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Knowing What We Know: Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks

By Rob Cross
Andrew Parker
Laurence Prusak
Stephen P. Borgatti
 

When we think of where people turn for information, we usually think of databases, the Internet, intranets and portals, or more traditional repositories such as file cabinets or manuals. What we may not think of is one of the most crucial sources of all: other people.

Research in sociology, social psychology, communication, and management has consistently shown that who you know has a substantial impact on what you come to know; personal relationships are critical for obtaining information, solving problems, and learning how to do your work. As we move further into an economy in which collaboration is central to organizational effectiveness, we must pay more attention to the sets of relationships that people rely on to accomplish their work.

Emerging collaborative technologies will certainly facilitate virtual work, and skill-profiling systems can help people locate relevant expertise in an organization. As was so poignantly demonstrated by reengineering efforts, however, technology alone can accomplish only so much in the pursuit of business performance. Improving efficiency and effectiveness in knowledge-intensive work demands more than sophisticated technologies. It requires attending to the often idiosyncratic ways that people learn from and solve problems with other people.

With this in mind, we initiated a research program designed to help managers promote knowledge creation, sharing, and learning in strategically important networks of employees. In the first phase of our research, we interviewed 40 managers from an organization that most industry analysts heralded as an exemplar of knowledge management because of its investment in technology and the organizational roles it had created to collect, screen, and update content in distributed databases. We asked the managers to reflect on a recent project that was important to their careers and indicate where they had obtained crucial information. Eighty-five percent of them said that they had received information critical to the success of the project from other people, not from impersonal sources such as computer archives, the Internet, or the organization’s knowledge- management database. And the 15 percent who did rely on impersonal sources were all relatively new to the organization and so had not yet developed sufficient networks.

We also asked the managers to identify the people most important to the project in terms of information or knowledge and to describe those relationships. Four characteristics emerged that distinguish effective from ineffective relationships.

Knowledge: Being aware of what other people know—even if initial perceptions turn out to be inaccurate—is a precursor to seeking a specific person for help.

Access: Knowing what someone else knows is useful only if that person is available in time to help. Access is heavily influenced by physical proximity, organizational design, and collaborative technology.

Engagement: People who encourage true learning are those who think along with the seeker and participate in problem solving. Rather than dumping information on the seeker, these people first understand the problem as experienced by the seeker and then shape their knowledge to that problem. Safety: Feeling safe with a person, that is, being able to admit a lack of knowledge or to diverge in a conversation, often results in creativity and learning.

The managers we interviewed recounted numerous times when learning or knowledge sharing did not happen because one of the above characteristics did not exist in a relationship. For instance, a colleague had knowledge that would have been useful to other people, but he or she was not accessible. A separate quantitative study that we performed demonstrated that these characteristics consistently determine whom people seek out for information, even after controlling for similarities in age and education, physical proximity, time in the organization, and formal hierarchical position.

Social Network Analysis

With the importance of these four characteristics established, we moved on to the second phase of our research, in which we used social network analysis to map the flow of information in organizations as well as the relational characteristics among strategically important groups. Social network analysis provides a rich and systematic means of assessing informal networks by mapping and analyzing relationships among people, teams, and departments, or even throughout an organization.

Though managers often insist that they know their organizations, studies show that in fact they understand the networks around them with varying levels of accuracy. By virtue of their position in the hierarchy, managers are frequently far removed from the day-to-day interactions that generate an organization’s informal structure, thus many of them have an inaccurate picture of the actual patterns of relationships. And the potential for misperceptions is increased by the transition to a world of virtual work and telecommuting, in which employees’ relationships are increasingly invisible to superiors. Social network analysis can provide an x-ray of the way in which communication is or is not occurring in these informal networks.

Consider the social network analysis we conducted of the top 20 executives in the exploration and production division of a large petroleum company. This group was in the midst of implementing a distributed technology to help transfer knowledge across drilling initiatives and was also interested in assessing its ability to create and share knowledge.

Our analysis revealed a striking contrast between the division’s formal and informal structures. (See the exhibit.) It turned out that certain midlevel managers were critical to the flow of information within the group. A particular surprise came from Cole’s central role: over time, his reputation for expertise and responsiveness had made him a critical source for all sorts of information. Indeed, he was the only point of contact between members of the production division and the rest of the network. Through no fault of his own, the number of informational requests he received and the number of projects in which he was involved had become excessive, which not only overburdened him but also turned him into a bottleneck.

The social network diagram made it very clear that if Cole were hired away, the company would lose both his knowledge and the relationships he had established, which were holding the network together. As a result of the analysis, the organization decided to categorize the requests that Cole received and then allocate some of these informational or decision domains to other executives. This simple solution unburdened Cole and made the overall network more responsive and robust.

Just as important, the social network analysis helped identify peripheral people who represented untapped expertise. In particular, it became apparent that the most senior person, Jones, was one of the most peripheral in the informal network. This is a common finding. As people move higher within an organization, their work begins to entail more administrative tasks, which makes them both less accessible and less knowledgeable about the day-to-day work of their subordinates. In this extreme case, the social network diagram helped turn what could have been a difficult confrontation with this executive into a constructive discussion, which led him to commit more of his time to the group.

