When reviewing models and researching the theoretical principles behind enterprise 2.0 and social software it can be easy to see all of this as something very new and ground breaking. It’s of course good to be up-to-date with all the latest web 2.0 news and management buzzwords, but sometimes there are classic articles and theories you can’t disregard. The book of Ikujiru Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi called The Knowledge-Creating Company (1995) contains such theories.
Chances are that you have been introduced to their basic ideas if you have followed any business or knowledge management courses. The book describes how a company can organize itself in such a way that it best maintains and develops the organizational knowledge in it. Now the term organizational knowledge may be somewhat misleading since the authors say that knowledge only exists within people. So this is in contrast to scholars who view the whole of an organization as more than the sum of the parts (the individuals).
The Basics of Knowledge
So the organizational knowledge consists of all of the knowledge inside these individuals. Just the basics on knowledge: it only exist in people (written down you would call it information but this always leaves stuff out) and you could see knowledge as information with a purpose. You know things with a purpose. It is action oriented. You know how to use powerpoint, fix a car or prepare a meal. In an organization knowledge is a very special thing. It is what make the people great an therefore what makes the organization great. So you want to know how to improve the level of knowledge and also the usage of knowledge. You want to have it, make more of it and you want to use it properly.
Nonaka and Takeuchi differentiate between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is hard to put in words, hard to write down and is most of the times created by experience. This is for instance the knowledge of how to ride a bicycle or how to swim, but also how to fix an engine or cook something. Explicit knowledge is easier to formulate and transform into written form. This would be for instance the recipe needed for the meal or the manual of the engine you want to fix. These difference then are important for the way you can transfer this knowledge to others or store it.
The SECI Model for Knowledge Transfer
This model describes how knowledge is transferred and conversed into a different form. There are four different activities for the two types of knowledge (tacit and explicit).
Socialization is the the conversion from tacit to tacit knowledge. Here multiple people are sharing knowledge by doing, giving examples showing their work. For instance a master builder and his apprentice.
Externalization happens when tacit knowledge is changed into explicit knowledge. Writing things you know down is an example of this. You understand there always is a loss of knowledge in this process because some things are not easily put into words (riding bikes).
Combination happens when explicit is brought into contact with other explicit knowledge as you would get in computer systems or with a information dashboard of a company.
Internalization is the transformation of explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge. This usually happens by learning something, from a book or a speech. This also requires practice and reflection.
The level of knowledge in an organization can than be increased by this process of knowledge conversion. Knowledge conversion does not take place within one person but needs multiple people having contact. This process is shown by the arrow in the image and is called the knowledge creation spiral. In this process new knowledge will be created.
To understand how this knowledge creation process takes place you only need to think of a brainstorm session for a new product as an example. Different people with different knowledge sets start talking, drawing and combining ideas. Out of this some new insights might arise that weren’t present in the organization. This new knowledge can also be taken in the spiral and dispersed throughout the organization.
The Role of Social Software
The role of social software might be clear already from this setup. You might have even been thinking about it throughout this text. But then please remember the above theory originated in 1995. Obviously information systems had been around, but not as prolific as they currently are.
Social software which helps organization members connect with each other, ask questions, capture experiences and get to know each other can really facilitate in this process. Especially in companies where the geographical distribution increases people will have less contact. This will create silos in the company where knowledge will not be combined and therefore less knowledge will be created.
Social software in the enterprise can reduce the threshold for people to get into contact with each other. If people are not sitting next to each other they might not be inclined to share everything they do with others. They might not even know who to contact with a question or experience. When using social software people can talk about any issue or experience freely and anyone who is interested in their work can join in. Silos of knowledge can be broken and knowledge can be captured. This makes social software a great tool for companies who are interested in maintaining and increasing their organizational knowledge.