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2 Dimensions of the Milieu

In the discussion about the firm as a knowledge-creating milieu, we emphasize not only the social nature of knowledge but also its operational/pragmatic value: in other words, we consider knowledge creation in action, in its capability to respond to the new demands that emerge from new situations. To this aim it is useful to identify some dimensions along which the notion of milieu can be articulated. These dimensions offer a perspective that is compatible with the connotation of milieu taken in this book (see the introductory chapter) in that they propose a transversal reading of the three mentioned constituents of a milieu: the spatial arrangement, the social volume and the relational density. Moreover, they implicitly make reference to time as an additional relevant constituent as synchronous and asynchronous collaboration have different characteristics and implications on knowledge creation. The dimensions serve as analytical instruments: they don't want to propose any undue fragmentation in looking at the reality. They are only instrumental to the discussion of the role of ICT as a resource for the firm's milieu to foster knowledge creation.

2.1 Physical Space and Virtual Space

The role of a shared physical space in positively or negatively affecting collaboration[1] that involves knowledge intensive activities has been emphasized by several studies that fall under the umbrella of the CSCW discipline. Collocated actors can combine verbal communication with a variety of nonverbal means of communication. This combination enriches the communication contents with contextual information about the communicating people and the environment in which they cooperate: this kind of information supports the interpretation of the verbal content in a very effective way (Heath & Luff, 1992).

Moreover, collocated actors can have a direct perception of the behaviour of the other actors involved in individual or collaborative activities. As in the previous case this perception can enrich the context of interpretation of these activities and make the collaboration and mutual understanding smooth. But more importantly, collocation allows the actors to carefully observe how the other actors carry on their activities: observation is a premise for imitation that, in turn, is a basic means for connecting learning with situated practices. This is even more the case when collocated actors jointly perform activities and in so doing collaborate to develop new solutions for emerging problems. The physical space is also very important when actors share it asynchronously: the spatial arrangements of the resources that are used in the collaboration (not only people, but also documents, folders, devices, instruments, furniture, etc.) is a means to understand the current state of affairs as well as the conventions and rules adopted to accomplish the collaborative tasks. A nice example of the role played by a spatial arrangement is reported in (Schmidt & Wagner, 2004) in the domain of architectural design.

The mutual and collaborative learning that is made easier by the sharing of a physical space is dramatically challenged when actors share a virtual space, i.e., with the mediation of ICT. The abovementioned learning practices cannot be put to work any more unless the technology is able to reproduce them or to offer valid alternatives (Churchill, Snowdon, & Munroe, 2001). The number of failures caused by the introduction of ICT solutions within organizations testifies how difficult is this goal (Warkentin, Moore, Bekkering, & Johnston, 2009). Failures concern both the management of the coordination of activities and of the information therein involved that collaboration requires[2]; but especially they concern the organizational and technological interventions that fall under the umbrella of Knowledge Management where big investments are seldom followed by an adequate ROI. The reasons of the failures in both situations are manifold and their discussion is out of the scope of this chapter. Here we point only to the simplistic view that often characterizes the adopted solutions, especially when knowledge management is concerned: the physical space is surrogated by a common repository where pieces of information are accumulated and organized according to some “universal” criteria that allow for their easier retrieval. But the physical space is not a repository or a store, as we discussed above. The term place (as opposed to space) was proposed to emphasize the relevance of the “contents” that live in a space: people, information, conventions, work practices, social relations and so on (Harrison & Dourish, 1996).[3] These contents allow actors to give meaning to whatever happens in that space. In the same vein, a poor metaphorical use of the term memory (interpreted as a repository) has been aptly questioned in (Bannon & Kuuti, 1996).

On the other hand, a virtual space overcomes some of the limits of a physical space. It can be arbitrarily extended to include new contents, to reach new people, to allow for their interactions. It can make information persistent and accessible from any-where and at any-time. It can be, at least in principle, flexibly modified and adapted to the current situation and personalized to the current actors' needs. This brings to the next dimension.

  • [1] Recall that collaboration is here considered as a basic ingredient of both creativity and innovation
  • [2] The crash of the Information Systems installed in big organizations has been the object of alive discussions among the ICT experts in Italy in the last couple of years
  • [3] As in the introductory chapter, also here the notion of place recalls the concept of milieu, although with a different disciplinary background
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