The Richness of Diversity in Knowledge Creation:
(University of Trento, Italy
(University of Trento, Italy
Abstract: The goal of this article is to explore some of the
main reasons that sustain a distributed approach to Knowledge Management,
and this will be done, first, showing how, according to very different
theoretical disciplines, knowledge diversity is proposed as the very source
of organizational innovation and adaptability; second providing some evidence
coming from major applicative domains; third proposing some considerations
on the role of technology.
Keywords: Distributed Knowledge Management, Evolutionary Theory,
Theory of Complexity, Communites of Practice, Cognitivism, Constructivism,
Semantic heterogeneity, Structuration Theory
Categories: A.0, A.1, H.1.0, H.1.1, K.4, K.6
Although knowledge has been claimed as the new core asset of organizations,
the managerial practice that has been proposed as a means to exploit its
value (Knowledge Management) still hasn't demonstrated the expected benefits.
According to a distributed approach to KM (DKM) [Bonifacio,
00], such failure is not due to technical reasons, but rather to the
very assumption underlying current KM systems; that is, knowledge can and
must be centralized through standardization. The most spread technological
architectures, organizational models, and managerial practices in the domain
of KM are consistent with this view [Bonifacio, 02b].
On the other hand DKM assumes a perspective that views knowledge as a distributed
matter that should be organized accordingly. Technologies, organizational
models and practices must be designed in order to allow and support "distributedness"
which is seen not just as a constraint to deal with, but also as an opportunity
to generate value. As a consequence organizations, when viewed through
the lenses of knowledge, appear as networks of autonomous communities that
are engaged in a double faced process of consolidating within, and bridging
across local "knowledges". As we propose in this paper, such
a view is consistent, from a theoretical perspective, with a variety of
disciplines that have attempted to explain the very nature of organizational
learning. From a practical perspective, it is sustained by the evidence
that competitive advantage is increasingly rooted in the capacity of organizations
to enable and manage, rather than reduce, heterogeneity and specialization.
Finally, although technology is still perceived as a means to reach
standardization and control of knowledge, technological waves -such as
the internet- and trends -such as peer to peer technologies- are clearly
going in the opposite direction; winning technologies are increasingly
those that are based on distributed architectures and business logics.
2 Diversity in Theory
A wide range of theoretical disciplines have proposed, from different
angels, the valuable role of diversity in sustaining knowledge creation.
The evolutionary metaphor has been widely applied to organizational studies
and, in particular, to the dynamics of organizational learning [March,
91]. Here the double faced process of variety generation and selection
has been related to the learning dynamics of exploration and exploitation.
Knowledge is seen as the capability of a complex system to give appropriate
responses to environmental stimuli. Within a changing and turbulent environment,
such capacity depends not just on traditional response improvements -same
stimulus, better response-, but increasingly on the generation of alternative
responses -new stimuli, new responses-. Seemingly, an organization in order
to learn, must not just support the process that consolidates existing
knowledge (exploitation), but also enable the generation of new and unforeseen
answers; new and alternative practices, mental models, and languages are
necessary in order to adapt to changing conditions. While the former process
focuses on continuous adaptation and improvement, the latter on discontinuity
and innovation. In this sense, the availability of different and heterogeneous
"knowledges" can bee seen as a set of ready to use "alternative
answers" that an organization, as an organism, can give when facing
new and unforeseen environmental situations.
A similar concept can be derived by the study of complexity, and in
particular by the notion of requisite variety in organizations [Ashby,
56]. Here an organization is seen as a system that has to manage the
trade off between the need of stabilizing its "internal" processes,
and the one of answering to "external" environmental complexity.
An organization is seen as a "complexity selector" that has mainly
the goal to filter between external stimuli which are relevant to its survival
and those which are not. In fact, on the one hand higher levels of internal
complexity generates losses in control, on the other is required in order
to match the demands of increasingly dynamic markets. As an example, in
the paradigmatic case of car industry [Rullani, 1990],
until product differentiation wasn't a key success factor such as during
the Fordist Era, production processes could have been designed with a high
degree of rigidity. As soon as the market became more complex and segmented,
product differentiation became a critical success factor and, as a consequence,
internal industrial processes had to become more flexible "incorporating"
increasing levels of complexity. From this perspective it's proposed that
the more the external complexity increases, the more the organization needs
to internally incorporate an increasing level of variety. In terms of knowledge,
the stabilization of knowledge through standardization seems to be in direct
contradiction with the evident quest of complexity posed by the current
The need to preserve heterogeneity is more valuable if we consider the
constructive nature of the environment proposed by the phenomenological-cognitivist
school of thought in organizational studies, and in particular with the
notion of "enactement" [Weick, 79].