Finally, the social network analysis also demonstrated the extent to which the production division (the subgroup at the top of the diagram) had become separated from the overall network. Several months prior to this analysis, this division had been moved to a different floor. After reviewing the network diagram, many executives realized that this physical separation had resulted in fewer serendipitous meetings. The executives decided that they needed to introduce more structured meetings, and they adopted an instant messaging system to promote communication.

Beyond Mapping Information Flow

In addition to using social network analysis to map the flow of information in an organization, we have also used it to assess networks of knowledge, access, engagement, and safety among various groups. If we map only an information network and find that certain people are not as connected as they should be, it can be difficult to know what to do. Simply proposing more or better communication is the oldest consulting recommendation in the book—and no one today really needs more meetings. By analyzing the dimensions of relationships that lead to effective knowledge sharing, we can offer more precise ways to improve a network. Let’s consider some case examples of how we have used social network analysis to assess the four characteristics.

Do we know what we know?

Assessing the knowledge of who knows what at a network level reveals how well members of a network can reach others with relevant expertise. For example, we analyzed a network of immunologists in a Fortune 250 pharmaceutical company. This group had the potential to provide strategic advantage to the organization, but there were many impediments to collaboration. One telling view emerged when we mapped the knowledge network. The network we uncovered was very sparse, indicating that group members were not aware of one another’s knowledge. Two characteristics of this group seemed to result in the sparse pattern. First, the group was physically dispersed, which precluded the serendipitous interactions that help people learn about their colleagues’ expertise. Second, the group housed two subgroups of deep specialists. One set of specialists often did not know enough about the other to be able to involve it in projects.

The Formal Organizational Structure of a Petroleum Company's Exploration and Production Division

Petrolium Organization

The Division's Informal Network

Social Network

As a result of lengthy discussions about what the social network analysis had revealed, the organization made some changes. First, a variety of internal projects—ranging from process improvements to a project-tracking database—were staffed with people from each subgroup, which forced them to work together and so to develop an appreciation of one another’s skills and knowledge. Second, several communication forums were created, including weekly status calls and a short weekly e-mail. Finally, simple changes in project management practices and a restructuring of the project leaders’ responsibilities helped people connect more effectively.

In more staid times, working relationships developed as a product of interaction over longer time periods. Given the rapid turnover in many companies today, people must find ways to become better connected. One way is to focus on how new people are brought into a group. Most organizations offer courses that teach new hires about the computer system, benefits, and, perhaps, the company’s culture and history. It is rare to find practices that teach employees what the newcomers know. Many organizations we worked with are employing various mechanisms to build an awareness of who knows what. For example, some are implementing skill-profiling systems or corporate yellow pages. Others, such as the World Bank, have arranged employees in thematic groups that have help desks that anyone in the organization can contact to locate relevant expertise. Other companies and government organizations hold knowledge fairs at which teams or departments distribute information about what they do.

Can we reach the right people?

Knowing that someone else knows something relevant does little good if we cannot gain access to that knowledge in a timely fashion. And consider how difficult such access can become during a reorganization. We worked with a commercial lending organization in transition from a functional to a cross-functional team-based structure. Prior to the transition, each function had been housed on its own floor, so functional employees were able to tap one another’s knowledge with relative ease. With the redesign, it was far more difficult for inexperienced people to learn the basics of their function and for experienced lenders and analysts to engage in collaborative problem-solving efforts.

Social network analysis showed that four months after the transition to teams, several people were heavily sought out by their functional colleagues as well as their new team members. In particular, we found that the people who were reputed experts in their area were asked for advice to such an extent that they were falling behind on their own work. In the functional department, these interactions were more controlled and observable, but in the team-based environment it was difficult for management to see the importance of these opinion leaders. As a result of these findings, the organization developed new staffing practices and better orientation materials to help bring new people up to speed more effectively, and it re-allocated tasks within teams

Through the course of our research, we saw many companies try to manage accessibility with technical solutions: e-mail, collaborative environments, video conferencing, and instant messaging. But the obstacles that keep one person from learning from another may be deeply rooted in an organization. Performance management systems promoting individualistic behaviors seem to be one of the primary drivers of sparse, disconnected networks. And we often find that hierarchy has a marked impact on who is able to access whom. Again, this is a telling indicator for organizations trying to become more flexible and effective at information sharing.

Some organizations have taken interesting steps to promote access across hierarchy, such as making knowledge sharing a part of the mission or code of ethics. At Buckman Laboratories, all associates are empowered to speak with any associate at any level, and this is supported by a communication technology that gives each employee access to all other employees. Other companies are beginning to use physical space to promote both intentional and serendipitous interactions among high-end knowledge workers. For example, Chrysler has gone full circle (from dispersion back to co-location) by bringing all the people involved in new car development into one building so that they can have face-to-face access to one another.

Are knowledgeable people willing to engage?

One of the most interesting findings from our interviews in the first phase of our research was the importance of true engagement in problem solving. People who effectively share their knowledge tend first to ensure that they understand the problem (as experienced by the person seeking information from them) and then to shape what they know to that problem.

