Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Knowledge Sharing and Sustainable Development

  • Anette OxenswärdhEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_320-1

Definition

Knowledge sharing is an activity through which knowledge as information, skills, or expertise (both tacit and explicit) is exchanged among people, friends, families, communities or organizations (Serban and Luan 2002; Bukowitz and Williams 1999; Hasmath and Hsu 2016).

Introduction

In an increasingly globalized and competitive world, with huge demands on sustainable solutions, we all have to face extremely a complex reality, rapidly changing technologies, and an exponential growth of knowledge. Against this background, it becomes more and more unlikely that a single individual, research group, or organization possesses all of the knowledge required (Howells et al. 2003). In this context, knowing and understanding the drivers and barriers of knowledge sharing becomes an absolute prerequisite for the success of any collaborative effort, particularly in regard to issues of sharing knowledge about and for sustainability. Information technology experts have developed highly sophisticated tools such as groupware, discretionary databases, intranets, knowledge management systems, and workflow technology to support the exchange of organizational insights across time and distance barriers. However, it has become clearer that technology is only one of the ingredients in successful knowledge exchange. The other, if possible even more important, requisite is that of a social and organizational environment which encourages or even enforces knowledge sharing. One important social environment is membership in any organizations and communities where people meet each other and learn both individually and collectively. There are, though, no two organizations that have undergone exactly the same history of learning experiences. Collective knowledge is hard to appropriate by third parties because of its supra-individual character. It is difficult to imitate because it is casually ambiguous, i.e., it is embedded in a complex network of formal and informal interpersonal relationships and in a shared and often unspoken system of norms and beliefs (Sanchez and Heene 1997).

Dimensions of Knowledge

The definition of data and knowledge has proved to be challenging and has manifested many different priorities (transfer and conversion, external and internal parties, and organizational levels) (Sveiby 1997; Hildreth and Kimble 2002; Wilson 2002; Beynon-Davies 2011). In previous studies, data and knowledge and related factors have often been considered fairly theoretically (Kolb 1984; Huber 1991; Nonaka 1994; Crossan et al. 1999; Cook and Brown 1999) and typing their occurrence or deposit formats (Blackler 1995; Boisot 1995) and the essence (explicit, implicit, tacit; Billett 1996; Nonaka and Konno 1998; Choo 1998; Cook and Brown 1999; Boisot 1998). The concept of knowledge has mostly been seen as quite a set of separate elements (data, knowledge, motives, processes, actors, levels of action) and from different perspectives. When examining the development of organizations’ competence maps, it has been recognized that they also require the evaluation of strategy criteria (what skills should be), personal tasks and qualifications (what are the skills), and technology (ICT, tools) assessment (Kim et al. 2003).

Learning in organizations means the organization’s ability to recapture and develop its ways of working. Learning organization consists of a community whose members are constantly reflecting and renewing both their own and their community activities. Thus, the organization will learn and reform itself through its members (Senge 1990). Learning is required by the memory to which data and knowledge are stored. Organizational memory (OM) consists of the storage sites for data and knowledge to which they are stored for further exploitation, such as organizational culture, information systems, people, and operating models (Walsh and Ungson 1991; Robey et al. 2000; Cross and Baird 2000). The concept of competence is not unambiguous, but it often describes the data, skills, and capabilities acquired by different people (Väärälä 1995) and the overall behavior, attitudes, and values (Westerholm 2007).

One of many organizational theories of knowledge has established a taxonomic distinction of organizational knowledge along two dimensions: degree of articulation and degree of aggregation (see, e.g., Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995; Blackler 1995). Depending on how well it can be articulated, knowledge can be classified as tacit or explicit. Tacit knowledge includes hard-to-communicate skills, know-how, or practical knowledge such as being able to ride a bicycle, sell a financial product, or build excellent cars. Explicit knowledge, on the contrary, refers to forms of knowledge that can easily be communicated to others (e.g., facts, concepts, frameworks). Speaking of aggregation, it can be distinguished between individual and collective forms of knowledge consisting of pieces of knowledge that are held by one person vs. knowledge that is embedded in the interactions among a group of people. The combination of two dimensions creates four classes of knowledge: individual-tacit (or embedded knowledge, according to Blackler 1995), individual-explicit (embrained knowledge), collective-explicit (encoded knowledge), or collective-tacit (encultured and embedded knowledge). According to Nonaka (1994), organizational knowledge emerges from a series of ongoing transformations. Among these different types of knowledge require that the ideas and skills of different individuals can be divulged and combined into collective routines and shared knowledge vases. This encoded knowledge be then internalized by individuals, and the individuals share their skills with one another.

