II: Social knowledge management and social technologies: Conceptual foundations

Knowledge management and its evolution in organizational context


The preceding chapters have differentiated knowledge from information, highlighted the value of knowledge as resource and discussed the extant knowledge divide which cripples society. Subsequently, we have proposed management of knowledge as a strategy to usher in knowledge capability expansion of organizational and/or social members. Our research framework defines information as factual data having a purpose. On the other hand, our reliance on knowledge as an asset to generate socio-economic value rests on interpreting the credential of the concept in terms of its potential to transform information into experience, values, contextual information and personal insight in pursuit of generating new information and experience (Limaye et al., 2017). Although knowledge as an asset has secured a considerable position in the context of contemporary society, both at the institutional and social level (Laszlo Sc Laszlo, 2002), passive possession of the asset seldom has the capacity to realize the value of the resource in attainment of positive outcome. Achieving both individual and collective performance enhancement requires knowledge capability of social actors to be enhanced, so that knowledge can be used, shared, brokered and managed throughout a diverse and distributed global setting (Limaye et ah, 2017).

The importance of knowledge and the urgency to manage it to achieve optimal and efficient social functioning has existed since civilization emerged, as a result of effective collaboration among different social actors (Pizziconi Sc Wiig, 1997). However, the study of knowledge and knowledge management on a formal level is of recent origin and first emerged in the context of business organizations. First instances of the term “knowledge management” appeared in the year 1975, in articles written by Goel, Henry and McCaffery (Serenko Sc Bonds, 2004), where knowledge management emerged “as an ultimate view to transform information (= description) to knowledge (= action)” (Tzortzaki Sc iVlihiotis, 2014). Since the time of its inception, several scholars from diverse disciplines have devoted their academic quest to define and explore the dimensions of knowledge management as a formal strategy to boost competitive advantage. While no unanimity could be achieved among the diverse definitions of knowledge management as conceptualized by different scholars from diverse disciplines, knowledge management can be generally referred to as the process of enabling individuals to improve their learning efficiency and integrate different knowledge resources to improve competitive advantage (Gao et al., 2018). Knowledge management is generally viewed as a process, where related activities are formed to carry out key elements of strategies and operations. Knowledge management refers to the cumulative process of creating, storing, transferring and applying knowledge to improve individual and collective efficiency (Xue, 2017).

This chapter locates the trajectory of knowledge management as a strategy to boost organizational performance. The chapter is divided into the following segments:

  • • The chapter starts by providing the historical background of knowledge management as was practised in pre-industrial society, long before the concept attained formal recognition.
  • • The second section fleshes out the social and structural architecture that paved the path for formal adoption of knowledge management as a strategy in organizations.
  • • The third and fourth sections are reserved to discuss the research around defining knowledge management, and the processes and strategies intrinsic to the concept. By discussing the definitions and conceptualizations pertaining to knowledge management, as has been furthered by different strands of study, these sections are dedicated to highlighting the intricacy of knowledge management as a strategy to boost competitive advantage within an organization in all its complexity.
  • • The fifth section highlights the relationship between knowledge capability of organizations and knowledge management. In doing so it chalks out how organizational knowledge capability can be positively impacted through optimal knowledge management, where management of tacit and explicit knowledge in amalgamation paves the path for expansion of knowledge capability of organizations.
  • • The sixth section traces the evolution of knowledge management in a business context after its formal inception as a strategy to boost organizational performance. The section is divided into three sub-sections, each sub-section pertaining to the three generations of knowledge management, as has been periodically practised by firms to achieve heightened efficiency. The chapter concludes by highlighting how third-generation knowledge management practices, based on peer-to-peer and collaborative knowledge exchange in alliance with contemporary digital technologies, have the potential to expand knowledge capability of organizations on a holistic level.

How society used to manage knowledge: A historical perspective

Knowledge management, as a formal discipline, has many recognized origins (Wiig, 2000). The diverse origins, chronologically, include:

  • • Abstract philosophical thinking.
  • • Concrete concerns for requirements of expertise in the workplace.
  • • Perspectives of educators and business leaders.
  • • Recent perspective coining from efforts to explain economic driving forces in the “knowledge era” and 20th century efforts to increase social and organizational effectiveness.

While we have mentioned only four, there exist other multiple strands which conceptualize knowledge management following their own disciplinarian thread. It is with dialogue and debate among its different strands that knowledge management is viewed in the 21st century as among the most effective apparatus in boosting competitive advantage and social positioning of an organization. Although knowledge and knowledge management have secured a formal position in contemporary society, it is necessary to question whether the concepts only enjoy relevance in the context of contemporary setup.