We conducted a network analysis of a specialist group supporting the internal knowledge-management efforts of a global computer manufacturer. This group of 18 people was a virtual team that had been formed to combine expertise in both the technical and organizational and strategic aspects of knowledge management. Although members of the group claimed to know and have access to one another’s expertise, a quick review of the engagement network showed that in fact the group was having little success integrating their expertise. What became apparent was a strong split in the network caused by divergent skill bases.

Despite people knowing at a high level the skills and knowledge of people in the other discipline, there were only two connections between the groups on the engagement network. Interviews revealed that the members of this virtual team had few, if any, face-to-face interactions. Aside from the leader of the group, who had experience with both subgroups, there was little language and few occupational values that the two sides shared.

Several organizational learning interventions have been undertaken to help this group increase engagement and build trust. As always, a key component of these interventions has been the use of various network diagrams to help the group make sense of productive and unproductive dynamics. Further, the organization has made a shift in performance measurement to encourage joint problem solving and de-emphasize individual project metrics. While in the midst of these initiatives, the group plans to assess periodically the engagement network and intervene as appropriate to improve its operations over time.

Many organizations have implemented technologies in an effort to increase the level of engagement among employees, but such applications cannot fully substitute for face-to-face interactions. Videoconferencing between people in different locations does seem to help. This has been particularly important at British Petroleum, where experts have been able to assist technicians working on oil rigs thousands of miles away.

British Petroleum has recognized the importance of engagement early on in a project, when learning from others’ experiences can have a disproportionate impact on the project’s success. For example, the company has instituted a peer review process in its drilling initiatives. Before undertaking any significant task, the individual or group invites peers to provide input. Because the focus is performance, those with the most relevant knowledge and recent experiences are tapped to participate. Through this peer review process, performance on the task at hand improves, and people become much more aware of the skills and abilities of others.

Do we feel safe with one another?

The managers we interviewed indicated that safe relationships offer advantages in problem solving. When one person trusts another, he or she can more easily admit a lack of knowledge and thus end up learning more. Safe relationships also let people take bigger risks with their ideas to come up with creative solutions. We assessed the safety network in the information resources group supporting a key R&D function of a Fortune 500 manufacturing organization. This group of 34 people comprised two units that had recently been merged under one leader. The knowledge, access, and engagement networks were all very well connected, but the safety network split into two groups that reflected the two departments that had existed before the merger. The unsurprising lesson: relationships that are safe and therefore useful for deeper levels of knowledge sharing and learning take time to develop.

In this specific network analysis, there were two interesting points. First, two people who were low in the hierarchy had become ambassadors between the groups. In fact, senior members often went to these more junior people when they needed information from a colleague in the other subgroup. A light-hearted but very effective intervention was created by using anecdotes along with the network diagram in a session with the overall group. Playfully illuminating the way in which members of each group had stereotyped the other resulted in a productive discussion of a potentially charged issue.

Second, there were different levels of safety between the two groups. In part this seemed to be a product of the physical environment: the more tightly connected group had all worked in an open environment that allowed frequent face-to-face communication. We also found that leadership styles differed between the two groups prior to the restructuring. The behaviors that leaders exhibit and those they reward shape the extent to which people will be forthcoming about their lack of knowledge on various topics. In some organizations we studied, employees were expected to seek out the information most relevant for the success of a given project. In others, people were very cautious about revealing any lack of knowledge.

• • • • •

In addition to mapping each characteristic individually, we have analyzed networks in which pairs of characteristics exist (e.g., both knowledge and access) and networks in which all of them exist (e.g., knowledge, access, engagement, and safety). Such analysis yields a full picture of who is central to a group and who is peripheral, and it helps bring into high relief the elusive concept of organizational learning. By introducing social network analysis to understand how a given network of people creates and shares knowledge, we are able to make these interactions visible and thus actionable.

We have found it particularly important to identify points of knowledge creation and sharing within an organization that hold strategic relevance: senior management networks, communities of practice, and collaborative initiatives such as new product development, R&D units, or joint ventures and alliances. It can be particularly fruitful to map collaborative relationships that cross boundaries, whether hierarchical, functional, geographical, or even organizational. Understanding how knowledge flows (or does not flow) across various boundaries can yield critical insight into where management should target efforts to promote collaboration that will have a strategic payoff for the organization.

 

Rob Cross is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and a research fellow at the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has an MBA from the University of Virginia and a doctorate in organizational behavior and information technology from Boston University. Contact him at robcross@virginia.edu.

Andrew Parker is a research associate at the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management and can be reached at andparke@us.ibm.com.

Laurence Prusak is the executive director of the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management and can be reached at lprusak@us.ibm.com.

Stephen P. Borgatti is an associate professor of management at Boston College. Contact him at borgatts@bc.edu.

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A longer version of this article appeared in Organizational Dynamics 30, no. 2 (2001): 100 - 120.

(c) 2002 The Darden School Foundation.

This article was originally published in Transforming Culture: An Executive Briefing on the Power of Learning. June 2002. It is reprinted here with permission.

 

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