Social knowledge management: A social technology-enabled framework to bridge knowledge asymmetry of rural producers through virtual community formation


The preceding chapters, after underlying the premise of knowledge in being a valuable resource, have discussed how management of knowledge resources is conducive in boosting socio-economic performance. In discussing knowledge management and the adopted strategies of the practice, the earlier chapters of this part of the book have significantly focused on how the concept gradually gained importance in the business world, and how it evolved in alliance with technological development. Knowledge management, as practised recently in its third generation, has made collaborative creation and modification of content possible, only with the help of contemporary social technologies. The inclusive spirit of social technologies, as fleshed out in Chapter 8, in establishing effective collaboration within and across social groups has significantly contributed to knowledge management transcending to a social practice.

In the preceding chapter we have spoken at length regarding efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge and information using ICT. Although these efforts cannot be formally tagged as “knowledge management practices”, their course of action can undoubtedly be traced to managing social knowledge and information for social cause. Tracing the historical evolution of the way efforts to manage social knowledge and information altered, the preceding chapter shows how, only in the presence of social technologies, efforts undertaken for social cause could do justice to the motto of optimally managing social knowledge. However, the sporadic nature of the initiatives and their lack of communitarian focus have often marked the inadequacy of extant initiatives. To mark a disjuncture from extant initiatives and to fully utilize the potential of formal knowledge management as a strategy, we have devoted this chapter to chalk out the credibility and necessity for our social knowledge management framework in the context of holistic rural empowerment.

Many scholars have used the term social knowledge management to refer to knowledge management practice of collaborative creation and modification of content using social technologies in organizational context (Helmes et al., 2017). However, while several scholars, even at this stage, articulate the relevance of knowledge management in organizational context (which obviously is a social unit), it is important to investigate the prospects knowledge management as a practice has to offer in the context of overall society. Does knowledge management as a practice remain unaltered when it is applied to a social setting, as compared to that followed in organizational context? Is the nature of utilizing crowd knowledge to boost organizational performance, as a part of knowledge management practice, similar to the knowledge management efforts dedicated to achieving social empowerment through optimal tapping of crowd knowledge? What potential does knowledge management hold for social cause and how can the practice be modified to mitigate social maladies?

This chapter, in an attempt to further our conceptualization of social knowledge management, tries to answer all these questions. It builds on the concept of social knowledge management in the context of rural empowerment, which offers a respite from the inadequacies with which current efforts to manage social knowledge suffer from. While earlier versions of technology supported uni-directional and bi-directional information and knowledge transaction among social agents, it is in its most recent phase, with the help of social technology, that efforts to manage social knowledge can facilitate multidirectional knowledge transaction. The empowering and inter-connected virtual infrastructure offered by social technologies has the potential to sustain collaboration among diverse social agents, thereby enabling multi-directional knowledge exchange by empowering all to participate in the process of creating social knowledge.

In this context, it needs it be remembered that, while all knowledge management practices do not qualify to be social knowledge management practices, similarly, all initiatives to manage social knowledge may not be successfully termed as “knowledge management practices”. The efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge for social development do not radiate characteristics intrinsic to the formalized discipline of knowledge management. The initial efforts undertaken for social cause, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, primarily attempted to capture and disseminate specialized information for communitarian betterment. The purview of these efforts is not similar to the ones we have articulated as knowledge management practices. Even in the second generation, bi-directional information and knowledge exchange could also offer scant hope to reduce knowledge asymmetry of marginalized participants. Although the efforts undertaken in the third phase, by deploying social technology, could do justice to the practice of managing social knowledge, their lack of purposive communitarian focus disallow these practices from transcending to the status of social knowledge management. Thus, in this chapter, we attempt to articulate what we mean by social knowledge management and the credibility and necessity of our proposed framework in the context of holistic rural empowerment. The chapter bears reference to how social technology can be used in a way to channelize social knowledge management practices in pursuit of mitigating rural-urban knowledge asymmetry.

Social knowledge vs. organizational knowledge

In order to clearly articulate the credibility and necessity of our social knowledge management framework we will begin by distinguishing social knowledge from organizational knowledge. Following that, distinguishing between knowledge management as practised in organizational context from efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge will further demarcate the uniqueness of our social knowledge management framework, which employs social technology in a way to rid itself of the hindrances intrinsic to conventional efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge. Although management of organizational knowledge has formal guidelines in the context of an organization, social development through management of social knowledge resources has no formal guiding principles. Also, it needs to be remembered that, in spite of similarities, the operationalization of knowledge management tactics differs from organizational context to social context. Two reasons can be traced as important in demarcating the practice of knowledge management in organizational context to that in social context:

  • • The premise of society is social knowledge, referred to as a collective body of knowledge produced by our community or social circle. On the other hand, domain specific, fixed, bounded knowledge accounts to be the premise of organizations.
  • • The composition of a society is heavily heterogeneous in nature. Society is composed of diverse social agents, while organizational workers, being committed to a fixed organizational aim, radiate homogenous characteristics.

