How Reputation Affects Knowledge Sharing Among Colleagues

When it comes to knowledge sharing among R&D employees, professional reputations matter — but the chances of successfully garnering information from a colleague increase if the information is important.

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Image courtesy of Astra Zeneca.

Social networks are a defining feature of 21st-century information exchange. Within research and development-intensive industries, in particular, social networks have always been key to fostering innovation. But what lies at the heart of a researcher’s decision to share information within a network of fellow researchers?

The Leading Question

How does reputation affect a scientist’s decision to share knowledge with a coworker?

  • Assessment of a coworker’s reputation affects whether knowledge is shared.
  • R&D workers, on the whole, remember knowledge exchanges; those who have taken more than given are less likely to receive information.
  • Know-how that is unique and important is most likely to be shared with a coworker.

Answering this question has the potential to separate organizations with a true culture of innovation from those who are destined to be also-rans. One important factor in knowledge sharing within social networks — particularly the sharing of personal, noncodified technical knowledge that scientists and other researchers possess — is reputation. In this context, reputation is essentially one individual’s assessment of how a coworker has acted and will act after receiving assistance.

The Importance of Reputation

Reputation plays a role in interpersonal sharing of individually controlled knowledge in two ways. First, the motivations of two R&D workers may not be compatible even though they both work for the same organization. As a result, how one worker perceives the other may be the deciding
factor in a decision to offer information. Reputation also plays a role where rules or systems are unable to spur sharing. Because critical information is often held privately by individuals, workers often can choose to share or withhold such information in their interactions with colleagues without fear of sanction. That leaves reputation as a key motivator in any decision to share or withhold information.

The benefits of understanding the role of reputation in knowledge sharing stem from the fundamental tension between the importance of noncodified technological knowledge in a knowledge-intensive company and the difficulty of coordinating and controlling these private, fragmented resources. This tension is especially relevant in multidivisional, multinational businesses that depend on technology and innovation for competitive advantage. Our research therefore explored the question: What effect does an R&D worker’s reputation have on a second R&D worker’s decision to share technological knowledge with the first individual, when both work in the same company?

Related Research

P.C. Ensign, Knowledge Sharing Among Scientists: Why Reputation Matters for R&D in Multinational Firms (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

To investigate this question, we surveyed more than 200 pharmaceutical scientists working in the R&D operations of 63 different pharmaceutical companies in Canada and the United States. The complete results and analysis of the study are described in the book Knowledge Sharing Among Scientists. In the study, we asked scientists about their knowledge-sharing activities within their own companies — a seemingly optimal environment for sharing information. Interestingly, the study findings suggest that even among scientists who work for the same company, knowledge is not always shared freely. Instead, a potential knowledge source’s assessment of a knowledge seeker’s reputation affected whether or not information was offered.

This study applied a lens of past and future to the concept of reputation. We looked at past personal and professional interactions, past coworker and colocation interactions, and the duration and frequency of such interactions. The aspects of potential future interactions that we studied were driven by predictability (how the source of knowledge anticipates the knowledge seeker will behave in the future), reciprocity (the knowledge holder’s expectation that a knowledge-sharing favor will be returned, either to the individual source or to the larger organizational community) and obligation (the indebtedness the knowledge seeker already has to the knowledge holder).

Not surprisingly, a number of the findings underscored the importance of reputation in interactions among colleagues. For instance, the duration of two parties’ past interaction is positively related to the likelihood of current knowledge sharing occurring between them. Predictability and reciprocity were also positively related to knowledge sharing; but a knowledge seeker’s level of obligation — how much the knowledge seeker was already indebted to the potential knowledge source — was negatively related. But our research also yielded surprising findings. In particular, frequency of previous interaction, on its own, was not significantly related to the likelihood of information sharing, and previous personal and professional interaction was actually negatively associated with knowledge sharing — as was past coworker and colocation interaction. However, proximity influenced how positively reputations were perceived. In other words, seekers of information tended to be most successful when making requests from coworkers in the same city or, failing that, the same state or province.

