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First Look – Knowledge for the Public Good (Societal Knowledge Management)

*** Final article published in July 2012 – ‘Societal HRD and societal competitive advantage , Advances in Developing Human Resources Journal)***

***Please get in touch if you would like a free copy of the final article***

The start of the summer has been demanding and has resulted in a lack of blogging and a lot of travel between Dubai and Wales, but, for better or worse, I’m back!

In June I met up with Gary McLean from Texas A&M University, which resulted in a new strand of research being explored, Societal Knowledge Management (SKM).  The following is an excerpt from our current thought process and I want to share it as a way to generate conversation with those of you that are interested in this area.

As a point of departure, we are talking about the societal knowledge management of knowledge generated for the public good:

Knowledge for public good

Spender argues that knowledge exists for the ‘public good’

‘While land, labour and capital are private goods, knowledge is often said to be a ‘public good’, meaning that it is infinitely extensible and its use by one person does not deprive others of its use’ (p. 48)

This understanding of knowledge for ‘public good’ could be debated as it has been said that the true definition is based on it being non-rivalrous and non-excludable. However tacit knowedge would appear to be an excludable resource and the competitive nature of organisations could see knowledge being developed for rivalrous advantage. Even in the field of education knowledge can be seen as rivalrous and excludable, especially in considering fields of technological or medical research. However, from a societal perspective it would seem that there is a need to speak of knowledge generation, acquisition & storage, sharing and use in non-rivalrous and non-excludable terms. This article will therfore adopt this definition with the caveat that there is an understanding that individuals, organisations and society can take the knowledge created for the public good and manipulate it for competitive advantage, making it rivalrous and excludable.

In an example of this, Reichert claims that the tacit dimension of knowledge is loosely bound, or excludable, through society and its supporting framework, to geographic location; whereas the explicit dimension, expressed through patents or technologies, exists as an accessible resource unbound by geographical location. Reichert speaks of a ‘sense of place’ that brings advantage to cities or regions through the exploitation of this geographic tacit knowledge. A possible foil to this argument could be societal migration, where, for example, an organisation relocates from one geographical location to another, thereby making tacit knowledge moveable.

Societal Knowledge Management (SKM)

Few authors appear to have discussed societal KM; the leading exception seems to be Karl Wiig. The roots of societal KM are entwined around the Knowledge Economy or what the OECD terms ‘The Four Pillars of the Knowledge Economy’: Innovation, Technology, Human Capital and Adaptive Capacity. Diagram 1 demonstrates an adaptation of these four pillars as a flow from the founding block of ‘Human Capital’ towards ‘Adaptive Capacity’ and value creation.

Diagram 1

Knowledge Economy Drivers (Griffiths, 2010)

Ultimately, in the situated reality of the globalised world, whether from the view of the individual, organisations or society as a whole, ‘knowledge is the driver of growth’ (Wiig, p. 142). Furthermore knowledge is the universal driver for a knowledge-based society, organisations operating within the knowledge based-view of the firm and individuals looking to improve their personal capital.

Wiig  states that successful participation in the KE requires an organic stock of intellectual capital, the motivation of the individual to participate in the needs of society and the societal culture that feeds the individual’s motivation. The argument being that these elements need to be in place for a society to deliver innovation. In his article Wiig speaks of links between education and knowledge, but it appears disconnected from the drivers associated with ‘successful participation in the global knowledge economy’ (p. 144). Whilst the elements he puts forward appear valid this fundamental driver, being the capability of people to contribute to society, is perhaps needed. Wiig  does speak to the impact of a ‘smaller’ world where globalisation is forcing Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to become more innovative in order to react to truncated product cycle times and more complex services. This said another key aspect for successful participation in the KE again seems to be under defined, that of ‘adaptive capacity’. For if knowledge resources are to be applied for the good of society there would appear to address the need of sustainability, which requires society to address the links between innovation, technology and human capital. He does allude to the need for adaptive capacity, but it is discrete and couched in terms of diversity, where ‘diversity drives the city’s industries and commercial establishments in new directions…to deal with changes in technology and the economy’ (p. 149). Wiig  does however signpost the importance of technology as the enable of a more knowledgeable society:

‘The new work requires a greater knowledge – targeted task knowledge, broad enterprise knowledge with understanding of operations, local navigation knowledge, and reliable world knowledge’ (p. 144)

Whilst this view appears to be in line with other authors, for example Dicken, a simpler approach to successful societal participation in the KE could be to evaluate societal strategy, policy and activity against the four pillars of the KE as put forward by the OECD. If this could be agreed then key components such as adaptive capacity become not only pillars for the KE, but pillars for a successful knowledge society.