These two crucial factors make it mandatory to analyse the practice of organizational knowledge management differently from the efforts taken to manage social knowledge for social development. Following, we will try to distinguish social knowledge from organizational knowledge. However, the difference that arises due the heterogeneity of social setting, as compared to homogeneity of organizations, will be taken up in the latter section of this chapter.

Social knowledge refers to the collective body of knowledge produced by our community or social circle (, n.d.). Being an asset of the community, social knowledge in reality is created and recreated following the ethics of social convention, where the dominant ideology often determines what can be considered as “authentic” social knowledge. However, in order to accredit social knowledge with a communitarian flavour, from which it primarily owes its origin, it has to be created in a decentralized way, as a product of communitarian collaboration, without the presence of a centralized arbitrator. Social knowledge acquires its true essence when it becomes a product of unhindered knowledge exchange between one and all within and across communities.

Social knowledge, in its truest sense, is a context-specific dynamic body of knowledge which is the product of effective knowledge exchange within a social group. In this context, it must be remembered that social knowledge is not the sum total of a group’s knowledge; it acquires its dynamism from collaborations between diverse social agents. Social knowledge paves the path for a knowledge base, which is created through collaborations and participation and is the product of relationships and connections within a particular social group. Drawing its existence from collaborative knowledge exchange between social agents, social knowledge, the way we define it, is unbounded in nature. Unlike organizational context, anybody and everybody can contribute to the social knowledge pool. Social knowledge, therefore, radiates characteristics of openness, unlike organizational knowledge, which is domain-specific, fixed and bounded and committed to a fixed organizational goal.

Processes and strategies of managing knowledge for social cause are, therefore, significantly different from those as practised in organizational context, because the former has to manage social knowledge, which is different in its nature, scope and orientation from organizational knowledge. Hence it is important to chalk out the differences and similarities the practices of managing social knowledge ideologically share with organizational knowledge management. Will knowledge management as practised in organizations yield similar results when applied to social context unaltered? Do the nature, scope and agenda of managing knowledge remain similar in both organizational and social context? The following section attempts to answer these questions by providing a relational study between knowledge management as practised in organizations and the efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge for social benefit.

Organizational knowledge management vs. managing social knowledge

We have already demystified the concepts, processes and strategies of knowledge management as practised in organizational context in Chapter 7. Here we will try to differentiate between organizational knowledge management and efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge from different perspectives:

Heterogeneity vs. Homogeneity. Organizational knowledge management mainly attempts to enable effective knowledge exchange among a homogenous mass of organizational members. The organizational value system integrates the knowledge workers of organizations and binds them with a common purpose. Being possessors of similar intellectual, social and economic aptitude, and believing in a unified organizational goal, organizational members resonate characteristics of homogeneity.

Society at large, on the other hand, is intrinsically composed of heterogeneous members, coming from different castes, class, creeds, religion, ethnicity and other ascriptive backgrounds. While knowledge management practices undertaken in a homogeneous organizational setting require the consent and motivation of authorities and stakeholders, practices undertaken to manage social knowledge in a heterogeneous social setting require certain conditions beyond the consent of interested parties. For example, knowledge management practice will gain momentum in a business context if the management authorities, organizational members and organizational culture in alliance support the practice. However, in a social context - say, for example, in a rural sphere — success in managing information and knowledge of social relevance is not solely dependent on the motivation and participation of local governing bodies and local community members. Several factors, such as social conditions, political atmosphere and the cultural practices of locals, have significant impact in shaping which information and knowledge is to be considered ideal and suitable to be exchanged in the particular social setup. The heterogeneity of social setup calls for a management approach with twin focus; the one paying adequate attention to micro dynamics happening at the individual level, coupled with a macro lens to analyse the social whole as an entity beyond the summation of its individual parts.

