Knowledge Ecology: Knowledge Ecosystems for Business Education and Training




Dr. Paul Shrivastava

Howard I. Scott Professor of Management

Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA 17837

Tel: 717-524-1821; Fax 717-524-1338






This paper proposes a knowledge ecology framework for organizational learning and knowledge management. This framework is applied to the business education and training industry. The paper describes the Socrates Program, as an example of a knowledge ecosystem for business education. Based on its early implementation experience, several implementation barriers are identified. Future research needs for developing and implementing organizational knowledge ecologies are discussed.




Key Words: Knowledge, Ecology, Education




Knowledge Ecology: Knowledge Ecosystems for Business Education and Training



Knowledge management is becoming an increasingly strategic issue in organizations, especially in knowledge intensive business sectors such as software, telecommunications, consulting services, and education and training. There is widespread realization that for the intelligent enterprise of the future, knowledge management can be a source of competitive advantage and even a necessity for survival.

There are several reasons behind the emergence of knowledge management as a strategic issue. A central reason is the advent of what some people are calling the "the digital economy". This is the economy of the future based on information technologies, computers, and telecommunications technologies. It is building around the Internet, WWW, e-commerce, and information services. The digital economy both enables and requires organizations to continually learn new knowledge and systematically deploy it for value creation (Pinchot and Pinchot, 1994; Quinn, 1992; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995).

The digital economy implies fundamental changes in the way business is organized and conducted in every functional area. Electronic commerce is large and growing rapidly with over a million businesses already engaged in it, in some form. It is enabling global distribution of goods and services. It is integrating order processing with production scheduling. It is eliminating intermediatory structures in the distribution of products. Convergence of computing, communications and content is reinventing wealth creation through services. Web based training and performance evaluation is changing the way human resources are admitted, accounted for, and transformed in organizations. In brief, the digital economy prioritizes the centrality of information and knowledge for all organizations. It makes knowledge management a strategic issue (Linstone and Mitroff, 1994; Negroponte, 1995; Tapscott, 1997).

A second reason why knowledge management is a strategic issue is that it holds one of the highest potentials for gaining efficiencies, and creating value. Other sources of efficiency and value creation have already been exploited to a great extent. For example, over the past century business organizations have exploited material (physical) efficiencies through industrial machines and automation. During the same period, financial capital was a big source of value and efficiency. Post 1960s human resource efficiencies became an important source of value. Knowledge management is an extension of these human efficiencies in the information economy of the future. It allows organizations to develop, use and preserve intellectual capital and perform knowledge work (Stewart, 1997).

In this milieu of rapidly expanding information technology and knowledge work, organizations are challenged to find a framework for knowledge management that combines the human intellectual capital and digital technological processes that jointly enable knowledge work and knowledge value creation. Much of the current literature on knowledge management deals with one of these two themes. This paper develops a new conception of organizational knowledge management as "knowledge ecology. I propose some basic concepts of knowledge management in the business education and training industry, viewing classrooms as learning organizations that promote life long learning and create learning communities. I then discuss networked knowledge management systems that can support this type of knowledge ecology. I describe an operational knowledge system - The Socrates Program, and end by discussing implementation of organizational knowledge ecologies and research needs.


Knowledge Ecology of Business Education & Training

Organizational knowledge processes deal with the creation, distribution, use and exchange of knowledge for purposes of value creation. They involve managing the intellectual capital of organizations. These processes are best understood with the ecology and ecosystem metaphors. Performative organizational knowledge is a knowledge ecology - a system consisting of many sources, venues, forms and species of knowledge agents in a symbiotic relationship of productive exchange and value creation. The output of the knowledge ecology is both forms of knowledge that add value in the enterprise, and perform work of the enterprise. Organizational knowledge and learning occur in these ecologies (Shrivastava, 1983). To concretize this concept of knowledge ecology, let me explore it in the context of business education and training - an enterprise that all of us are familiar with.

