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2.2 Locality and Globality

The second dimension captures the old and well known tension between local and global that can be observed in several disciplines (from economy to computer science, to mention the ones that are here more pertinent). This dimension has surely an impact when firms are concerned. Indeed, firms increasingly take the structure of a network whose nodes correspond to the distributed (in terms of location and/or mission) units constituting them. Even small firms face the global dimension when they expand their production or commercial relations worldwide. Indeed, the opportunity to make available to their members possibly differentiated virtual working spaces forces the firms to manage the tension between locality and globality: here we focus on the impact of this tension on the theme of knowledge creation.

Locality does not refer to the spatial dimension rather on the strength of the ties

that link the people acting in the organization, although the spatial proximity can be an enabling condition for this strength. This characterization of locality is well captured by the notion of Community of Practice (CoP) that has been introduced by

E. Wenger in the late 1990s (Wenger, 1998a) as a conceptualization of the successful practices of knowledge creation and mobilization which he had observed in several organizational settings. The ties that link the members of a CoP are described as follows.[1] First, the members have to share a common mission that incorporates the institutional activities but is not limited to them: the relevant part concerns the (tacit) negotiation of the conditions for their accomplishment (e.g., the mutual responsibility, rhythms, interpretations). Second, the members have to be mutually engaged in keeping the community alive according to the common mission and to support the (peripheral) participation of (new) members by recognizing the value of their heterogeneity and diversity. Finally, the members have to share a common repertoire, that is the routines, words, tools, modus operandi, stories, symbols, actions and concepts that the community has adopted or defined and that are a constitutive part of its practices. A CoP identifies a situation where learning and knowledge creation are likely to most probably happen. They are the result of an emergent behaviour that the hosting organization can at most recognize, sustain and valorise: a CoP cannot be “built”. CoPs are fragile constructions that at every stage of their evolution [2] can break down because of unanticipated reasons that can be endogenous or exogenous. At the same time they can become so strong that their members can conceive their evolution toward new form of cooperation—new CoPs or less engaging constructions that suit better their needsstill preserving the old relationships and adapt them to the new situation.

As suggested in (Lesser & Storck, 2001) to build understanding of how a CoP can create organizational value, it is useful to think of it as an engine for the development of social capital (Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998). The notion of social capital defines a reference model to “compute” a particular value of a firm, [3] that is its capability to learn and create knowledge through three facets[4]: the structural facet refers to network ties, network configurations and organization; the cognitive facet refers to sharing of codes, narratives and language; and the relational facet refers to the level of trust that is shared among the collaborating actors (Huysman & Wulf, 2006). Both notions—CoP and social capital—point in the same direction: a locality—a kind of milieu—that is to some extent circumscribed by its capability to play as a rich context for the people living in it.

The global dimension aims at breaking this boundary and points to the less known, to the differences, to the definition of possibly more formal but surely less rich relationships. It is difficult to characterize the global dimension in a systematic way since it encompasses a variety of situations depending on the goal of who looks for it. We can consider two paradigmatic situations: looking for information and looking for new relationships. What is collected is in general semantically poor, magmatic, contradictory, difficult to use for the purposes of who is making the search: at the global level approximation and quantitative (statistical) methods guide the search and the identity of the searcher is seldom taken into account, if not again using these quantitative methods.

From our perspective, the above situations are characterized by a common aspect: the possibility to broaden the local view (with new ideas, new people, new stimuli, etc.) has to deal with the difficulty to fully appropriate the novelty since (at least) two rich shared contexts are missing: the one of the searcher and the one of the found item. In other words, the global dimension offers a (significant) support for accessibility (to information and people) but a little support for the selection and the interpretation of the results. The typical de-contextualization implied by the global dimension asks for an overhead of effort to put the obtained results to work in the context of who made the search (Prusak, 2001). As for the locality, also the global dimension is not related to any spatial features, in this case the distance: this can make things worse but distance is not a determinant. The true issue is the de-contextualization that takes place every time something is made accessible but is separated from the context that generated it or where its creator operates.

This is the very nature of the tension between the local and the global when learning and knowledge creation are at stake. People try to overcome the problems it generates by applying different complementary strategies. On the one hand, they leverage the little context that any information carries with it, that is what is often called metadata: the author, the time and the location of its production, and so on. From these pieces of information they try to enlarge the context supporting the interpretation and the appropriation of what they have found. On the other hand, an alternative strategy is to look not for the information itself but for who could posses it or point to the person who could know who could help solving the problem at hand (Ackerman, Pipek, & Wulf, 2003). Both strategies share the same idea: to bring again the global dimension to a local one, by reconstructing a context of interpretation. This practice has been captured by the so called SECI model same three dimensions with the terms: opportunity, ability and motivation, that perhaps better explain their meaning.

(Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995)[5] that emphasizes the continuous integration of external stimuli and contents with their individual elaboration, and can be extended from the individual and the group to the group and the organization up to the organization and the network of organizations.

Looking at the global dimension not as an undifferentiated unicum but as a network of localities could give a better picture of the reality and suggest better strategies for supporting learning and knowledge creation within distributed organizations, this way overcoming the separation between local and global (Ellingsen, Monteiro, & Røed, 2013; Lanzara, 1999). This could be translated into the motto: preserve localities, focus on their interactions, leverage the often invisible work and means (Star & Strauss, 1999) on which these interactions are based to improve learning and knowledge creation within distributed organizations. This would be a profitable way to combine the two theoretical contributions mentioned above and to complete the framework with an additional concept that focuses on the interactions among localities. To this purpose the notion of boundary object (Star & Bowker, 1999) has been introduced: a boundary object enjoys the property to be sufficiently robust (in its formal structure) to keep its identity in living in a controversial place (at the cross of the boundary) and sufficiently plastic to be useful for all the localities that share this boundary. This notion has been proposed especially to discuss the relationship between classifications and standards and to stress the need of “multiplicity” to avoid the creation of “monsters”. However, the concept has become very popular and has been applied to more general kinds of interaction among communities, often distorting its original connotation, as the author complaints (Star, 2010). For this reason in the following we will use an alternative notion to avoid increasing this noise.

  • [1] This notion has been reformulated in many ways, often distorting its original definition and creating alternative names: see (Andriessen, 2005) for a summary of this plethora of proposals. Here we adhere the original definition
  • [2] Wenger (1998b) mentions the following stages: potential, building, engaged, active and adaptive
  • [3] It can also be used to “compute” the nature of the networks of companies that are the object of the analysis reported in the contributions of the second part of this book: from loose structures, up to districts, until interorganizational CoPs
  • [4] We use the term facet instead of the original term dimension to avoid confusion with the local and global dimensions. An alternative connotation of the social capital (Adler & Kwon, 2002) calls the
  • [5] SECI stands for “Socialization, Externalization, Combination and Internalization”. This model has been criticized [see e.g., (Wilson, 2002)] for been too simplistic and unduly prescriptive with respect to the complexity of the learning by individuals. We share in part these criticisms but we believe that they are often based on a biased reading of the sometimes imprecise definition of the proposal
 
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