Top-down us. Bottom-up Approach. Organizational knowledge management mostly opted for a top-down approach, where knowledge management practices were initially decided upon by management authorities and subsequently imposed on organizational workers. Knowledge management as practised in first and second generations mostly relied on top-down management strategies to boost organizational performance. It is only recently, in its third- generation phase, that a bottom-up approach has been adopted in the context of organizational knowledge management. In trying to be people-centric, knowledge management practices in its third generation rely on self-initiated and voluntary knowledge exchange among organizational members in an attempt to improve organizational performance. At this stage, instead of being enforced or imposed by top authorities, common organizational members and their voluntary knowledge transaction determine the fate of knowledge management practices.

While top-down approaches have dictated organizational knowledge management for a considerable time and yielded positive outcomes, practices undertaken to manage social knowledge can only do justice to its cause in the absence of a top-down approach. A “one size fits all” deterministic top-down approach has been applied in several social contexts, where money and agricultural equipment were delivered to rural locales in developing countries in the hope of reducing poverty (Rawsthorne, 2006). The physical and fiscal help, however, failed to achieve the desired result because the local community lacked the skills and motivation to operate the equipment for communitarian betterment. As a result, the equipment was abandoned and the expected trickle-down effect did not eventuate because little attention was paid to other social, political and cultural factors that impacted adoption of new resources by local community members. The heterogeneity of social setting and its members calls for an approach to managing social knowledge that will address the concerns of the local community following local pace, culture and context. Until the local members are incorporated in the process of managing social knowledge through a bottom-up approach, we cannot expect such efforts to boost social performance.

Competitive Advantage vs. Empowerment. The primary motive behind undertaking knowledge management in organizational context is to boost competitive advantage of firms. The prior motive was to enhance economic efficiency to mark out a firm’s identity in a competitive globalized market. In its third generation, when knowledge management practices shifted from a hard-core technological to a human-centred approach, enhancement of competitive advantage retained its supreme position. Knowledge management at this stage is encouraged to be people-centric because firms realized that the business units would suffer if its human resources were not incorporated within the knowledge management practices. However, ultimately, enhancement of competitive advantage of organizations, instead of empowering organizational members, can be identified as the primary motto of organizational knowledge management.

On the other hand, empowerment of social actors accounts to be the ultimate goal, which triggers the practice of managing social knowledge. Sole emphasis on economic efficiency can never be a sufficient motive for practices undertaken for social empowerment. Instead of economic efficiency, communitarian betterment should mostly take precedence in the context of managing social knowledge for social cause. Unlike its organizational counterpart, efforts to manage social knowledge for social benefit can only remain true to its cause by aiming for empowerment of social actors by overcoming the extant knowledge asymmetry that cripples society (Bandyopadhyay et al., 2017).

Restricted Collaboration vs. Open Collaboration. Collaboration accounts to be the premise of both organizational knowledge management and practices adopted to manage social knowledge for social cause. In organizational context, organizational authorities centrally manage knowledge management activities. It is the organizational authorities who decide which knowledge is to be exchanged, who will gain access to the organizational knowledge pool. Even in circumstances where organizations employ crowd knowledge to boost performance, organizational policy determines which knowledge is made accessible to the crowd. Organizational knowledge management reflects practices which resonate the spirit of restricted collaboration.

Efforts undertaken to manage social knowledge mostly promote open collaboration. Instead of having a single authoritative body, social knowledge can only be managed by facilitating knowledge exchange between diverse social agents. Although in its initial phase, efforts of this stature were mainly conceptualized and directed by external developmental authorities. With the passage of time, these practices became increasingly reliant on decentralized and voluntary mobilization of knowledge resources contributed by a diverse range of knowledge sources. This framework identifies every knowledge source to be a potential knowledge contributor. Crowd, which contributes to the pool of social knowledge, has equal and open access to the whole of the social knowledge pool. There is no structured social policy regulating transaction of social knowledge.

The relational study presented above clearly reflects how practices undertaken to manage social knowledge for social benefit require certain conditions, which go beyond activities crucial to retain the success of organizational knowledge management. Conventionally, the term social knowledge management has been used to refer to organizational knowledge management practices conducted with the aid of social technology. However, we need to remember that the term social knowledge has a holistic significance. It refers not just to knowledge but knowledge pertaining to society, created through dynamic collaboration between social members. An organizational knowledge management framework following social technology does not necessarily possess such a holistic purview. Neither does a practice to manage social knowledge in absence of such a holistic purview appropriately qualify to be a social knowledge management practice. It is when the efforts to manage social knowledge for social cause rely on optimal utilization of social technologies to incorporate within its framework the diverse economic, cultural and political contexts in which the social actors are embedded that it transforms into a social knowledge management framework. Such a framework, following social technology with a holistic lens adapted to address diverse aspects, has the credentials to boost social performance by empowering social actors, which we will take up in detail in the following section.

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