Here the availability of "alternative interpretations of the world"
is not merely seen as a constraint to deal with in order to adapt to a
changing environment; rather is proposed as an opportunity to "create"
(or enact) new possible worlds in which, ex-post, such interpretations
can be defined as "true". This perspective assumes that a clear
and well defined world "out there" doesn't exist. Continuously
organizations face markets that are to be actively "created"
rather than passively described. An example which became increasingly relevant
during the last decades, is given by those technologies whose success depends
on critical mass factors. Home video, computers, operating systems, communication
protocols, security standards and so on, are all examples of technologies
whose success depends on adoption rates rather than technical performance.
The well known success stories of Microsoft's operating system versus Linux,
or VHS versus Betamax, all underline the same conclusion: "a good
technology is the one that is adopted" instead of "adopted technologies
are good ones". Rather than assuming as an explanation some form of
consumer's ignorance or irrationality, it seems more reasonable to consider
that users valuate the parameter of "social adoption" more than
the one of "technical superiority". Adoption means a wide set
of positive externalities such as interoperability, the availability of
services and related products, and social certification of usability. These
situations are better explained assuming a constructivist view of the business
environment. Designing a valuable product is not a matter of describing
correctly an external market; rather is a question of enacting the right
market. From this perspective, partnerships, agreements, cooperation, and
alliances are seen as attempts of an organization to establish, rather
than accomplish, the right environment. Alternative "knowledges"
are then proposed as the cognitive source that can ideate such possible
While constructivism has inspired the notion of enactment, the work
on language of the philosopher Wittgenstein has inspired the idea that
an organization is a constellation of linguistic communities continuously
engaged in "language games" [Boland, 95].
Here knowledge creation is again proposed as a double faced process: one
the one hand the intra-community process of perspective making views
communication as non-problematic, and existing knowledge is consolidated
through the refinement of local interpretative repertoires. On the other
hand, the inter-community process of perspective taking views the
attempt to exchange knowledge across different "interpretations of
the world" owned by different communities; communication becomes problematic
since dialogue must take into account the exploitation of heterogeneous
interpretative assumptions. From an organizational perspective, while the
former process has been related to the notion of "continuous improvement",
the latter has been defined as the basic source for "innovation".
According to this perspective, protecting linguistic heterogeneity is a
need the more knowledge improvement is required, while the enablement of
linguistic interoperability (and not standardization) is a need the more
the focus is on knowledge innovation. A growing attention to the latter
process seems quite consistent to the trend, started during the '80s, to
foster product and process innovation through the introduction of a wide
set of new organizational metaphors such as team working, brainstorming,
inter-functional cooperation, process oriented reengineering, and project
management. All this organizational interaction and design practices are
proposed, more or less explicitly, as means to generate discontinuities
in the way people interpret the business environment.
Open dialogue across different mental models [Senge,
90], and reasoning on current consolidated theories of action
through double loop learning [Argyris, 78],
are cornerstones of managerial methodologies focused on fostering innovation
within increasingly turbulent and complex business environments.
A similar famous argument is proposed from a social perspective by the
ethnometodologist school [Mead, 34], and in particular
by those researchers that focused on the more recent idea of communities
of practice. Starting from the American pragmatist philosopher Dewey,
knowledge is seen as practice which is intuitively defined as the actual,
embodied, practical way of "doing things". A business reading
of such theme has interpreted this concept as the base of a distinction
between formal -or explicit- and informal -or implicit- knowledge, whereby
the latter can be transformed into the former [Nonaka,
95]. A more precise analysis shows a quite different angle: knowledge
is always a practice, and what we call formal or scientific knowledge is
a particular practice rooted into the myths of science (management) and
the identities of scientists (managers) [Brown, 91][Lave,
90]. A major consequence is similar to the one proposed by the previous
authors; the evolution of organizational knowledge is given by an interplay
between the consolidation of local practices within the boundaries of communities,
and the establishment of "boundary practices" [Wenger,
98] able to bridge (and not standardize) meanings across communities
through negotiation. Again, Brown and Duguid define boundary encounters
between different communities as the origin of organizational innovation.