Other authors (see, e.g., Cook and Brown 1999; Blackler 1995) have defended alternative views of organizational knowledge that emphasize its situated, socially constructed, contextualized, and dynamic character. These views, depart from the somewhat disembodied timeless view+S, predominant in resource-based perspectives, may be there and appear to be a general consensus around the idea that collective knowledge emerges from interaction and dialogue among the members of a community or an organization (Wenger 1998).

While the term “knowledge” is being frequently used in everyday life, it is almost impossible to find a simple and commonly accepted definition. The importance of distinguishing between these different terms is also pointed out by Sveiby (1997) noting that the widespread but largely unconscious assumption that information is equal to knowledge and that the relationship between a computer and information is equivalent to the relationship between a human brain and human knowledge can lead to misunderstandings. First attempts to explore the nature of knowledge can already be found in the classical Greek period (e.g., Plato’s description of knowledge as true belief with an account (logos)). Since then, several disciplines (e.g., philosophy, sociology, pedagogics, economics, etc.) have approached the complex issue of knowledge from different points of view and have built their own definitions (Nonaka 1994). Against this background, it seems difficult to overcome the terminological ambiguity and find an all-encompassing definition.

Still, some definition is needed in order to – at least – delineate knowledge from used synonymies as data and information. In this entry, the knowledge is seen as facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education: the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject (NE 1998).

Personal (Individual) and Social (Collective) Knowledge

Another important element in the characterization of knowledge is the distinction between an individual’s knowledge and that of the organization (social or collective knowledge). While personal knowledge is only available to single individuals, social knowledge can be accessed by several persons at the same time. In this regard, the levels of personal, group, organizational, and network knowledge can be distinguished. These can further be linked to the tacit and explicit dimensions of knowledge.

Furthermore, individuals possess a large amount of embodied knowledge (e.g., crafts, skills) that is not easily articulated. The same holds true for the ability to identify and solve problems, a process often based on heuristic search. Sharing this knowledge within groups requires sharing a common stock of already existing knowledge and frequent interaction between group members (Kogut and Zander 1992). Based on knowing the members of a group and their respective capabilities, a group can develop knowledge of how to organize further activities. While a common stock of knowledge and a shared language can be obtained in smaller groups, problems can arise when the group size is enlarged and professional boundaries are crossed. The identification with a professional orientation can in this case conflict with the need to integrate within the organizational setting (Kogut and Zander 1992). While dedicated individuals can act as boundary spanners in such a situation, the organization also needs to develop new principles of group coordination and knowledge sharing. Through these principles, an organization can exist as a community within which varieties of functional expertise can be communicated and combined by a common language and organizing principle.

Knowledge has also been studied from the point of view of learning in the context of knowledge acquisition and knowledge creation (Crossan et al. 1999; Cook and Brown 1999, Kim et al. 2003, Kolb 1984; Cheetham and Chivers 2001; Oxenswärdh 2017a, b, c, 2018); Orlikowski 2000; Johannessen et al. 2001) but also from the perspective of business development and enhancement (Porter and Millar 1985). With appropriate training and education, IT systems can make it easier for organizations to acquire, store, or disseminate knowledge (Gurteen 1999).

But before moving on to study the learning processes, two central concepts for sustainable development need to be explored: sustainability as a goal and responsibility as a tool.

Sustainability as a Goal and Responsibility as a Tool

Sustainability is a well-used term, appearing almost daily in the media and increasingly in everyday conversation, often as something to strive for. Moving toward a more sustainable way of living will inevitably require some radical changes in attitudes, values, and behavior (Hahn et al. 2014; Gullikson and Holmgren 2015). And perhaps the best way to strive for sustainability is through organizational change initiative (Appelbaum et al. 2016a). In the past decades, it is undoubtedly so that environmental problems, e.g., pollution, deforestation, and desertification, have become real to us.

The environmental threats are consequences of the exploitation of nature by man. Those threats together with structural changes in manufacturing and production of goods and services, i.e., how we live and consume, show that we still have environmental challenges ahead of us (Hahn et al. 2014; Gullikson and Holmgren 2015).

