The opposing structures of knowledge donating and collecting

Sometimes I wonder if I annoy friends and colleagues when I start a sentence with “Research has shown … “. Sometimes nothing happens out of this and I feel like talking to deaf ears. But I persist. I persist because I think these nuggets of knowledge are important. Maybe not now, but once they will yield fruit. Hopefully.

Information sharing is a well studied topic. You find papers on this in the management field, educational papers, and papers using a psychological perspective. Scholars looked into advice seeking, feedback giving, help giving, knowledge sharing, information retrieval. One of my favorite papers is by Yuqing Ren and Linda Argote, published in 2006 in Management Science. They describe how uncertainty makes it more important to know the expertise of others. By knowing the expertise of others, it is easier to adapt and keep on sharing relevant knowledge. In environments in which tasks and knowledge change quickly, sharing is caring. In those environments what you know today can be obsolete tomorrow. If your team shares knowledge, you have a very good understanding of the expertise of others. You can use this expertise as a lifesaver when your domain becomes outdated.

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Knowledge sharing is a inter-personal process. It happens between two people. Of course in team meetings, you can address the complete team, but more often you are targeting one team member. This means we can represent knowledge sharing as a network of links between people, with each link representing how often these people share information with each other. Such a network is extremely useful to see how knowledge is shared: Is there a central person coordinating (or controlling) the flow? Is the team decomposed into subgroups with minimal interaction? Do team members share knowledge only with similar others?

In small consulting teams with 5 or less team members these knowledge sharing networks are governed by the need for efficiency. Knowledge needs to reach the right expert in the shortest amount of time. This need for efficiency creates specific structures in the knowledge sharing network. Knowledge can be donated, when we give knowledge to someone who hasn’t asked for it, or it can be collected, when we ask somebody for their help. Teams develop a different structure for knowledge collecting than for knowledge donating.

  • Knowledge is collected from a central person: When asking for knowledge, all team members seek out the same person. The network for knowledge collection is coordinated by one person. This person can coordinate the knowledge sharing, but he or she also has the power to control it, stoping you from collecting the necessary knowledge and sabotaging your work. In small consulting teams, team members also rely on middlemen to collect information.
  • Knowledge is donated to everyone: Knowledge donation networks develop a different structure. when donating knowledge, consultants in small teams don’t seek out a central person, but spread it throughout the team. There is the desire to give the knowledge directly to the right expert and not to rely on a central coordinator or a middlemen. It could be the novelly of the knowledge, that consultants don’t trust anybody else to correctly transmit it to the right expert.

Knowledge donating and knowledge collecting are two very different knowledge sharing processes. They are both necessary, but they occur in different ways.

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