aspects of the organization or by giving them the means to educate themselves (Cohen). Of course this can come through cooperation or conflict.
The cooperation aspect has been the most studied in the new field of knowledge management (Mischen & Jackson). Cooperation among employees means that they share the knowledge that they have and that they try to improve the overall knowledge base in any way that they can. Researchers have studied this under the guise of such phenomena as community of practice (Liu & Fisher), and social network analysis (Mischen & Jackson). It would seem intuitive that people would be better able to gain knowledge if they were able to learn from willing colleagues, but this is not always the case.
Many times, throughout the history of organizations, companies have specifically worked to pit departments, groups or individuals within the organization against one another for the betterment of the entire company (Morris, Kocak & Ozer). This is not a pugilistic practice, but one in which the groups work against each other to improve the knowledge base for the good of the whole. Many examples of this practice exist within technological companies. One specific example is the individual work that Bell lab scientists conducted to come up with many of their early innovations including the transistor. This style of management would seem counterintuitive, but only if the conflict and competition does not result in an eventual addition to the total knowledge of the company.
Conflict can also be used directly in meetings and workgroups. If people are allowed to experience a rise in conflict between individuals they may be more able to realize a positive outcome (Fischler). Sometimes what seems to be a viable solution is not, and what seems to be a detriment works out to be just what the company needed to add to its knowledge base (Fischler).
Cooperation vs. Conflict
The research has had much to say about fostering cooperation among employees to grow knowledge for an organization. This idea stems from the belief that an organization is not a collection of individuals, but an interconnected whole where the individual adds to the knowledge base as they are able to work within the group structure. One group of researchers studied how the formation of alliances improves the knowledge base of a company. They said;
"Recently, there is an escalating number of academic literature that suggests that the achievement of benefits from alliances is closely related to the ability of the partners to share knowledge and learn from each other. Organisations are increasingly employing strategic alliances to quickly learn new knowledge to speed up the rate of innovation in response to meeting diverse and changing customers' demands and needs. Such joint cooperation enforces partners to create an environment not only to enhance the development of their own core competencies to achieve their objectives, but also to enable the development of new knowledge" (Suseno & Ratten)
The authors of this study found that organizations were encouraging people to form alliances with others (not exclusionary cliques, but working alliances) because of the benefits gained. The greatest benefit of these alliances seems to have been that the employees both brought the corporate knowledge level up because everyone knew what everyone else knew, but it also enabled individual employees to innovate and fostered the creation of new knowledge.
Within an organization creating these cooperative alliances could mean that people from different departments, who are working on a project that requires multiple disciplines, work together (Liu & Fisher). This helps develop knowledge because there will be a different knowledge base in the separate departments. Even people who very different responsibilities within a company can share what they know to enhance the development of someone else. Since most projects require input from many different areas, it would seem that if the people work together, instead of just supplying their specific part of the project, that the overall knowledge in the company will be further developed.
These facts are born out in the research also. In research conducted on widening the knowledge of nurses, Sandra Ward, a PhD in nursing, argued that incorporating a new model of care (in this case the common sense model) was "an excellent heuristic for integrating findings from diverse lines of research and because it can generate new research in nursing." This means that developing this knowledge among nurses in general will further create more knowledge as more research is done and nurses practice the concept. Within an individual organization the same has been found to be true. As a matter of fact this cooperation does not always occur within a single organization, but it may be between different entities in an industry (Morris, Kocak & Ozer). Especially small organizations can develop knowledge faster by working with others within their market. This can be expanded to an idea already presented, that different departments within an organization increase knowledge through cooperation instead of strict conflict and competition (Morris, Kocak & Ozer).
Of course, the flip side of this coin (cooperation) is conflict. Again, it may seem counterintuitive to believe that conflict can be on par with cooperation in increasing an organization's knowledge base. However, there has been a significant amount of research conducted which suggests exactly that.
First of all, conflict within an organization can come from many elements both internal and external. In the global sense, it can be seen that knowledge is developed through necessity when there is an external conflict which threatens a company. Many world-changing technologies would not have been developed were it not for the extreme conflict of war. In this way, an external force dictated that a group of people increase their knowledge to deal put down a threat. The Atomic age was created because German and American scientists were working against each other to discover an ultimate end to a conflict.
Organizations also realize the same external forces when a competitor is able to create a new product that revolutionizes an industry. The recent rush to copy Apple's iPad is an example of this phenomena. Many different companies have a version of…