Managing Knowledge During Partnerships: A Case of Intermediaries in Agricultural Innovation System

Benjamin Kwasi Addom

Global Broadband and Innovation program of USAID, Washington DC, United States. Email:

1.0 Introduction

Knowledge is an essential resource for establishing competitive advantage, and therefore its management by the intermediaries should attempt to understand processes that lead to knowledge identification, generation, deployment, and efficient utilization (Dierkes et al, 2003). These processes together define the larger field of knowledge management (KM). KM is a complex process comprising people, strategies, methods, and technologies for leveraging human knowledge to achieve gains in human performance and competitiveness. The definition of 'knowledge' itself is an on-going process with different perspectives. The implications of the various conceptions are that each knowledge perspective suggests a different strategy for managing, and a different perspective of the role of systems in support of its management (Carlsson et al., 1996; Alavi and Leidner, 2001).

Thus, KM within innovation systems where a number of diverse actors with different goals are expected to engage in these processes - identifying, creating, capturing, sharing, and using knowledge for a common good , becomes a huge challenge. This is the case in agricultural innovation systems. A critical look into most agricultural innovation systems reveals three key actors - the farmer, the agricultural researcher and the agricultural extension agent. By default, the researcher is responsible for developing new knowledge, technologies, and innovations (Agrawal, 1995; Andersen, 2007). This 'scientific' mode of generating agricultural knowledge and innovations has dominated the agricultural sector for decades. On the other hand, several other authors have pointed out the critical role that farmers' local knowledge and innovations could play in agricultural production (Sumberg and Okali, 1997; Bellon, 2001). While agricultural extension services have also been designed to facilitate exchange of resources between scientific research institutes and local farming communities, due to the challenges being faced by most national agricultural extension systems in the developing nations (Feder et al., 2001), wide knowledge barriers have arisen between knowledge production and use. The exchange of the two knowledge domains being generated has been impeded leading to knowledge deficits especially at the farmer's end.

This knowledge gap has led to the emergence of new and multiple intermediaries within most national agricultural innovation systems with the aim of bridging the gap. These intermediaries may be community-based organizations (CBOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international development organizations, private sector organizations, ICT-enabled institutions or donor agencies. With the development of the new digital networks, the intermediary role between farmers and other service providers within the agricultural sector is given high impetus. Gould and Gomez (2010) for example referred to community telecenter or cybercafe operators as 'formal' information intermediaries that could help in reducing information gaps in communities in which they are located.

The main goal of the paper therefore is to show how an effective integration of ICTs into a well-coordinated system of intermediaries could result in an efficient knowledge management system leading to a reduction in knowledge divide between communities. Specific objectives include:

  1. To highlight the existing challenge of knowledge gap within agricultural innovation systems through a two-way knowledge exchange approach,
  2. To point out the inefficiencies within most agricultural innovation systems due to lack of coordination and collaboration among the intermediary organizations,
  3. To show how "knowledge brokering role" framework or construct could be used to narrow knowledge gaps through effective collaboration and coordination of roles, and
  4. To illustrate how an effective and strategic deployment of ICTs could help facilitate the functions of intermediaries within an innovation system.

The paper draws upon two theoretical perspectives - the theory of absorptive capacity of organizations (Cohen and Levinthal, 1990), and the emergence of new institutions (Attewell, 1992) to highlight some of the challenges associated with inter-organizational partnerships without strong coordination.

2.0 Literature Review

2.1 Agricultural innovation systems

A systemic approach to innovation is a shift from the dominant linear model (Smits and Kuhlmann, 2004; Hall, 2005) to a distributed, collaborative model. It recognizes strong complementary roles between the components of a given system (Fagerberg, 2005). It utilizes the concept of structural differentiations, which has been identified as contributing to constructive conflicts (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967); cross-fertilization of ideas (Aiken and Hage, 1971); and stimulating creativity (Filley, 1975). Applying a systemic approaches within the agricultural sector is key due to the increasingly complex relationships and processes that are occurring among the multiple agents, social and economic institutions. The key components of a typical agricultural innovation system include agricultural knowledge generation and exchange. The next subsections describe these components in detail.

