This research adopted a bibliometric method with the objective to scientifically review the field of KM and Sustainability. This section of the paper highlights limitations to the methodology as well as offering the authors’ interpretation of the findings.
5.2. Interpretation and Implications
In the results section, the authors presented a topographical overview of KM and Sustainability research. As the majority of the database consisted of conference papers, it can be assumed that studies of KM in sustainability are only beginning to become established in mainstream research journals. The accelerating growth trajectory of this literature suggests, however, that this field is rapidly progressing in line with changing management practices that increasingly seek to incorporate new technologies for managing knowledge around the world [81
Multiple analyses indicated that most authors contributing to this literature came from developed countries such as the USA and in Europe. Their leadership in this literature reflects efforts in economically developed societies to achieve SDGs in parallel with economic growth [82
]. The less frequent representation of authors from developing countries may reflect broader patterns of scholarly productivity or later adoption of KM practices for sustainability in developing countries [83
]. Nonetheless, given the increasing urgency and importance of sustainability issues in developing societies, we expect that future reviews will document a larger proportion of documents on this topic authored in these countries.
As a case in point, we note the large number of studies authored by scholars from China identified in this review. In contrast with past practices, China’s emerging regional development strategy focuses on the effective implementation of economic development while sustaining environmental and social development. Thus, it appears that KM for sustainability is part of China’s strategy for rapid coping with unbalanced and unsustainable economic growth [8
Together, these trends with respect to the geographical distribution of this literature lead to two recommendations. First, although our review did not examine findings from specific studies, our bibliometric findings reinforce the assertion that KM represents a highly salient enabler for sustainability in developing as well as developed societies. Second, these findings suggest that scholars prioritise research on the application of KM for sustainability in developing societies. This research will have broad and immediate applicability across a wide range of international contexts.
The identification of highly cited authors and documents through a series of citation and co-citation analyses has multiple implications. First, it honours the contributions of scholars who have pioneered the development of this subfield of sustainability research. Second, we suggest that these authors and documents can be used as a ‘reading list’ for those who wish to learn more about this topic. This is a highly practical outcome for an emerging field of inquiry. The empirical identification of key authors and documents will enable newcomers to this field of inquiry to ‘get up to speed’ much more quickly than random searches of the literature.
The overlap between author citation and co-citation lists showed that Reed is directly and indirectly influential in KM and Sustainability studies. Several publications by Reed revolved around environmental management and stakeholder participation [10
]. Traditionally, KM would start from an individual’s knowledge; however, this evidenced that collective knowledge from stakeholders as a result of participatory process is crucial for KM in Sustainability.
Canonical documents identified by document co-citation analysis were not only part of the reading suggestion but hold their importance throughout time due to the dynamic nature of their concepts. This also implied that learning and knowledge creation are fundamental to KM and Sustainability. Most KM concepts are multi-disciplinary, which are pulled from other fields such as psychology, information system and technology or organisational science. Cohen’s study on absorptive capacity fits with this statement, as the learning theory is a part of cognitive science [53
]. However, the top two co-cited documents by Nonaka [51
] and Nonaka with Takeuchi [52
] focused on the SECI knowledge creation model (Socialisation, Externalisation, Combination and Internalisation), which is one of a handful of ground-based KM theories. Nonaka and his co-authors have been continuously developing the model since the early 1990s. As the SECI model is a spiral, context-sensitive process, the dynamic nature of it is adopted and studied in different settings.
Another key finding from this review lies in the identification of the intellectual structure of KM and Sustainability research. Notably, because co-citation analysis examines the reference lists of documents in the authors’ database, this analysis is able to reveal the constellation of relevant themes located inside and outside of knowledge management and sustainability. Referring to Figure 5
, author co-citation analysis revealed four coherent, inter-related Schools of Thought that comprise the knowledge base on KM and Sustainability: KM, Socio-Ecological System, Sustainability Science, KM for Sustainability Application.
