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  • Knowing What We Know:

    Supporting Knowledge Creationand Sharing in Social Networks


    Crafting an Answer

    So the call came in late on Thursday after-noon and right away I wished I hadnt answeredthe phone. We had received a last-second oppor-tunity to bid on a sizable piece of work that thePartner on the other end of the line really wantedto pursue. I had no clue how to even begin lookingfor relevant methodologies or case examples, somy first move was to tap into my network to findsome relevant info and leads to other people ordatabases. And I relied pretty heavily on thisgroup over the next couple of days. Seth was greatfor pointing me to other people and relevant in-formation, Paul provided ideas on the technicalcontent of the project while Jeff really helped inshowing me how to frame the clients issues inways that we could sell. He also helped navigateand get buy-in from the client given his knowl-edge of their operations and politics. . . I mean thewhole game is just being the person that can getthe client what they need with [the firms] re-sources behind you. This almost always seems tomean knowing who knows what and figuring outa way to bring them to bear on your clientsissue.

    Anonymous Interviewee

    The way in which this manager relied onhis network to obtain information andknowledge critical to the success of an im-portant project is common and likely reso-nates with your own experience. Usually

    when we think of where people turn forinformation or knowledge we think of data-bases, the Web, intranets and portals orother, more traditional, repositories such asfile cabinets or policy and procedure manu-als. However, a significant component of apersons information environment consistsof the relationships he or she can tap forvarious informational needs. For example, insummarizing a decade worth of studies, TomAllen of Massachusetts Institute of Technol-ogy (MIT) found that engineers and scien-tists were roughly five times more likely toturn to a person for information than to animpersonal source such as a database or a filecabinet. In other settings, research has con-sistently shown that who you know has asignificant impact on what you come toknow, as relationships are critical for obtain-ing information, solving problems and learn-ing how to do your work.

    Particularly in knowledge intensive work,creating an informational environment thathelps employees solve increasingly complexand often ambiguous problems holds signif-icant performance implications. Frequentlysuch efforts entail knowledge managementinitiatives focusing on the capture and shar-ing of codified knowledge and reusablework products. To be sure, these so-calledknowledge bases hold pragmatic benefits.They bridge boundaries of time and space,

    Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 100120, 2001 ISSN 0090-2616/01/$see frontmatter 2001 Elsevier Science, Inc. PII S0090-2616(01)


  • allow for potential reuse of tools or workproducts employed successfully in other ar-eas of an organization, and provide a meansof reducing organizational forgetting as afunction of employee turnover. However,such initiatives often undervalue crucialknowledge held by employees and the webof relationships that help dynamically solveproblems and create new knowledge.

    As we move further into an economywhere collaboration and innovation are in-creasingly central to organizational effective-ness, we must pay more attention to the setsof relationships that people rely on to accom-plish their work. Certainly we can expectemerging collaborative technologies to facil-itate virtual work and skill profiling systemsto help with the location of relevant exper-tise. However, as was so poignantly demon-strated by reengineering, technology alonecan only accomplish so much in the pursuitof business performance. Improving effi-ciency and effectiveness in knowledge-inten-sive work demands more than sophisticatedtechnologiesit requires attending to the of-ten idiosyncratic ways that people seek outknowledge, learn from and solve problemswith other people in organizations.

    With this in mind, we initiated a researchprogram to determine means of improvingemployees ability to create and share knowl-edge in important social networks. In thefirst phase of our research, we assessed thecharacteristics of relationships that 40 man-agers relied on for learning and knowledgesharing in important projects. In the secondphase, we systematically employed socialnetwork analysis to map these dimensions ofrelationships among strategically importantnetworks of people in various organizations.Working with a consortium of Fortune 500companies and government organizations,we developed empirical support for rela-tional characteristics that facilitate knowl-edge creation and sharing in social networksas well as insight into social and technicalinterventions to facilitate knowledge flow inthese networks.

    Rob Cross is an assistant professor at the

    McIntire School of Commerce (University of Vir-

    ginia) and a research fellow within IBMs Insti-

    tute for Knowledge Management. He currently

    leads a stream of research for the Institute on

    social capital, and has consulted with over 40

    public and private organizations on issues re-

    lating to social networks, organizational design,

    and knowledge management. Rob holds a doc-

    torate from Boston Universitys school of man-

    agement and has published extensively in ac-

    ademic and practitioner publications. He

    earned both his B.S. and M.B.A. from the Uni-

    versity of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville

    with his wife and daughter.

    FALL 2001 101


    In the first phase of our research we asked 40managers to reflect on a recent project thatwas important to their careers and indicatewhere they obtained information critical tothe projects success. As can be seen in Fig. 1,these managers overwhelmingly indicated(and supported with vivid stories) that theyreceived this information from other peoplefar more frequently than impersonal sourcessuch as their personal computer archives, theInternet or the organizations knowledgemanagement database. And we found this inan organization that most industry analystsheralded as a knowledge management ex-emplar because of its investment in technol-ogy. This is not to say that the firms leadingedge technical platform and organizationalpractices for capturing, screening and ar-chiving knowledge were not helpful. Just topoint out that impersonal informationsources were primarily leveraged only afterthe managers had been unsuccessful in ob-taining relevant knowledge from colleagues(or when directed to a point in the databaseby a colleague).

    We also asked the managers to identifythe people most important to them in termsof information or knowledge acquired forthat project, and had them carefully describethese relationships. Four features emergedthat distinguished effective from ineffectiverelationships: (1) knowing what another per-son knows and thus when to turn to them;(2) being able to gain timely access to thatperson; (3) willingness of the person soughtout to engage in problem solving rather thandump information; and (4) a degree of safetyin the relationship that promoted learningand creativity. An in-depth review of thesedimensions is beyond our scope here; how-ever, a summary of these relational featuresand representative quotes can be found be-low in Table 1.

    The managers we interviewed indicatedthat these four dimensions were key charac-teristics of relationships that were effective

    Andrew Parker is an associate consultant with

    IBMs Institute for Knowledge Management. He

    is currently conducting social network research

    with 30 member companies to develop insight

    into knowledge creation and sharing activities.

    This research includes work on mergers and

    acquisitions, top leadership teams and commu-

    nities of practice. Parker has co-authored sev-

    eral articles on network analysis and knowledge

    intermediaries. He earned his M.Sc. from the

    London School of Economics.


  • for acquiring information, solving problemsor learning. In contrast, they also recountednumerous times when learning or knowl-edge sharing did not happen because of oneof the above dimensions not existing in therelationship (e.g., someone knew what theyneeded to know, but did not make himself orherself accessible). Further, a separate quan-titative study demonstrated that these di-mensions consistently predict whom peopleseek out for informational purposes, evenafter controlling for such features as educa-tion or age similarity, physical proximity,time in organization, and formal hierarchicalposition. With the importance of these fourrelational characteristics established, the sec-ond step of our research was to use socialnetwork analysis to map information flow aswell as these relational characteristics amongstrategically important groups to improveknowledge creation and sharing.


    Social network analysis (SNA) provides arich and systematic means of assessing infor-mal networks by mapping and analyzing re-lationships among people, teams, depart-ments or even entire organizations. Thoughmanagers are often adamant that they knowtheir organization, studies are showing thatthey have different levels of accuracy in un-derstanding the networks around them. Byvirtue of their position in the hierarchy, man-agers are frequently far removed from theday-to-day work interactions that generatean organizations informal structure, and somay have a very inaccurate


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