Perceptions of Knowledge, Knowledge Society, and Knowledge Management

Knowledge Society

The description of our society as a knowledge society is only one approach among many others to characterize the society we live in (authors prefer to talk of media society, risk society, multiple option society, individualized society, multi-cultural society, global society etc., for example; for an overview over the authors and their different approaches see, e.g., Pongs 1999, 2000). Above all, to describe our society as a knowledge society is a self-description from an internal perspec tive of the society we live in, it is not a description of our society from an external point of view (see, e.g., Nassehi 2000a).
Krohn (2000) identifies two different sets of variables that can be emphasized to analyze the contemporary societal change toward knowledge society: technological innovation and institutional transforma tion. Following Krohn (2000: 1), “the impact of technological change on the organizational and cultural institutions of society as well as on the enormous mon etary and cultural investments of corporate and individual agencies in developing and using new knowledge” build the interrelated focus of these two aspects.
The term of the knowledge society is strongly influenced by the early studies in the 1960s on the (economically) dominant role of knowledge. The contribution of knowledge work to the economy was first clearly emphasized by Fritz Machlup (1962) (on the notion of knowledge work see Hayman and Elliman 2000). Peter Drucker (1969) provided guidelines for mastering the discontinuities brought about by information technology and knowledge work. Robert E. Lane (1966) is known as one of the first authors who noted the term “knowledgeable society“. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Amitai Etzioni (1968) and Daniel Bell (1975 (1973)) further investigated the emerging predominant role of (especially theoret ical) knowledge as the new “axial principle” of society, particularly in the fields of politics, work and science.
A parallel line of reasoning can be found by reform Marxists in the Richta report (Richta 1971) of 1968 and the Japanese “Plan for an Information Society” of 1972 (see Masuda 1990 (1981)). Porat (1977) contributed a larger set of empirical data to the conceptual path toward a knowledge society, Lyon (1988) reflected on the validity of the concept of an information society, and Edelstein (1978) studied the different developments in the USA and Japan in a comparative analysis (as cited by Krohn 2000).
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the academic and public awareness became steadily intensified “and extended the general themes of the societal centrality of knowledge to a broad variety of fields of investigation” (Krohn 2000: 1-2): the reconstruction of class structure in the knowledge society (Schiller 1984 (1981)) and its relation to postmodernism (Lyotard 1984; Poster 1990).
The growing popularity of the term knowledge society during the 1990s was fostered especially through the work of Peter Drucker and Robert Reich, both researchers in management theory. With regard to business management, features of knowledge society are strongly emphasized as the spread of expert culture (see several contributions in Stehr and Ericson 1992) and the primary importance of intellectual capital as the wealth of organizations (Stewart 1997). The OECD can be identified as an important promoter of the development toward a knowledge-based economy in its influential working paper of 1996 (OECD 1996) and various subsequent reports and activities (e.g., OECD 2001a,b). In Germany, the parliament (Deutscher Bundestag) provides a comprehensive outline of a global knowledge society (Enquête-Kommission 2002: 259-308).
Compared to the first studies and expectations of the developments toward knowledge society as presented in the 1960s and 1970s, things have changed today. Professional knowledge workers are not confronted with the task to find any solution for a given problem, they are confronted with the problem that they know too much to reach the solution (and to choose their actions within a given time; see also various contributions in Hennings et al. 2003).
Knowledge is not only the resource for the industrial production anymore, it is its subject. Not the knowledge assets (or repositories) are the critical factors today, but structures and processes of knowledge production and transfer. And since we all know that there is not one solution, if there is any, our aim is to provide some very small steps that may provide analytical insights and practically relevant methods among others to address these critical factors of knowledge production and transfer in your organization. If we do not want to turn the visions of a knowledge society to being useless, we should try to clearly integrate the recognition and acceptance of complexities as its integral basic characteristics. Then, knowledge society does not aim at the reduction and overcoming of complexities, but at dealing and living with them through individual, organizational, technological, and societal strategies and processes of adaptation.

Framework of Knowledge

To summarize the various aspects of knowledge briefly, we can follow Wenger et al. (2002: 8-11) who note that knowledge

  • lives in the human act of knowing,
  • is tacit as well as explicit,
  • is social as well as individual,
  • is dynamic.

