Studies have shown that when knowledge sharing and collaborative systems are used effectively, they can raise knowledge workers productivity by 20 to 25 percent. Moreover, enterprise-wide collaboration systems are predicted to become the primary communication and decision-making channel for organizations in the future. Despite the growth in the number of online knowledge sharing systems, Gartner estimates that 80 percent of knowledge sharing efforts will "not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology.”
I recently completed a nine month long research project as part of my graduate work with Northwestern's MSLOC program designed to understand how an individual's knowledge sharing behavior within an online community is influenced by their level of trust and/or perceived safety within their organization. The following are insights from my research, analysis and subsequent reflections. I hope these results can help you with your knowledge sharing efforts in your communities.
How this study came about
Both theoretical studies and real world knowledge sharing practices have demonstrated that merely providing a forum is not enough to drive an individual’s knowledge sharing behavior. The challenge stems from the inherent difficulty of asking individuals to share their knowledge, particularly in the public, and what can be deemed risky, environment of a virtual community. Regardless of the technology chosen, organizations must understand how to successfully deploy social technologies by creating an environment conducive to knowledge sharing.
Psychological safety, or your sense of being able to show yourself without fear, and institutional trust, your willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another, have been shown to influence knowledge sharing behavior. To build on previous research, my study was designed to test the relationships between knowledge sharing behavior, psychological safety and institutional trust from the perspective of individuals using online communities within organizations. Furthermore, the study was designed to potentially provide insights into ways that organizations can encourage knowledge sharing behavior.
Findings and interpretations
Trust is a must
The clearest finding from this study is that institutional trust has a strong relationship with both psychological safety and knowledge sharing behavior. Institutional trust was the only measure correlated with all other measures and institutional trust provided the study’s sole correlation to knowledge sharing behavior.
The silent player
While a key hypothesis of the study was that psychological safety would have a direct and positive relationship with knowledge sharing behavior the data analyzed did not support this hypothesis. Instead, the data revealed an indirect and discrete role played by psychological safety in shaping an individual's level of trust and subsequent willingness to share their knowledge.
It’s not about me
Another key finding to emerge was the idea that individual knowledge sharing behavior is greatly influenced by environmental factors and not personality traits. An individual’s self-consciousness was not found to influence their knowledge sharing behavior. Instead, an individual's sense that their peers and manager supported the online community, their perception of others’ benevolence (or goodwill) within the community, and their organization's norm of sharing were found to influence knowledge sharing behavior.
These findings demonstrate that an individual’s knowledge sharing behavior is more strongly influenced by the values, cues and perceptions derived from external influences (such as managers, peers, and organizational norms) than by personal preferences or self-consciousness. This is further supported by the themes that emerged from the qualitative analyses, as the most cited reason for sharing knowledge was to help others and the most cited barrier was lack of use of the online community.
Interestingly, none of the demographic variables were found to influence knowledge sharing behavior, affirming that environmental aspects influencing an individual’s knowledge sharing behavior go beyond organizational size, tenure, function, platform used, etc.
Implications and recommendations
Given both the predicted rise of and known challenges with implementing knowledge sharing technologies, knowledge sharing practitioners and organizations alike have much to gain from a better understanding of how to drive knowledge sharing behavior, one individual at a time. Those aiming to increase knowledge sharing behavior cannot look at one particular variable as an automatic means of encouraging the desired behavior. While trust is clearly a significant factor, it is influenced by a variety of elements.
This analysis suggests that in seeking to drive knowledge-sharing behavior organizations must evaluate how individuals perceive their environment’s norm of sharing as well as the perceived level of peer support, manager support, and goodwill of others within the online community. These measures can be used to understand an organization’s readiness for a online community before implementation while also providing areas of ongoing evaluation.
Overall, these findings support the notion that knowledge sharing success requires greater emphasis on a climate and leadership that encourage the right behaviors rather than a focus on technology used or individual contributor characteristics.