2.1.1 Agricultural knowledge generation - scientific knowledge

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the durable solution for improving agricultural performance in most northern countries lies largely in the transformation of their National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) (FAO, 1996). This approach of focusing attention on agricultural research or scientific research has been marketed over the decades with some successes. But in 2005, Gonsalves and his colleagues argue that global experiences now show there is an emerging paradigm shift from this traditional notion of generating and transferring modern technology to passive end-users, to a notion that encompasses a diverse set of activities for generating, sharing, exchanging, and utilizing knowledge (Gonsalves et al., 2005). A year later, Pardey et al. (2006) predicted significant changes to be seen in technologies being developed in the rich countries such that these 'modern' technologies may no longer be as readily applicable to less-developed countries as they use to be. These and other studies have opened up the path for researchers to go back and look for other alternative approaches to knowledge generation especially in the agricultural sector.

2.1.2 Agricultural knowledge generation - farmers' local knowledge

Prior to these calls for a paradigm shift from a conventional linear model of agricultural knowledge generation, the role of local farmers in knowledge generation has been extensively documented. Amanor (1994) documented experimentation by local farmers in southeast Ghana who were faced with severe environmental degradation. Other farmer innovations are seen in crops and crop varieties (Richards, 1986; Sperling et al., 1993), insects and pests' management techniques (Bentley 1992; Bentley and Rodriguez 2001), and soil and water management practices (Wilken, 1987; Lamers and Feil, 1995). But little is known of how these two knowledge domains - scientific knowledge from the universities and research institutes, and farmers' local knowledge from the local communities - are being used to complement each other. These two domains of knowledge have been working in isolation with little (if any) cross-fertilization of ideas.

2.1.3 Agricultural knowledge exchange - rural advisory services or extension

Agricultural extension services, currently known as rural advisory services, started with the dominant top-down, unidirectional model of diffusion of innovation. Even though this approach has led to major advances in crop production, it has also had many shortfalls, including: increasing dependence of local farmers on multinational corporations (Dasgupta and Stoneman, 1987); lack of attention to the strengths of local agro-ecosystems (Ruttan, 2001); and "planned and managed" innovation processes by scientists that are transferred to farmers (Biggs, 1990; Rogers, 1995). These and other challenges elaborated by Feder et al. (2001) show some of the weakness with the existing knowledge and innovation systems resulting in knowledge (local and scientific) gaps between producers and users. Scientific research outputs from the universities and research institutes are not reaching the local farmers as expected and the scientists are not exploiting the local knowledge and innovations that are being generated by the local farmers.

A critical look at all these challenges within the agricultural innovation systems in most developing countries calls for an alternative approach. The next section of the paper brings in a Community Informatics perspective to link knowledge management to community processes.

2.2 Community Informatics (CI) perspectives

CI as a field of practice ensures access and use of ICTs at the grassroots level such as non-governmental organizations to support and facilitate grassroots practitioners; private sector suppliers of hardware, software and connectivity; governments for policy and regulation; and international donor agencies for finance. CI is one of the new academic interdisciplinary fields that considers some of the old ideas about the ways communities and information systems interact (Gurstein, 2004) through the design of appropriate information communication technology (ICT) projects. With this key communication challenge within most national and regional agricultural innovation systems, Community Informatics research has the responsibility of exploring, researching and understanding the role of intermediary institutions that are working in geo-communities for efficient knowledge management.

CI is about identifying, assessing, implementing and evaluating new ICTs that suit the needs of pre-existing communities (Beaton, 2004; Gurstein, 2004), and virtual communities that develop around newly introduced communications technologies (Hagar & Haythornthwaite, 2005). In doing so, the activities of CI intersect with the 'intermediaries' concept which is the heart of this study. The field is known for its role in understanding the use of the new digital networks in enabling human activities within physical communities. Within the context of CI, this paper considers community in terms of relations and networks that exist among actors within territorial communities. Intermediaries working between local communities and research institutes/universities need to identify themselves as community members within this larger community. This form of community is developed around interests such as agriculture or community development and could be facilitated by new information communication technologies.

3.0 Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework of the paper brings together the work of Cohen and Levinthal on the theory of absorptive capacity of organizations, and Paul Attewell's work on the emergence of new institutions to lower barriers to technology adoption. The two theoretical perspectives take different stands on addressing barriers to knowledge or technology. The paper thus uses the two theoretical frameworks as a guide to understanding knowledge barriers and how they could be bridged.

