Efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge and information for social benefit


We started Part II of this book by highlighting the importance of knowledge management as a practice in organizational context. We devoted Chapter 7 to discussing the positive contributions knowledge management has to offer in enhancing business performance, if contemporary digital technologies are used as a medium to disseminate knowledge as a managerial strategy. Given the importance of the digital medium as a disseminating tool, we devoted Chapter 8 to discussing the credentials contemporary social technology is endowed with, which have the capacity to accredit renewed possibilities to the practice of knowledge management. It is the collaborative spirit of social technologies that has the capacity to extend knowledge management as a practice from organizational to social domain.

It is true that knowledge management as a formal practice seldom made a presence in the social context. However, this does not imply that the activity of managing social knowledge for social benefit is an undone phenomenon. Several attempts have been made over different time periods to manage social knowledge for social benefit. Such efforts have altered over time and with changing social structuring in a way similar to organizational knowledge management practices. Managing social knowledge to achieve social functioning was an accepted practice even in prehistoric days. In the absence of basic technology, human sustenance was primarily dependent on purposive knowledge exchange, where social functioning was derivative of optimal management of social knowledge for social benefit. With the advent of civilization and development of science and technology, several innovative ways emerged to optimally manage knowledge for society. Subsequently the development of digital technologies offered redeeming possibilities in the said field. This chapter tries to trace, following digital paths, the evolution of initiatives undertaken to manage social knowledge for social cause.

Many of the developmental initiatives undertaken for social transformation using digital technologies are exogenous in nature. They push or impose developmental policies without considering the nature and problems of an individual member of the social community. These conventionally followed exogenous developmental models assume that technology (hardware, software and services) already exists in the world, as does the experience of its use. Therefore the developmental task is to encourage acquisition and application of technology, support training of its use and promote the type of regulatory changes as needed (International Telecommunication Union, 2011). This approach is based on the traditional theories of modernization, which articulate development in terms of transfer of technological infrastructure from developed to developing nations.

Although these exogenous developmental approaches are not formulated with the local pace and context in which they are applied in mind, nonetheless these efforts have led to development along certain axes; for example, ICTs are increasingly acquired and used, telecommunication infrastructure is improved and its costs are reduced. Widespread adherence to ICT because of the above- mentioned favourable factors enabled connection with the outside world, beyond an immediate local context. These exogenous models targeted development in developing regions along the following dimensions: agriculture and health, infrastructure, communication and community informatics, economic empowerment, policy, strategy and e-governance (Lekoko & Semali, 2011; International Telecommunication Union, 2005).

Following this exogenous model, initial attempts to deploy ICT for managing social knowledge can be traced to the formulation of community information systems (CIS). Instead of focusing on managing social knowledge, the initial efforts attempted uni-directional dissemination of specialized information to social groups using ICT. An information system designed to serve community is rightly identified as a community information system. Similar to the nature of organizational knowledge management as practised in the first generation, CIS did not attempt to make the information dissemination interactive. They mainly attempted to realize a combination of knowledge resources, where explicit knowledge is converted to explicit knowledge and transferred via a uni-directional pattern. Specialized information was distributed to or externally imposed on social groups following an exogenous approach, where the content of disseminated information was decided by policy formulators and developmental agents, including government agencies, instead of being devised in line with local requirements.

This phase led to a second generation, which saw the emergence of social managerial initiatives with an interactive premise. The efforts undertaken during this phase attempted to support interaction from stakeholders in relation to disseminated knowledge. Attempts undertaken at this phase relied on exter- nalization strategy, where experts’ tacit knowledge is converted to explicit form to provide contextual solutions to stakeholders. Although interaction happens to be the premise of second generation, it needs to be remembered that the efforts only made provision for the stakeholders to interact in terms of disseminated information. Hence stakeholders, even at this phase, remained passive consumers of information, without having the opportunity to create new knowledge and modify existing set.

While the evolution of organizational knowledge management over three generations has been analysed by several scholars, such structured chronological demarcation is absent in the case of activities undertaken to manage social knowledge for developmental purposes. Here we have identified those practices as belonging to second generation, which reflected an inclination to facilitate stakeholders’ involvement within the process of managing social knowledge. Managerial practices adopted in this phase incorporate a bi-directional mode of knowledge transmission, from an expert to target group. Although the interactive premise enabled the target group to pose queries regarding disseminated information, this generation attempted neither targeted community formation nor to make the target group “producers” of information. Similar to second- generation organizational knowledge management, initiatives adopted for social cause, at this phase, were only limited in initiating collective efforts. With a bidirectional information transaction mode, while the allied technology supported collection of information from diverse sources, the technological infrastructure of that time lacked the reach and extent to support multi-agent collaboration and exchange, as will be shown later.

The practice of managing knowledge, which taps the potential of social technology in enabling social participants to acquire skills and experience crucial to process acquired information and knowledge, accounts to be the characteristic of the most recent, or third, generation. It is the inclusive spirit of contemporary social technology that has the potential to facilitate effective multi-agent collaboration and exchange of knowledge in social context. Social technology, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, has opened up new social and economic dimensions premised on effective sharing and collaboration. Similar to its organizational counterpart, management of social knowledge practised at this phase has the capacity to optimally exploit crowd resources and facilitate effective collaboration among them in the process of empowering social actors. Facilitation of multi-agent collaboration accredits these practices with a networking spirit, which, apart from empowering individual social actors, attempts to create an environment conducive to generating and sustaining collaboration. The collaborative premise of the third generation is heavily reliant on socialization strategy; it is the conversion of tacit knowledge into tacit knowledge through informal collaborations that makes third-generation attempts self-sustainable in nature. Facilitating intra- and inter-group socialization with the help of social technologies, efforts of third generation can be identified as appropriately equipped to dynamically manage social knowledge.

