Knowledge artifacts: the implications of incommensurable dimensions for their design

Published date05 February 2018
Date05 February 2018
AuthorCarla Simone
Subject MatterLibrary & information science,Librarianship/library management,Library technology,Information behaviour & retrieval,Metadata,Information & knowledge management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Knowledge artifacts: the
implications of incommensurable
dimensions for their design
Carla Simone
University of Siegen, Siegen, Germany
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to overcome the confusion generated by a loose definition of the term
knowledge artifact (KA) and its impacts on the design of technologies supporting their use.
Design/methodology/approach The paper looks at the conceptual foundations underpinning the
concept of KA that are related to the way in which knowledge is conceived, and revisits the outcomes of
empirical investigations to shed light on different aspects of the use of KA in various settings.
Findings The paper identifies a class of KAs and its role in relation to other classes of KAs, as it emerges
from the empirical investigations.
Research limitations/implications The focus is on documental artifacts that are, however, widely used
in different domains and organizations. New empirical work is needed to consider other kinds of artifacts and
their role in knowledge-intense activities.
Practical implications The paper aims to drive the attention of the designer on phenomena that hinder
the acceptance, appropriation and effectiveness of the technologies they design to support a crucial aspect
of collaboration.
Originality/value The paper is original in the following ways: first, documenting the interplay between a
kind of KA that is poorly considered in the literature with other classes of KAs; second, highlighting a set of
principles that should guide the construction of computational KAs of a different nature.
Keywords Knowledge management, Community of practice, Knowledge artefact, Bounded openness,
Technology design, Underspecification
Paper type Research paper
As the automation of routine tasks advances, organizations members are more involved in
high-level activities oriented to the control, monitoring and planning of the automated tasks,
and more generally in problem-solving activities to deal with increasingly complex and rich
work contexts in which these tasks are embedded. This trend was early captured by
P. Drucker, who in the late sixties proposed the term knowledge workerthat he defined as
the man or woman who applies to productive work ideas, concepts and information rather
than manual skill and brawn.At the same time, the increasing awareness that knowledge,
generically interpreted as a mix of rules, experiences and capabilities, is a fundamental asset
leads the organizations to take initiatives to preserve, make available and generate the (new)
knowledge that they deem necessary to achieve their goals in a more effective way. These
initiatives encompass both organization strategies and the introduction of ICT applications
(that altogether are referred to as knowledge management) to create opportunities and
means that aim at making the creation of knowledge and its mobilization easier and more
productive. In this attempt, different kinds of artifacts have been conceived to support
the organization strategy and at various degrees incorporated in ICT applications to
consolidate it: these applications range from resources-intensive knowledge bases that aim
to capture the domain knowledge and support the related problem-solving mechanisms to a
more flexible collection and organization of a variety of documents that aim to make
recognized best practices and individual experiences accessible and (re)usable (Prusak,
2001; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995). The term knowledge artifact (KA) has been used to refer
to these various artifacts to distinguish them from other artifacts more oriented to manage
Data Technologies and
Vol. 52 No. 1, 2018
pp. 130-147
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/DTA-03-2017-0013
Received 1 March 2017
Revised 26 May 2017
17 July 2017
Accepted 19 July 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
information and to coordinate organization procedures according to local practices
(Schmidt, 2008). This distinction is surely reasonable; however, the undifferentiated usage of
the term KA generates a confusion since the underlying knowledge conceptions refer to
theoretical, methodological and operational presuppositions and implications that make
them quite diverse artifacts, as thoroughly reported in Cabitza and Locoro (2014). We are not
advocating a terminological debate or any sort of standardization. What we claim is the
necessity to make the meaning of the term KA clear in terms of its presuppositions and
implications, and more importantly, to clarify how this meaning informs the construction of
the technological counterpart of the KA under concern. The paper aims to offer a
contribution in this direction by leveraging the two dimensions proposed in Cabitza and
Locoro (2014) to structure the space of meanings of the term KA and the related
technologies; as we shall see, these dimensions suit well two different conceptions of
knowledge: objectivity,i.e. the capability of a KA to represent true facts in an objective,
crisp and context-independent manner, as well as the extent it can be transferred among its
users as an object carrying some knowledge with itself,and situativity,i.e. the extent the
KA is capable to adapt itself to the context and situation at hand, as well as of the extent it
can be appropriated by its users and exploited in a given situation.The paper motivates
why these dimensions are incommensurable and how this fact has to be constantly taken
into account when using the term KA in the design of a supportive technology. On the basis
of a series of field studies reported in the literature, the paper sheds light on a kind of
artifacts that is marginally considered in the literature on knowledge management and that,
in our experience, plays a relevant role to make knowledge management initiatives more
successful than they are now (Storey and Barnett, 2000; Wilson, 2002). The paper discusses
how the two above dimensions, although incommensurable can be combined still keeping
them separated in a compound artifact to fulfill different goals and with different design
implications. Future research directions conclude the paper.
Knowledge, KAs and their dimensions
When we use linguistic expressions that combine the prefix knowledgewith another term,
in our discourse artifact,a basic question to ask is: can the two terms be meaningfully
combined? In our case, the answer depends on what we consider as knowledge.
If knowledge is conceived as an object composed of a context-independent collection of
items (the abovetrue facts) that can be incrementallyacquired, used, transferred and shared
in differentcontexts, then the combination is unproblematic. On the other hand,if an [artifact
as an artificial] object is not representative of something, then it is not clear how far it can
signify something, i.e., be informative(Buckland, 1991). Then, a KA is the representation of
(a composition of) pieces of knowledge abouta certain domain that is constructed through a
particularmean: a language, for example,to construct a diagram,a text, a picture, a table, a set
of rules or a physical thing; and to be flexibly usable in different contexts, thisrepresentation
has to reach a substantial level of completeness and be fully coherent. This is the typicalview
of the knowledge-based systems that areat the core of the artificial intelligencediscipline with
its methods and techniques (Luger, 2005): knowledge elicitation and representation and the
construction of inference rules leveraging it.
If knowledge is instead conceived as an ongoing process having an irreducible
social nature, as a social construction (McDermott, 1999; Berger and Luckmann, 1991), then
the combinationis problematic since thetwo terms (knowledge and artifact)refer to entities of
a different nature. Indeed, knowledge, that is the process of knowing, belongs to the
individuals and cannot be separated from them; it is not and cannot be transformed into an
object out there.What is often, after (Nonakaand Takeuchi, 1995), calledexplicit knowledge is
nothing else than a representation of somethingthat can be shared only as mutually
accessible information (Buckland, 1991; Blackler, 1995; Kakihara and Soerensen, 2002).

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