Social technology and knowledge management practices


The preceding chapter highlighted how knowledge management as a practice evolved in a business context in tandem with technological development. This chapter takes a reverse strand and attempts to show how contemporary technology, apart from being a potential knowledge-exchange medium, has significantly contributed to making knowledge management a social process in its current form. We have reserved the term social technology to refer to this contemporary digital technology. While we will provide formal definitions to justify the terminology usage, social technology in this context is an umbrella term used to capture a wide variety of terminologies depicting internet-enabled communications, platforms and tools — for example, web 2.0, mobile 2.0, social media, social software, etc. — which have the potential to establish collaborative connectivity among billions of individuals over the globe.

The inclusive spirit of social technology, in facilitating effective networking between and across social groups, has given new dimensions to the practice of knowledge management. Contemporary social technology not only supports organizations to create and exchange their explicit knowledge resources, but its potential to foster informal communication enables organizations to use social technology to encourage exchange of the tacit knowledge resource of organizational knowledge workers. In addition to this, social technology has the potential to optimally capture and apply crowd knowledge in the process of boosting competitive advantage of organizations. Its credentials allow social technology not only to qualify to be a potential medium in fostering knowledge management practice, but, rather, the transition of knowledge management practice to a social process in its current form has largely been made possible with the aid of these contemporary digital technologies.

The ability of social technology to facilitate effective collaboration has made sharing the premise of contemporary social and economic transactions. The emergence of a sharing economy in the 21st century, guided by the principal of using social technology to foster effective collaboration, has significantly altered extant and traditional economic practices. This emergent economy identifies every human entity as a potential producer/consumer of knowledge, therefore an able contributor to the collaborative economic framework. It is the connecting spirit of contemporary social technologies that has paved the path for optimal capturing and application of crowd knowledge to generate socio-economic benefits. This chapter explicitly articulates how the enlisted credentials of social technologies can be harnessed to create an inclusive knowledge management framework.

The chapter is divided into two main sections: the first, after providing definitions of social technology and its associated components, attempts to characterize the same to arrive at the prospects it has to offer in both the economic and social domain. The latter section discusses practical instances of organizations utilizing social technology as a medium to facilitate knowledge management practices. The practical evidence placed amidst theoretical characterization of social technologies will enable the reader to analyse the role contemporary digital technologies play in transforming knowledge management practice into a social process.

Social technology: A conceptual perspective

We have entered into a new networked world. Technology has enabled us to interact, innovate and share knowledge in ways previously unthinkable. We call this the Networked Society (Castells, 2004), facilitated by internet-enabled communications, platforms and tools that include regular personal computers, embedded computers and mobile personal devices (cell phones, PDAs, tablets), connected together using computer networking technologies. We call them social technology, an umbrella term used to capture a wide variety of terminologies depicting internet-enabled communications, platforms and tools — for example, web 2.0, mobile 2.0, social media, social software, etc. — which have the potential to establish collaborative connectivity among billions of individuals across the globe. This digital revolution is giving rise to a new economy — a “digital network economy” (Brousseau & Nicolas, 2007). When two persons connect, their lives change. With everything connected, our world changes.

This concept of a connected world using social technology has the potential to transform the way we innovate, produce, govern and sustain ourselves (Fitzgerald et al., 2013; Greenstein et ah, 2013). This internet-enabled digital economy has already started transforming the organization of firms, industries, markets and commerce (OECD, 2008). Some of these impacts can be exemplified as follows: [1]

Social networking has become a significant base for the marketing and advertising sectors seeking to engage customers. Increasing use of social media platforms - including social networking sites, blogs, video sharing sites, etc. — now allows consumers to seamlessly share their consumption behaviours online. Such socially shared consumption (Kunst & Ravi, 2014) can range from electronic word-of-mouth to formal online reviews, as well as automated product mentions facilitated by social media applications. The rapid development of social technology has enabled the development of what we call the new platform economy (Parker et al., 2016; Parker et ah, 2017), an emerging economic arrangement which brings together strangers in one forum and fosters effective exchange of goods and services among them (for example, Airbnb, Lyft, LendingClub, etc.). In this digitally driven platform economy, consumers and service providers form a collaborative network using the platform. Platform is the foundation of the entire ecosystem, providing a space for the exchange of information, trading, logistics and other facilities to consumers and service providers. They perform various economic activities on the platform, including information exchange, demand matching, payment and receipt and delivery of goods. The participants of the platform economy interact and cooperate with each other, which enables creation of greater value.

