Social Interaction and the Role of Empathy in Information and Knowledge Management: A Literature Review

Article excerpt

This article provides a general review of the literature on the nature and role of empathy in social interaction for information professionals working in a variety of information and knowledge environments. Relational agency theory (Edwards, 2005) is used as a framework to re-conceptualize education for empathic social interaction between information professionals and their clients. Past, present and future issues relevant to empathic interaction in information and knowledge management are discussed in the context of three shifts identified from the literature: (a) the continued increase in communication channels, both physical and virtual, for reference, information and research services, (b) the transition from the information age to the conceptual age and (c) the growing need for understanding of the affective paradigm in the information and knowledge professions. Findings from the literature review on the relationships between empathy and information behavior, social networking, knowledge management and information and knowledge services are presented. Findings are discussed in relation to the development of guidelines for the affective education and training of information and knowledge professionals and the potential use of virtual learning software such as Second Life in developing empathic communication skills.

Keywords: literature review, empathy, information profession, virtual learning, affective education, relational agency, knowledge management, Second Life


Empathy has traditionally been a main ingrethent in any successful information transaction, such as in a reference interview or research consultation (Taylor, 1968) and for building effective working relationships and networks (Lawson, 2009). Empathy, in its many forms and uses, is commonly defined as the ability to identify and understand another person's situation and feelings (Preece & Ghozati, 2001) and is used to establish rapport and build a basis for trustworthy communication (Pfeil & Zaphiris, 2007). This article explores past, present and future issues associated with social interaction between information professionals and their clients in information and knowledge services, with a focus on the role of empathy in social interaction. A focus on empathy is relevant for information professionals practicing in libraries and other organizational contexts, and for academic researchers and educators in information and knowledge studies. The significance of this topic area coincides with a growing need for understanding and research into human factors, such as empathy in social interaction, as experienced within current and future information contexts. Such information contexts often involve the merging of traditional face-to-face interaction with the online, networked information environment, particularly in the areas of social networking, information and knowledge services and knowledge management.

Along with continuing demands from both employers and other professionals in the development of interpersonal and communication skills, relationship building skills and emotional intelligence (Promis, 2008) for survival in the 2 1 st century information and communication technology environment, it would seem vital to explore whether the nature of interpersonal communication is evolving in the emerging context and what implications this has for key stakeholders involved in the future development of information professionals.

This interdisciplinary review of the literature seeks to:

* Provide a theoretical background for future studies into the role of empathy in social interaction in a variety of information and knowledge environments;

* Consider the importance of development of empathy as a key interpersonal skill in successful information and knowledge work;

* Identify some implications for researchers, information professionals, their clients, employers and educators in areas of information and knowledge management. …


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