Governance and Ethics

This theme is about taking responsibility for knowledge assets and using them in a way that is not detrimental to others. There are two main aspects to this: governance at the organizational level, and also the issue of ethics at the wider level of society as a whole. Addressing the first point, ask: "Do your senior management team and board of directors understand and oversee knowledge assets as well as they do your organization's financial assets? If the answer is no, then consult our roadmap page on KM governance.

Some Ethical Dilemmas

Ethics is an increasingly important aspect of modern organizational life. Since organization existin within a wider society, today the profit motive is not the be all and end all. Organizations have to address the expectations of a broad group of stakeholders, including their employees, their business partners, governments and local communities. Some of the ethical dilemmas that arise in the field of knowledge management are:

  • How far should an organization exploit an individual's priviliged or proprietary knowledge for its own benefit?
  • What rights does an employee have to share in the rewards of knowledge generated during their period of employment?
  • How can organization encourage knowledge sharing in an organizational climate where the individual feels that the organization wants to pump them for all they are worth and then dispense with their services?
  • How much should knowledge that can widely benefit mankind be kept as proprietary knowledge that is tightly controlled by an owner trying to maximize their commercial interests?

Many of these involve the ownership and exploitation of knowledge in a way that every stakeholders feels is fair. The last dilemma is one that is brought strongly into focus in the field of bio-prospecting. Pharmaceutical companies are hunting down ancient tribal remedies based on the knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, with a view to patenting them. Patents are also being sough for naturally occurring genes. Is it right that companies should be able to profit at the expense of indigenous tribes?

The answer is not clear cut. On one side of the argument, those seeking patent protection argue that that finding the right genetic material is like finding a needle in a haystack and this effort should be justly rewarded by giving them exclusive rights. On the other side, others claim that such knowledge should be common knowledge and freely available to all. Stuck in the middle are people like the Onge tribe of the Indian Ocean whose herbal brew may hold the key to a cure for malaria. How can they be recognized and rewarded for their knowledge, whether it is controlled by a multi-national corporation or freely available to everyone?

Addressing the Dilemmas

Like many societal and organizational issues, what seems fair to one person may seem very unfair to another. The best that one can hope for is openness and transparency to know why people are taking the stance they do. In an organizational context, here are a few suggested ground-rules to follow:

  • Make sure your corporate values are well articulated and understood throughout the organization, and that your stakeholders know what they are.
  • Use these values to guide the decisions you make when it comes to protecting and exploiting your knowledge assets.
  • If necessary, draw up specific guidelines - as part of your corporate information and knwoledge governance framework - that deal specifically with issues that are likely to arise with specific types of information and knowledge.
  • Have a security scheme that classifies different categories of information and knowledge according to their unique value and consequences of their loss or leakage.
  • Don't over-rely on protection and 'need to know'; 'need to share' is often more valuable in the long-run.
  • Be open to licensing proprietary information; seek out a win-win solution which makes it attractive for licencees to want to use your knowledge in return for both a financial and knowledge payback (i.e. as well as royalties, sharing new knowlege that comes through use of your knowledge in a new context.
  • Encourage your staff to participate in external forums where some of these knowledge dilemmas are addressed; some of your staff should also go on business ethics courses to see KM ethics issues within their wider context.

Beyond the individal firm, there is clearly a need for a transnational organization that address some of these knowledge dilemmas and make sure that they are key inputs to decisions of other transnational organizations like the World Trade Organization. One could argue that WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization) should be the place to do this, but with "protecting intellectual property" as its main aim, does this limit its scope for 'fair play', especially for those who feel powerless against the might of large multi-national corporations.

Last updated: 19th March 2011



A presentation that reviews the development of knowledge management. Initially delivered to a group of MIS directors, it is the first of several presentations covering ten key themes.
(Download presentation - PDF format)


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