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Can knowledge be retained in informal organisational networks?

Abualqumboz, M and Reid, I and Papalexi, M and Bamford, D (2017) Can knowledge be retained in informal organisational networks? In: Proceedings of the 18th European Conference on Knowledge Management (ECKM 2017), 07 September 2017 - 08 September 2017, Barcelona, Spain.

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Abstract

Taking a constructivist view of knowledge where knowledge is viewed as a process of knowing, the literature on knowledge sharing assumes that knowledge can be retained through being embedded in institutional routines, structures, and systems. However, this concept is challenged in the context of informal organisational networks where membership is voluntary, temporary and organisationally unsanctioned. Such challenges have predominately focused around: 1) behavioural aspects including organisational and individual defence mechanisms to protect knowledge and opportunistic behaviours such as free-riding; or 2) social aspects including lack of mutual trust and asymmetric power relations. This paper investigates the challenges to knowledge retention in knowledge-sharing networks, reporting on data collected from case studies of four organisational networks in the UK. There is a significant amount of literature addressing such challenges on organisational level, however, less research has been done on the network level. In particular, the challenge of knowledge retention within networks. The research adopts Social Exchange Theory in order to develop the theoretical underpinning and data interpretation. The paper also presents an explanatory model to inform theorists and practitioners on how to improve knowledge retention in networks. The case study consisted of four knowledge-sharing networks, two photography networks; women entrepreneurship network; and a construction network in the North West of England. A qualitative approach was used through an ethnographic lens consisting of 18 months participant observation study that produced 28 semi-structured interviews. The study also utilised data from network archive network spanning two years from 2012-2014. This paper argues that knowledge shared in the networks analysed largely remained inside the network and that less knowledge was shared with networked organisations making the network knowledge “ontologically” separate from knowledge created in organisation. The data also revealed that the boundary spanners found it difficult to share knowledge between their formally contracted organisation and the informal network due to issues related to trust and unbalanced reciprocal exchanges. Our investigation of knowledge sharing in those networks demonstrates the difficulty in retaining knowledge on a network level due to blurring organisational boundaries and temporariness of such networks.

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