The Rich Get Richer: Enabling Conditions for Knowledge Use in Organizational Work Teams
Executive Summary — Individuals on the periphery of organizational knowledge-sharing networks, due to inexperience, location, or lack of social capital, may struggle to access useful knowledge at work. An electronic knowledge repository (KR) offers a practical solution to the challenges of making knowledge available to people who might otherwise lack access to relevant expertise. Such a system may function as a knowledge-access equalizer. However, the presence of a knowledge repository will not solve the problem of access to knowledge for those at the periphery of the organization unless it is used. In this paper, the authors begin to theorize the social and structural conditions that support KR use by exploring whether individuals on the organizational periphery take advantage of KRs, or whether KRs function more to enrich individuals whose experience and position already provide them better access to other knowledge sources. Using extensive data on KR use at a global, outsourced provider of software services, the authors' results show that despite the seeming promise of a KR to integrate or equalize peripheral players, it instead enriches knowledge access for people who are already well positioned. Findings thus suggest that KR use is not simply an individual activity based on need, but is instead enabled by certain social conditions (such as familiarity and experience) and inhibited by others (such as status disparities and remote location). An organizational KR thus fails to serve as an equalizer absent intervention. Key concepts include:
- There is a cautionary note for managers: In this study, KRs supported team performance by enriching the knowledge access of central players in the organization. KRs were less effective at ensuring much-needed access for those on the periphery.
- If individuals cannot get the knowledge that they need, then both their performance and their careers may suffer.
- Although some individuals are deployed into positions seen as organizationally necessary - such as remote offices or onto teams where they all may not know each other - in these positions they are less likely to make use of available organizational resources.
- There is a pattern of greater use of a KR and success for teams working in more supportive conditions.
- Individual and team characteristics enable people to support each other, make use of available resources, and perform effectively.
Individuals on the periphery of organizational knowledge sharing networks, due to inexperience, location, or lack of social capital, may struggle to access useful knowledge at work. An electronic knowledge repository (KR) has the potential to help peripheral individuals gain access to valuable knowledge because a KR is universally and constantly available and can be used without social interaction. However, for it to serve this equalizing function, those on the periphery of the organization must actually use it, possibly overcoming barriers to doing so. In this paper, we develop a multi-level model of knowledge use in teams and show that individuals whose experience and position already provide them access to vital knowledge use a KR more frequently than individuals on the organizational periphery. We argue that this occurs because the KR - despite its appearance of equivalent accessibility to all - is actually more accessible to central than peripheral players due to their greater experience and access to colleagues. Thus, KR use is not driven primarily by the need to overcome limited access to other knowledge sources. Rather KR use is enabled when actors know how to reap value from the KR, which ironically improves with increasing access to other sources of knowledge. Implications for both team effectiveness and knowledge management research are offered. We conclude that KRs are unlikely to serve as a knowledge equalizer without intervention.