In the education and training industry knowledge management represents the core work of organizations such as, colleges, universities, training consultants, corporate training programs, and corporate universities. It deals with the creation, interpretation, critique, and distribution of knowledge within communities of scholars, practicing experts, and between trainers/teachers and learners and managers. Historically, these tasks have been labor intensive with technologies (particularly information technologies) playing a secondary albeit increasingly important role. With the advent of the digital economy the balance of human and technological elements in knowledge management in education and training is being destabilized. This is especially true in business education, because in that context both educational processes and content, and business process are being simultaneously transformed by electronic (computers and telecommunications) technologies (Alavi, Yoo and Vogel, 1997; Shrivastava, 1997).

The knowledge ecology of business education includes systematized and structured relations among teachers, scholars, students, authors, publishers, business organizations, industry experts, industry associations, university libraries, school administration, computer networks, the Internet/WWWeb, information data bases, and other knowledge sources and processes. The classroom and interaction among teachers and learners is at the core of this ecology. The performative function of this core is to create knowledgeable human resources that can function effectively in the knowledge economy of our information society. The core is contextualized by environmental conditions characterized by institutional and social structures of business education. Boundaries between the core and its context are often fuzzy and changing, and to some extent definitional. The important point is to view these elements as part of a single organic ecosystem (Shrivastava, 1995).

Knowledge ecology of business education is undergoing profound changes with the advent of the digital economy. The digital economy with its hyper competitive environments and ultra rapid changes calls for life-long learning of currently relevant information. When products and services change each month and product life cycles are down to under a year, the rate of knowledge obsolescence becomes a key determinant of what is relevant and useful knowledge. Managers need to learn continually and learn on the job to improve performance. They need continually updated and diverse learning resources. They need to learn to improvise and experiment with real decision situations.

Traditional teaching/learning approaches of highly structured and polished lessons in pre-programmed classes are too static for the digital economy environment. They are not conducive for improvisation in the learning process (Weick, 1997). Carefully prepackaged knowledge resources (books, articles, case study packages) sometimes become obsolete even as they are under preparation. For classrooms to be successful learning organizations they must be plugged into permanent and continually updating knowledge instruments and networks.

A limitation of classrooms as learning organizations is that they are contained within 60 or 90-minute sessions scheduled over a semester or year program. This is an artificial learning environment. Most learners learn best when they are ready to learn and have need for the knowledge. This calls for a continual anytime anywhere learning approach. Thus, the knowledge ecology perspective sees business education programs as places to initiate learning processes that can extend over entire working life of the learner. The objective of the knowledge ecosystem is to create and maintain learners as strategic human resources that are capable of continually creating competitive advantage for their companies, through knowledge application.

Finally, the thick interdependencies and interconnectedness of businesses and knowledge resources in the digital economy calls for reconceptualizing classrooms as venues for building "learning communities" or communities of practice where learning and practice can occur simultaneously (Seeley-Brown, 1995). Knowledge ecology framework views class rooms as learning communities that extend beyond the physical confines of the actual building in which they are located. Classes can become virtual electronic learning communities consisting of interconnected co-learners who pursue their intellectual interests in a networked environment. These communities can be as local as a single classroom, regional as a network of companies, or as global as a multinational listserv with members from every country.

This description of the knowledge ecology of business education for the digital economy is quite different from the practices of most business schools today. However, some schools, several corporate universities, and consulting firms are pioneering knowledge management by creating necessary knowledge infrastructure and support systems. The next section examines some key characteristics of networked knowledge ecosystems that are the heart of knowledge ecologies.


Networked Knowledge Ecosystems:

To understand knowledge ecology as a productive operation, it is helpful to focus on the knowledge ecosystem that lies at its core. Like natural ecosystems, these knowledge ecosystems have inputs, throughputs and outputs operating in open exchange relationship with their environments. Multiple layers and levels of systems may be integrated to form a complete ecosystem. These systems consist of interlinked knowledge resources, databases, human experts, and artificial knowledge agents that collectively provide an online knowledge for anywhere anytime performance of organizational tasks. The availability of knowledge on an anywhere-anytime basis blurs the line between learning and work performance. Both can occur simultaneously and sometimes interchangeably. Key elements of networked knowledge systems include:

1. Core Technologies: Knowledge ecosystems operate on two types of technological core - one dealing with the content or substantive knowledge of the industry, and the other involving computer hardware and software and telecommunications, that serve as the "procedural technology" of operations. These technologies provide knowledge management capabilities that are far beyond individual human capacity. In the business education and training context substantive technology would be knowledge of different business functions, tasks, processes products, R&D, markets, finances and relations. Research, codification, documentation, publication and electronic sharing create this substantive knowledge. Communications between computers and among humans permit knowledge ecosystems to be interactive and responsive within the wider community and within its subsystems.

