“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.
1. A. Jacobson and L. Prusak, “Unlocking the $2.6 Trillion Challenge: Measuring Knowledge Transactions,” unpublished ms.
2. R.H. Coase, “The Nature of the Firm,” Economica 4, no. 16 (November 1937): 386-403.
3. See, respectively, J.G. Stein, R. Stren, J. Fitzgibbon and M. MacLean, “Networks of Knowledge: Collaborative Innovation in International Learning” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001); and E. Wenger, R. McDermott and W.M. Snyder, “Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice,” chap. 3 in “Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge” (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2002).
4. N. Christakis and J. Fowler, “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009); and J.D. Johnson, “Managing Knowledge Networks” (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
5. “Women’s World Banking Center for Microfinance Leadership Strategy for 2012 to 2015,” internal document.
6. E. Wenger, B. Trayner and M. de Laat, “Promoting and Assessing Value Creation in Communities and Networks: A Conceptual Framework,” white paper, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open Universitat, The Netherlands, 2011.
7. K. Pugh, B. Camson and D. Wilson, “Practices of a Successful Knowledge Network,” working paper, Learning Innovations Labs, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011.
8. K. Pugh and J.A. Endo, “Jamming with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement,” Ask Magazine, winter 2011, www.nasa.gov.
9. S. Page, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007).
10. A. Pentland, “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” Harvard Business Review 90, no. 4 (April 2012): 60-70.
11. K. Pugh, “Sharing Hidden Know-How: How Managers Solve Thorny Problems with the Knowledge Jam” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).
12. “Networks for Prosperity: Achieving Development Goals Through Knowledge Sharing” (Vienna, Austria: United Nations Industrial Development Organization, 2011), 17.
i. For an excellent bibliography on other research about knowledge networks, see C. Phelps, R. Heidl and A. Wadwa, “Knowledge, Networks, and Knowledge Networks: A Review and Research Agenda,” Journal of Management 38, no. 4 (July 2012): 1115-1166.