Sociofact Theory: The Social Dimension of Knowledge

Sociofact Theory: The Social Dimension of Knowledge

Uwe V. Riss (SAP (Switzerland) AG, St. Gallen, Switzerland) and Johannes Magenheim (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Mathematics, University of Paderborn, Paderborn, Germany)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/ijkbo.2014010101
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The current study concentrates on units of organizational knowledge that the authors call sociofacts following a terminology introduced by J. Huxley. The analysis looks at the constituents of sociofacts as well as their lifecycle, starting from the concept of knowledge asset. It is based on insights from various established theories such as Activity Theory, Nonaka's SECI model, Boundary Objects and Transactive Memory Theory. The authors investigate how the form of sociofacts changes during the Knowledge Maturing process and point at their business relevance. The goal of the paper is to improve the understanding of the structure of organizational knowledge and the process of knowledge maturing.
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Organizational Knowledge is a crucial factor for the performance of enterprises and therefore has been a central topic in research for many years (Tsoukas & Vladimirou, 2001; Zack, McKeen, & Singh, 2009). We possess descriptions of organizational knowledge such as the following: “In a weak sense, knowledge is organizational simply by its being generated, developed and transmitted by individuals within organizations. That is obvious but unrevealing. In a strong sense, however, knowledge becomes organizational when, as well as drawing distinctions in the course of their work by taking into account the contextuality of their actions, individuals draw and act upon a corpus of generalizations in the form of generic rules produced by the organization.” (Tsoukas & Vladimirou, 2001, p. 979). The formulation already indicates that it is more than personal knowledge in an organizational setting but it does not provide a clear idea what actually makes up organizational knowledge.

There are various open issues, as, for example, the questions what are the units of organizational knowledge, how are organizational and personal knowledge related, and what are the tacit and explicit components of organizational knowledge. The claim that organizational knowledge is more than the mere sum of individual knowledge often remains implicit. However, it is far from trivial to describe in which sense organizational knowledge goes beyond the gathering of individual knowledge. Some scholars such as Vygotsky argue that knowledge is fundamentally social, mediated by tools that are tangible (e.g., documents and machines) or intangible (e.g., skills and models), and bound to action (Vygotsky, 1978).

Our starting point of the investigation of these questions is the identification of units of social knowledge, taking up the idea of knowledge assets (Teece, 1998; Nonaka, Toyama, & Konno, 2000; Mentzas, 2004). However, the term knowledge asset is generally used in a broader sense encompassing a variety of different types of knowledge-related entities so that we have to extract those aspects that are fundamentally social.

A central feature of organizational knowledge is its dynamic nature that comes to the fore in social interaction. This is one of the reasons why units of organizational knowledge are rather hard to grasp. This dynamic also drives Knowledge Maturing, the process of organizational knowledge evolution (Schmidt, 2005; Maier & Schmidt, 2007). Although Knowledge Maturing begins with individual learning in an organizational context, it goes on in systematic social elaboration of knowledge that becomes manifest in artifacts as essential elements of communication (Schmidt, 2005). From Symbolic Interactionism (Blumer, 1969) we can learn that such communication is characterized by the use of abstractions and symbols in language. Going beyond Symbolic Interactionism we have taken up Huxley’s differentiation of sociofacts, mentifacts (here called cognifacts), and artifacts as constituents of social knowledge (Huxley, 1955). Social knowledge goes beyond organizational knowledge when we find it outside organizations. Huxley’s distinction already presumes that we cannot reduce social knowledge to the sum of individual knowledge suggesting units of social knowledge called sociofacts. Using the tripartite schema we can start to analyze the relationship between individual and social knowledge in its mental as well as material manifestation.

We claim that sociofacts are the central knowledge assets of an organization, the development of which drives Knowledge Maturing. Personal knowledge and artifacts are deeply involved in this process: Social knowledge (sociofacts) is always rooted in personal knowledge (cognifact) and persists by means of (persistent or transient) mediating artifacts. We will later explain this in more detail. In order to better explain the sociofact concept let us give some examples that indicate the economical relevance of sociofacts:

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