Towards the evolution of a knowledge-based learning community: the social capital perspective

Shih Hung-Pin 


A university can be considered as a knowledge-based learning community where scholars engaged in research to create knowledge, produce innovative technology, or assist enterprises to design new products to fit market needs, as well as transfer knowledge to students. Moreover, the diffusion of information technologies has changed the structure of universities, and pushes a university to invest more resources than the past to achieve organizational advantage in competitive environment. Based on a case study in Taiwan, this study surveyed a university’s 15-year development history to address how it was built and succeeds in achieving a reputable position in higher education. The findings of the case study can provide helpful insights to understand the evolutionary process of a knowledge-based learning community.

The growth of new private universities is increasingly in Taiwan during 1990s. However, globalization in higher education causes the evolutionary process of learning communities. Many private universities face strong challenges in the beginning of the 21st century as they have to compete with local and international universities under limited human and finance resources. This study pays attention to a success case, a private university with good research and teaching in higher education systems, which spent almost 10 years to join top-10 among 160 or more universities in Taiwan. This university not only has successfully entered higher education systems, but also has achieved organizational advantage in the competitive market for the past 15 years. This study applies social capital theory to explain the building of a knowledge-based learning community with respect to its evolutionary process in social interactions.

From the social capital perspective, this study aims to explore how does the private university seeks available and useful resources to achieve organizational advantage in competitive environment. This study identified a three-phase evolution of social capital in building the target university. In the first phase, the top management of the university invited reputable scholars to join the executive committee, and to discuss their mission and vision to develop shared value of building a new university to make contributions to the knowledge society. Initially, the university develops internal cognitive capital in the social interaction with committee members. Meanwhile, the university also invited famous and reputable foreign universities to campus to provide their success experiences and even to build strategic alliance with respect to research support and oversea training programs. The long-term plan of international cooperation in university-to-university is helpful for new entrant to conduct strong social ties in global learning communities. This strategic alliance enables the private university to develop structural capital to connect other community members via communication-intensive social networks. Thus, the structural capital is developed under strong social ties and information-rich communication context that spanning particular community members.

In the second phase, the university not only advanced to invite local scholars from public universities, managerial consultants from local enterprises, and international experts from U.S., Europe, and Japan to join the academic departments in order to catch external human resources to support research and teaching, but also use information technologies such as the Internet and Web channels to build a knowledge-based learning community, including digital libraries and Web-based learning systems. Particularly, this university is a pioneer in Taiwan that provides EMBA programs to engineers and managers from local enterprises. In the second phase of building a knowledge-based learning community, this university has successfully developed relational capital and thus achieves the trustworthy by Ministry of Education, enterprises, and local students. In the third phase, the university integrates existing human resources to offer international courses. The university also provides learning opportunities to senior and graduated students by encouraging them to participate in project plans in local enterprises under supervised by faculty members. The learning process involved in work practices enables students and faculty members to develop distributed cognitive capital to share understanding and interpretation of knowledge use.

In sum, this study found that the university initially develops structural capital and finally builds relational capital with enterprises. The evolution from structural dimension to relational dimension of social capital depends on the development of resource-intensive (the integration of academic research and practical applications in engineering and business disciplines) social networks for knowledge sharing under cooperative context. Additionally, this university develops centralized cognitive capital with core scholars in the first phase, but finally builds distributed cognitive capital with students in the third phase. The evolutionary process from centralized cognitive dimension to distributed cognitive dimension of social capital depends on community members’ active participation, organizational cohesiveness, and strong social ties that spanning social networks. Overall, the evolution of social capital enables a knowledge-based learning community to adapt to competitive environments and achieve organizational advantage.