Such a vision that privileges diversity rather than standardization,
and envisions the exchange of knowledge as a process of "mapping across
diversities" rather than establishing a common language, is well rooted
also in philosophy of science, linguistics, cognitive sciences and AI.
In particular we underline that one of the main debates around the philosophy
of science has proposed that knowledge evolution is rooted in the interplay
of dynamics within and across paradigms [Kuhn, 70],
or that every knowledge, such as "natural sciences" or "management
sciences", is a "tradition" that competes and judges other
traditions [Feyerabend, 78]. Similar arguments are
proposed in cognitive sciences and linguistics when dealing with role of
mental models [Johnoson-Laird, 92], mental spaces
[Fauconnier, 85], conceptual spaces [Gardenfors,
00], in meaning formation; in the domain of AI such a view is clearly
defined in the theory of contexts and local models semantics [Giunchiglia,
3 Diversity in Practice
The fact that heterogeneity is an opportunity instead of a limit, is
not only a theoretical claim as shown in the previous section, but also
a practical evidence. This is easily observable by analysing business processes,
structures and models in several application domains. In this section we
will discuss some real business cases in which the authors are directly
involved both in terms of organizational analysis and systems design. In
such cases, the request to manage differences and diversities is not only
due to a mere need to solve contingent problems or get to established goals
and results, but rather a mean to support innovation and knowledge creation
The first case comes from the public sector and, in particular, from
the healthcare domain [Molani, 02]. Here different
actors, like hospital doctors, home doctors, nurses, technical and administrative
staff and patients themselves, have to cooperate in order to achieve the
main goal of healthcare organizations, that is, having patients well treated.
It is quite evident that such cooperation is an answer not only to a
mere quantitative demand -the amount of time needed to reach the goal would
be too much expensive for just one actor- but also to a qualitative one:
different competencies, distributed over a set of experts and specialists,
have to be collected in order to have patients well treated. This is true
also for the wide set of artefacts that have to be involved, such as the
clinical reports produced by each ward dealing with a patient careflow,
public guidelines and hospital protocols, the most updated scientific studies,
lab and legal data, and administrative information. These resources show
both an "objective" heterogeneity, such as different formats,
different geographical locations and different languages, and a more "subjective"
one, dealing with the different reasons why several actors access the same
resource. Consider for example the case of an administrative staff member
who, in order to compute patient expenses, needs information on a lab test
result and, at the same time, a surgeon needs the same data in order to
set the right therapy. Even if data are exactly the same, meaning, interpretation,
and data organization strongly depends on the actor who accesses it. In
such cases, heterogeneity is not supported by specific tools: all the data
are collected in just one folder, which is the patient clinical record,
that could then be accessed by the actor that needs them. The collection
doesn't follow any particular logic, neither the administration's nor the
surgeon's one, but just a very general and common parameter which is the
chronological entry of data. Obviously, the time and the efforts needed
by each actor to find out the right data in such a wide and unorganized
folder, which doesn't provide any logical help, is definitely a lot, and
often too much in order to get the work done in time. A very interesting
and practical solution to this problem is being experimenting by a ward
of the Hospital of Udine (Italy): for each new patient, a brief and specific
Clinical Record is produced by a specialized nurse who first extracts from
the big folder only the data relevant for the surgery operation and then
reports them in a record specifically designed according to the surgery
needs. In other words, the nurse translates the neutral clinical record
in a resource which is meaningful just from the surgery's point of view.
Following this idea, the hospital Chief Knowledge Officer is thinking about
a solution in which the neutral and general clinical report is completely
substituted by local ward reports where data are organized according to
each ward's perspective. The coordination among each ward would be guaranteed
by some translating rules (like the ones created and followed by the nurse
we mentioned above) which map the same data onto different local reports1.
Another interesting business case regards the B2B sector and, in particular,
digital marketplaces and e-procurement [Bonifacio, 03].