3.1 The theory of absorptive capacity

According to Cohen and Levinthal (1990), the capability of any system to recognize the value, assimilate, and exploit external knowledge makes the system innovative and competitive. The theory values both external knowledge and internal knowledge of a given system for successful innovations. Absorptive capacity is a multilevel construct and has been successfully explored at various levels such as in firms (Ahuja & Katila, 2001; Zahra & George, 2002); inter-firm collaborations (Ahuja & Katila, 2001); regions (Maurseth & Verspagen, 2002); and also within nations as seen in the case of Japan (Kneller & Stevens, 2006). This capability of a system to recognize, value and acquire external knowledge is referred to as the potential absorptive capacity (PAC) of a system (Zahra & George, 2002). Acquisition is the system's capability to identify and acquire externally generated knowledge that is critical to its operations (Zahra & George, 2002). It comprises of recognizing the need for external knowledge and acquiring it (Sammons, 2005).

The capability to recognize the value of new external knowledge represents an important component of absorptive capacity because the valuing is not automatic; it needs to be fostered to allow the absorption to begin (Todorova and Durisin, 2007). This process of recognizing the value, acquiring and assimilating external knowledge could be affected by three main factors - the nature of the knowledge/innovations; the attributes of the seeker; and the attributes of the provider.

3.1.1 Nature of the knowledge domain in context

The first factor is the nature of the knowledge being produced. Knowledge has been classified mainly into two dimensions - explicit/codified and implicit/tacit (Polanyi, 1967; Nonaka, 1994). Polanyi describes tacit knowledge as that which "indwells" in a comprehensive cognizance of the human mind and body. This knowledge cannot be easily articulated and thus only exists in people's heads and mind. Tacit knowledge is hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or share with others. It cannot be easily documented and is almost always hidden. Farmers' local knowledge could be classified as tacit knowledge, which is context-specific. Arce and Long (1992) observed that local knowledge of people concerns the way they understand the world; the ways in which they interpret and apply meaning to their experiences. Despite its tacit nature, Rajasekaran (1993) argues that a local knowledge system provides mechanisms for facilitating understanding and communications between outsiders (extension workers, researchers) and insiders (farmers).

On the other hand, explicit knowledge is that which has been captured into manuals, procedures, and rules (Polanyi, 1966). This explicit dimension of knowledge is articulated, codified, and communicated in symbolic form and/or natural language. This dimension of knowledge is systematic and easily communicated in the form of hard data or codified procedures. Computers and other new information technologies are perfect tools being used to enhance the organization of explicit knowledge for easy access and use. Knowledge being generated by agricultural researchers could be likened to explicit knowledge.

3.1.2 Attributes of the knowledge seeker

The second factor that affects the absorptive capacity of these actors is the attributes of the knowledge seeker. According to the theory of absorptive capacity, the ability of the knowledge seeker to identify the value of external knowledge depends largely on his or her prior and related knowledge of the knowledge system from which the knowledge is being sought. The identification and acquisition of an external knowledge domain becomes easy if the competence area pre-exists and the seeker has prior related knowledge in the area. Prior and related knowledge grants a system the ability to recognize the value of new information (Lenox & King, 2004). The closer the stock of internal knowledge to the external knowledge, the easier it becomes for the system to acquire. Prior related knowledge also influences both the cost of discovering and acquiring new knowledge and the degree to which one is likely to engage in a search for new practices (Lenox & King, 2004).

For example, within an agricultural innovation system, the agricultural researcher is the 'seeker' of farmers' local knowledge while the local farmer is the 'seeker' of scientific knowledge. For each of these knowledge domains, the first step is the seeker recognizing the value of the knowledge product. Once that is achieved, it becomes easier to acquire, assimilate, transform and use. Most local farmers have little prior and related knowledge of the scientific research outputs coming out of the universities just as most of the scientists have very little experience with how local people innovate and generate knowledge.

3.1.3 Attributes of the knowledge provider

The third factor is the attributes of the knowledge provider. The willingness of the knowledge provider to share its internal knowledge with outsiders is key for absorptive capacity. For example, for researchers to be able to capture farmers' local knowledge, there should be a willingnes from the farmers to share their knowledge. Local farming communities are known to have high levels of social trust and commitment within their social networks and, through these social units, farmers share knowledge, resources, and technologies (Adamo, 2001). Tapping into these local forms of social capital will enable researchers to build effective linkages with local knowledge systems (Adamo, 2001).

