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Review: Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution

image of a network using ludo pieces

Note: In looking for articles to read, to understand better the mechanics and possibilities of digital technologies that can improve communities both online and offline, I came across this paper, ‘Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution’. Published in 2002, and with the extraordinary rate at which digital technologies change, it seems outdated. However I see it as a classic. The beginning of the road towards collaborative technological advances, and the real value of digital technologies. It was a vision for the future, for digital technology to facilitate knowledge, which meant devising new systems, that would engage and enable users in digital literacies associated within their virtual community. A lot of these features we now take for granted, such as hyperlinks, but in studying the classics, we can realise the excitement as these new systems were developed by people, for people.


          Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution is a study carried out by a nine academics, Michael Bieber, Douglas Englebart, Richard Furuta, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, John Noll, Jennifer Preece, Edward A. Stohr, Murray Turoff and Bartel Van De Walle, who lecture in a range of universities, all working and excelling in their areas of computer science and information systems. In this paper, they propose the building of a ‘multimedia document repository’ or digital library, which has unique innovate supports which validates knowledge evolution. A series of tools and technologies based around the concept of community knowledge that can be build-on collectively, to constantly improve the workings of the system. This system, or Collaborative Knowledge Evolution Support System (CKESS), would provide a workflow that can be developed and upgraded through its users; the members who make up the virtual community.

In 1998, Ikujiro Nonake and Noboru Konno introduced the Japanese concept of “Ba” (shared spaces) to organisational theory [Nonake, Konno, 1998]. They developed a foundation system, a process of knowledge creation, that does not consume resources, but creates an “ecological process with cyclical cultivation of resources”. In this process, the users become a community of knowledge activists.

If knowledge is separated from ‘ba’, it turns into information, which can be communicated independently from ‘ba’. Information resides in media and networks. It is tangible. In contrast, knowledge resides in ‘ba’. It is intangible [Nonake, et al. 1998].

This is not unlike a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, in which he said, “Information is not Knowledge”. The basis of this knowledge is the SECI Model, a spiralling process of interactions between explicit and tactic knowledge, developed in 1993 (Nonaka, Takeuchi, 1995). The table below shows the SECI model of knowledge dimensions:

Diagram of an SECI Model of knowledge,Fig.1  SECI model of knowledge dimensions taken from The Concept of “Ba”: Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation. [Nonake et al, 1998]

This model categorizes knowledge and puts it into one of four groups or modes of knowledge conversion. The CKESS uses the concept of bo, or the SECI model of explicit and tactic components to create a digital library infrastructure. The community’s explicit knowledge includes its documents, recorded discussions, decision strategies conceptual models and defined workflows, its implicit knowledge resides in the heads of the community members themselves but can be shared with others through processes of socialization (sharing experiences), externalization (articulating implicit knowledge into explicit concepts), combination (synthesizing and systematizing fragments of explicit knowledge), and internalization (turning explicit knowledge into tactic knowledge by applying it in real situations), [Bieber et al 2002]. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to this model that we now, in 2016, know about. While it appreciates the dynamic nature of knowledge, the concept is quite linear, whereas humans and their interactions are not. Also the framework for management is based on a study of Japanese organizations, which are known for their efficiency and tacit knowledge.

          Knowledge management, is now of particular interest to museums, galleries, libraries and other cultural institutions, as they all strive to create digital archives and an online presence, that goes beyond the usual static webpage. Technology now plays an important role by supporting activities, recording knowledge and developing organizational memory [Ackerman, Halverson. 1998]. New technologies, combined with the concept of ba, can create new forms of digital repositories online. This paper, Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution, recognises that several virtual document repositories already exist, but subscribers may not add materials of their own.  The CKESS is an online application that will provide such services; a digital repository, that is collated and connected through a virtual community.

           Virtually, or a virtual community, is defined as “including anyone actively interested in, or associated with, a group formed around a particular domain of interest” [Bieber et al 2002]. In 2016, they are called social networks or online communities. Bieber et al, discuss how either of the two types of virtual communities, professional societies or educational communities, can move beyond the existing organisational infrastructure to become a truly interactive environment of mutual sharing and action learning.