Wiig  progresses to discuss societal knowledge management (SKM) where he posits that ‘effective SKM is required to build, maintain, and make the best use of the country’s broad knowledge assets’ (p. 150). It could be questioned whether this is any different from the fundamental aims of any KM process, especially when compared against the knowledge-base view. This is acknowledged by Wiig where he states that ‘in general, SKM shares the same foundation as the private sector KM. Hence SKM uses approaches developed and perfected in the private sector. Most management, organisational, and operational principles are similar’ (p. 151). In Griffiths et al. we put forward the K-Core a new model for KM, encompassing 4 functions and 12 enablers. In comparing Wiig’s (2007) ‘principles for effective SKM’ (p. 151), Table 2, with the K-Core model, see previous blogs, it seems that several variables within the KM process have been omitted or require further clarification.

Principles Provide societal leadership to promote local and private KM initiatives without autocratic bureaucracy
Govern and facilitate building, maintaining, safeguarding, and utilisation of IC assets to support broad societal goals and intents
Provide societal resources and support priority setting to achieve desired goals
Pursue initiatives and practices that employ technology and rely on human and social mechanisms, which must be understood for initiatives and practices to be effective
Rely extensively on educational institutions and infrastructure support such as ICT
Obtain support by public opinion and voluntary action for best effectiveness
Support development of higher-order learning and reasoning in addition to widespread literacy as fundamental goals for effective behaviours
Premise 1 Citizens throughout society must be knowledgeable and responsible partners who can understand and judge societal issues independently to participate objectively in the public process
Premise 2 An effective society requires competent public administration to perform normal work and with additional insights and perspectives to apply contextual judgement in non-routine situations
Premise 3 A globally competitive society requires a variety of quality IC assets to build:Competent and well-educated workforces
State-of-the-art government and industrial programs for basic and applied R&D
Effective and innovative industrial and commercial establishments
Effective and justly enforced laws and regulation
Premise 4 Modern technology continually changes society’s culture, systems, procedures and infrastructures….widespread understandings must be built to work with and navigate the new environment

Table 2 Wiig’s Principles for effective SKM

Adapted from Wiig ( p. 151)

For example, Wiig fails to discuss two functions of KM, specifically the importance of ‘knowledge sharing’ within society and the ‘acquisition and storage’ of knowledge resources for public good. He does state the need to ‘govern and facilitate building, maintaining, safeguarding and utilisation of IC assets to support broad societal goals and intents’ (p. 151). Whether this sufficiently agrees with the need for acquisition and storage is perhaps in need of clarification. There is also no reference to access, which is part of the ‘Knowledge Structure’ aspect of the K-Core model. Looking toward innovation and the use of knowledge resources for public good the access and structure of knowledge resources would appear to be an important variable for consideration. Perhaps the most critical function missing from Wiig’s principles is that of ‘Knowledge Sharing’. The socialisation of knowledge to facilitate the exchange of knowledge artefacts and the evolution of what is known by society is not discussed, nor is the development of knowledge artefacts to improve societal knowledge stocks. This said, in an apparent disconnect from his own principles, in discussing effective cities and districts, he states that Communities of Practice are important in order to allow professionals an opportunity to socialise. Another example of the disconnect in Wiig’s research is apparent lack of discussion in his principles for SKM on appropriate ‘Space’ for knowledge storage and development, such as technology parks, when they would seem important as a facilitator of knowledge for societal good. Wiig does state earlier in his article that cities facilitate the congregation of societal activities in specialised areas, but this is disconnected from his principles of societal KM. Wiig discusses enablers such as ‘People’ and ‘Technology’, but issues of public and private finance needed to seed the innovation process are apparently not required.