There have been discussions about the definition of sustainable development (Dobson 2008; Rambaud and Richard 2015; Appelbaum et al. 2016a) and about how to interpret the concept in organizations and companies (Hahn et al. 2014; Appelbaum et al. 2016b). Also, research about how companies can create measures in order to get facts for decisions has been conducted. For instance, the triple bottom line (TBL), created by Elkington in the 1990s, is nowadays a well-known concept that many organizations use (Slaper and Hall 2011). According to Naess (1995), the essential ideas informing an environmental worldview can be broadly shared without prescribing or predetermining ultimate premises or specific interpretations and actions. We are in need of plural interpretations and actions appropriate to local cultures and conditions – echoing the ecological principle of diversity in unity. Paradoxically, an environmental worldview yields many different views of the same thing and the same view of many different things. It is obvious that the result from the Brundtland Commission created challenges for countries and corporations. Corporate managers and other leaders in organizations have to make decisions in their companies and organizations with economic, environmental, and social considerations, which is to some extent paradoxical and difficult (Hahn et al. 2014).

Responsibility is a word and a concept that is increasingly being mentioned in our society. Its importance is pointed out in any organizational context and to develop co-workers into responsible actors. In the scientific sense, the concept of responsibility is first and foremost a philosophical question. Philosophy and responsibility are interconnected on the one hand in the general question of what responsibility possibly is and on the other side of the normative question: what responsibility should be? (Kernell 2002).

Responsibility is so integral part of human relationship that in its various meanings and shadings it serves as a synonym for almost every important political word. (Wildavsky 1986, p. 1)

Responsibility is one of the major political concepts alongside freedom, equality, and solidarity that are easy to use but whose precise meaning often remains vague (Wildavsky 1986). In practice the talk of responsibility often meets an approach that has been called “Sunday concept.” This means that everyone using the word only in rhetorical sense as referring to responsibilities seems generally acceptable, and it causes no harm. Bovens (1998) points out, however, that responsibility is a real concept that is even known by everyone. It is hard to imagine that anyone would deny or ignore their responsibility or deliberately behave irresponsibly. At the same time, the term is used as a spiritual or emergency solution, e.g., within political and government programs. In fact, responsibility as a concept is understood in many ways and used for many different purposes: responsibility changes depending on the time, venue, and speakers (Bovens 1998). As a legal term, the concept of responsibility describes personal or financial penalties. In law and political science, it implies responsibilities that are consequences of an act or not acting. A person who commits a crime must take her responsibility by paying fines or by imprisonment. She is forced to face the consequences of her action. The law has been developed from the basic idea that one is free of choosing action alternatives, because otherwise it would be just as meaningless to ask people to be accountable as it is to punish machines (Mackie 1990; Permer and Permer 1994; Oxenswärdh 2011).

In political science the terms political responsibility and civic responsibility are presented. To take active responsibility is an opportunity to free us from being held responsible/accountable.

Claiming responsibility does not automatically mean that you take your responsibility. But taking responsibility is an active act based on the individual’s free will. To be liable, however, is based on future requirements. But to be held responsible for an act must include that the actor has understood the responsibilities that the task/mission contains. Additionally, must the one who is held accountable had had the opportunity and own the ability to perform the task. Responsibility is a complicated concept, according to Ingarden (1970, 1983); it commits us to study its different dimensions together. Lucas (1995) claims that, before we can form a clear idea of what real responsibility includes, we must also consider the circumstances in which we are not responsible/accountable.

Understanding the Assignment and Responsibilities

There is a certain dynamic between individuals, groups, and organizations. Broadly speaking, responsibility in any organizational context can be described as a relationship between the commissioner and the actor. Relations of responsibility constitute the arena where both the exaction and the assumption of responsibility can take place. Responsibility/accountability is a crucial question in all organizations working toward sustainability. Issues of accountability consequently have a direct relationship to professional development in organizations. An essential part of the organization’s assignment is to assume responsibility. Different actors can understand both, the assignment and the responsibility, in different ways. This can be described in terms of the understanding of assignment and responsibility. The actors’ understanding and interpretation of the assignment is significant for the way in which they assume responsibility for fulfilling what they are commissioned to do. The understanding includes both cognitive and psychological processes and shows in turn how the assumption of responsibility can be shaped (Abrahamsson and Andersen 2005; Oxenswärdh 2011).