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Collaborative Knowledge Evolution Support System

It is proposed that the CKESS system will facilitate the growth of the virtual communities into Networked Improvement Communities (NIC). Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart, a pioneer of organizational management, (and inventor of the mouse!) coined the phrase ‘Collective IQ‘. He believed a networked improvement community is any group involved in a collective pursuit to improve a given capability… that puts special attention on how it can be dramatically more effective at solving important problems, boosting its collective IQ by employing better and better tools and practices in innovative ways.1

A networked improvement community is a distinct network form that arranges human and technical resources so that the community is capable of getting better at getting better [Engelbart 2003].

Not to be confused with a community of practice, an NIC is a type of community of practice, focusing on meta-improvement. Meta-improvement arises from critically examining the processes underlying knowledge evolution and task support [Bieber et al 2002]. In other words, continuously finding new ways in which to improve the product or service, at different levels of engagement.

The CKESS, will shed light on seven major issues in the field of Digital Libraries and Virtual Communities, including:

  • enhanced infrastructure supporting the community
  • constant evaluation of alternative approaches and guidelines, to develop its virtual community
  • supporting the education of its members, on how CKESS works, and how they can actively partake in improving the system
  • enhancing the digital library based meta-improvement infrastructure to transform the community into an NIC
  • Taking advantage of latest technologies, such as multimedia repositories, computer mediated communication, information retrieval/database management, information visualizations, as well as supports in place for process and decision making.
  • Development of collaboration tools, that will help the community work better and more efficiently, as a collective.
  • Extension of concept mapping into full conceptual knowledge structures.

By bringing the ideals of CKESS into play, a digital library becomes dynamic rather than passive, interactive rather than static. Its users can help define the best practice model, in terms of userability and accessibility, becoming active participants, engaged digital citizens, in the evolving multimedia document repository, or virtual shared space.

This paper describes five hypothetical scenarios that illustrate how the CKESS system could improve both an educational community and a professional society. Providing these scenarios shows how the CKESS system can work on a variety of virtual communities, from a search process for a Digital Library, to a professional association developing a new curriculum. It is propose an initial set of integrated tools which, were possible, will use existing technologies and systems. If this paper was rewritten today, it would fully appreciate and take advantage of Web 2.0, web content that has become an ongoing and interactive process.

The integrated tools include:

  1. Computer-mediated communication
  2. Conceptual Knowledge Structure
  3. Community process Support
  4. Decision Analysis Support
  5. Advanced hypermedia features [Bieber et al. 2002]

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Computer Mediated Communication and Conceptual Knowledge Structure

Starr Rozanne Hiltz, in her address at WEB98 in Orlando, Florida, on Collaborative Learning in Asychronous Learning Networks: Building Learning Communities, discussed the potential negative effects of online courses, and the loss of social relationships and sense of community [Hiltz, 98].

To counteract this measure, it is important to create a learning environment where students can learn peer to peer. Through Computer Mediated Communication, online communities can provide emotional support and sociability, as well as information and instructional aid. The proposal includes the development off  richer and more powerful tools, designed specifically to help virtual communities with a large number of participants. The centrepiece of the work is the development of Collaborative Knowledge Structuring (CKS), concept maps that guide discourse. [Bieber at al 2002].

A virtual community can, individually or collaboratively, partake in the non-linear evolution of their knowledge system. With input from its members, it can develop through recursion; a solution to a problem can be found or depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem. Recursions has many applications, it can be an function or an algorithm; by remembering solutions to sub-problems, it can has the ability to call on itself, to solve new problems. A great analogy comes from the Khan Academy website, which describes it as a Babushka, or Russian Doll.

Just as one Russian doll has within it a smaller Russian doll, which has an even smaller Russian doll within it, all the way down to a tiny Russian doll that is too small to contain another, we’ll see how to design an algorithm to solve a problem by solving a smaller instance of the same problem, unless the problem is so small that we can just solve it directly. We call this technique recursion.

For online learning, interaction-oriented structuring tools substantially foster the processes of collaborative knowledge construction as well as learning outcomes [Weinberger, A. 2003]. It is a cyclical system, designed to grow with the input of its community.