The notion of platform economy, being a digital facilitator in economic and social transaction, is premised on the ideological and operative dynamics of sharing/collaborative economy (Sundararajan, 2016). This nascent form of economic arrangement encourages shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods, services and ideas by crowd (for example, YouTube, Airbnb, Etsy, BlaBlaCar, etc.), and hence is termed crowd-based capitalism (Sundararajan, 2016). This attempt to build an integrated economy through effective sharing of goods (both informational goods and physical goods) and services is premised on the motivational and philosophical foundation of “sharism”. The collaborative culture cultivated by a sharing economy has enabled billions of people across the globe to get connected and actively participate in the process of achieving social development and developing collectively capacities to solve social atrocities (Tapscott & Williams, 2006).

The notion of crowd collaboration in a business context is an extension of what is known as outsourcing: operationalizing some of the internal business functions using external business entities. However, instead of an organized business body with a centralized governing apparatus, crowd collaboration has a decentralized premise and relies on free individual agents (the crowd) to collaborate to perform a given operation or to find solutions for a given problem using social technologies (Tapscott & Williams, 2006). This kind of outsourcing is also referred to as crowd-sourcing (Horton &c Chilton, 2010), to reflect this difference. These crowd-based operations may be incentivized by monetary or equivalent reward, though it is not always mandatory.

• Benkler (2006) uses the term “networked information economy” and “commons-based peer production” to describe a “system of production, distribution, and consumption of information goods characterized by decentralized individual action carried out through widely distributed, non- market means that do not depend on market strategies”. The examples of such collaborative efforts are creation of free and open source software and Wikipedia.

Today, an increasing proliferation of social technologies - which include broadband connectivity, web technologies, mobile devices, social media and cloud services — enables us to share the infrastructure and resources available anywhere in the world. We are seeing manifestations of this phenomenon in the creation of flourishing business models (Airbnb, Uber, Kickstarter, etc.) that rely heavily on the principles of collaborative consumption and sharing economy (Sundararajan, 2016). People are now living in a “digitally-connected global society” where each individual in a crowd of people has the potential and opportunity to collaborate for a social mission and share their expertise and knowledge to help others in the community. As depicted by Tapscott (2014), “For over a century humanity has been taking steps to realize (Nathaniel) Hawthorne’s vision of a world where human intelligence could be networked. That age has arrived____ The Age of Networked Intelligence is an age of promise. It is not simply about the networking of technology but about the networking of humans through technology. It is not an age of smart machines but of humans who, through networks, can combine their intelligence, knowledge, and creativity for breakthroughs in the creation of wealth and social development. It is an age of vast new promise and unimaginable opportunity.”

Defining social technology

Historically, “social technology” has two meanings (Li & Bernoff, 2012): a term related to “social engineering”, a concept developed in the 19th century (Pelikan, 2003; Nelson, 2002; Nelson Sc Sampat, 2001; North Sc Wallis, 1994; Sugden, 1989; Schotter, 1981); and a term to depict “internet-enabled social software”, a concept that evolved in the early 21st century (Duarte, 2011; Andersen, 2011; Derksen et al., 2012; Chui et al., 2012).

As the conceptualization of social technologies varies from “social engineering” to “social software”, for our purpose we will be focusing on the second depiction of social technology and try to derive the meaning of social technologies in terms of “digital technologies used by people to interact socially and together to create, enhance, and exchange content” (Duarte, 2011; Andersen, 2011; Derksen et al., 2012; Chui et al., 2012). Social technologies are defined as any digital technology used for social purposes or on a social basis, and include social hardware (traditional communication tools such as PCs or smart mobile devices), social software (operating platforms such as web 2.0 or mobile 2.0) and socially enabled applications (tools and services such as social media) (Alberghini et al., 2010).

Social technologies are instantly comprehensible via some kind of media. Koo et al. (2011) describe several new-generation media types: “telephone is a traditional medium; video conferencing, email and instant messenger representing computer media; and blog and social networks representing new social media.” Communication technologies such as telephone, voicemail, email, video conferencing and instant messaging all help virtual team or group members stay in touch and share information with each other.

Chui et al. (2012) define social technologies as digital technologies that people use to interact with each other socially to create, enhance and exchange content. The following three characteristics distinguish social technologies from other technologies:

  • • Social technology is a derivative of information technology.
  • • Social technology provides rights to communicate with anyone and create and/or modify content in a distributed fashion.
  • • Social technology provides distributed access to communication tools and digital content.

  • [1] Billions of people now use social media for learning, marketing, shoppingand decision-making. Internet-based social media sites enable us to createand consume multi-modal user-generated content; and facilitate us to stayconnected with friends, family, colleagues, customers and clients. Socialnetworking can have a social purpose, a business purpose, or both, throughsites such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedln and Instagram, among others.
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