KM emerged as the predominant School of Thought, confirming its conceptual centrality to this literature that linked back to KM as the core of the paper’s conceptual framework. Leading KM scholars such as Nonaka and Takeuchi established the widely-used knowledge creation model, SECI, which has been applied widely by proponents of knowledge management in sustainability projects [51
]. Since the SECI model is an adaptable process, it has been applied to sustainability initiatives in various contexts, ranging from family businesses to larger corporations and financial firms [88
]. SECI processes have also shaped the use of externalisation modes of knowledge creation in enhancing team performance [90
]. Research by Davenport and Prusak has established knowledge as a source of competitive advantage with salient implications for strengthening the sustainability of organizations [55
]. Their “resource-based perspective” proposes tools for building capabilities and also protect organisations from knowledge drain [91
Folk and Berkes, the top two highly co-cited authors in the Socio-Ecological System School of Thought, have elaborated how organizations build resilience through social and ecological systems [61
]. The nodes of this School were generally quite compact thereby suggesting strong intellectual affiliation among authors as well as the concepts and practices within this line of inquiry. This could be explained by the fact that elements within the socio-ecological system can be found in two of the three sustainability pillars, aligning with the conceptual framework. Moreover, these elements are systemically related and need to be balanced so they are closely connected [93
]. For instances, behaviour change in land use in one region could impact water resources in another.
Within the Sustainability Science School, Scholz’s research has highlighted the importance of sustainability education [65
]. Notably, he was also one of the most productive authors in the KM and Sustainability field. This highlights education, learning and knowledge sharing as key processes within KM and Sustainability. This view is reinforced by Argyris’ location in this School. His research on individual and organizational learning has shaped the application of KM to the solution of sustainability issues [69
]. More specifically, Argyris introduced the terms single-loop and double-loop learning, where the former focuses on problem solving and the latter involves rethinking and modifying the way to solve such problem [71
]. It is only through double-loop learning that managers and organizations are able to create “sustainable solutions” to the complex problems that characterise sustainability science.
In comparison to the other Schools, the KM for Sustainability Application School of Thought was relatively small in terms of size and influence. Referring to the conceptual framework, KM application is only a fraction of KM processes used for sustainability, which could explain the size and influence of this School of Thought. A number of Chinese authors (e.g., J. Liu, Y. Zhang, J. Wang, H. Li) are the intellectual leaders of this School [40
]. This again highlights the effort that China is putting into KM and Sustainability initiatives.
On the author co-citation map, the Socio-Ecological System and Sustainability Science Schools were close in proximity, as they both concerned sustainability, where one was about ‘what’, while the other was about ‘how’. These two Schools of Thought were on the opposite side of KM. This could be because KM is a context-sensitive discipline that can be applied to several fields, and sustainability is one of them. However, some co-cited authors from the sustainability science were placed closer to KM, because education as an approach to understand sustainability is closely related to knowledge creation.
In contrast, the KM School was located at some distance from the others, reflecting its broader focus. The KM for Sustainability Application School of Thought located in the middle of the map, with less dense links to the other Schools. This is in line with the conceptual framework that KM application, as part of KM processes, is central to the framework. Furthermore, this is interesting in that the School is largely comprised of Chinese scholars. This suggests that this School may be developing as a distinctive School grounded in ‘indigenous’ KM practices used to address sustainability challenges in the Chinese (developing) context.
These observations concerning the intellectual structure of the KM and Sustainability knowledge base yield recommendations for future research. First, they reinforce and extend our earlier recommendation for prioritizing research on KM and Sustainability in developing societies. More specifically, they suggest that the “Chinese experience” in adopting and refining KM practices to sustainability challenges may hold value for other societies, especially developing societies. Second, the identification of these Schools of Thought also offer points of reference or foci for subsequent reviews of research using research synthesis methods that examine the conceptual models, methods, findings of studies. Each of these Schools of Thought should be reviewed. Finally, regarding our discussion of key authors and documents, the identification of these Schools of Thought also represents coherent, empirically derived conceptual pillars of KM and Sustainability research.
Keyword analyses identified underlying themes that complement those identified through co-citation analysis. Topical trends identified from the network map were in line with global trends. Climate change was a trending topic as it is directly aligned with one of the key SDGs [3
]. Within knowledge and learning trends, advancements in information technology allow people to connect without limitations in time and space [94
]. This application of Information Technology (IT) to KM is not limited to the real world but can also be taken place in virtual world with those who participate in the community of practice to share knowledge [95
]. If used appropriately, IT platforms enable KM to enhance the dissemination of sustainability solutions more broadly (e.g., knowledge banks, knowledge exchange platforms) [14
Socio-economic management, including sub-topics such as economics, regional planning, commerce and intellectual capital, represents emerging trends in the field of KM and Sustainability. We found that state, private and non-profit organisations are increasingly incorporating KM practices in order to achieve SDG goals [3
]. Thus, our findings suggest a trend towards greater cooperation between societies and organisations in planning for sustainability [98
], with the implication that KM will play an increasingly important in global sustainability efforts.