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Process Support and Ad Hoc Workflows

For an online community to be actively involved in a CKESS system, there needs to be more than just access to documents. In particular, people may need guidance on how to perform tasks, as well as access to information necessary to carry out those tasks [Noll & Saccahi, 2001]. Bierber et al, comment on Noll’s & Saccahis’s research, that processes and workflows do not exist in isolation, but rather require and produce documents and other artefacts [Bieber et al, 2001]. Communities will have a more positive engagement in less-structured, more human-intensive activities; and by providing the means in which to do this, in the form of new workflow tools, can help develop the interoperability of the knowledge system at a technology and human level.

          Workflow is a series of activities, or steps that are necessary to complete a task. Such as writing a document, there are several steps you need to take; you need to open the program, then open a new blank document, type, and then save. Workflow tools, embedded in a system, guide the user along the necessary steps to perform that particular piece of work. New types of workflow systems, called ad hoc workflow, are a more collaborative, community-orientated method of working.

          Collaborative workflow is a hybrid system produced by the confluence of two previously separate software models: social software (such as chat, instant messaging, and document collaboration) and service management (workflow) software. The integration of collaboration and communication tools with workflow software enables increased service efficiency by reducing information silos and the conventional business friction points of time, space, and organizational structure [Hauer 2012]. Comments and notes can be left beside a document, without actually interfering with the original document. A perfect example of this, in 2016, is Google Docs; where you can invite people to read, comment and advice, that is perform a number of editorial features, without affecting the original document.

In an enhanced CKESS, members can augment the models (processes for tasks), with narrative annotations, scripts, and links to related documents [Beiber et al 2002]. Media can be collaboratively written, edited and approved, through a system of peer approval. Members can develop a best practice system, for a number of processes and workflows, that is constantly improving, through computer mediated communication. A system that develops because of, and for, the members that engage with it. To misquote Abraham Lincoln; “…by the people, for the people…”.

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Decision Analysis Support

Individual and group decision problems, and models addressing these, have been studied in a variety of research contexts such as decision theory, preference modelling, human judgement, and organizational behaviours [Bieber et al 2002]. A virtual community, without proper decision making supports, could reach a point of stagnation, just as in reality. Therefore it is essential to put in place some form of decision analysis support. The CKESS will be enhanced with multi-criteria decision analysis models (MCDA). According to the International Society on MCDM (multi-criteria decision making), the earliest known reference relating to MCDA or MCDM can be traced to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who allegedly had a simple paper system for deciding important issues:

Take a sheet of paper. On one side, write the arguments in favour of a decision; on the other side, write the arguments against. Strike out arguments on each side of the paper that are relatively of equal importance. When all the arguments on one side are struck out, the side which has the remaining arguments is the side of the argument that should be supported. 2

MCDA is a system that includes the relationship amongst a set of assumptions, concepts and practices; a framework for supporting complex decision-making situations with multiple and often conflicting objectives that members of the online community may have.

“an umbrella term to describe a collection of formal approaches which seek to take explicit account of multiple criteria in helping individuals or groups explore decisions that matter” (Belton & Stewart, 2002)

Below is a diagram reproduced from Valerie Belton’s and Theodor T. Stewart’s book, Multiple Criteria Decision Analysis – An Integrated Approach, showing that the process by which decisions are made. They are not linear, travelling from A to B in a straight line, but non-linear, in the form of stages and loops, feeding back into the process.

diagram of the process of decision making

Fig. 2: An illustration of a MCDA process, reproduced from Belton & Stewart, 2002, Multiple Criteria Decision Analysis: An Integrated Approach.)

The implementation of decision analysis support models into CKESS, has, according to this study, two steps:

  • first, the MCDA models flexible tools, or components, that can be plugged into communities workflow and
  • second, the connections and communications made before the decision must be captured and annotated.

This will allow for a documented process, whereby the decision making process is transparent, but also flexible: it can be changed according to the needs of the group and following along the lines of the SECI model, as in: socialization, externalization, combination and internalization, as mentioned before. The explicit and implicit knowledge that is transparent, visible and understood; and also reactionary to the community knowledge structure, and to the virtual community.