While one of the objectives of KM is to bridge the gap between tacit and explicit knowledge (Stenmark, 1999), the analysis of the three factors described above reveals a different scenario. Even though the theory of absorptive capacity emphasizes building the R&D capacity of the knowledge seeker, the environment within agricultural innovation systems, especially in developing nations may not be conducive for doing that. The nature of the knowledge domains and the unique characteristics of the actors are increasingly making it difficult for smooth exchange of knowledge within most national agricultural innovation systems leading the knowledge gaps between farmers and researchers.

The second theoretical view thus looks at the option of employing a third party to help reduce these knowledge barriers in the absence of strong absorptive capacity of the actors.

3.2 Emergence of new institutions

To bridge the knowledge gap described above, thus calls for another approach - an intervention. This second theoretical view tries to bridge the knowledge gap through the presence of a third party - an intermediary. Paul Attewell in his 1992 article "Technology Diffusion and Organizational Learning: The Case of Business Computing," argues that in response to knowledge barriers, new institutions come into existence which progressively lower those barriers and make it easier for firms to adopt and use the technology without extensive in-house expertise (Attewell, 1992). The author cited computer or data processing service bureaus that emerged in the 1960s as one of many strategies used by computer manufacturers (IBM and Honeywell) and non-manufacturers (ADP and Digicon) to increase the sales of mainframe computers. These data processing service bureaus intermediated between the computer manufacturers and their clients (mostly small companies) enabling them to obtain resources not available internally, improving performance, increasing access to best practices, facilitating acquisition of new skills, and freeing up cash for both manufacturers and their clients.

The application of this principle is not new to the agricultural sector, looking at the original goal of agricultural extension services - as a channel for diffusion of new innovations to farmers (Rogers, 1995). However, due to the challenges with the system as outlined earlier in section two, several intermediaries are found within a given innovation system. Different terms and descriptions have been applied to these intermediaries in the literature including 'lay information intermediaries' who seek information in a non-professional or informal capacity on behalf of others without necessarily being asked to do so (Abrahamson and Fisher, 2007); 'boundary spanners' for those who perform coordination and translation functions among diverse groups (Mason, 2003); 'key informants' as people who either have a good level of knowledge in a particular aspect of community life and development, or have a range of links to people outside the community, or are particularly knowledgeable about community affairs and are willing to share the news and information they have (Schilderman, 2002); and 'gatekeepers' as those who seek and pass information to other members of the same group and by doing so influence opinions, disseminate information, or facilitate cultural adaptation in many different settings (Metoyer-Duran, 1993).

But in practice, the cumulative impact of these intermediaries within most agricultural innovation systems is yet to be known (Addom, 2010). While one school of thought believes that the role of intermediaries in such a system is critical for its success, another school of thought thinks removal of intermediaries will lead to more efficient systems. While this paper believes that the presence of intermediaries within agricultural innovation systems is critical, the next section discusses the current chaotic nature among the intermediaries by introducing a framework that has the potential to streamline their functions.

4.0 Discussion

4.1 Challenges with the current intermediary environment

Paul Attewell made an interesting observation in relation to data processing centers, that the centers were effective because their activities were coordinated and monitored by the computer manufacturing companies. But this is not the case within the area of international development where multiple intermediaries are found operating within a given system. The coordination role is clearly missing in the midst of diverse intermediaries in most national agricultural innovation systems. This absence of coordination among intermediaries is what Sridhar (2010) described within the health sector as characterized by fragmentation, and even confusion, as a diverse array of well-funded and well-meaning initiatives descend with good intentions on countries in the developing world.

4.2 Role coordination for reducing knowledge barriers

The main contribution of this paper to the larger body of knowledge is the application of a theoretical construct or framework to the reduction of knowledge gaps through coordination of roles. The knowledge brokering role (KBR) framework or construct described below was developed from a study conducted by the author of this paper in 2009 to address the existing knowledge gaps identified within an agricultural innovation system in Ghana.

