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Knowledge Exchange in Networks of Practice


Knowledge Exchange in Networks of Practice


The concept of a community of practice is emerging as an essential building block of the knowledge

economy. A community of practice consists of a relatively tightly knit group of members who know each other, work together face to face, and continually negotiate, communicate, and coordinate with each other directly. The demands of direct communication and coordination limit the size of the community, enhance the formation of strong interpersonal ties, and create strong norms of direct reciprocity between members (Brown & Duguid, 2000). These communities develop through the mutual engagement of individuals as they participate in shared work practices, supporting the exchange of ideas between people, which results in learning and innovation within the community (Brown & Duguid, 2000). However, typically not all of an organization’s relevant

knowledge resides within its formal boundaries or within its communities of practice. To remain competitive, organizations need to ensure that new knowledge found in the external environment is

integrated with knowledge that is found within the firm (Cohen & Levinthal, 1990). Organizations must rely on linkages to outside organizations and individuals to acquire knowledge, especially in dynamic fields where innovation results from inter-organizational knowledge exchange and learning (Cohen & Levinthal, 1990).


Current research has focused on the role of communities of practice for encouraging knowledge exchange and innovation within organizations; however, we know much less about the role that members of communities of practice play in creating linkages to external knowledge sources. Previous research has found that organizational members may simultaneously be members of a community of practice as well as members of broader occupational communities (Van Maanen & Barley, 1984). These individuals perform the dual roles of generating local knowledge within an organizational community of practice while providing linkages to knowledge and innovations outside of the organization. These interorganizational networks have been referred to as networks of practice. Networks of practice are social structures linking similar individuals across organizations who are engaged in a shared practice, but who do not necessarily know one another (Brown & Duguid, 2000). Although individuals connected through a network of practice may never meet one another face-to-face, they are capable of sharing a great deal of knowledge and may play a vital role in a firm’s ability to acquire new knowledge. While the participation of individuals in networks

of practice is not a new phenomenon, the ability to access these networks has increased due to recent advances in information and communication technologies. Previous efforts to interact with others outside an organization’s legal boundaries were often fruitless since they could be time-consuming or cumbersome, and individuals may not even have known whom to contact or how to find a relevant person. Furthermore, if management did not provide the resources to attend external conferences or other events, finding other like-minded individuals with whom to discuss work-related problems often proved difficult. However, communication technologies, such as cell phones, e-mail, IRC, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and so forth, have reduced the costs of informal inter-organizational communication. As a result, individuals may now easily access and discuss their work tasks with others outside their organization. These informal interactions are valued and sustained over time because the sharing of knowledge is an important aspect of being a member of a technological community or network of practice (Bouty, 2000).Sharing knowledge across external organizational boundaries poses significant challenges to organizations attempting to manage their

knowledge resources (Pickering & King, 1995). Through external sources, individuals gain access to knowledge not available locally and can interact informally, free from the constraints of hierarchy

and local rules. However, accessing knowledge from external sources usually involves a high degree of knowledge trading and reciprocity. In order to receive help, individuals must be willing to

give advice and know-how as well, some of which company management may consider proprietary

(von Hippel, 1987). Of special interest to management is that individuals generally participate in networks of practice based on their own personal biases and preferences for others as opposed to

what the formal organization dictates, and as a result, they may be exchanging knowledge with others who are working for direct competitors (Schrader, 1991). This makes the study of networks of practice of prime interest for researchers and practitioners.

Previous research related to networks of Practice

Networks of practice are not a new phenomenon. They have existed for hundreds of years and have played an important role in the diffusion of knowledge through society. For example, the well-known term, invisible colleges, dates back to the 1640s when a group of 10 men who were well-educated within one field would meet informally in the taverns of London. These meetings later developed in 1660 into the Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in Great Britain (Price, 1963; Tuire & Erno, 2001). While there is considerable previous research on inter-organizational informal networks under a variety of names—such as scientific communities (Knorr-Cetina, 1981; Polanyi, 1962), co-citation networks (Usdiken & Pasadeos, 1995), invisible colleges (Crane, 1972), epistemic communities (Haas, 1992; Holzner & Marx, 1979), thought-collectives (Fleck, 1935), paradigms (Kuhn, 1962), and occupational communities (Van Maanen & Barley, 1984)—a review of this literature reveals that research that explicitly focuses on knowledge sharing is quite limited. Below we present the relevant research and empirical studies that we found in our review. This research can be divided into two categories: (1) studies from the perspective of scientific communities and (2) studies from the perspective of high-technology firms.

