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5.2.1.2 Those Who Process External Information to Create Knowledge

A key precursor to successfully absorbing knowledge involves employees' existing related knowledge. “Prior related knowledge confers an ability to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and apply it” (Cohen and Levinthal 1990,

p. 128) and “relevant knowledge and skill is what gives rise to creativity, permitting the sorts of associations and linkages that may have never been considered before” (p. 130). It permits individuals to understand underlying assumptions and interconnections. Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar and compelling argument in his book Blink (2007). He argues that people (e.g., physicians, musicians) can quickly gauge what is really important and make swift decisions based on minimal data relying on their intuitive judgment, something he calls thin-slicing. However, this intuitive judgment is developed by experience, training, and knowledge. The broader employees' educational background and specific competencies are, the wider the pool of knowledge available to the group/organization and the more individuals can contribute to networks of those with similar competencies. Relational network knowledge also is important. “Critical knowledge does not simply include substantive, technical knowledge; it also includes awareness of where useful complementary expertise resides” (Cohen and Levinthal 1990, p. 133).

Simply giving individual employees access to new information and interpersonal connections isn't sufficient to influence the adoption of an innovation. David Driskell, Boulder's Executive Director of Community Planning and Sustainability, described how Susan Anderson and Michael Armstrong from Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability visited Boulder to share information about the Portland Plan. Their presentation resonated with administrators, city staff, and others because of its focus on equity and creating connected and socially thriving communities. Having the speakers on location, meeting with groups of people, and sharing what each city was doing over a 2-day period “created some really deep learning... That was hugely beneficial,” David explained. He said that when only one person attends a learning opportunity,

It is hard to disseminate that learning into the organization.. . even though we try to whenever anyone goes to any state or national training. We have them do a brown bag lunch when they come back and share their learning. But still only a handful of people are able to go to that and it just doesn't feel like we get the traction.

Key Point: It takes effort to ensure new ideas spread throughout an organization.

5.2.1.3 Absorptive Capacity Is Critical

Absorptive capacity refers to an organization's ability to identify and value new information, combine it with existing knowledge, and use the combined knowledge to drive innovation (Cohen and Levinthal 1990). An organization that is actively seeking external information will be more capable of valuing and acquiring useful knowledge. Absorptive capacity occurs as part of a four-step process—acquisition, assimilation, transformation, and exploitation (Zahra and George 2002). Acquisition involves an organization's capability to identify and acquire externally generated knowledge; assimilation refers to an organization's routines and processes that allow it to analyze, interpret, and understand the new information; transformation involves an organization's capability to develop and refine the routines for combining new knowledge with existing knowledge; and exploitation refers to the development or existence of routines that leverage the existing knowledge and integrate it so it can be useful to the organization. Focusing here on the acquisition phase, the absorptive capacity literature describes how more exposure to the external environment provides opportunities for better access to information which may stimulate innovation. An organization's ability to monitor and scan the external environment for potentially useful information and then to allow organizational members to synthesize this information into concepts and/or ideas is important. Proactive organizations create pathways for importing new information. Without such pathways, knowledge will not be absorbed. Discussing knowledge and knowing from an organizational communication perspective, Kuhn (2014) shifts us from focusing on knowledge as the cognitive domain of an individual to the practice by which knowledge contributes to organizational effectiveness through networks of communication relationships.

 
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