Implications Within Organizations

The research has a number of practical implications for individuals interested in enhancing their access to knowledge within their organizations. For the R&D scientist hoping to receive knowledge from a colleague, an awareness of the factors that influence whether or not sharing takes place could increase the chances of receiving technological knowledge. Our research suggests that seekers of assistance should be advised that physical distance poses a barrier. As a result, the best course of action is to seek help from someone who is in the same city or at least the same state or province. It’s also best to make requests of other researchers with some shared connection within the organization, such as fellow members of a team or unit.

Seekers of knowledge should also recognize that other scientists within the same company are most likely to share scientific know-how that is unique and not easily replicated and that provides a greater contribution. Thus, the one seeking assistance is more likely to be successful if he or she can make the case to the potential source that the knowledge sought is vital to accomplishing a task and that the source has the expertise to provide it — perhaps uniquely so. Additionally, and not surprisingly, the burden lies on the knowledge seeker to make the sharing of technological knowledge as little work for the source as possible. Finally, knowledge seekers are more likely to be successful if they appeal to people with whom they have had a long-standing, meaningful relationship.

Reputational Factors that Influence Knowledge Sharing

? Past behavior by individual scientists, and the groups they belong to, influences whether knowledge is shared.
? Longer duration of interaction positively influences the flow of information.
? Frequency of interaction does not influence the flow of information; quality appears to matter more than quantity.
? Surprisingly, superficial personal and professional interaction as well as cowork and colocation interaction had a negative effect on knowledge sharing.
? However, personal and professional relationships added to predictability, which was determined to contribute to requests being granted.
? Frequency of interaction did contribute to reciprocity, which contributed to sharing.
? Individuals who were already obliged to another person were less likely to be helped by that person than someone who was less obligated, not obligated or owed a favor.

For the most part, researchers who are acting as a source of information are not concerned about whether sharing does or does not take place. But they should be mindful of a few issues. The study shows that a source’s chances of receiving future assistance is dependent on not being obliged to the recipient and not being seen as taking more than giving. Sources can reduce their own obligations to a colleague with whom they share knowledge — and even increase the obligation of that recipient colleague — by sharing technological knowledge. The bottom line is that knowledge sources, as potential future recipients of knowledge, should recognize the fact that potential receivers of knowledge on the whole remember prior interactions. In other words, they tally exchanges.

Implications for Managers

Predictability and reciprocity were two of the main characteristics that were positively associated with reputations in this study. How can these traits be encouraged in the workplace? Division-wide social events, team-building exercises and other opportunities for reciprocity seem likely places to start. Because proximity and organizational ties both positively influenced knowledge sharing, these findings suggest that teams of knowledge workers may be more innovative the more closely they are connected. The study even lends support to the idea that rotating knowledge workers across subgroups or intracompany boundaries could in some cases be appropriate. However, our empirical findings also support studies and related international business literature that show there is already a great deal of integration of technological activity across geographic boundaries.

Using this work will allow management to set expectations more realistically about the circumstances under which knowledge sharing is likely to occur. Social mechanisms, in this case reputations, are critical elements in the governance of informal transactions within a company, such as knowledge sharing. Consequently, the research suggests that implementing some form of formal incentive structure to encourage knowledge sharing would neither complement, nor substitute for, the social mechanisms of governance that reputations provide.

The power of knowledge sharing is not, of course, restricted to R&D scientists at pharmaceutical companies. In fact, in an era marked by open-source software, open innovation and tools for online collaboration such as Wikipedia and Facebook, it is more important than ever to understand the factors that govern knowledge sharing across a range of settings. Then, too, as R&D becomes ever more complex and interdisciplinary in a variety of industries, grappling with the impact of reputation and knowledge sharing may help unlock a whole new way to collaborate in the interests of innovation.


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Comment (1)
Reputation has been one of the key components of persuasive communication since the ancient Greeks started to theorize about persuasion. This makes a lot of sense as well, in particular if a person communicating something to you is a stranger to you (personally). Obviously the subject is important as well. In personal matters you don't need any reputation, but you still have to be trustworthy.