Rethinking social capital theory: a knowledge management perspective

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Rethinking social capital theory: a knowledge management perspective
´ Mark W. McElroy, Rene J. Jorna and Jo van Engelen

Abstract Purpose – This paper seeks to argue the relevance of knowledge management (KM) to the development of social capital, and to enhancing the capacity to take effective action in human social systems. Design/methodology/approach – The study applies a pluralisticdefinition of knowledge (including subjective beliefs in minds and objective claims expressed in language) to show that most forms of social capital reduce to knowledge. Findings – First, social capital mostly comprises knowledge (trust, beliefs, rules, and norms). Second, the capacity to individually and collectively learn (in networks) is therefore arguably the most important form of social capital, evenif rarely acknowledged as such in the literature. Third, because of the importance of learning and innovation to the production of social capital in society and organizations, KM has an important role to play in related development efforts. Practical implications – The paper introduces social capital constructivism. Practicing it to strengthen social capital can enhance the capacity to takeeffective action in human social systems. This points to a new value proposition and functional orientation for KM: to enhance the human capacity to take effective action by fostering the growth and development of social capital. Originality/value – The thesis reveals social capital as consisting mostly of knowledge, and shows how KM can enhance a human capacity to take effective action in socialsystems by fostering the production of social capital itself. Keywords Social progress, Innovation, Language Paper type Conceptual paper

Mark W. McElroy is based at the Center for Sustainable Innovation, ´ Vermont, USA. Rene J. Jorna and Jo van Engelen are both based at the University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands.

The social capital literature is now quite extensive withhundreds of papers and dissertations having been published by as many students and scholars from around the world (Ostrom and Ahn, 2003, p. xi). Most of this activity has occurred within the past twenty years, thanks in large part to the influence of Coleman (1990) and Putnam (1993, 2000). At this point, it is possible, we think, to put forward a kind of synthesis of social capital theory that canbe expressed in terms of what many, if not most, scholars in the field think social capital is and what its major competing schools of thought appear to be. Once we have developed such a synthesis, the substance of social capital can then be subjected to further analysis in order to understand what it fundamentally is, what its role in our personal and social lives appears to be, and where itcomes from or how it comes to exist. Now all of this, we will argue, not only has important implications for social development and action theory, but also for the field of knowledge management (KM). For as we will show, most of what passes for social capital is only so many forms of knowledge. It is precisely the care and feeding of our individual and collective capacity to create such knowledge thatat least some current conceptions of knowledge management see as their primary purpose (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995; McElroy, 1999; McElroy, 2003; Firestone and McElroy, 2003). For them, knowledge management might as well be called social capital management, the

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VOL. 10 NO. 5 2006, pp. 124-136, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN1367-3270

DOI 10.1108/13673270610691233

purpose of which is to have impact on the quality of action taken in human social systems by quality-controlling the logic and execution of learning and problem-solving. In this paper, we emphasize collective action, but this focus does not rule out the importance of individual actors. Indeed, every collective consists of (groups of) individuals; and...
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