Monday, March 10, 2008
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 network.
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 ideas.
Promoting knowledge sharing is a matter of (a) creating the relational conditions that facilitate interpersonal transfers, and (b) creating the structural conditions that facilitate diffusion.
©2005 Steve Borgatti
All knowledge is socially constructed, but some more than others.
In some cases, an individual interacts with a number of others who may be completely unaware of what problem he is trying to solve, and then, with the knowledge gained, the individual goes off by himself and synthesizes a solution.
In other cases, the new knowledge is co-created by interacting individuals who are bouncing ideas off each other and actively integrating their different perspectives.
These two kinds of knowledge creation are supported by different kinds of network structures.
To maximize individual creativity, a person needs access to a diversity of skills and expertise. The relationships between the knowledge builder and the resources they draw on do not have to unusually close. They shouldn't be enemies or competitors (more on them later), but friendly acquaintances will do fine. All parties need to have some skill at communicating across disciplines.
The more diverse people a person can call on, the better the opportunities for knowledge creation. Since individuals are limited in the number of relationships they can maintain, efficiency is important. A person who has many colleagues drawn from one discipline and/or social circle will not access as much diversity of ideas as a person who is connected to the same number of people drawn from different disciplines, departments and social circles. People who interact daily come to know many of the same things, and are in that sense informationally redundant. In contrast, people who do not interact will often know many things that the other does not know.
The property of having ties to people who are not in the same social circles with each other is called betweenness or "structural holes". A person rich in structural holes has many ties, and the people they are tied to are not tied to each other.
It's important to realize that in a small group, it is difficult for many people to have personal networks rich in structural holes. For this to happen the network has to be fairly diffuse.
Interactive creativity also calls for heterogeneity -- it is the successful synthesis of different perspectives that creates something new. But because the interaction in this context is more intense and more important, the relationship between the people needs to be very good. In particular, they need to be able to understand each other well. This tends to mean that the participants are fundamentally similar in language and background concepts. It also means that affective elements like simply liking each other are helpful, as are good social skills.
Radical versus Incremental Innovation
People need access to a diversity of skills and knowledge in order to innovate. This argues for being as well connected as possible. If we want everyone in a group to be in a position to innovate, this will mean a very dense network in which everyone is connected to almost everyone.
This is great for incremental improvements within a well-established paradigm, but tends to stifle radical innovation. Michael Polanyi wrote the following about one of his contributions to physics:
"I would never have conceived my theory, let alone have made a great effort to verify it, if I had been more familiar with major developments in physics that were taking place. Moreover, my initial ignorance of the powerful, false objections that were raised against my ideas protected those ideas from being nipped in the bud."
In other words, if radical innovators are too well connected to the network, they can get swamped by the prevailing wisdom. As a result, radical innovation is facilitated by sparser and clumpier networks -- as in a skunk works.
The answer to the question 'what should my organization's network look like to enable innovation?' depends on the kind of innovation.
©2005 Steve Borgatti