4.2.1 Knowledge brokering, knowledge broker, and knowledge brokering role

Knowledge Brokering: Knowledge brokering may be seen as a value-adding process of mediation between knowledge demands and knowledge supply. It may involve facilitation, networking and sometimes development of secondary knowledge within a given knowledge domain. The process involves three main actors - i) the knowledge generator/provider; ii) the knowledge consumer; and iii) the knowledge mediator that brokers between the provider and the user.

Knowledge Broker: A knowledge broker may be an individual/institution or a network of individuals/institutions that identifies, collects, evaluates, summarizes, re-structures, and/or re-packages knowledge from the source of production for the benefit of end users. According to Jarke et al. (2001), the knowledge broker must be a) a domain expert in his/her area of brokerage to be able to understand the domain complexity, and b) able to understand the consumers' need correctly, and map it to the providers' terms. This makes it difficult for a single individual or institution to act as a broker in the context of international development, and more especially within a complex system of agricultural innovation system.

Knowledge Brokering Role: This study defines knowledge brokering role (KBR) as a set of activities performed either by a number of individuals or organizations between knowledge generation and knowledge use to facilitate co-creation and sharing of knowledge. It is an interactive social role with economic and cultural implications across many different functions to help people accomplish their goals. It is a service role that could be made more feasible by the new global electronic networks.

This study has identified four main functions of the knowledge brokering role as described in the next sections. These four functions were developed through an empirical study conducted among a range of intermediary organizations within an agricultural innovation system. The four functions, if well coordinated among the intermediaries, could lead to an action-oriented knowledge brokering.

4.2.2 Demand Articulation Function (DAF)

Demand articulation is a set of activities to establish a good fit between the existing knowledge of users, their desired knowledge, and the services being delivered by the providers. It begins with an act of listening by demonstrating interest in and understanding of what the knowledge user/generator is saying. It also includes the discipline of staying focused, listening for the main points and the rationale behind what is being said. Demand articulation goes beyond needs assessment and emphasizes the existing potential of the users instead of the barriers. Activities associated with demand articulation may include foresight, where intermediaries organize, identify and plan with knowledge users/generators about the resources available for knowledge management. It also includes scanning and scoping through collecting, gathering, comparing, categorizing and storing information necessary for knowledge work. Finally, it may end with diagnosis where discussions, deliberations, brainstorming, and understanding the potentials of the users/generators take place for network formation. In describing innovation intermediaries, Klerkx and Leeuwis (2009) define demand articulation as expressing innovation needs and corresponding requests in terms of technology, knowledge, funding, and policy.

The challenges of knowledge acquisition may differ for users from one community to another. Within an agricultural innovation system, local farmers may have problems accessing scientific knowledge from the research institutes, and the scientists may also have challenges with using local knowledge and innovations from farmers for their research. Intermediaries with expertise, qualities, resources and skills for demand articulation would have to focus their activities on demand articulation. These intermediaries need to have strong vertical relation with the knowledge generators/users as well as strong horizontal network with other intermediaries, especially those involved in network formation. For example, within an agricultural system, intermediaries involved in demand articulation must consider the potentials of the local farmers within their community settings and the agricultural researchers within their institutes to address their own knowledge deficits. What resources exist in these communities/institutes? How do they use the resources to address challenges associated with their agricultural production or research work? What communication patterns exist among them for exchanging ideas? The greatest emphasis has to be laid on this stage to prevent outsiders from prescribing solutions to users' problems. Demand articulation also involves understanding the desired knowledge of the users/generators to be able to understand where they want to be in terms of knowledge management.

4.2.3 Network Formation Function (NFF)

Network formation function involves a set of activities that could help connect and establish working relationships between knowledge users/generators and brokers, and also among these partners. It is about linking demands with supply through well-coordinated networks among the intermediaries. The emphasis here is on building strong networks among the intermediaries themselves but with the goal of delivering well-coordinated services to the knowledge generators/users. Klerkx and Leeuwis (2009) define network formation with respect to innovation intermediaries as the facilitation of linkages between relevant actors through scanning, scoping, filtering, and matchmaking of possible cooperation partners. Network formation as a function of knowledge brokering role is also critical in linking demands articulated with service providers.