It is not the intention of this article to provide a full criticism of Wiig’s work. However, Wiig himself has stated the similarities between his concept of societal KM and those KM process that exist in organisations. Therefore, if it can be accepted that similarities exist between organisational KM and societal KM then current literature, Wiig’s work, whilst providing authority for KM processes to be applied at societal level, appears to suffer from significant gaps in KM analysis.

[Just another day and another point of view… It’s free, so take it for what it’s worth]

9 comments on “First Look – Knowledge for the Public Good (Societal Knowledge Management)

  1. Sergio Storch
    July 23, 2010

    Thank you for bringing this important topic, and for the excellent post. I wasn´t aware of the development of the SKM concept, and am very glad to be reached by this. I´ve been dealing with the concept of “societal intelligence”, which is closely related do SKM. One concept that I think is key for understanding SKM is structural: how does knowledge flow in an non-organizational context, from knowledge creators (such as R&D agencies) and the end user of that knowledge in the production end. I have maybe created a neologism: “knowledge chains”, to mean that knowledge flows from end-to-end through a chain of significantly different genres of institutions or social networks. That idea poses challenges in getting knowledge overcoming bottlenecks which come from language, cultures, social capital etc, in the passage from one level to another in the chain.
    I guess that a few pillars are missing in the model under discussion: structure, processes and, spefically, communication.. How to structure roles and tasks so that groups of people pump knowledge through the chain, so that it is internalized in different levels?
    A post that I wrote (in Portuguese) deals with that. You are invited to Google Translate it and read:
    Sergio Storch
    Sao Paulo, Brasil

    • theknowledgecore
      July 23, 2010

      Hello Sergio and thank you for your response.

      Our current research is exploring the flow between a stimulus (Lisbon Strategy 2000) and macro/micro regional response (Welsh Assembly Government and the town of Merthyr Tydfil in Wales). I’m hoping to post our initial findings by the end of August…fingers crossed.

      I also agree with your comments regarding the pillars, which is why I believe that we are looking at the OECD’s four pillars as an input into a more comprehensive KM Model (The K-Core). This model is available here:

      I believe this model speaks to the gaps you mentioned in your response.

      Thank you again,


  2. Md Santo
    July 23, 2010

    Dear David,

    I’d like to contribute my own view on the concept of Societal KM which is deducted from the difference between Public Health and Community Health, where I got it when I was the Dean of a Medical School in Indonesia (see the Attachment of my Reply at the llink )

    For the basic understanding, refer to – “THE EDGE OF SCIENTIFIC BOUNDARY : KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT DOMAIN” (especially the Attachment)

  3. Patrick Lambe
    July 23, 2010

    Interesting stuff David – what are the Spender and Reichert references?

    • theknowledgecore
      July 23, 2010

      Spender and Reichert references:

      Spender, J.C. (1996) making knowledge the basis of a dynamic theory of the firm, Strategic management journal, vol. 17 Winter Special Issue, pp. 45-62

      Reichert, S (2007) The rise of knowledge regions: emerging opportunities and challenges for universities, European University Association, Brussels, Belgium

  4. Richard Adler
    July 23, 2010

    Interesting work. Although it is not called societal KM, some closely related work has been done by Elinor Ostrum, the Nobel Laureate in Economics, and her colleagues on what she calls the Knowledge Commons. her work focuses on intellectual property concerns, conditioned by an ecological perspective. The first chapter of her book on this topic is downloadable from the Web.

  5. Sergio Storch
    July 27, 2010

    Knowledge regions. I think it is a promising strand of thinking.
    I´d appreciate to get more awareness on what has been produced, so that we can map it for use in Brazil´s regional development studies.
    Reichert, S (2007) The rise of knowledge regions: emerging opportunities and challenges for universities, European University Association, Brussels, Belgium

    do you have more references?

    Thanks a lot

  6. Chris Nwagboso
    August 7, 2010

    This is a vital area of work and should be encouraged.

    We invite all contributor to this area of work to contribute their work to the discussion with the facebook “Knowledge Factory International”

So, what do you think?

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