Proximity: A key social knowledge management principle

In 2006 I read an interesting article in Scientific American “Why are some animals so smart?” wrote by Prof. Carel van Schaik, Primatologist at the University of Zurich. His article has had a great influence on me. In the ethological field, van Schaik found the foundation of the knowledge management for groups, a foundation valid also for humans.

In his research he studied two groups of orangutans in the forest of Sumatra. The scenario was ideal (very similar to an experimental setting) because two communities were of the same genetically group. The two groups lived in the same forest, but their territories were separated by a long, wide river that did not allow any influence between the two groups. One group was characterized by a common practical ability to use a stick to eat a piece of fruit whereas in the other group only few members had this capacity. The second group had no tool use at all but instead broke off a piece of the tough, woody fruit.

The question was: why all the members of the first group were capable to share knowledge independently from the difference in ages, hierarchy or sex in the group members for generations, while in the second group new discoveries were owned by small groups of orangutans and then disappearing with them? What allowed the widespread of a knowledge inside the whole group and why new ideas did not disappear after inventor’s death but continue for generations?
How could the new knowledge become a group’s assets?

In this exceptional natural scenario van Schaik discovered that this fact has a cultural cause!

The cultural difference in the group characterized by a shared culture was a physical and emotional code of proximity that allowed members of the group to approach and interact between them easily. We are in the knowledge’s economy and the cultural proximity code is the first secret to transform knowledge in a evolutive boost.


We can generalize the effect of an optimal social proximity in these four benefits:

  1. discovering that there is a problem
  2. discovering that somebody has solved the problem
  3. the solution is understandable
  4. the solution can be communicate and disseminate


This social proximity code is physical, cognitive and emotional. It’s part of a culture so it’s expression of values, practices, styles of leaderships and roles. I got in touch with Prof. van Schaikv and he confirmed that these dynamic processes are valid also for human groups.

This research was an inspiration for my model of proximity in social business consultancy.
We can see the organization’s culture from different points of view. The proximity variable is excellent to catch both the collaboration in a traditional group and in a community in a digital space.
This factor is crucial in Social Business projects where the integration between professionals and users, company groups and companies intranet communities is the challenge.

A better level of cultural proximity could be achieved in a company through by integrating social features in the intranet following our social usability principles: where all users have a detailed profile, are protagonist of the process and contents and the company becomes closer to a flat structure of a net.
Proximity is also necessary to work directly with the culture of the organization analyzing the values and helping the process of leadership. The advantage of proximity criteria is between physical and digital, because the psychosocial dynamics are real (processes with causes and effects) and present in both spaces.

[Image by Davidandbecky]