2. Critical Interdependencies: Organizational knowledge resides in a complex network of individuals, systems and procedures both inside and outside the organization. This network is established in the form of social and technological relationships. The relationships reflect vital interests and mutual histories. The elements of the network are dependent on each other for resources and mutual survival. Accessing and using this knowledge network involves understanding and maintaining the integrity of underlying relationships.

3. Knowledge Engines and Agents: This refers to the system of creating knowledge including the research and development processes, experts, operational managers/administrators, software systems, archival knowledge resources and databases. Knowledge agents are independent software systems that perform dedicated organizational knowledge functions. In the case of business education knowledge ecosystem these engines and agents include, researchers, faculty or trainers, WWW information resources, corporate and industry data bases, and software systems for accomplishing specific strategic tasks.

4. Performative Actions: Organizational knowledge is converted into economic value through processes that involve action. These could be cognitive actions such as learning or deciding, or physical actions such as preparing a meal or writing a check, and social actions such as organizing or entertaining. Organizational tasks most often require all these and other types of actions to occur in a linked way for value to be created. They occur in the physical spaces, electronic spaces, economic transactions, and communicative exchanges of knowledge tasks. They contribute to achievement of organizational goals. To concretize these elements let us review a few examples of knowledge ecosystems.

Knowledge Ecology Examples:

Knowledge management is a relatively new area of practice. Organizations pioneering in this area are developing aspects of knowledge ecosystems. These are reflected in the E-commerce systems in business organizations. The more sophisticated e-commerce systems have integrated data warehousing, transaction processing, and stakeholder communications capabilities. Some companies such as Xerox Corporation and American Management Systems have "knowledge centers" that combine hard scientific knowledge of their substantive areas, operational knowledge of workers/operating systems, and soft tacit knowledge of managers into a unified knowledge ecology (Hagel and Armstrong, 1997).

In the business education and training industry, the WWWeb/Internet and corporate Intranets provide unique opportunities to create educational knowledge ecosystems. Corporate "knowledge systems" paradigm offer one interesting example of networked knowledge ecosystems in the educational/training sector. The WisdomNet of Merrill Lynch is designed to provide Intranet based training to 250,000 financial advisors at 65 different locations. Microsoft's MOLI (Microsoft Online Institute) is perhaps the best known Web based online training system. The system focuses on Microsoft products and is geared towards certification exams for the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSE), certifications with considerable cache in the software industry. It provides Microsoft employees and external students/learners with structured learning programs, real-time online instructor guidance, self-study materials, developer advice, and self paced learning materials. It offers a flexible schedule for students to cover materials at their own pace, then take online quizzes, assignments and labs. Learners can interact with other learners, advisors, and Microsoft engineers via emails, user forums, bulletin boards, and even an electronic "students union".

Microsoft's core knowledge ecology is being extended by other businesses offering computer training courses. has contracted with Microsoft to provide MOLI training and certification with online advising 12 hours a day 7 days a week. Similar knowledge systems are the basis for business training at ZDU (a Ziff Davis Company), Gartner Group Internet Learning Center, and LearnItOnline by Logical Operations Company (Hall, 1997).

Dell Computer uses The MOST (The Manager's Online Success Tool) to deliver 40% of its training curriculum through its company Intranet and the Internet. It combines training with an electronic Sales Performance Support System (SPSS) to assess and manage knowledge based performance.

Motorola has developed Web based training programs to educate their world wide employees, customers, and suppliers about their rapidly evolving product base. The CAMP (China Accelerated Management Program) exemplifies their approach. The objective of the program is not just to train Chinese employees (3,500 now, going on 10,000 in two year), but for Motorola to become known in China as the "education company". This knowledge management system is designed to deliver real business value in the form of knowledgeable employees, public image value as an education company, and customer loyalty value of informed customers.

