Effective knowledge management has become an important factor in maintaining the competitive advantage and commercial success for engineering businesses. This applies especially to the design knowledge used in small manufacturing enterprises (SMEs). They operate under conditions of resource poverty and suffer from knowledge loss during staff turnover. This research explores the nature of the design knowledge involved in an SME, and develops a means to manage the knowledge and minimize its loss.
An iterative process with phases of observation, analysis and intervention was adopted for the investigation. The tactic of immersion, i.e., living with the company, was employed to collect data for analysis. The design knowledge involved in a total of six design related activities was identified. This knowledge was segregated into units and coded in accordance with the categorizations that were developed for characterizing the properties associated with the knowledge units. These properties included the substantive nature; the project management phases in which the units were identified; the sources from which the unit was first acquired; the functional knowledge needed to support the units and the associated tacit characteristics. These provide a broad representation of the properties of the design knowledge involved in the SME and insights into its nature. A model was developed to depict the relationship between the knowledge in use and its supporting knowledge. A knowledge schema was also structured to help segregate the explicit and tacit knowledge identified in the study.
The design knowledge involved went through a knowledge process which consisted of five chronological stages of acquisition, filtration, application, storage and eradication. Influencing factors on four levels of resolution, namely, personal, project, corporate and external, were identified. The impacts of the influencing factors on the knowledge process were assessed. A model representing the interrelationship among the influencing factors was developed to illustrate the action of the factors.
A Design Knowledge Management System was established to manage the design knowledge involved in the SME and minimize its loss. The system was constructed within a combination of computer and physical documentation systems and allowed different levels of user access. The unique features of the system were based on the findings of the investigation and considerations on the special operational environment of the SME.