When the understanding of responsibility describes what happens to the professionals and in turn leads to heightened competence, the concept of responsibility can also be viewed as a pedagogical concept. The understanding of assignment and responsibility can thus be regarded as a learning process, which is in turn essential for active assumption of responsibility. This learning process is deemed to be an important part of an organization staff’s competence development and professional development. These processes of understanding can be seen as a part of process of knowledge sharing (Oxenswärdh 2011, 2017a, b, c).

Process of understanding one’s responsibility is, however, a more unexplored concept – unlike understanding the mission – and it has to do with operator’s own approach in questioning the nature of the professional obligation to consider themselves obliged on assignment. To illustrate the difference between the terms, it would be quite possible finding cases where assignment understanding of a co-worker is high, i.e., it is a clear picture of the tasks they believe the decision-maker expects to be implemented. Despite this understanding, responsibility taking can be low, i.e., a number of different – e.g., moral/ethical/cultural – causes may hamper actor’s accountability to really carry out the assignment.

One way to express the distinction between mission understanding and the responsibility of understanding is to assume that the former rests on the legal and the latter on legitimate grounds. Concepts of legality and legitimacy disclose relations’ between justice and morality. Legality focuses on social actions in a formal sense and is sanctioned by the state, e.g., by orders and rules of law. Legitimacy is more unspoken value system that has nothing to do with the formal legal system but instead rests on ethical foundations (Oxenswärdh 2011). At the core of mission understanding exists seemingly even understanding of responsibility. Responsibility understanding is formed in the core of actor’s competences. Thus, it is further emphasized that actors’ responsibilities also include understanding of the approach to change and development (Oxenswärdh 2011). But how can these concepts be linked to processes of learning? The following is a brief description of learning processes that could serve as a tool and an arena for sharing knowledge about and for sustainable development.

Joint Learning in Groups: Collective Learning

Organizational learning is more complex and dynamic than a mere magnification of individual learning. The level of complexity increases tremendously in the change from a single individual to a large collection of diverse individuals. There is something paradoxical here because organizations are not merely collections of individuals, yet there are no organizations without such collections. Similarly, organizational learning is not merely individual learning, yet organizations learn only through the experience and actions of individuals (Argyris and Schön 1978).

Collective, collaborative, and collegial learning are terms often used in the context of joint learning processes. Ohlsson (2004) describes learning as a social process through which the individual changes their way of thinking about something. Collaborative learning in turn, can be considered as a form of joint learning and as a special type of phenomenon, where the starting point is that all learning is based in social activities. Collaborative learning is a situation in which at least two people learn something together (Bruffee 1993; Dillenbourg 1999). Collaborative learning activities can include collaborative writing, group projects, joint problem solving, debates, study teams, and other activities. The approach is closely related to cooperative learning, which is the instructional use of small groups so that individuals work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning (Johnson et al. 2008). The difference between collaborative and collective learning is still vague. But according to Granberg and Ohlsson (2016), collaborative learning refers to a group of individuals trying to learn something together but without specifying or clarifying the social context. In collective learning, however, it is decisive to try to achieve a common understanding. Collegial learning, however, often used when schools and teachers are discussed, is related to the concept of collaborative learning. Collegial learning can be seen as a combination term for various forms of professional development where colleagues through structured cooperation acquire knowledge from a broad concept of knowledge, which also contains abilities and skills. The importance of the joint learning synergistic effect is often highlighted in the descriptions of the collective learning (Wilhelmson 1998; Döös et al. 2001; Döös and Wilhelmson 2011). Synergy means that collective processes based on interaction and communication lead to the new common beliefs that had not been possible for individuals to come up with on their own (Granberg 1997; Ohlsson 1996; Wilhelmson 1998; Döös and Wilhelmson 2005; Granberg and Ohlsson 2016).

Wilhelmson (1998) also draws attention to the importance of symmetry between the participants in a dialogue. Symmetry means that all participants’ observations and opinions are given the same weight in the conversation and to recognize each other’s experiences as valid. An asymmetric situation means a situation where power positions and opinion consolidation and an evaluative approach prevent an open and common search for new opportunities.