These examples are attempts to retrofit existing operations with knowledge management capabilities. They emphasize different elements of knowledge management depending on the needs of the organizations in which they are implemented. Below we describe The Socrates Program, developed by Environmental Intelligence, Inc. a small wireless and Web services company, as a more comprehensive example of a business education and training knowledge ecosystem for business schools and programs. While the program is fully operational now, like most knowledge ecosystems it is continually evolving and expanding.


The Socrates Program:

The environmental context of the Socrates Program is business education at colleges and universities in the USA. The design was premised on the assumption that advent of the Internet/WWWeb, e-commerce and the digital economy called for a different knowledge ecology of business education - one that leveraged new information technologies, served the needs of knowledge work, and provided life-long learning communities to learners. Recognizing the strategic importance of the Internet/WWWeb, Socrates was built around a nexus of Internet based services. It allows teachers and learners to create a learning community for themselves to pursue their interests and commitments over extended periods.

The Socrates Program represents a knowledge ecosystem that simultaneously serves an educational information service, as a Web based course development tool, and as a basis for creating electronic learning communities. It allows instructors, trainers, and students to create their own course or knowledge Web sites, and enhances what they create with embedded knowledge. This embedded knowledge is in the form of regularly updated links to numerous educational and student interest resources on the Web. Instructors, learners and other knowledge sources can interact via this program to co-create knowledge and perform educational functions typical in business education. Learners can cumulate their own personal learning in affiliated Web sites.

The program is designed for Web-shy instructors and students who are allergic to programming, but still want all the benefits of WWWeb/Internet based teaching and learning. It is built on the technological core of the Internet/WWWeb, but can be executed on corporate or University intranets. This technological core is transparent to instructors, administrators, and students. That means any registered user can create courses or knowledge sites and use them for learning without knowing any programming, HTML, FTP, or telecommunications or owning and managing servers, networks, and software. The user interface is flexible to be any Internet accessible computer.

The program performs common educational functions in a networked environment. These include course administration function, knowledge management and exchange, and cumulation of knowledge for learners. Course administration includes course description in terms of its objectives, design, structure, expectations, tasks, instructor background, experience/expertise, grading scheme used, assignments, class schedule, class/lesson notes, exams etc. It assists learners to acquire relevant knowledge, perform communicative tasks, cumulate knowledge and apply it in relevant real life settings.

Knowledge agents resources are embedded in Socrates course Web sites in the form of an electronic library and links to knowledge experts. It contains over 500 hot links to corporate sites, full text articles, other publications, book reviews, business research tools, investment information, access to databases, newspapers and magazines. Learners (business students) have additional peripheral knowledge links to job and career information, resume help, entrepreneurship information, graduate studies, general learning skills, discount books and supplies and fun/humor Web sites. These links are automatically updated periodically and maintained by the program. Instructors can add additional knowledge resources of their own, when ever they want.

Networked communications occur via a bulletin board, individualized email, and community listservs. A variety of communications options and formats are available for threaded discussion, administrative notices, interaction on projects, and personal communication. The communicative network can be expanded to other courses and learning opportunities outside the school/university via the use of the Web Ring capability. This is a ring of links to similar or affiliated Web sites (The Socrates Program, 1997).

The Socrates knowledge ecology adds different types of values to the business education function.. For instructors it is a means for extending their knowledge base to include the rich resources of the Internet/WWW and Intranets into their teaching. Free or very low cost access to these electronic resources has the added value in some cases, of reducing the cost of educational materials. This knowledge ecology is space independent. It is free of geographical constraints of a physical classrooms, permitting distance learning. It makes knowledge resources and interactive instruction available to who ever can access the Internet. For educational institutions and corporations, this offers potential cost savings. It allows training to occur when needed and when the learner is most ready for it. Learning can be in-situ at the site of the learners, allowing for mobile learning, off-time learning, and emergency learning. For learners the Socrates knowledge ecosystem provides the value of life-long and continual learning venue. Learners can accumulate their learning from courses, special topics, work projects, and integrate them into their own knowledge sites for future reference. This cumulative knowledge site is an extended virtual brain deployable at will by the learner in different jobs and locations.



