Social Capital, the Creation of Knowledge and Knowing Capacity, and Innovation Part of 2014 article "One Hundred Years of ‘Social Capital’"

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In order to determine the added value of Social Capital theory for innovation, we will compare it with four prevailing theories in educational domain. The selected theories have in common that they go beyond the structural–functionalistic views on innovation. All of them acknowledge that professionals are essential subjects in the innovation process. The four theories are the organizational development theory, the concerns-based adoption model, the cultural–historical activity theory and the social network theory. Table 2 presents an overview of their main characteristics.

Organizational Development Theory

The well-known ‘Diffusion of innovation’ model (Rogers, 1995) belongs to the Organizational Development (OD) theory, going back to Kurt Lewin (Marrow, 1977[1])  and Argyris (1957)[2]. It is a planned, organization-wide effort to increase an organization’s viability. Rogers’s well worked out model explains the variables that influence how and why users adopt new information, and is oriented towards the individual behavior of members in change processes. The model is often cited in relation to innovation in higher education (Adams, 2002)[3].

It provides, according to Rogers (1995)[4], a vocabulary to understand adoption and resistance to change. Innovation is ‘an idea, practice, or object that is perceived to  be new by an individual or other unit of adoption’ (ibidem, p.11), and diffusion is  ‘the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels of a social system over a period of time’ (ibidem, p.35). ‘Communication is a process in which participants create and share information with one another to reach a mutual understanding’ and the social system consists of ‘the interrelated units engaged in joint problem solving to accomplish a common goal’ (ibidem, p.23).

Rogers’s research focused on five elements: (1) the characteristics of an innovation that may influence its adoption; (2) the decision-making process that occurs when individuals consider adopting a new idea, product or practice; (3) the characteristics of individuals that make them likely to adopt an innovation; (4) the consequences of adopting an innovation; and (5) the communication channels in the adoption process.

Table 2. Prevailing theories of innovation

NameOrganizational development
Diffusion of innovation model
Concerns-based adoption model
Cultural–historical activity theory
Social network theorySocial Capital theory
ScholarsArgyris, Senge, Weick, Rogers,Andersen, Hall & Hord, van den Berg & VandenbergheVygotsky, EngeströmBurt, Granovetter, Lin, WengerBourdieu, Coleman Nahapiet & Ghoshal
PurposeOrganizational innovationGuidance of the implementation of educational innovationQualitative change of an organizational systemAdvantage for individual or networkValue for individual or community
FocusIndividual in a learning organizationInclusive, subjective; cultural–individual perspectiveOrganization as a historical–cultural socio-system of individual actionsConnecting and sharingRelations and collaboration
Vision / CoreOrganization as learning organism and sum of individual actions; sense making is a powerful elementUnderstanding attitudes and  ideas  of professionals is key factor for guidance of changeAn activity system is a historical–cultural combination of individual and systemic componentsIndividuals are connected in network relations offering each other information and supportQuality of social relations are essential for collaboration and creation of value
Idea of innovationInnovation is the key for organizational advantage and is a staged processStaged process of learning, based on subjective experience and personal ideas; the actor concerned is the most important factor in the change processContradictions lead to expansive learning (= innovative)Innovation can arise in networksSocial relations create the conditions and quality of innovation
InstrumentStages of innovation; standard deviation curve of adopters; characteristics of an innovationInstrument to measure change processes; 12 basic assumptions;

The stages of concerns questionnaire

Model of an activity system: object– subject–tools community of practice-division of labor rulesNetwork analysis instrument; model of bonding, bridging, linking; strong and weak tiesMultifaceted threedimensional model of creation of collective knowledge
Change agencyGuiding the individual towards organizational goalsStyles and interventions of agent = creative, contextual, interactive, understandingRole = stimulating the community of acting subjectsMakes it possible to connectFacilitating the social network to cooperate and to create new value
Empirical evidenceSignificant evidence in organizationsProved in education domainSome evidence in education domain Some evidence in education domainLittle evidence in education domain

Rogers claims that the success of innovation diffusion depends on three factors. First, the opinion of the innovation adopter regarding the following five key characteristics of an innovation: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trial ability and observation ability. Second, the ‘individual innovativeness’ of potential  adopters, expressed in the standard deviation curve of adopters: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Third, interpersonal networks, because these are channels of information. On the basis of these three main factors, the innovation decision process includes six stages: knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, confirmation and discontinuance.

Rogers’s model is a theory for explaining organizational innovations. It focuses on the ‘adopting’ role of the individuals. Compared to Social Capital theory, Rogers’s model contains elements of Social Capital, such as networks, shared perceptions, channels of information, collaboration and ownership. However, the model does not elaborate the relation between these elements, as Social Capital theory does. Moreover, Rogers considers innovation a top-down process, using a systemoriented view that places the members in the ‘object-position’ obliged to adopt the innovation designed by ‘the’ organization.

Concerns-Based Adoption Model

The concerns-based adoption model (CBAM) of Anderson (1997), described in Van den Berg & Ros (1999)[5], is a conceptual framework that describes, explains and predicts teachers concerns and behaviours throughout an innovation process. It was developed as a tool for empowerment of professionals in innovation processes, and is known for its inclusive perspective and its attention to the individual in the organization.

In this model, guiding a process of change presupposes the understanding of attitudes and ideas of the professionals who are involved in the change process. The CBAM assumes that a change agent is needed who understands the opinions of the ‘clients’ about the change, their learning needs in specific stadia of change, and  takes this as a focus for guidance. Because all learners and contexts differ, this requires a creative and interactive process. The model explains the process of educational change and how change agents can influence this. For this purpose the model offers instruments to measure change processes both within each component and  in combination with each other, such as the Stages of Concern Questionnaire  (SoCQ).

