Social media and the change from information to formation

February 25, 2012

The change towards the creative economy has major implications for the nature of what we have called assets. In the industrial age, the assets were physical resources, plant and equipment. Most of the resources were traded in markets and could thus be valued. Taking care of the value of an organization could be understood as managing physical assets and resources.

Now knowledge and people are seen as the major assets. But since neither of them are efficiently traded in markets, their value cannot easily be measured. Neither can knowledge be understood as an asset that can be managed like a physical asset. This is what many people within the Knowledge Management community learned the hard way. Knowledge is not a thing! Thus it cannot be stored, measured or shared.

From a more modern point of view, knowledge creation is understood as an active process of communication between people. Knowledge cannot be stored but is constantly constructed and re-constructed in interaction. Knowledge cannot be shared but arises in action. Knowledge is the process of relating.

The assumption was that learning and knowledge management involve processes that transmit content. This notion derived from the information theory/model of communication developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver. Their theory created a sender-receiver model of communication according to which person A sends a signal (message/content) to person B, who receives it and then perhaps sends a responding feedback signal back to A. From this perspective, learning and knowledge creation are processes that resemble transmission or the sharing of content. This is why schools and other educational institutions still look the way they do.

But Shannon & Weaver’s concept was meant to be purely technical. They were interested in whether a byte sent was a byte received in a technical sense. They said nothing about the meaning of the bytes. For a human being a message can evoke a very wide range of associations and interpretations depending on the experience and emotional state of the individual. One person’s interpretation is never quite the same as another person’s interpretation. There is no linear causality in the world of human beings.

If learning was understood from a more modern relational perspective it would resemble a process of many voices interacting at the same time. In this way, each comes to know the context in which the other makes meaning. The progression of B’s understanding of A’s story also constitutes a change to A’s story – creating new meaning, learning, for both.

Social media are most meaningful when giving voice to multiple perspectives, making it possible to seek out, recognize and respect differences as different but equal.

All stories continue, meaning that learning takes place, as participants create a more shared understanding of what the other means. Knowledge which used to be regarded as existing independently in people and things – becomes viewed as co-constructed in communication.

Communication does not represent things in the world. It brings people and things into being in constantly surprising ways.

Supportive, energizing and enabling patterns of interaction are the most important “assets” of a modern organization. That is what should be nurtured and taken care of. Communication either accelerates and opens up possibilities or slows down and limits what would be possible. Communication either creates value or creates waste. Communication either creates energy and inspiration or demeans and demotivates.

Information theory is not only unhelpful but harmful, when trying to understand communication between human beings. Communication is not about sharing information but a process of formation.


Thank you Karl-Erik Sveiby and Doug Griffin. What a great meeting!

6 Responses to “Social media and the change from information to formation”

  1. Sangeeta Says:

    Particularly liked the line: “The progression of B’s understanding of A’s story constitutes also a change for A’s story – creating new meaning, learning, for both.”

    Thank you :)

  2. Thank you Esko – convincing text. Communication is the most important asset. Hence whenever we develop new executive programs we have to take modes and ways of communication into focus. We have to create new ways of communication which create value.

  3. Kirsti Lonka Says:

    Dear Esko,
    Thank you for your thoughts! This fits well with
    socio-constructivist ideas of learning. Interesting
    ideas follow: what is assessment, then? Assessing individual factual knowledge does not make much sense. We are gradually adopting a more process-oriented approach to co-create diagnostic information together with the person in question. How did training change our ways of communication? What new was created? What was the quality of the learning process?

  4. Dear Esko,

    Thank you for your thoughts, as clear and valuable as ever. The discussion with Sveiby and Griffin must have been extremely enriching indeed!
    I thought you might like this post which echoes a lot of the content of your post:



  5. […] a boost in Information theory to better solve this problem. I therefore also like very mich what Esko Kilpi says in his blog: “Information theory is not only unhelpful but harmful, when trying to understand […]

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