In order to coordinate different procurement and supply processes, marketplace
participants need to share heterogeneous information such as products and
services catalogues. To overcome this barrier, they are thus asked to map
their own information structures onto standard conceptualizations such
as universal products and services catalogues (to map product and services
descriptions) and process definition schemas (to map information needed
in order to execute transactions).
experimentation of a technological system which supports the collaboration
among different healthcare professional communities is being done by the
EDAMOK project [EDAMOK] at the Hospital of Udine
(Italy). The solution will provide each community with an automatic system
able to discover and record the mappings among the different perspectives
through which data is used and organized by different actors.
Typically, marketplaces are intermediaries that have the goal to facilitate
such standardization process. Although during the eBusiness hype marketplaces
have been proposed as the optimal solution to foster efficiency and dynamic
business integration, reality have shown something different. The assumption
that standard catalogues can substitute local ones has been neglected by
the simple evidence that on similar business domains, different competing
standards are available [Ding, 02]. Moreover, company
buyers have difficulties in adopting classification standards that are
too complex and generic if compared to their simple and task specific ones.
This is true the more we consider that local conceptualizations are not
just the mere result of cultural/historical differences, but rather the
consequence of different, substantial, valuable ways of doing things. An
alternative solution to the problem of integrating catalogues is to support
a direct matching among local ones, without using any external standard.
This is allowed, for example, by using matching techniques able to find
mappings between different structures. One of these techniques is a matching
algorithm developed within the EDAMOK project [EDAMOK]
and tested by a well-known world wide telecommunication company. The situation,
very frequent in the eBusiness environment, involves a company business
unit that was asked, by the headquarters, to buy products and services
using the catalogue adopted within the firm wide eProcurement platform.
The unit's catalogue was different from the platform's one, mainly for
task oriented reasons. The business case scenario assumed that, instead
of adopting the centralized catalogue, the unit should have rather mapped
its own catalogue onto the standard one. As a consequence, buyers of the
unit could have continued to use their own catalogue when purchasing products
and services. The successful result of the experimentation2
suggests a scenario in which heterogeneous actors that need to buy products
and services on-line, instead of adopting huge, generic, and hard to maintain
standard catalogues, could benefit from solutions in which local, specialized,
and flexible catalogues are mapped (even automatically) one to each other.
Here, through the use of matching techniques that automatically discover
the correspondences between different catalogues, a distributed marketplace
allows to maintain and support the different "knowledges" that
underlie the heterogeneous needs and offerings of buyers and sellers.
A third business case deals with inter-organizational cooperation and,
in particular, refers to the Balearic Island Tourism system Here the problem
is how to support the collaboration among a set of public and private entities,
all involved in promoting a sustainable development of tourism. Planning
sustainable development means taking into account different information
that belong to different domains such as economy, socio-politics, and ecology.
Information is produced by different entities involved in the Balearic
touristic system such as the University of Balearic Islands, the local
government, the Balearic Institute of Tourism, and the Foundation of the
Balearic Islands for the Innovation of Technology. Obviously in order to
get to a common view and approach on what is a sustainable development
for tourism, and on how to promote it, they need to share information and
work together even if each has its own goal and task to achieve.
70% of the item was rightly classified, 22% hadn't been classified, and
only the 8% was wrongly classified [Bonifacio, 03].
A way to provide a solution is to use a typical knowledge repository,
like an extranet portal, where all the relevant information are stored
and organized in an easily accessible way. But this solution has immediately
showed a set of limits: questions arose on how to design a repository categorization
model able to represent and satisfy the different needs; how to have a
system flexible enough to allow new partners (like the School of Hotel
and Catering management, or the department of the Higher Diploma in Tourism)
to join later without re-designing the whole portal; how to manage in a
flexible way the fact that a user may want to share some project resources
with her own organization and some others with members of other organizations,
without dealing with more then one technological environment.
An alternative solution is the one proposed by the SWAP project [SWAP],
and is based on the possibility for users to keep on using their local
environments, repositories, categorization structures and technologies,
and to support knowledge exchange and coordination processes enabling semantic
interoperability across different ontologies, and the creation of trust
networks by using peer to peer technologies3.