This model is quite elaborate and proposes three core concepts. With regard to the first concept – ‘Stages of Concern’ – the CBAM sees change as a process of learning, consisting of seven stages structured around the involved professional (Do I want this?), the task (Am I able to do this?) and others (What does this mean for colleagues and students?). The second concept – ‘Levels of Use’ – shows whether the learner is able and motivated to implement the change. ‘Innovation Configurations’, which is the third concept, shows different ways of implementing an innovation, ranging from ideal to less desirable. Van den Berg, Vandenberghe, & Sleegers (1999)[5] further refined the CBAM and reported empirical evidence for a link between the stages of concern and the effects of the innovation process.

The CBAM adds to Rogers’s innovation diffusion model an emphasis on items as feelings, competence, opinions and motivation of the ‘client’ (which are also concepts of the relational and cognitive dimensions of Social Capital theory), and the understanding and responsiveness of the change agent. A major difference with the Social Capital perspective is that the CBAM is mainly oriented towards the individual professional, and does not pay specific attention to the relations between professionals. A second difference is that the CBAM has well worked out instruments for change agents in educational projects.

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

The cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) presented by Engeström et al. (1987)[6] has received substantial attention (Cole & Engeström, 1993[7]; Meyers, 2007[8]), also in the educational domain (see for an overview Miedema & Stam, 2010[9]). The theory connects professional learning and practice, individual learning and collective learning with the innovation of the organization. The goal of CHAT is to understand the mental capabilities of an individual. Activity theory is primarily a social theory of consciousness and wants to define consciousness – all the mental functioning including remembering, deciding, classifying, generalizing, etcetera,– as a product of social interactions with other people and of the use of tools (Kaptelinin, Kuutti & Bannon, 1995[10]). It rejects isolated individuals as an insufficient unit of analysis, in analyzing the cultural and technical aspects of human actions. One principle of activity theory is that many activities have multiple motivation (‘poly motivation’). Engeström (1987)[10] suggests that the organizational learning process includes the preliminary stages of goal and problem formation. Rather than seeing learning as transmission, the formation of learning goals is the key to the learning activity.

This theory describes actions in socio-systems through six related elements of a conceptual system: an activity is seen as a system of human ‘doing’, whereby a subject (1) works on an object (2) in order to obtain a desired outcome product. In order to do this, the subject employs tools (3), which may be external (e.g. an axe, a computer) or internal (e.g. a plan). Tools are influenced by culture, and their use is a way to accumulate and transmit social knowledge. ‘The tool is at the same time both enabling and limiting: it empowers the subject in the transformation process with the historically collected experience and skill ‘crystallized’ to it, but it also restricts the interaction to be from the perspective of that particular tool or instrument;  other potential features of an object remain invisible to the subject’ (Kuutti, 1996[11]).

Other elements include the division of labor (4) – the hierarchical structure and division of activities among actors– and rules (5), guidelines regulating activities in the system; subjects are grouped into communities of practice (6), with rules between subject and community and division of labor between object and community. Creativity plays an important role in activity theory, in the sense that human beings are seen as creatively acting in the system.

Both Social Capital theory and activity theory perceive the individual as the subject that, with others, is acting in a context. Activity theory tries to explain what mental, cognitive, structural and relational processes are going on between organization members who are acting to achieve goals, in a quite similar way to Social Capital theory. Activity theory describes very specific components of this dynamic creation process from a mainly goal-oriented perspective, while Social Capital theory describes similar components from a process perspective. In addition, Social Capital theory emphasizes the quality of social connections as a prerequisite for creating intellectual capital. Whereas Social Capital theory explores the social relations processes, CHAT focuses on the intra-psychical processes of individuals. In this respect, Social Capital theory is probably able to shed light on aspects that remain hidden in CHAT, and vice versa.

Social Network Approach

The social network approach, used since the 1980s in organizational theories (Burt, 1992[12]; Granovetter, 1992[13]) has now become popular in the educational  domain. Many communities of practice, and communities of learning, cross-organizational, inter-organizational networks, have taken off within the educational field.  These refer to the social network theory that assumes advantage by connecting ties with potential (Moolenaar, 2010[14]). A social network is a social structure made up of individuals or organizations (nodes) that are connected (tied) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige. In its most simple form, a social network is a map of all relevant ties between the nodes. The power of social network theory seems to be the view that individuals’ attributes are less important than their relationships with other actors within the network. Granovetter (1973)[15] describes, for instance, how ‘weak ties’ (members who are not strongly connected to the primary network and are going to shop abroad) gain ‘strength’ by bringing information to the network from outside that can be eye-opening to the other network members.

Research has shown that social networks play a critical role in determining the ways in which organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals (Adler & Kwon, 2002[16]; Kilpatrick, Field, & Falk, 2003[17]). Recent multi-case research, including cases in the educational domain, shows that ‘linking’ ties (connections outside the organization) are more innovative than ‘bridging’ ties (connections between teams) or ‘bonding’ ties (connections in a network) (De Jong, 2010[18]). Social network theory and Social Capital theory are closely related. Social network theory refers in fact to the structural dimension of Social Capital theory. Social Capital theory adds to social network theory the relational and the cognitive dimension and explores the dynamics and interrelatedness of these elements.

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Citing this article

This article is part of a thesis:

Corry.G.J.M. Ehlen. 2015. Co-creation of Innovation: Investment with and in Social Capital. Open University. Heerlen. The Netherlands. ISBN 97894 91825 77 4.

You should reference this work as:

Ehlen, C.G., Van der Klink, M., Boshuizen, H.P.A. (2014). One Hundred Years of ‘Social Capital’: Historical Development and Contribution to Collective Knowledge Creation in Organizational Innovation. Open University. Heerlen. The Netherlands.

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