Future Research and Implementation Issues:

In 1997 over 150 Socrates Program site licenses were issued in 20 countries. These sites are being studied to understand further development issues and implementation barriers. Based on early feed back from these trial sites and the author's own experiences in using the system, several initial research needs and generic barriers to adoption of knowledge ecosystems for business education are identified below.

Three important research questions need to be addressed for further development of knowledge ecologies. These pertain to the roles to be played by different participants, cost/benefits of such systems, and knowledge quality management

1. Work Roles Within Knowledge Ecosystems. It is apparent from the above discussion that that knowledge creation, work interaction and performance in knowledge ecosystems are significantly different from the conventional use of knowledge as it is currently organized in most organizations. For business educators knowledge ecosystems pose a challenging question about pedagogical roles. Learning in such systems is collective network activity. It requires a community learning process. One of the most difficult thing about effective Internet based teaching for faculty, is that it requires them to play a very different role than the conventional one of content expert and mentor. The Internet displaces and fragments the concept of expertise. Expertise - if it is defined as possessing information, can be resident in places other than the teacher. It can be embedded in transaction systems, in Web Sites, in colleagues, in students.

In knowledge ecosystems the role of the teacher is more that of a co-learner. Because information is expanding at such a Promethean pace, no single person can remain an expert on any subject for very long. This fact becomes apparent very quickly to both students and teachers in the Internet environment. This is empowering for students as they realize that there is possibility of reaching expertise beyond that of the instructor. It is also distressing for faculty as they realize the very real and open limitations of their expertise. To remain effective instructors and students need to forge new relationships of mutual learning through discourse and critique.

Extrapolating this concern about roles to non-educational organizations, I surmise a need for rethinking all organizational roles in knowledge organizations. The conventional categories of functional areas (finance, marketing, accounting, operations, etc.) or hierarchical delineations, or even professional work categories do not fit knowledge work. Knowledge work transcends function, structure and professional expertise due to its intensely networked and integrated nature. In companies engaged in knowledge management new titles are appearing such as, Chief Learning Officer, Chief Information Officer, Chief Knowledge Officer, Webmaster, Chief Technology Officer. Similarly new departmental configurations such as, Client Services (combination of sales, marketing, technical support, billing, etc.) or Knowledge Centers (combination of library, product expert network, databases, public relations, communications, etc.) are emerging to reflect the integrative nature of knowledge work. The efficacy of these titles and new division of labor needs to be examined and contingencies for their application need to be identified.

2. Cost/Benefit Analysis of Knowledge Ecosystems. The willingness to create knowledge ecosystems in business education depends on how business school administrators understand their costs and benefits. Unfortunately very little is known about this aspect of knowledge ecosystems. Even corporations who have pioneered these systems have done so more on faith than on facts. In a preliminary way we can identify costs of such systems to include hardware & software investments, personnel training, knowledge conversion, Internet access equipment by learners/users, information search time to do quality control, IT infrastructure creation and maintenance. Benefits of knowledge ecosystems include, access to the rich information resources of the WWW/Internet/Intranets, Web publishing opportunity for learners and instructors, savings in time due to electronic communications, savings on paper, transportation and space requirements. A systematic study of these costs/benefits is sorely lacking. However, the explosion of Web based training systems being witnessed currently is significantly driven by the rationale of cost savings (Meister, 1997)

3. Knowledge Quality Management. Electronic knowledge resources particularly the Internet/WWW are notorious for quality problems. Lack of standards, lack of controllability, high dependence on vendors for quality control, lack of universal access all contribute to high variance in information quality. There is no guarantee of truthfulness of information and there is a high noise to information ratio on public information networks. These problems are partly a function of the newness of the medium. As the Internet and its use mature some of these problems will be resolved through standards, surveillance mechanisms, and regulations.

