Ideas for Leaders #089

Building Knowledge Sharing Networks in Organizations

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Key Concept

When it comes to innovation, what works better: formal organizational structures or informal network ties between employees? According to this Idea, which stresses the strength of social ties as having important implications for knowledge sharing, it is the latter. Organizations can improve their knowledge sharing by following a few core strategies. Ultimately, this may also facilitate better conditions for innovation as well, invaluable in today’s competitive business environment.

Idea Summary

Companies have spent increasing amounts on social media and ICT (information and communication technology) in recent years, demonstrating their interest in keeping up with the rapid pace of technological development. However, are they also dedicating equal effort to understanding the factors that actually drive an individual’s willingness and ability to share knowledge? Apparently not, according to Professor Marco Tortoriello, who suggests that managers must look beyond formal organizational structures to informal network ties and relationships instead. Moreover, these informal networks should be bolstered and strengthened.

There are four factors, or essential elements that play a part in the successful acquisition of knowledge via social networks:

  1. Boundary spanners: these are people who facilitate the flow of knowledge between individuals, and across departments. However, this isn’t a formal position or an explicitly-defined task. The effectiveness of a boundary spanner depends on two key factors: the skills/reliability of the personal fulfilling the role, and the broader network context in which they operate.
  2. Tie strength: this is measured as a function of the frequency of interaction, and is the factor that has the most notable impact in terms of building effective cross-unit knowledge transfer relationships.
  3. Network range: this is measures as the breadth of an individual’s connections. Though not as effective as strong ties, this can nevertheless be utilized across a larger number of cross-unit knowledge transfer relationships.
  4. Network cohesion: this is measures as the extent to which a given relationship is embedded within a dense system of common connections.

Business Application

So, how can executives use their understanding of the factors above to harness the talent of their workforce? Tortoriello points to four strategies:

  1. Analyze and map vital informal networks: this is basically visualizing the structure of your organization’s informal network. In other words, figure out who the key people are that others go to for advice, how do employees discuss and resolve things, etc. This is, of course, easier said than done; however, observation and listening can help accomplish this.
  2. Identify areas of weakness: next, consider which areas of your “map” need improving.
  3. Bolster tie strength, network range and network cohesion: there are no hard-and-fast rules on how to do so — this will vary from organization to organization. Managers need to think for themselves about what appropriate and called for at the time.
  4. Finally, don’t push it too far: do as much as possible to create conditions conducive to development of diverse and strong relationships. However, don’t try to ‘over engineer’ or manipulate what these networks should look like. By doing so, you could end up destroying them rather than supporting them.
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Idea conceived

  • 2012

Idea posted

  • February 2013

DOI number



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