Within agricultural innovation systems for example, local farmers may have a wide range of backgrounds in terms of the types of farming they are engaged in, the corresponding resources for the production of those outputs, and different marketing avenues for their produce among others. It is therefore a mismatch to group all farmers as recipients of information or technologies or innovations through one national agricultural extension service. Different intermediaries with different expertise could work together to meet these varied challenges for the local farmers through effective collaboration. Intermediaries with resources and expertise for networking would have to focus on network formation and build strong horizontal networks with other intermediaries that are involved in articulating demands as well as those that are activating supply of the end products. It is the duty of intermediaries with this function to be able to control access, filter and decide which types of information should flow from one partner to another - gate keeping. It is also about leading, guiding, linking, liaising, directing, providing, connecting, and coordinating activities involved in knowledge exchange among the partners - match-making. And finally their duties may include advocating, lobbying, and drawing attention to new products, processes, technologies that could be useful for the network or partners. The ultimate aim of this function is to facilitate access to new knowledge products by knowledge users through a strong network among the partners.

4.2.4 Process Management Function (PMF)

Process management is the set of activities aimed at maintaining and sustaining the working relation created among the actors through network formation in order to optimize conditions for learning. It is a management function comprising of resource provision for sustenance, ensuring combination and recombination of knowledge products for growth, and eventually overseeing mediating and arbitrating issues. Attewell (1992) argues that early manufacturers of computer hardware understood that user's knowledge acquisition could be a potential barrier to adoption, and responded to this in several ways. Some of the ways used by the computer manufacturers included the provision of user manuals and standard operating procedures, as well as hardware training for users. With respect to the cost of maintaining the relationship between actors, Attewell (1992) argued that IBM especially built its initial reputation by promising to fix hardware problems, thereby removing from the customers the knowledge-intensive burden for maintenance and repair of hardware.

Klerkx and Leeuwis (2009) describe innovation process management as enhancing alignment and learning of the multi-actor network through the facilitating learning and cooperation in the innovation process. With resource challenges in most developing countries, intermediaries with the capacity to sponsor programs, trainings, and other activities related to knowledge management would have to be clearly marked out. These intermediaries would be responsible for mobilizing resources, budgeting, and supporting the activities of other smaller organizations. They could also be in charge of the secondary knowledge production function of the brokering process by translating, modifying, rebuilding, packaging and repackaging of knowledge products from raw materials or from other knowledge products. Partnerships or collaborations require monitoring, evaluation, supervision, and feedback. Issues requiring mediation and arbitration may arise among partners. Intermediary organizations with expertise and skills in this area would have to focus their activities in managing these processes with strong networking with the other functional units. This monitoring and evaluation is in addition to the individual monitoring by each of the partners.

4.2.5 Supply Activation Function (SAF)

Supply activation is a set of activities to facilitate the exchange of the final knowledge products among the users and producers. Supply activation function is not about transfer of knowledge products from producers to users. It is about activities that lead to the recognition of the value of the external knowledge and the desire to understand and utilize it. It is about activating, setting in motion or triggering the final utilization of knowledge products. Attewell (1992) criticized the traditional diffusion of innovation approach and differentiated between signaling (communication about the existence and potential gains of a new innovation) and know-how or technical knowledge (the demands on the potential user and the supply-side organization to learn and/or communicate the technical knowledge required for a successful utilization of the innovation by the potential users).

This function is very critical for agricultural innovation systems due to the value of two-way delivery of knowledge resources between the two sources of knowledge generation. Intermediaries with the capacity and skills to perform this function also need to have strong horizontal relations with other functional units as well as vertical networks with the end users of the knowledge products. Once new products become available, supply activators would have to signal user communities about the products and be ready to give the pros and cons of the products for the users to decide. The final stage is to actually communicate the technical know-how of the products to the user, after they have expressed interest in it. This may involve activities such as advising, demonstrating, educating, teaching, explaining, and training users on the use of the products.

4.3 Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for knowledge brokering

The main issue brought out by the paper is the knowledge gap between knowledge generators and users in the wake of multiple intermediarie. The framework described above in section 4.2 proposes an alternative approach to managing knowledge processes to reduce these knowledge barriers. However, knowledge management system approaches that consider information technology-based systems for supporting the creation, capture, storage and dissemination of information and knowledge within and between systems or organizations could be more resilient. Davenport et al. (1998) define knowledge management systems as tools to effect the management of knowledge and are manifested in a variety of implementations including document repositories, expertise databases, discussion lists, and context-specific retrieval systems incorporating collaborative filtering technologies. Knowledge management systems are expected to i) help the user in assimilation of information; ii) provide access to sources of knowledge rather than knowledge itself; iii) involve gathering, storing, and transferring knowledge; iv) provide links among sources of knowledge to create wider breadth and depth of knowledge flows; v) provide effective search and retrieval mechanisms for locating relevant information; and vi) enhance intellectual capital by supporting development of individual and organizational competencies (Alavi and Leidner, 2001).