The idea of knowledge in pre-industrial society was primarily guided and informed by the philosophical foundation of the notion (Adolf & Stehr, 2014). The traditional philosophical view treated knowledge in stringent terms, and reduced it to the relationship between individual subject, the knower, and the object/referent, the known. While the tenets of the philosophical tradition have been dealt with in detail in the first chapter, we reserve this section to highlight how philosophical foundations of knowledge were confined to ascertaining the “validation” of warrants of knowledge claims. This reductionist idea, in heralding an abstract conception of “true” knowledge, distanced it from the “impurities” of social forces, which equally contribute in shaping, sustaining and transferring knowledge. Knowledge and knowledge management are embedded in the social fabric — even in the pre-industrial phase, when not formally recognized as a managerial and functioning strategy.

The relevance of managing knowledge to achieve social functioning and subsequently boost social efficiency dates back to hunter—gatherer societies. Effective collaboration and exchange of expertise between different social members resulted in the inception and growth of human civilization, even though the social actors were not managing knowledge in ways we refer to the notion in today’s world. If we take the instance of first hunters, we can see how their sustenance was dependent on using collective skills to hunt their prey. In order to carry out the task collectively and effectively it was necessary for each member of the hunting group to possess knowledge about the skills and expertise of other members to ensure optimal coordination between group members. Awareness of each member regarding the skills of the others, and subsequently devising coordination strategies to capture the prey, in a way resonate the essence of knowledge management and its effectivity in enhancing efficiency. This was not only limited to creation of knowledge in early societies; it also incorporated knowledge transfer, where acquired skills and expertise were systematically taught and transferred to up-coming hunters to ensure long-term viability of the group. Society, since its inception, has been able to function because knowledge has been created, stored, applied and transferred, be it informally, through generations, prior to the time when “knowledge management” emerged as a formal strategy.

We will also highlight Phoenician civilization to further explain how management of knowledge served to be the premise of society even in pre-industrial times. Phoenicia was a civilization that originated in the eastern Mediterranean, specifically in modern-day Lebanon. It was organized into city-states, where the early traces of civilization were manifested when Phoenicians, in order to sustain their community, started trading among themselves. This has been historically seen as one of the early examples of modern trade, which includes economic transactions among geographically dispersed places. Even with the absence of technology and smooth communication channels, Phoenicians conducted successful trade by optimally managing knowledge and expertise of different community members. As one of the pioneers of modern trade, Phoenicians were concerned about how knowledge and trade logistics and merchant practices were built and transferred to members to make operations successful. This early trade model, based on knowledge sharing between members of dispersed locations, happens to be one of the early examples showing the effectivity of managing knowledge in driving economic activities (Pizziconi &c Wiig, 1997).

Since pre-industrial times, knowledge and knowledge management have traversed a long path towards acquiring their contemporary essence. Although the above-mentioned examples highlight how knowledge and knowledge management had implicit importance in early society, their explicit recognition as formal assets capable of generating socio-economic value was made possible as the concepts began their gradual entries within different disciplinarian parameters. The importance of knowledge and knowledge management in boosting competitive advantage of business organizations was acknowledged only after the notions had been acclaimed by specialists as important in the context of generating economic value. Noble Prize-winning scholar Paul Romer’s seminal work on “economics of ideas” can be identified as one of the key driving forces marking the importance of knowledge in an economic context. While traditional economic models were grappling with inefficiency resulting from scarcity of physical resources, available labour, capital, etc., Romer’s conceptualization advocating the ability of knowledge-based products to generate economic growth and innovation served as a ray of hope (Pizziconi & Wiig, 1997). Romer postulated how making people knowledgeable brought innovation and continued ability to create and deliver products and services of highest quality. Knowledge has a sustainable dimension to it, which not only enhances the awareness level of its users but also enables them to innovate by capitalizing on their existing knowledge base. This role that knowledge plays makes its more important than exhaustible tangible resources in generating socio-economic benefit. Romer premised on this credential of knowledge and therefore inferred that economic efficiency is directly related to effective knowledge capture, reuse and building upon prior knowledge.

Romer’s postulation informed how knowledge can function as a driver of long-term economic growth. He devised his “economics of ideas” as an attempt to answer the question, Why was progress speeding over timef Romer conceptualized progress to be arising because of the special characteristic of an idea, which is if [a million people try] to discover something, if one person finds it, everybody can use the idea” (Kiernan &c Sugden, 2018). Romer’s conceptualization not only marked the relevance of knowledge in an economic context, but it also related efficiency to the sharing attribute of the asset in boosting collective competence. It is perhaps the formal acknowledgement of this credential of knowledge in the economic domain that acted as an accelerating force in marking the relevance of the concept and the urgency to manage it in the business context. Although formal recognition of knowledge in the economic domain can be considered as a major driver in formalizing knowledge management as a strategy, other allied aspects, such as technological development and globalization, also contributed generously in shaping managerial tactics and charting the importance it shares at present in organizational and social settings.

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