A related problem is that electronic media is excellent for some types of knowledge and certain types of knowledge work, but poorly suited for other types of knowledge work. It is best for storing and transmitting large volumes of codifiable information. It is poorly suited for capturing tacit, social, and emotional knowledge, which are often difficult to articulate and codify. Knowledge work that has high emotional or tacit knowledge content may not be feasible in the kinds of knowledge ecologies discussed in this paper.


Implementation Barriers.

The implementation of knowledge ecologies poses technological, human, social and institutional challenges that we are only beginning to understand.

1. Technological Problems. Knowledge ecology represents the convergence of several disparate but linked technologies. Successful knowledge ecology for business education involve instructional design, multimedia technology, computers and telecommunications technologies, content area expertise, and business/industry linkages. Integrating these technologies into large-scale systems is a complex and difficult task. To make matters worse many of these component technologies are facing rapid internal changes. More capabilities are continually becoming available. Designers must learn the new capabilities and integrate them into their systems on the fly. New capabilities are not always compatible with old ones, sometimes necessitating wholesale redesign of the entire ecosystem, and increasing the cost of implementation.

2. Human Problems. Implementing knowledge ecosystems requires dealing with emotional responses to artificial knowledge agents. Historically, knowledge and intelligence have been the distinguishing characteristic of human beings. Now computers are able to take over some of the routine and even expert functions of knowledge work. In some areas computers excel over human capabilities. The conflict of human versus computer intelligence is epitomized in such cultural icons as the chess contests between grandmasters and Deep Blue (followed by over 300 million people worldwide). This conflict is an intensely emotional matter. Like other emotional issues it remains largely suppressed in organizations. However, the conflict and deep emotional resistance among users and learners can sabotage implementation of knowledge ecologies, or at least reduce their effectiveness.

A related problem is the very natural human fear that computerized knowledge ecologies come dangerously close to replacing humans in knowledge work. In the education industry this fear is particularly palpable. While there are some innovators who embrace educational technologies such as the Internet/WWWeb, a large number of faculty regard these technologies with deep suspicion. The administrative and institutional demands for productivity in colleges and universities in recent years make the threat more real and immediate.

  1. Institutional Problems. Organizational resistance to change is encountered when implementing any new technology. This resistance is more pronounced in implementing knowledge ecologies because the technologies involved are holistic and all-encompassing. They affect the whole organization, all functions and tasks, and performance outcomes at many levels. These technologies reconfigure access to knowledge and consequently power equations within the organization. They change career prospects and earning potential of members. They require organizational members to be retrained. They involve changes in structures and systems, and installation of new equipment. Such organizational changes provoke upheaval and conflicts.

Organizational change problems are compounded by the lack of comprehension of what knowledge ecologies represent. In some senses, knowledge ecology is an extended virtual brain of the organization. The knowledge function and access of this ecology extends well beyond the cognitive capacity of individual humans or even departments and divisions. It represents a new form of organized complexity that many managers and workers find incomprehensible. It falls outside the collective cognitive map of the organization.


In Lieu of a Conclusion:

This exploratory study introduced the concept of knowledge ecology as a frame for understanding the organizational learning and knowledge work. This framework offers a preliminary yet valuable theoretical lens for knowledge management. There is little that can be definitively concluded from this initial analysis, except to point out the lucrative theoretical and practical potential of using ecological theories for understanding organizational knowledge management. Natural ecosystems are complex knowledge systems. They are versatile enough to handle biological, genetic, physical, geological, atmospheric and other types of information in coherent, cyclical, performances. Ecosystem theories and metaphors are powerful, highly mathematized, analytical tools that could be valuable for organizational system analysis and design.

The concrete example of knowledge ecology - the Socrates program, discussed here provides hope for the practical usefulness of this framework. While this program is limited to a specialized domain of business education and training, it demonstrates the practicality of knowledge ecosystem design. It is now possible for organizations and individuals to create knowledge ecologies to satisfy their own interests and commitments. Learners can identify their intellectual interests and passions relatively early in life and initiate Web based knowledge ecologies to pursue them, cumulating knowledge over extended time. The potential for pursuing life passions (as also work interests) opens up new possibilities of learning. As we move into the next millenium such personalized knowledge ecosystems will become the building blocks of our knowledge society.












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