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Dynamic Hypermedia Support

In order to fully understand the concept that Bieber et al. are suggesting, there must be knowledge of what the terms actually mean, as opposed to just an awareness of their existence. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a hyperlink as an “arrangement of the information in a computer database that allows a user to get information and to go from one document to another by clicking on highlighted words or pictures” 3. The text that is displayed on the display screen is called hypertext, it includes hyperlinks.

The essence of hypertext is a dynamic linking of concepts allowing the reader to follow preferences instantaneously and to be in control [Bevilacqua 1989].

Whereas process-oriented hypertext links information, tools, and activities into a seamless organizational web. Using such a hypertext process, the performer can enact a process by browsing, and receive guidance on how to perform the process [Noll et al, 2001]. Therein lies the dynamic aspect of hyperlink support; through navigation, structuring and annotation features, there are many ways of presenting, sharing and transmitting knowledge.

Hypermedia is an extension of a hypertext; it is a non-linear medium of information which includes graphics, audio, video, plain text and hyperlinks.1 The Dynamic Hypermedia Engine (DHE) automatically generates links and metadata, as well as other hypermedia features for analytical applications [Bieber et al 2002]1

Version 1 of a Hypermedia Engine Architecture. This architecture binds independent back-end and front-end information systems. [Bieber, 1995]

This architecture also allows users to access multiple back-end applications and systems at once and incorporate information or linked objects from different back-ends in a single front-end document. Eventually this architecture will support workgroups of multiple simultaneous users on heterogeneous front-ends. [Bieber, 1995]. If thought of in terms of theatre: the front end is the play on stage which the audience sees; the back end, is the hive of activity behind the scenes, that ultimately improves and enhances the whole of the play for the unsuspecting audience.

The CKESS will have 3 types of hypermedia support:

  1. DHE will automatically generate links within CKESS content
  2. All CKESS objects can participate in, or be served by, hypermedia functionality
  3. Additional hypermedia functionality, such as guided tours, annotations and structural search, will be extended to all CKESS components.

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In this section, we see how the integration of all these components is possible, through hypermedia modelling perspective. ‘Nodes‘,  as elements of interest, are the key to the dynamic hypermedia system. In many traditional hypermedia systems, only documents would be considered nodes [Bieber et al 2002]. Whereas if the CKESS system is to truly be collaborative, other tasks such as links, comments, overviews, guides, etc, are also elements of interest, or in other words, can be made into ‘nodes’.

diagram of how a hyperdocument worksFig. 3. Nodes, links and anchors;  Institute of Information Systems and Computer Media http://www.iicm.edu:8000/hwbook/3/node26.html

In order to implement this dynamic hypermedia function, Bieber et al. propose to create a subsystem; subclass of nodes or maps to a node. This will allow for certain elements to appear across subsystems, and achieve integration.

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Deployment and Evaluation

The final section of Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution, describes how the CKESS can be deployed and evaluated into real life scenarios. They describe building a prototype with a limited virtual community, to be able to revise several alternative plans, with a series of written guidelines. The goal of the proposed research program is to understand and design an enhanced digital library functionality that supports the particular needs of online “learning communities” and integrates with other common software tools, such as conferencing systems (also called discussion forums or bulletin boards) for asynchronous interactions. [Bieber et all 2002]

The system will be measured in several ways to evaluate the success of CKESS. Usability is obviously a key factor; if participants of this virtual community do not use the system because it is too difficult to navigate, the system is not a collaborative success. Improvement and meta improvement are outlined in this paper to be a step beyond simple userability and can be measured to gauge the success of the system. Improvement shows that people using this CKESS system, have a better understanding, of the workings of the multimedia repository, and then naturally produce better work, and provide better research and feedback that returns exponentially to the virtual community.

Measuring the meta-improvement is yet another step. Meta, comes from the Greek preposition meaning “after”, or “beyond”. It is a prefix used in English to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter. 5 Meta-knowledge is important for the management and retrieval of knowledge from organizational memory and supports the sharing and use of organizational knowledge. [Nevo, 2003]. The use of meta-knowledge can improve the support given by existing KMS’s to organizational memory. In other words, meta-improvement of meta-knowledge; a system constantly upgrading its systems through the use and knowledge of its users to the benefit of the virtual community on a whole.