Symmetrical relationships can thus be seen as favorable to collective learning. Habermas (1996) argues that intersubjective founded collective agreement will not occur from the fact that someone has been manipulated or forced to a particular approach but requires certain symmetry between the participants. It is further important for the collective learning that the experiences are described in the collective so that the community can jointly problematize and reflect on the experience (Granberg 1997; Ohlsson 1996; Wilhelmson 1998; Larsson 2004). Ohlsson (1996) points out the learning dynamic character and the ongoing co-constructing of borders, for example, the permissible and the impermissible, are something which can be perceived as a condition for learning processes. There is a critical, emancipatory dimension of awareness rising of these unconscious conditions for learning. If the individual is unaware of its potential and limitations, the individual cannot respond fully to promote learning.

Schön (1995) integrates values and beliefs in a theory on learning. According to Schön, cognition cannot be separated from values and beliefs, nor can cognition and action. It is of importance to illuminate the relationship between learning and action, that is, between thinking and doing by Schön (1995) sheds light on the nature of the changes that an innovative project must seek to provoke. Changes in so-called theories-in-use that often are tacit remain implicit and go unnoticed. In order to challenge them, they need to be brought to the surface: people will have to be made aware of their tacit rationalities and be tempted to reconsider them. A second relevant aspect of Schön’s insights is that, even though theories-in-use play a role in the actions of various actors in a similar way, they differ in terms of contents depending on professional training and experience, social background, upbringing, and so on. Because of their intrinsic and fundamental divergence, the theories-in-use that people from different professional and cultural backgrounds hold will influence the possibility for them to learn collectively.

Discussion and Conclusions

The understanding of the goals for assignment and especially those toward sustainability has attained a greater role in organizations today. Even more important, if possible, however, is the understanding of the responsibility embedded in the assignment working toward sustainability. This understanding of responsibility may be viewed as a path, as a process to the active assumption of responsibility that is demanded of all the actors in organization working toward more sustainable solutions. Changes in professional competence do not take place without initiative. Reflection on the assignment engenders a better ability to assess reality, which in turn shapes a qualitative aspect of professional know-how.

This shows a need to specialize by refining the language and to develop tools with which to handle the work better. The difficulties for managers and leaders and the need for changes in attitudes and values in general in our way of living generate the necessity of learning. Perhaps the best way to do it is, as Appelbaum et al. (2016a, b) suggest, through organizational change initiative and collective learning processes.

Hence, the purpose of this entry was to discuss collective learning in organizational context as a tool for sharing knowledge and to create deeper understanding of sustainability as a concept and a goal. Any planned, directed change by individuals or collectives is built on knowledge sharing which is then received as learning. Learning can be defined more generally as the process of acquiring knowledge, skills, norms, values, or understanding through experience, imitation, observation, modelling, practice, or study; by being taught; or as a result of collaboration. This learning process activates several other processes: processes of understanding the assignment and its responsibilities and co-creation of values.

Being able to develop one’s professional competence to match the practical needs is probably a viable path to learning where the motivation is greatest among professionals. In this light, the organizational and collective competence development measures alone are not sufficient. Highlighting and being able to discuss, reflect, and learn more about the profession-specific areas in sustainability issues, both individually and collectively, is of great significance for professional development. Based on this reasoning, the learning process provides the professionals with their knowledge and sharpens their tools. Organizations can thus be continuously improved through the professionals’ own power. This process as a model for enhancing aspects of the professionals’ competence can become an important part of their development, where professionals themselves shape and continuously revise their know-how in their work of issues of sustainability by relying on their own and their colleagues’ competence and professionalism.

Responsibility issues are a part of the ethical competence in organization and a vital part in the work toward sustainable organization. Without ethical discussions at a deeper level, professionals deceive themselves and can deceive their counterparts. This leads to ethical stances being taken on unethical grounds. The balance between freedom on the one hand and responsibility on the other is disrupted, and the result is an organization like a stage with a nicely designed set but with a play that does not affect anyone. Organization development toward more sustainable activities can be regarded as a force whereby the diversity, through reflection and dialogue and knowledge sharing, results in new solutions that can be beneficial to everyone. Responsibility of the mission thus becomes a matter of debate among the professionals. Discussions intend to jointly interpret the responsibilities that the task for more sustainable development in the organizations contains.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Engineering Sciences, Division of Quality Technology – Campus GotlandUppsala UniversityVisbySweden

Section editors and affiliations

  • Patrizia Lombardi
    • 1
  1. 1.Politecnico di TorinoTurinItaly