On Oct. 14 - 15, 2004 the Gesellschaft fuer Unternehmensgeschichte holds a conference on "Knowledge Management - The Marketplace of the Companies. We invite historians, especially economic & business historians to submit proposals for this conference.
Recent debates among sociologists and historians dealt with cultural aspectzs of knowledge societies in general. Equally interesting is the clearly defined organizational framework of the companies. Seen from the perspective of business history the question arises, how at different times enterprises acquire and create knowledge, manage this knowledge, utilize it within the company and transfer it again to the outside world. Knowledge is of course understood as knowledge which is profitable for the company. Therefore, the historically changing genesis - knowledge coming from internal or external sources - and the changing organization of the distribution of this knowledge - namely "hierarchical" versus "democratic" - are key factors for the companies. First of all, knowledge may be of a scientific and technological nature, which lays the grounds for products, production, and services. In addition, there is knowledge related to commercial aspects, to management and control of enterprises, in short to business administration. Knowledge may also, very generally, be understood as the subject of communication and discourse within the enterprise. Identifying historical periods, we start from the hypothesis that the 19th and early 20th centuries were dominated by knowledge coming from science and technology, whereas since the second half of the 20th century administrative know-how has been crucial.
2.R & D
Clearly, one important topic of a historical conference on knowledge management must be industrial Research and Development. In order to understand the situation in today’s R&D we are supposed to start with an analysis of the beginning of industrial research since the mid 19th century, that is the establishment of laboratories at the companies of Krupp, Hoechst, BASF, Bayer, GE, Philips, and AT&T. In Germany, the chemical industry certainly set the pace. The introduction of scientific research, however, did not mean that research became less applicable. Again, in post-World War II Germany new industrial knowledge was regularly close to application. Although the organizational structure of German research frequently changed, there were neither those high peaks nor cultural revolutions, as compared to some extremely research-intensive enterprises such as Philips.
In this context the question comes up whether innovations can be planned. Application-oriented industrial researchers, of course, assume that there are good chances to achieve innovative results if the company invests sufficient money into key technologies with a large bandwidth of uses (which are called “cross-section technologies” in Germany). New products and new processes do certainly arise from the funding of research into those “cross-section technologies”. But there will also be important innovations emerging from undirected basic science and from completely unpredictable events, provided that there are attentive technology managers within the enterprises who have a good overview over the developments of science and technology and who are able to link even remote paths or trajectories. Discussing the production of knowledge within separate companies we cannot exclude the more general question of the innovation capability of a whole country. One aspect might be the finding that Germany showed a distinct weakness, which is marked by incremental innovation processes rather than the breakthroughs in the US or in Japan.
In addition to the limited framework of the enterprise we must also consider markets in general and the co-operation with other enterprises and with public research facilities in particular. Another topic of the conference will be the globalization of knowledge. Since 1945, when German industry depended on an inflow of know-how, and since the 1970s, when it closed up with fore-front technology, German enterprises have exchanged knowledge with companies beyond national boundaries. Due to an application-oriented research and also due to limited capacities of German R&D knowledge has increasingly come from non-domestic sources. Clearly, with the help of co-operations, joint ventures, and takeovers companies have legitimately striven for additional market shares. Very often, however, they have aimed at an improvement of their own technology portfolio. Today, global players with an international manufacturing network simply cannot avoid to organize also their R&D in a global network.
The organization of R&D is a genuine field of business history. At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s there were controversial debates in economics on the problem of a centralized or a decentralized structure of R&D activities in divisionally organized companies. The points in favor of a decentralized structure were that this type of R&D was closer to the market, that it could better react to market demands and better create necessary specialized knowledge. The points in favor of centralization were that control of the R&D process was easier, that the transfer process within the company was smoother, that it was attractive for scientists working in R&D and that it offered economic advantages by reducing staff costs and materials costs. The proper financing of R&D deserves also much more attention in business history.
One important part of the technology assets of a company is the stock of patents and license agreements. In fact, some big companies monitored their patenting and licensing activities very closely. Furthermore, the German Ifo-Institute’s analyses of all patents, which were filed in 1992 world-wide, allow for a comparative study of different countries and industries. The significance of the simple number of patents, however, was questioned. Obviously, with regard to their patenting and licensing policy industries and regions behave very differently. E.g., copyrights appear to be much more important in the software industry than in other industries. Nevertheless, the number of international patents in certain industrial areas has been used to assess the innovative ability of whole countries and regions, or to compare important industrialized countries, or developing countries.
R & D and the related growth of knowledge does not happen in an empty space. Knowledge in the enterprises is tied to human actors. It is communicated inside and outside the enterprise by a great variety of media. These means of communication include the laboratory note book, the technical reports, analyses of patents and licenses, patent applications, papers to be given on conferences and contributions to scientific-technical journals as well as company magazines. These media are communicated in various versions and contents within the company’s hierarchy. Verbal communication (which reaches from basic training to learning in company colleges, sometimes at the high level of university education) is also still indispensable. The existing knowledge was always made accessible or extended on the basis of the available communication and information technology, such as telegraphy, telephone, and telex. Today, electromechanical and electric communication technologies are replaced by the powerful electronic media which enormously expand the amount of the company’s knowledge through intranet, global corporate networks, and internet.
3. Knowledge Management
Seen from the perspective of recent discussions in business administration our analysis cannot be restricted to R & D and to technology management. Within the framework of a conference on knowledge markets of enterprises the management of knowledge should be discussed much more generally. During the last decade such questions have ranged high in business management and management studies. Therefore, the early times of knowledge management should be analyzed as well. We assume that knowledge which is independent from individual persons and the “storage” of knowledge in specialized “media”, e.g. reports, routines, organizational structures, was decisive from the beginning.
Today, knowledge about human resources, legal issues, the control of an enterprise, and logistics have gained equal importance. It has even become dominant due to the increasing share of services, as compared to production. Furthermore, companies rely on knowledge about customers and markets and their geographical and political environment. The scientific foundations are provided by the departments of Business Administration, e.g. in the fields of Organizational Psychology, Operations Research, and Marketing. Again, the conference of the Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte focuses on the historical processes. Therefore, the establishment and the growth of the economic sciences since the beginning of the 20th century might serve as a background. We also have to go back further into history to explore the development of practical management knowledge. Prior to the establishment of the big telecommunication networks the task of running companies or managing large industrial projects was a particular challenge which the leading persons could only meet by travelling and working on site. This was the case with the founders of the Siemens companies. On the other hand we can see (hereby qualifying our hypothesis about two distinct historical periods), how high technology quickly entered management. Examples are the close relationship between telegraphy and the stock exchange, or, in Germany, between the telephone technology and the communication needs in large companies. Another important example is the use of punch-card machines in big German chemical plants at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, the knowledge about management and control was subject to a fast technological development, especially after the rise of big computers and the availability of business software (e.g. COBOL). Today, business data are almost completely processed electronically. Upon arrival of SAP R/3 software, entire business processes can be represented on the computer so that management can access business data almost in real-time. Verbal communication has been widely replaced by electronic communication, which is based on intranet technologies. Moreover, applying technology to knowledge management includes formalized techniques of computer-based knowledge management as well as supplementing existing knowledge by the prognostic capabilities of the Delphi-Studies.
Proposals may be submitted to:
Gesellschaft für Unternehmensgeschichte
Deadline: February 29, 2004.
Gesellschaft fuer Unternehmensgeschichte e.V.
Dr. Andrea H. Schneider / Gabriele Pieri
D-60487 Frankfurt am Main
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