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4 The Role of the Technology

The previous sections should have clarified that the technology is a very influential component of the milieu as the ICT can have positive and negative effects on the collaboration (as a vehicle for knowledge creation) that happens in the milieu the ICT contributes to “augment”. The point we want to make is that too often the technology is conceived and constructed with little consideration for its impacts on the milieu in which it is deployed: this is probably one of the basic reasons why we can observe small successes, if not failures, especially when knowledge is involved in the activities it supports. In speaking of technology it is useful to consider both the solutions that are available on the shelf or constructed for specific organizations and the solutions that are proposed by the research community: in the latter case the solutions reach the status of prototypes sometimes validated in real or realistic settings. Incidentally, in this way the issue of innovation can be looked at in this specific disciplinary (and economic) sector.

An evident issue concerns the tension between the real and the virtual that has been illustrated in the previous section. The evolution of the computational infrastructure (both in terms of transmission bandwidth and of computing power) suggested the idea to construct a virtual context that reproduces the real context: either directly (after the seminal work presented in (Benford & Fahlén, 1993) or metaphorically (Second Life[1] offers a typical approach). The resulting technologies did not meet their objectives: the technology was creating an expectation that the simulation did not fulfil. In the first case, the inhabitants of the artificial shared space were too limited in reproducing the richness of the verbal and non verbal languages the actors use in the real space; in the second case, the metaphoric virtual space was not easily integrated, at least cognitively, with the real one: this resulted in a useless duplication and in an overhead of cognitive effort that did not make sense in real organizational settings. In the course of the years, these technologies have changed their target: from supporting work to support mainly entertainment and education (Benford, Magerkurth, & Ljungstrand, 2005; Boulos, Hetherington, & Wheeler, 2007).

Then, the more practicable solution for ICT to support collaborations within distributed organizations has not to be sought in reproducing the real contexts but in offering alternative contexts, different from those ones but hopefully equally effective.

Within a firm two kinds of activities are nowadays supported by consolidated

technologies: the activities that collect and make permanent the data that support the mission of the firm, and the meetings: the former are the realm of the database transactions; the latter are now made possible by connection-wise powerful videoconferencing tools. In database transactions people are marginally involved; videoconferencing tools make the technology disappearing (if the connections work!) and offer a mere memorization of what was going on. In-between there are the technologies where the interactions with the users and among the users is at core of the problem, that is where the context comes to the scene to support the sense making and the sense giving and therefore are still looking for adequate solutions: information systems and collaboration technologies. The former are focused on recurrent situations, on the availability of information and on its quality (Carlo Batini, Cabitza, Cappiello, & Francalanci, 2006); the latter are focused on emerging behaviours, on the negotiation of what is at stake and what has to be done in response to—and on how to deal with—situations that can be only partially anticipated. The question is then: which is the influence of these technologies on a knowledge creating milieu?

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