The advent of the Internet and its emerging collaborative web-based tools has assumed a crucial role in both inter- and intra-organizational knowledge management systems. Examples are seen in facilitation of resource sharing and communication across distance (May and Carter, 2001), and supporting collective interaction among multiple parties through synchronous and asynchronous collaborations (Kock, 2000; Hossain and Wigand, 2004). The key however is to recognize that successful social processes are essential for supporting technology-enabled group processes (Orlikowski and Baroudi, 1991; Orlikowski et al., 1995). Hence, identifying the development objectives of a given social approach, identifying the new information requirements needed to meet those objectives, and then identifying the role that ICTs could play in meeting those information requirements (Heeks, 2002), could help ensure functioning socio-technical systems. This type of approach to the use of ICTs recognizes technologies as enablers of social process such as systemic innovation. Therefore considering the variety of systems in this study - local farming community systems, scientific research and university systems, and intermediaries - exploring the role which community information systems could play is critical.

Specific ICTs could be used to facilitate the functions of each of the knowledge brokering functions described above. Below are selected examples based on the agricultural innovation system used as a case for this paper.

4.3.1 Sample ICTs for DAF

The demand articulation function in principle requires data capturing technologies and tools as brokers or intermediaries interact with knowledge users and generators to understand and diagnose their potentials and needs. This could take a participatory approach with the users, and/or empowering the users/generators themselves to document and record their activities. While listening and observing participants in meetings, information communication technologies could be used to capture proceedings for accurate data. Tools ranging from whiteboard recorders, tape recorders, digital cameras and palm-size camcorders could be used to capture both voice and data for either manual or automatic transcription. In addition to on-the-spot manual and automatic capturing, other tools like real-time location sensors and Global Position Systems (GPS) could be used in collaboration with users to capture data for analysis. Also Microsoft Project, Visio like tools, Web-based calendars and other planning tools could be used for advanced preparation and event management. Other digital technologies such as iFormBuilder, EpiSurveyor for gathering and managing primary data, cleaning, archiving, and digital mapping are good examples of information communication tools for supporting demand articulation function.

4.3.2 Sample ICTs for NFF

Network formation function requires information communication tools to facilitate relationship building, and social network development. These networks may be horizontal - among the brokering partners and vertical - between the brokers and the knowledge generators/users. In this case, however, the broker acts as a third party to connect or link potential users and producers. Some of the tools that could support the gate keeping activities among intermediaries for controlling and regulating access to resources or information may include subscriptions, feeds, and syndications such as RSS, XML, bookmarks, and tagging. Boundary spanning tools, however, connect intermediaries to knowledge generators/users for advocacy and lobbying. These are communication and networking tools such as Adobe connect, Skype, MS Net meeting, Email listservs, and other social media tools. Match-making activities also connect, lead, guide, link, and direct users/generators to intermediaries through communication technologies such as presence awareness tools, discussion forum, content management systems, and other social media tools.

4.3.3 Sample ICTs for PMF

Process management functions require processing and system management tools to ensure sustenance of the relationships built through network formation. Knowledge management systems such as e-learning tools, digital repositories, and software for scheduling events could be used to support activities that help intermediaries to organize their resources to support knowledge generation and use. Monitoring and evaluation involves gathering and assessing lots of information. Collaboration tools such as electronic data collection software, software for data analysis and reporting, content management systems, and wikis for storage and retrieval could be very useful in data management. Excellent examples of such tools may be found at Charities Evaluation Services (CES) website. Secondary knowledge generation that may take place among intermediaries may involve data manipulation - packaging and repackaging of primary information and knowledge from knowledge generators. Information communication technologies could be very useful in this through data and information processing technologies such as Spoken Web, DVD, CD, text files, leaflets, and pamphlets, for final use.