Will the target community improve the way they improve their understanding, and improve the way they improve the way they perform tasks? [Bieber et al 2002]

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The Virtual Community is book originally published in 1993, by Howard Rheingold, about his membership of an early network system called The Well.

In 1985, I became involved in the WELL, a “computer conferencing” system. I started writing about life in my virtual community and ended up with a book about the cultural and political implications of a new communications medium, The Virtual Community.I am credited with inventing the term “virtual community.” 6

In the nine years, from the publication of Rheihgold’s book, to the publication of this paper ‘Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution’, the World Wide Web had exploded into a virtual world of business, education and socializing. However, the design and implementation of these new websites and online communities were in the hands of just a few. The majority of people, even today, do not understand how digital technologies works, or would dare to give opinion on how a system should work.

This paper Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution, was written by nine academics who were excelling in their areas of information technologies and computer science. They came together to propose building a new digital system that put the virtual community first, the Collaborative Knowledge Evolution Support System or CKESS.

This system could be used by a variety of professions from, medical and professional communities, non-profit organisations, and of course, libraries and museums. The concept was a user friendly system, that could grow by and for its members, enhanced by their knowledge of the system. This paper put forth a vision and an architecture for a community knowledge evolution system. [Bieber et al 2002]. A multimedia document repository augmented through innovative and dynamic hypermedia supports, to enable members of a virtual community to collaborate and evolve their community’s knowledge for the betterment of all.

Although we have seen some incredible improvements in digital technologies, leading up to present day, which include ease of access, wifi, cheaper hardware such as laptops and mobile phones, more integration of virtual into our daily lives; the level of digital literacies still remains passive. We have less understanding of how it all works, and more pressure to be able to use it. As digital technologies become more user friendly, its also is becoming more controlled. We are losing our ability to have access to the knowledge management systems, the back-end, and have no access to change it. Economics now controls the development of virtual communities; how to reach more people, display more ads, become a more valuable product on the market. By looking to our past, to the origins of the World Wide Web and what it was originally set up for, we can find its true purpose; the freedom to share knowledge, freely.

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6 http://rheingold.com/about/


Ackerman, M.S., Halverson. C. 1998. Considering an Organizations Memory. In Proceedings of the ACM Conferene on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW’98). New York: ACM Press, 39-48

Beiber, Michael, Englebart, Doublas, Furuta, Riachard, Hiltz, Starr Roxanne, Noll, Johm, Preece, Jennifer, Stohr, Edward A., Turoff, Murray, Van de Walle, Bartel. (2002) Toward Virtual Community Knowledge Evolution. Journal of Management Information systems, Vol 18, No. 14, Decision-Making and a Hierarchy of Understanding 11-335

Belton, Valerie & Stewart, Theodor, T. (2001). Multiple Criteria Decision Analysis – An integrated Approach. Kluwer Academic Publishers. Netherlands.

Bevilacqua, Ann, F. (1989) Hypertext: Behind the hype, AMERICAN LIBRARIES 20(2), February 1989, pp. 158-162.

Englebart, D. C. 2003. Improving Our Ability to Improve: A Call for Investment in a New Future. IBM Co-Evolution Symposium

Hauer, Igal. (2012) Collaborative Workflow: Social Software on a Mission. Enterprise Systems Journal. Web. 05/28/2012 https://esj.com/Articles/2012/05/28/Collaborative-Workflows.aspx?Page=1

Hiltz, Starr Roxanne (1998), Collaborative Learning in Asynchronous Learning Networks: Building Learning Communities. Invited Address at “WEB98” Orlando Florida November 1998 https://web.njit.edu/~hiltz/collaborative_learning_in_asynch.htm

Nonaka, Ikujiro. Konno, Noboru. (1998) The Concept of “Ba”: Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation. California Management Review, Vol. 40 No. 3, Spring 1998; (40-54)

Nonaka,Ikujirō. Takeuchi, Hirotaka. (1995) The Knowledge-creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation.

Weinberger, A., Reiserer, M., Ertl, B., Fischer, F. & Mandl, H. (2003). Facilitating collaborative knowledge      construction in computer-mediated learning with structuring tools (Research report No. 158). Munich, Germany: Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Institute for Empirical Pedagogy and Pedagogical Psychology.

















So, what do you think ?