Scientific Communities

Research on scientific communities suggests that knowledge sharing occurs between members as they engage in debate and discussion of each other’s ideas and results, and through collaboration

on joint research projects (Crane, 1972). Due to the universal nature of knowledge, shared language, and values within the scientific community, individuals can communicate relatively easily with one another (Tushman & Katz, 1980; Van Maanen & Barley, 1984). Thus, knowledge and innovations spread quickly across organizational, national, and cultural boundaries through these informal relationships. In many cases, these informal networks are more valuable for sharing knowledge than more formal channels, such as publications, since the results of failed experiments

are rarely published, and learning about these can prevent their duplication. In scientific communities, the central goals and values of the members are generally developed and spread throughout the network (Hagstrom, 1965). Strong norms that are well defined and socially imposed, such as reciprocity in knowledge sharing, respect for individuals’ intellectual property rights, and honesty in research, facilitate knowledge exchange (Bouty, 2000; Liebeskind, Oliver, Zucker & Brewer, 1996). Trustworthy behavior and norms are enforced since the level of participation in the community is jointly determined by the community’s members. Individuals who fail to follow the norms and implicit code of conduct can be excluded from participating in valuable exchanges with others (e.g., participation in research teams with leading researchers, access to the latest research findings, etc.). This exclusion can then negatively impact their career success (Tuire & Erno, 2001). As a result, the production and sharing of valuable knowledge is facilitated, allowing the frontier of knowledge to progress rapidly and at minimal cost Structural studies of research-based communities of academic scientists have shown that these networks are generally characterized by a center and a periphery (Schott, 1988). The most important, visible, or active members are generally found in the center, and these individuals influence the direction of the development of the community’s knowledge. The activities of the individuals in the core determine the community’s dominating theoretical concepts, methods, and chosen research problems, which are then mediated through the community’s links to individuals in the periphery (Schott, 1988). Through a process known as social contagion (Marsden, 1988), new members are socialized into the community and as such transform their personal identities, adapting their attitudes, behaviors, and values to those of the community (Holzner & Marx,

1979). Additionally, power is an integral part of scientific communities, with individuals often using knowledge strategies as components of power strategies (Holzner & Marx, 1979). Thus, the center of a scientific community is not only a realm of activity, but it also is a realm of identity

and cultural values of the community (Schott, 1988; Tuire & Erno, 2001).

High-technology Firms

Researchers have also taken the firm’s perspective and focused on inter-organizational boundary spanning activity in high-technology firms. A major stream of this research began in the 1960s with an investigation into the communication patterns of scientists and engineers in R&D laboratories (see Flap, Bulder & Volker, 1998, for a review). One area within this research is why individuals communicate informally with others outside the organization. For example, von Hippel (1987) found that when specialist engineers could not find the required know-how in-house or in publications, they went outside their organization to their professional networks developed at conferences and other events. Further research has found that quite often professionals communicate with others in their professional networks in order to maintain contact with a reference group and to keep abreast of technological changes (Aiken & Hage, 1968). Allen (1970) has also found that low-performing individuals choose to go outside for help. He argues that this choice is a way to avoid paying a sychological price of loss of face that occurs when an individual asks a colleague who is not a friend or advice.A second area of investigation has focused on the informal flow of knowledge across a  irm’s boundaries in a limited number of settings, such as semiconductor, specialty steel and mini-mill industry, and R&D operations (Carter, 1989; Schrader, 1991; von Hippel, 1987). This research provides evidence that participation by individuals in inter-organizational networks leads to  knowledge sharing across a firm’s legal boundaries that is generally not governed by firm  ontracts or other market mechanisms (Liebeskind et al., 1996). In many instances, this  nowledge sharing may even include the exchange of confidential organizational knowledge,  ven with others who might even be working in rival firms (Schrader, 1991; von Hippel, 1987).  hus, it is argued that knowledge “leaks” across the firm’s legal boundaries (Mansfield, 1985; von  ippel, 1988). Bouty’s research (2000) raises a very interesting point though—confidentiality is socially  onstructed, and as one of her interviewees noted, there are  “open secrets.” Research by Jarvenpaa and  taples (2001) further touches on this aspect of socially constructed confidentiality since they find that the more individuals view their knowledge as personal expertise, the more individuals regard such  nowledge as their own property and not that of the organization. However, this research suggests that  ndividuals do not just give the knowledge away to others outside their firm. Rather they  onsciously exchange knowledge with other carefully chosen individuals with whom they often have    ong-term relation built on mutual trust and understanding (Bouty, 2000; Schrader, 1991). Research  onducted by Schrader (1991) finds that individuals often expect that their chances of receiving  aluable knowledge in return are likely to increase after they provide knowledge. Thus,  articipation in inter-organizational emergent networks results in reciprocity and dyadic exchange  f knowledge (von Hippel, 1987), with knowledge sharing viewed as an ‘admission ticket’ to the  ngoing ‘back room’ discussions within professional networks (Appleyard, 1996). As a result,  articipation in inter-organizational networks leads to knowledge leaking in at the same time as it  eaks out of the firm (Brown & Duguid, 2000). Research on the relationship between this knowledge  xchange and performance at any level, however, is scant. One of the primary reasons is that it  s very difficult for firms to manage and evaluate the benefits since it occurs “off the books”  (Carter, 1989). Secondly, data regarding the sharing of potentially firm proprietary knowledge  re  ifficult to collect due to their sensitive nature. However, there is some initial evidence of a positive  elationship between knowledge trading and firm performance (Allen, Hyman & Pinckney, 1983;  chrader, 1991), between knowledge trading and project performance (Allen, 1977), and  etween  nowledge trading and individual performance (Teigland, 2003; Teigland & Wasko, 2003).