4 Diversity in Technology
KM has given a major role to technology mainly because of the dramatic
impact that ICTs had on the cost of communication, and on the brake down
of communication barriers. Besides this obvious argument, KM technologies
have been proposed as a neutral tools whose architecture doesn't impact
on knowledge flows but rather on aspects such as performance and scalability
of KM systems. In this sense, the selection of a centralized instead of
a distributed architecture, has relevance in terms of technical rather
than conceptual feasibility. The underlying assumption goes directly to
a traditional "conduit" view of knowledge, which is composed
by pieces of information that have to be managed efficiently [Boland,
95]. As a consequence, a centralized technology is judged as highly
controllable and efficient but prone to critical points of failure. On
the other hand a distributed technology is typically redundant and anarchic,
but immune to brake downs. From this perspective, highly distributed technological
phenomena such as the internet, are mainly to be explained by technical,
rather than social, reasons.
Another perspective, that goes back to the structurationist school [Giddens,
84], has analyzed the relationship between technological architectures
and social structures [Orlikowski, 91]. Here the
myth of technology as a neutral vehicle of knowledge is deconstructed showing
how, on the one hand, people tend to shape the use of technology according
to their practices, and, on the other hand, technology embeds practices
that management wishes to impose on social structures. In this direction,
interesting studies have been carried examining how flexible technologies
prone to social adaptation, such as Lotus Notes, have been successfully
implemented when architecturally shaped in a way that was consistent to
the organizations' social structure.
pilot is currently in progress in collaboration with EDAMOK and adopting
KEx, a peer to peer knowledge exchange platform developed by the EDAMOK
project. For more details see [Bonifacio, 02a].
Conversely, socially inconsistent architectures have been adopted when
management was able to shape the social process imposing new interaction
models. Assuming the distributed nature of knowledge, through the structurationist
perspective we derive three conclusions about the use of KM technologies.
First, given a technology that assumes knowledge as a centralized process,
such technology will be probably not used by people that will continue
to engage in the distributed process of knowledge creation through other
means of communication (e-mail, coffee breaks, etc.). Such effect is confirmed
by a well known trend that affects the implementation of centralized Enterprise
Knowledge Portals; after a first phase in which usage is sustained by enthusiasm,
people tend to desert the system that falls into a perverse cycle of no-valuable-content,
no-use [Bonifacio, 00]. Second, if used, the KM technology
falls into the paradox of minimizing the possibilities of creating knowledge.
In fact, following our previous arguments, such a technology would have
reached the goal of reshaping the distributed social process in favour
of centralized one. Through diversity reduction the system would have increased
standardization and control while reducing, as a side effect, adaptability
and innovation. Last, these arguments shall suggest that an appropriate
KM technology must support on the one hand the autonomy of knowledge communities
in building and consolidating local content management practices (i.e.
local category schemas, validation cycles, membership policies, etc.).
On the other hand, it should support knowledge interoperability without
assuming that standardization is the only form of coordination (i.e. semantic
interoperability, cross-certification, application integration, etc.).
Observing current technology use, while autonomy is actually managed by
people through the daily use of heterogeneous and task specific local technologies
(i.e. e-mail, databases, web sites, etc.), coordination is still a challenge
that needs an answer. In this respect, we underline how some current research
projects are trying to address this topic either from scratch, such as
the EDAMOK project [Bonifacio, 02a][EDAMOK],
or also as a natural evolution of a debate around the role of ontologies,
such as in the case of SWAP [Fensel][SWAP].
Moreover, we underline how technology trends, such as peer to peer and
distributed content management, are moving towards an approach to "distributedness"
which is no longer seen as a technical feature but rather as a source of
In this paper we proposed some theoretical, practical, and technological
arguments in favour of a distributed approach to KM (DKM). In particular
we strongly sustained how knowledge diversity is a source of value and,
on the other hand, we intentionally ignored the obvious value that resides
in centralization for two main reasons. First, because we believe that
environmental trends are evolving towards situations in which the value
of discontinuity and innovation is higher than the one originated by consolidation
and improvement. Second, because we observe how, besides such environmental
evidence, managers, technologies, and researchers are still over committing
to a view that privileges centralization. If standardization is valuable
in terms of control, managers should also take into account the importance
of sustaining a proper level of internal diversity as a means to foster
adaptability and innovation.
In this sense, we conclude proposing a perspective on KM as a managerial
practice whose main goal is exactly to balance a very complex trade off
between the need to control through centralization, and the one of supporting
innovation enabling knowledge autonomy and coordination.
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