This chapter will discuss the different temporal phases through which efforts to manage social knowledge for social cause evolved over time. The chapter is divided into four sections: [1]

activity of managing social knowledge was mostly premised on informal knowledge transaction between social actors.

  • • After discussing the historical initiatives, we have reserved the second section of this chapter to describe the change in the practice of managing social knowledge following the advent of digital technology. In the first generation, efforts to manage social knowledge resorted to the digital medium to disseminate information to target groups from specialized agents following a linear pattern.
  • • In the third section, second-generation management of social knowledge following digital paths is discussed. Following the change in nature of digital technology, efforts to manage social knowledge at this phase attempted to discard the uni-directional information flow of the preceding generation and endorse an interactive premise.
  • • The chapter concludes with the third-generation managerial practices undertaken for social cause. In this phase, managing social knowledge transcends the bi-directional mode of its preceding generation and supports multi-agent knowledge collaboration by using the connecting spirit of contemporary digital technologies as the disseminating medium.

Managing social knowledge: A historical perspective

Contemporary efforts to manage knowledge, as has been undertaken in its third generation, coupled with the application of social technology, have only recently operationalized the importance of tacit knowledge, thereby encouraging its exchange. However, we need to remember that socialization, which promotes exchange of tacit knowledge (Nonaka &C Takeuchi, 1995), not only builds the premise for contemporary knowledge management efforts; rather, socialization has enabled social functioning since time immemorial. We will return to the examples of hunters in ancient society, referred to in Chapter 7, to highlight how early men ensured the sustenance of their community by managing knowledge of social relevance.

In ancient days, in the absence of basic technology, human sustenance was primarily dependent on optimal utilization of natural resources. In the absence of basic technology, early man relied on crude tools to hunt animals as a means to sustain life. In order to successfully hunt their prey, men’s knowledge about each other’s hunting skills played a crucial role. Hunting in early society was a collective act, where men of ancient communities participated together. In order to defeat and hunt the wild beast it was mandatory that the activities of hunters be coordinated, which would ultimately lead to a successful hunt. Being aware of other’s hunting skills is a procedure, which mainly took place through socialization and exchange of tacit knowledge among social actors. This time period, marking the dawn of early civilization, had not yet witnessed the wave of formal education. Specialized knowledge then was mainly of tacit form, created and exchanged across generations through informal communication. It is the advent of formal education (birth of language), and revolutionary efforts to document or codify specialized knowledge, that led to the growth and emergence of explicit knowledge. Before that, social functioning was primarily achieved, as the example of the early hunters proves, through socialization, or exchange of tacit knowledge, which co-incidentally also accounts to be one of the primary strategies of contemporary formalized knowledge management efforts in organizational context.

Following the inception of formal education, the revolutionary development of the printing press can be seen as one of the earliest examples of efforts undertaken to codify knowledge. The emergence of printing presses gifted knowledge with the potential to be circulated easily from one user to another. Printed materials in the form of books, newspapers, pamphlets and magazines enabled literate users to access specialized and codified knowledge. It is because of the ease with which explicit knowledge can be transferred from one human entity to another that efforts to manage knowledge mostly focused on exchange of explicit knowledge. When knowledge management entered the business world as a formal strategy, we can see how the practice primarily relied on combination, where explicit knowledge resources were stored in digital repositories for future use. That generation of knowledge management not only failed to recognize the potential that socialization has to offer in the domain of knowledge management; existent technology was also incapable of facilitating widespread informal communication and tacit knowledge exchange.

Exchange of tacit knowledge resource, gaining equal importance to that of explicit knowledge in contemporary knowledge management practices, has been made possible with the help of a supportive technological infrastructure. While, in earlier societies, having simple social structure meant that socialization could be achieved through face-to-face settings, in modern complex society this tacit knowledge exchange can only be facilitated through the virtual community formation using social technologies. The preceding chapter focused on how the widespread reach and connecting spirit of social technology enables the technological infrastructure to achieve sustainable and effective collaboration by facilitating formal and informal communication within and across social groups. This credential of social technology, when put to use in the domain of knowledge management, highlights the potential of the practice outside organizational boundaries. As a result, knowledge management practices started to be implemented gradually in attempts to harness social technology’s potential to yield social benefit.

However, it must be remembered that, even before technology acquired its present form, there had been practices aimed at managing social knowledge for social cause. In reality, and in a way similar to the evolution of knowledge management as a practice within organizations, efforts to manage social knowledge for social benefit also evolved in tandem with technological development. While the evolution of knowledge management and of technology has been dealt with in preceding chapters, we will now trace the evolution of practices undertaken to manage social knowledge in social context following a digital path.

  • [1] The introductory part narrates efforts undertaken to manage socialknowledge in historic times. In the absence of technology, these practicesmostly relied on physical means to manage social knowledge, where the
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