4.3.4 Sample ICTs for SAF

Finally, the supply activation function requires communication and display media for awareness creation and training of users. Intermediaries performing this function could use face-to-face or the media to create awareness of new knowledge products. Communication and display technologies for signaling new information, technologies and resources may range from newspapers, radio, television, text/SMS, digital broadcasting, blogs, websites and other social media tools. These tools are basically mass communication tools for disseminating information and creating awareness of new innovations. Internet or web-based learning tools could also be used to ensure training, teaching and educating activities that communicate the technical know-how of the new innovations or technologies to the users. Some of the tools may include digital video lectures, content on DVDs/CDs at telecenters, e-learning tools such as IMARK by the Food and Agriculture Organization, digital repositories, software for scheduling, etc.

Table 1 below summarizes the various knowledge brokering role functions and the possible corresponding information and knowledge management systems with examples.

Table 1: Knowledge Brokering Role and ICTs ( Source: PhD Dissertation submitted to Syracuse University by Benjamin K Addom, 2010)

5.0 Conclusion

In conclusion, this paper makes four important arguments in relation to knowledge barriers, emergence of intermediaries, knowledge brokering roles, and the role of information and communication technologies in facilitating the functions of intermediaries.

Firstly, this paper used an agricultural innovation system as an example of a two-way knowledge generation and exchange system to explain how knowledge barriers could be an obstacle to knowledge management processes. It highlights two sources of agricultural knowledge generation - local and scientific sources and how knowledge barriers develop as a result of communication challenges between two systems. According to a UNESCO document "Towards Knowledge Societies", the underlying causes of knowledge divides in the contemporary knowledge economy are the disparities in stakeholder capacity to access knowledge assets, both public and private, as well as differences in capacity to participate in learning and innovation processes (UNESCO, 2005). In effect, systems with low absorptive capacity are automatically left out of the knowledge society due to their inability to participate in the on-going learning and innovation processes. This results in knowledge divides which, according to Pant (2009), are persistent challenges for international development. This paper then used the theory of absorptive capacity to explain how systems try to overcome these knowledge divides by building their absorptive capacities to acquire external knowledge. This theory, however, could not fully explain what happens to systems that could not build their absorptive capacities to search and acquire external knowledge because of its emphasis on internal R&D development.

Secondly, by using Paul Attewell's argument on technology diffusion and organizational learning, this paper shows that mere emergence of myriad intermediaries does not necessarily give solution to knowledge barriers, at least within the international development context which involves a large number of intermediaries. New institutions may come into existence to lower knowledge barriers and make it easier for systems to adopt and use the technology without extensive in-house expertise, but the theory must be put into context. The observation by Attewell about technology diffusion within a single system such as in computer manufacturing companies is convincing and needs to be respected. However, placing the same scenario in a given system where multiple actors are exchanging resources brings another challenge, namely that the presence of multiple intermediaries or new institutions within a given system brings issues of coordination and collaboration. In other words, roles need to be coordinated. The absence of role coordination leads to duplication of functions or roles, inefficiency and poor results.

Thirdly, the paper introduces a theoretical construct - knowledge brokering role (KBR) - that could be used to understand how a number of intermediary organizations operating within a given system could coordinate their functions to ensure efficiency and avoid duplication of functions. The focus of the framework is on role coordination and collaboration among the intermediaries (brokering partners) to ensure effective and efficient delivery of resources - knowledge resources in this case. It draws on a systemic approach to innovation and will thrive on rich interaction among the collaborative partners, their shared objectives, open communication, mutual trust and respect, and the diversity of skills and knowledge.

Finally, within the context of community informatics, the paper identifies some relationships between the four functions of the knowledge brokering role and information communication technologies. This idea is based on the argument by Orlikowski and others that the key to successful social processes are essential for supporting technology-enabled group processes and the suggestion by Heeks (2002) that the use of the new information communication technologies for development projects should begin by identifying the development objective of the project, identifying the new and/or reengineered information requirements needed to meet those objectives, and then identifying the role that ICTs and other information-handling technologies have to play in meeting those information requirements. ICTs alone cannot bring in the solution to the knowledge barriers but could play a significant role once the necessary social processes are in place. Thus, after laying the foundation through the knowledge brokering role concept, ICTs could be used to strengthen or facilitate the functions of the partners.


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