Areas For Future research Networks of practice are proposed to be a valuable complement  o intra-organizational face-to-face communities of practice. The implication is that in order to be  ompetitive, organizations should focus on sponsoring participation in both traditional communities of  ractice and networks of practice, as well as stimulating the interaction between the two. This leads to  everal interesting areas in need of further research. One area that deserves attention addresses the  uestion of why individuals participate and access knowledge in networks of practice. While the  esearch within high-technology firms provides some initial suggestions—for example, the  nability to find the required knowledge in-house, the desire to maintain contact with a professional  eference group or long-term relations with close ties, to keep abreast of technological changes, and  ven to avoid loss of face—the ability to access knowledge through weak tie connections  asically requires depending on the kindness of strangers (Constant, Sproull & Kiesler, 1996). Prior research has emphasized the importance of shared language, values, and goals, as well as long-term  elations built on mutual trust for knowledge exchange. Thus, another area of research should  nvestigate the factors that lead to the creation of these facilitators within networks of practice,  specially networks sustained through electronic communication. Future research should also  nvestigate the relationship between network structure and knowledge sharing, how network structures change over time, and how network structure influences the cognitive aspects of  hared language, values, and goals. The studies reviewed above have also provided evidence that  ndividuals in many instances participate in the exchange of confidential organizational  nowledge,  ften making their own decisions to share knowledge without management’s consensus or even  wareness. As a result, knowledge “leaks” across an organization’s boundaries, indicating  additional areas for future research. For example, future research could investigate the factors leading  o this leakage such as “open secrets,” social construction of confidentiality, expectations of  eciprocity, and so forth. Another factor to be investigated is that of commitment. Just as individuals have    ertain degree of commitment to their organizations, they also have a degree of commitment to their profession or occupation (Van Maanen & Barley,  1984). In some professions, the degree of commitment to the profession can be so strong that the norms of the profession transcend the norms of  he employing organizations. Finally, research on the relationship between knowledge leakage and  erformance at all levels is scant and is in need of significant research, especially due to management’s concerns relating to the “leakage” of firm proprietary knowledge.


In  onclusion, the purpose of this article was to direct our attention to networks of practice since current  ommunity of practice research has focused primarily on their role for encouraging knowledge  xchange and innovation within organizations. While networks of practice are not a new  henomenon, a review of previous, related research reveals that the studies that explicitly focus on  nowledge sharing are quite limited. As a result, we know much less about the role that members  f communities of practice play in creating linkages to external knowledge sources and how  articipation in networks of practice influences performance at the firm, project, or individual level.  ur review of the literature has also provided us with several areas for future research, and we hope that these suggestions, along with our review, will inspire researchers to further investigate networks of practice.

by Robin Teigland and Molly McLure Wasko

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