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PCP and knowledge management
Knowledge management has been described as: "An approach to adding or creating value by more actively leveraging the know-how, experience, and judgement resident within and, in many cases, outside of an organisation." (Ruggles, 1998)
The importance of knowledge to organisations can hardly be overestimated. Nonaka (1991) says: "In an economy where the only certainty is uncertainty, the one sure source of lasting competitive advantage is knowledge."
What then, is "knowledge"? Davenport and Prusak (1998) have this to say: "Confusion about what data, information and knowledge are - how they differ, what those words mean - has resulted in enormous expenditures on technology initiatives that rarely deliver..."
As Kelly (1955/1991) says in his individuality corollary: "Persons differ from each other in their construction of events". So, it is a risky business to prescribe a certain meaning to the word "knowledge". The safest course is to find out how that term is construed by those in the organisation concerned. And, we need to remember that knowledge is not a static thing. Constructive alternativism, the philosophy that underpins Kelly's theory, must always be kept in mind when managing knowledge. There are always different ways in which things, people and knowledge, can be construed. As Kelly says, knowledge needs to be construed as something which is invented rather than something which is discovered.
The development and use of creativity is a vital aspect of the successful management of knowledge. Knowledge is not merely something to be acquired and stored. New ideas need to be applied to problems to overcome obstacles and to develop new products and services. Kelly's creativity cycle of loosening and tightening construing will always need to be kept in mind by the knowledge manager. As Kelly (1955/1991) says: "A person who always uses tight constructions may be productive - that is, he may turn out a lot of things - but he cannot be creative; he cannot produce anything which has not already been blueprinted. Creativity always arises out of preposterous thinking ..."
Making tacit knowledge explicit: Often, a key requirement in the management of knowledge will be putting thoughts into words – perhaps for the first time (see tacit construing for more on this). Nonaka (1991) has this to say: "Making personal knowledge available to others is the central activity of the knowledge-creating company", and, "Tacit knowledge is highly personal. It is hard to formalise and, therefore, difficult to communicate to others."
The importance of putting things into words was specifically acknowledged by Kelly: "Language is one of the handiest gadgets ever invented by man to help him elaborate his constructs. Language serves two functions: it serves as a paperweight to keep his ideas from blowing away while a man is busy with something else; and it serves, more or less, as a means of communicating with other persons, especially with those who have a similar outlook." (Kelly, 1955/1991)
Fortunately, PCP is exceptionally well provided with methods to help elicit tacit knowledge. Construct elicitation techniques (Kelly, 1955/1991), laddering (Hinkle, 1965) and pyramiding (Landfield, 1971) are just some of the methods that have been used by practitioners to make tacit knowledge explicit (e.g. Stewart and Stewart, 1981; Jankowicz, 2001).
How can people be helped to share knowledge? People may not be so keen on sharing their knowledge as an organisation would like. Developments of Kelly's repertory grid methodology such as "idiographic research surveys" (see Brophy, Fransella & Reed, 2003) can be used to find how why members of an organisation are resisting changes required by the company’s knowledge management strategy. Personal construct theory has an integrated theory of resistance to change, which can be used to understand why people are "stuck". Idiographic research surveys also enable data to be gathered on such issues as: the construing of the knowledge transfer infrastructure in the organisation and discovering what can be learnt from commercial projects undertaken by the organisation – learning from the organisation’s history. Other grid techniques such as the resistance to change grid (Hinkle, 1965; see Fransella, Bell & Bannister, 2003 for a description) enable the relative importance of knowledge constructs to be identified.
In the context of knowledge management, reference should also be made to the work of Mildred Shaw, Brian Gaines and others (see e.g. Shaw & Gaines, 2003) on expert systems.
This article has tried to show that in personal construct terms what is and is not 'knowledge', is very much in the eye of the beholder. It has also attempted to demonstrate the utility of personal construct methods in making abstract things, so often the subject of knowledge transfer strategies, concrete. We have also seen that PCP methods and theory addresses such important issues such as resistance to change, which will be an inevitable part of an organisation's knowledge management strategy.
  • Brophy, S., Fransella, F. & Reed, N. (2003) The power of a good theory. In Fransella, F. (ed.), International handbook of personal construct psychology. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 
  • Davenport, T.H. & Prusak, L. (1998) Working knowledge: How organisations manage what they know. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Fransella, F., Bell, R. & Bannister, D. (2003) A manual for repertory grid technique. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd
  • Hinkle, D. (1965). The change of personal constructs from the viewpoint of a theory of construct implications. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Ohio State University.
  • Jankowicz, D. (2001) Why does subjectivity make us nervous? Making the tacit explicit. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 2, 1, 61-73.
  • Kelly, G.A. (1955/1991) The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton. Republished in 1991 in London by Routledge.
  • Landfield, A. (1971) Personal construct systems in psychotherapy. Chicago: Rand McNally.
  • Nonaka, I. (1991) The knowledge creating company. Harvard Business Review, November-December 1991. Reprint no: 91608.
  • Ruggles, R. (1998) The state of the notion: knowledge management in practice. California Management Review, 40(3), 80-89.
  • Shaw, M. & Gaines, B. (2003) Expert Systems. In Fransella, F. (ed), International handbook of personal construct psychology. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  • Stewart, V. & Stewart, A. (1981) Business applications of repertory grids. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Book Company (UK) Limited.
Nick Reed

Establ. 2003
Last update: 12 February 2004