Knowledge as understood here is a human act and it is socially constructed. “From the perspective of common sense, the world of everyday life is taken for granted as reality. It is simply, compelling, and self-evidently there” (Holzner and Marx 1979: 81). From this perspective, knowledge cannot mean “the ‘grasping’ of reality itself”, but only “the ‘mapping’ of experienced reality by some observer”, and thus, “we are compelled to define ‘knowledge’ as the communicable mapping of some aspect of experienced reality by an observer in symbolic terms” (Holzner 1968: 20; as cited by Holzner and Marx 1979: 93). Frames of reference are defined as structures consisting of “taken-for-granted assumptions, preferences for symbol systems, and analytical devices within which an observer’s inquiry proceeds” and can be “explicitly codified and articulated” or “remain tacit and lack specific symbolic articulation” (Holzner and Marx 1979: 99-100). Whether specialized and articulated very precisely or not, every frame of reference “contains a limited set of rules for mapping alternative frames of reference” (Holzner and Marx 1979: 102). This argumentation leads Holzner and Marx to describe social validation of knowledge as inter-subjective spaces within the context of shared frames of reference and through reality tests (Holzner and Marx 1979: 103-106).
Different from the construction of everyday knowledge are character and processes of the construction of intellectual objects in the social sciences (Schütz 1971: 39-76). Following Berger and Luckmann, “the sociology of knowledge must concern itself with whatever passes for ‘knowledge’ in a society, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such ‘knowledge’” (Berger and Luckmann 1967 (1966): 3). And insofar the subject of the sociology of knowledge is “all human ‘knowledge’ [that] is developed, transmitted and maintained in social situations” and the understanding of the processes involved (Berger and Luckmann 1967 (1966): 3). Exactly this conception of knowledge is contended to be a useful definition for the study of knowledge and the processes
of knowledge generation, transfer and conservation within and between organizations. From our perspective, knowledge includes all human knowledge that is generated, transmitted, maintained and—important to add—forgotten within organizational situations.

Double-Layered Knowlegde Life Cycle (Source: Müller-Prothmann 2006, p. 51)

Organizational situations that involve knowledge processes are always socially constituted. Weber introduced the prominent distinction between human behavior, action and social action in sociology. Following this distinction, knowledge communication in social networks is inevitably constituted as social knowledge communication. Action is human behavior to which the acting individual attaches subjective meaning, whereas social action is action when, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual, it takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby guided. From this perspective, knowledge communication in social networks is communication of knowledge between social entities that are intentionally oriented toward each other. An acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to his or her communication of knowledge while he or she takes the behavior of others into account, and is thereby guided. This kind of social perspective on processes of knowledge communication takes into account factors and prerequisites for mutual orientation of the acting individuals like shared language, common standards as well as social and situational norms.

Knowledge Management

Generally speaking, economic relationships are being developed for the solution of problems of the economic subjects. Beginning in the 1960s, information economics (Stigler 1961) focused on information processes based on costs and benefits calculations derived from treating information as an economic good (see Darby and Karni 1973; Nelson 1970). The new institutional economics laid the ground for studies on institutional and organizational structures by which economic actors engage with each other (Coase 1960; Alchian and Woodward 1988).
From the perspective of business economics, knowledge is usually distinguished with regard to (1) knowledge as object and (2) knowledge as process (see, e.g., Heckert 2002: 13). The object-based approach is widely prominent as a theoretic foundation of information technology based solutions from a management perspective, while the process-oriented approach refers to philosophical, psychological and sociological approaches even from an economic perspective (see Sveiby 1997: 24-50). If we assume that we can indeed manage knowledge, the aim of an organization must be to manage knowledge as an object as well as to manage the processes of knowledge (see also Zack 1999a: 46).
A different perspective emerges from the focus of social construction of knowledge. From this perspective, knowledge is primarily in the heads of individuals (Wersig 2000), or as McDermott puts it “knowing is a human act” (McDermott
2002). Armbrecht talks of “purists” who “consider ‘knowledge’ to be that which is within and between the minds of individuals and is tacitly possessed” (Armbrecht et al. 2001: 29). From this perspective, we cannot manage knowledge: “data and information may be managed, and information resources may be managed, but knowledge (i.e., what we know) can never be managed, except by the individual knower and, even then, only imperfectly” (Wilson 2002). Rather, we can try to manage influence factors like organizational environments or communication processes that facilitate and improve processes of knowledge creation and sharing.
Especially from the perspective of knowledge processes within R&D environments, managing knowledge is not literally possible. Rather, as Armbrecht et al. (2001: 30) put it, “we are really interested in facilitating knowledge flows”. And as they continue, “[t]he expansion process creates new knowledge beyond that contained in the individuals’ heads. This is the ‘between mind’s knowledge’ related to interactions that take place between individuals and within teams” (Armbrecht et al. 2001: 31). And we should add: that takes place in and between organizations, institutions, disciplines and societal spheres as well. From this perspective, our conception of knowledge management deals with conditions and influence factors of knowledge generation, sharing, use, conservation, and forgetting on individual, organizational, and societal levels. Thus, knowledge communities and social networks play an important role in knowledge management.

* A comprehensive version of this text and all references can be found in the book presented here.

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