Facilitating Knowledge Flows
Carroll School of Management, Boston College
What are the conditions
that facilitate knowledge transfer? There are two kinds of issues to
consider: relational and structural. Relational refers to qualities of the
relationship between two people who might share information with each
other. Structural refers to the pattern or structure of relationships
across the entire network.
A key relational concept is multiplexity. Multiplexity refers to the
extent to which one kind of tie between two people is accompanied by
another kind of tie between the same two people. For example, two people
who trust each other might also share information with each other, lend
money to each other, and so on.
What are the relational conditions that facilitate knowledge sharing
between two people? In particular, when I have a particular problem, what
allows me to seek information from you? Perhaps the most important factor
is my knowing that you have expertise in the relevant area.
Another factor is already being acquainted with you, or knowing that we
have mutual acquaintances who can make the introduction -- most people
hate to make cold calls.
Access is also a factor, especially in a sprawling multinational
corporation where people may be widely separated geographically and in
very different time zones. Even if we are in the same office, it may be
that you are much sought after for advice, and are always too busy to see
me. Or, there may be social and cultural barriers that inhibit our
interaction, such as being in different, possibly competing, departments,
or you may be much higher status than I am.
Another set of issues are trust, psychological safety and dependence. In seeking
information and help from you, I will have to reveal, to some extent, what
I'm doing and how much (or little) I know. I need to trust that you will
not misuse this information. I also need to know that you will not want to
much from in return for the help. Finally, I need to feel that you will
not make me feel stupid for revealing my ignorance.
The structure of social network affects how rapidly information flows
from one end of the network to the other. Ultimately, the speed of
information flow is a function of path lengths. When the length of the
shortest path between a pair of nodes is high, it will take a long time
for information to flow from one to the other. Networks with high average
path lengths take longer to transmit information to all members. In turn,
the average path length in a network is a function of a number of
structural factors. I consider each in turn.
Density. The density of a network is the number of ties it has. In
general, the more ties the network has, the shorter the path lengths, and
the fast information moves. However, there are costs to having too much
density. First, it may mean that people are spending more time interacting
and maintaining relationships than working. Second, high density implies
lots of different pathways. The more pathways, the greater the potential
for hearing the same information many times, and worse, hearing different
versions of it each time.
Centralization. Networks that
revolve around a single very well connected node tend to be very efficient
transmitters of information. Nodes are at most just 2 links away from each
other. These networks are great for spreading best practices. The danger
in these networks is that the network is highly dependent on one person.
If that person leaves, there will be disruption for some time. And if the
person gets things wrong, or is pursuing their own agenda, they can hurt a
Centralization also creates a property known as searchability.
It means that it when information is distributed across the network,
people are able to locate who's got it with relatively little trouble. In
the case of a highly centralized network, the center of the network is a
natural go-to person who can direct people to the right person.
Core/periphery. An extension of the concept of
centralization, core/periphery networks revolve around a set of central
nodes (not just one) who are well-connected with each other, and also with
the periphery. Peripheral nodes in contrast are connected to the core, but
not to each other. Core/periphery networks contrast with "clumpy"
networks, which consist of two or more subgroups that are well-connectd
within group but weakly connected across groups -- like a collection of
islands. If we compare networks with the same density, core/periphery
networks have shorter average path lengths than clumpy networks. Tie for
tie, they are more efficient spreaders of knowledge. However, because they
have a dominant core, what is spread is what the core wants to spread.
In sum, dense, core/periphery networks are very efficient at spreading
knowledge. The other side of coin, however, is that they are not good at
innovation because it is too easy for the conventional wisdom to swamp new
Promoting knowledge sharing is a
matter of (a) creating the relational conditions that facilitate
interpersonal transfers, and (b) creating the structural conditions that