Knowledge technologies in context
Knowledge technologies in context

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Knowledge technologies in context

4.12 Technologies and the tacit dimension continued

4.12.1 Communities of practice and technology

Communities of practice are technical and social networks which set the context in which new knowledge arises in daily work, and determine how it is shared and interpreted, what counts as important knowledge and how people become recognised as members of that community:

A good deal of new technology attends primarily to individuals and the explicit information that passes between them. To support the flow of knowledge, within or between communities and organizations, this focus must expand to encompass communities and the full richness of communication. Successful devices such as the telephone and the fax, like the book and newspaper before them, spread rapidly not simply because they carried information to individuals, but because they were easily embedded in communities.

(Brown and Duguid, 1998, p. 105)

Brown and Duguid (1998) make certain suggestions concerning the way in which the community of practice might shape how we implement technologies to foster knowledge creation, sharing and management. These are paraphrased and elaborated upon in Box 4.12.

Box 4.12 Some technology implications of focusing on the community of practice as the unit of analysis

Technologies should permit multiple degrees of formality in communication: communication with trusted colleagues and within a community of practice is more informal and can assume more common ground than communication between communities of practice. A technology such as email or conferencing will be intrusive, and may be rejected, if it enforces the explicit negotiation and encoding of roles, responsibilities, obligations, permissions, and so forth, that are normally tacitly negotiated. The cognitive demands of encoding such meta-information may also be too high.

Technologies should permit peripheral participation in online forums: studies of communities of practice identified a pervasive phenomenon in situated learning, namely that newcomers value being able to ‘lurk’ (to use an internet term) on the periphery of a community of practice, whether a physical one in the workplace or in an online forum (such as an email listserver or a Lotus Notes discussion), so that they can learn from more experienced people and gauge the level and tone of debate. Gradually, they move from the periphery toward the centre, as they participate, and take on responsibilities within the community of practice. Lave and Wenger (1991) termed this ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. The implication for technologies is that exclusion of staff from digital resources, particularly social, communications-based resources, can impede this form of apprenticeship.

The value of digital boundary objects should be recognised: a ‘boundary object’ is an object or representation of interest to two or more communities of practice. They both have a stake in it, but from different perspectives. A boundary object might be a technology (for example, how a new online document archive should be structured), a technique or method (for example, how customers should be consulted, how software should be designed), or a document (for example, what should go into an organisational policy). It might even be a place or an object (for example, where a new laboratory should be sited). Effective boundary objects provide mutually comprehensible starting points for discussion, encouraging each community of practice to explain its rationale. Boundary objects are therefore devices which can foster communication between communities and, if well designed, make it possible for geographically dispersed communities of practice to focus online debate around a particular object. (See again Screen 6 for an example of a web environment for document discussion.)

To summarise, all the technologies for tacit knowledge discussed in this section have a focus on the social fabric and informal communication that underpins a community of practice. The emphasis is on augmenting communication by mediating and hence structuring it electronically, and/or by adding functionality to digital artefacts to allow their meaning to be negotiated explicitly. In Section 4.3, we look at knowledge-based systems which focus on types of knowledge whose structure can be codified at a finer granularity in order to make forms of ‘machine reasoning’ possible.

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