Designing Effective Knowledge Networks

  • By Katrina Pugh and Laurence Prusak
  • September 12, 2013

In today’s interconnected world, networks for sharing knowledge are increasingly important. By paying careful attention to eight dimensions of network design, leaders of knowledge networks can facilitate desired behaviors and outcomes.

“Knowledge networks” are collections of individuals and teams who come together across organizational, spatial and disciplinary boundaries to invent and share a body of knowledge. The focus of such networks is usually on developing, distributing and applying knowledge. For-profit and nonprofit organizations of all sizes are seizing on this model to learn more quickly and collaborate productively. However, for every successful network, others have lost steam due to poor participation, goal ambiguity, mixed allegiances or technology mismatches.

Knowledge networks are as old as human commerce, as knowledge was often implicitly exchanged in the production and exchange of goods and services. In the medieval days of guilds and apprentices, formal networks existed between artists, artisans and tradesmen. However, in recent years, Web-based collaboration has streamlined the identification and distribution of codified knowledge, at lower cost and over greater physical distance.1 In his classic 1937 article “The Nature of the Firm,” economist Ronald Coase predicted that companies would grow larger as information costs fell.2 Instead, we have witnessed less the rise of company size than the rise of intercompany collaborations. The knowledge network has been trumpeted as a model for innovation and scale — one that capitalizes on the agility and reach of human connections while integrating practical insight into the day-to-day work of network members. Networks can be 10 people across a handful of organizations or 1,000 people across continents and industries.

Knowledge network members come together around a common goal and share social and operational norms. Most researchers agree that network members participate out of common interest and shared purpose rather than because of contract, quid pro quo or hierarchy. However, researchers don’t agree about the importance of formal structure, organization and leadership. Some emphasize that members are simply “linked together by interdependent exchange relationships” while others call for formalized roles, routines and metrics.3 What’s clear is that knowledge network leaders can influence members’ behavior through network design and facilitation. And that can mean the difference between magnetism and fizzle, between knowledge sharing and hoarding, between inspiration and cynicism.

We sought to better understand the leverage that network leaders have.