How should knowledge management research be conducted?

Knowledge management (KM) research and practice embraces a wide range of interests and actions. KM has evolved from a spectrum of theoretical traditions ranging from philosophy to computer science, and spans a diversity of activities from technological interventions on one hand through to social approaches on the other. This complicates decisions in regard to what approach to take when conducting KM research.

The negative impacts of this are clearly evident. Research is tending to focus on the management of explicit knowledge, despite recognition of the importance of tacit knowledge. This suggests that KM studies are adopting quantitative rather than qualitative methods. Another issue is that the methodological stance is not always evident in studies, resulting in criticism that the research position is ambiguous and therefore problematic for other researchers to interpret. Research findings have also shown a lack of cumulativeness and consistency, resulting in the implementation of KM initiatives with an overemphasis on technology to the exclusion of adequate people management, or conversely strong people management programs that have been hindered by inadequate enabling technologies.

To address the current situation, a new paper[1] from Dr. Fahmi Ibrahim of the School Of Business at Universiti Teknologi Brunei argues for a research methodology that can appropriately reflect the diversity of KM.

A phenomenological approach with middle-range thinking

In his study, Ibrahim explores knowledge management perspectives and the research methodological stances, and then from this develops a research methodology that he considers appropriate for KM research. He defines knowledge based on two broad epistemological camps: the objectivist perspective (explicit knowledge) and the practice-based perspective (tacit knowledge).

Ibrahim concludes that KM research should adopt a phenomenological approach with ‘middle-range thinking’.

Phenomenology is “the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions.” Ibrahim states that it is important to pay attention to existing theories and research that are relevant to a study, because these are often key sources for understanding what is going on, but the literature should be treated as a useful yet fallible source of ideas rather than an authority to be deferred to.

Ibrahim argues that Laughlin’s middle-range thinking[2] approach is a more realistic depiction of the hard/technical and soft/social nature of KM:

This is because to adopt a ‘high’ level theory of KM can be likened to any other scientific theory. For example, theory of gravity, where it does not matter whether it is an apple or a bicycle or any other objects that is falling to the ground since all differences can be expressed through the theory of weight and volume. But a ‘high’ level theory in KM becomes equally [uninteresting] because KM practices are also social practice that cannot be explained through [a] scientific lens. On the other hand, a ‘low’ emphasis to prior theory, suggests all contextual variables are unique and only applicable to the KM practices being explored. It becomes invariably impossible to detach all contextual diversity into theoretical categories (context-free) leaving the richness of the picture to be portrayed largely ‘as it is’ without theoretical refinement. In this situation, no learning or theory from other situations is possible and appropriate. Nevertheless, the ‘middle-range thinking’ approach recognises a material reality distinct from our interpretations while at the same time does not dismiss the inevitable perceptive bias of understanding. This argument is in line with the concept of ‘objectivity’ from the phenomenological perspective.

In consideration of this, the use of qualitative rather than quantitative research methodology is recommended.


  1. Ibrahim, F. (2017). Knowledge Management Methodology: Developing a Phenomenalogical Middle-range Thinking Approach for Knowledge Management Research. Journal of Management Research, 9(4), 110–122.
  2. Laughlin, R. (1995). Empirical research in accounting: alternative approaches and a case for “middle-range” thinking. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 8(1), 63–87.

Originally published at RealKM.