Extra-Organizational Knowledge Sharing

The organizational context of knowledge sharing has been heavily discussed in various blog posts from different perspectives. Rachel notes that “it seems that people have always exchanged information through workplaces”; Kamryn suggests that trust is important to KM within organizations, with the implication that trust is possible because of the structure provided by those same organizations; Mary argues quite rightly that “[e]ffective knowledge management has a cornerstone of shared language and shared goals,” which is likewise easier to establish within an organizational framework. This blog has earlier noted Lucas’ emphasis on the importance of trust and reputation in intra- and inter-organizational knowledge transfer.

Indeed, this is what much of the literature on knowledge transfer centers around, the ways in which organizations can increase the efficacy and efficiency of knowledge transfer and management. It is rarely, if ever, stated that this is exclusive to KM tasks in established organizations and cannot be applied in disorganized public venues, but the nature of many of the discussed methods makes them difficult to apply without some degree top-down control.

As a review of previously discussed work, Lucas cites trust between colleagues, the reputation of knowledge providers, and the reputation of knowledge receivers as key elements of successful knowledge transfer (2005). Nonaka emphasizes the role of organizations in providing a structure in which tacit knowledge, difficult to transmit under any circumstances, might be more readily codified into explicit knowledge (1994).

Wasko & Faraj provide an intriguing departure from this close focus on organizational knowledge management, instead writing on knowledge transfer in “networks of practice”, looser and less familiar versions of communities of practice in which any given participant has no particularly strong stake in the whole and may not even know other members, which they specifically define according to these characteristics: self-organizing and composed of individuals who participate voluntarily with the intent of engaging in mutually beneficial problem-solving (2005). The authors posit that, despite the lack of organizational structure and professional relationships, these networks of practice still allow substantial meaningful knowledge transfer to occur.

Wasko & Faraj note, among other things, a lack of quality control in contributions, a free-rider problem, and low potential for the confluence of circumstances commonly cited in the literature as sources of cohesion and trust. The authors identify social capital as the principle reason for participants in networks of practice choosing to engage even with no guarantee of reciprocity, namely that, in spite of widely held beliefs that social capital cannot accumulate to a significant degree in networks of practice, individuals choose to do so anyways due to a tacit expectation of personal benefit. Wasko & Faraj frame this benefit as a belief on the part of the contributing individual that their contribution is worthwhile, and that it will enhance the overall value of the network, ultimately benefiting them in turn (2005). Those authors base their argument on social exchange theory as outlined by Blau in 1964, the idea that social interaction is promoted by the belief of participants that their reputation will be enhanced by their involvement.

That is the gist of it, and it works well enough for explaining active participation in loose professional networks. But what about social media, particularly in the context of intentionally anonymous participation? That lacks both the general familiarity of a network of practice and the bonds of traditional social interaction. I’ll leave off with a question: Why would individuals choose to participate in such interactions, when they will likely never be identified and in all likelihood will never encounter the individual they aided in any context in the future?


Blau, P. M. (1964). Exchange and power in social life. New York, NY: Wiley.

Lucas, L. M. (2005). The impact of trust and reputation on the transfer of best practices. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(4), 87-101.

Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.

Wasko, M. M., & Faraj, S. (2005). Why should I share? Examining social capital and knowledge contribution in electronic networks of practice. Management Information Systems Quarterly, 29(1), 35-57.

Extra-Organizational Knowledge Sharing

5 thoughts on “Extra-Organizational Knowledge Sharing

  1. To attempt and answer your question, I would say that participation depends on desire. I think about the success of Wikipedia. People choose to make accurate, or inaccurate for that matter, contributions to a larger collection of knowledge. I think communities and networks of practices are similar in that the individuals involved make conscious choices about whether or not he or she wants to participate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It turns out that altruism is a major motivation to share knowledge and to participate, anonymously, in online communities of practice. It promotes, according some research, a stronger bonding among community members, and is often motivated by good feelings — that is, we feel good when we contribute, even if we don’t add to our reputation when we do. I added an article about this just now to my CiteULike account — if you read the lit review and the discussion section, you’ll find more research on this: http://www.citeulike.org/user/seancsb/article/14010771


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