Managed Networks of Competence in Distributed Organizations - The role of ICT and Identity Construction in Knowledge Sharing
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Knowledge is seen as a main driving force for current public organizations to fulfill their mission in changing environments, and for some organizations the response is to design managed networks for knowledge sharing and learning. Distributed organizations, which this study examines, are particularly challenged to develop knowledge sharing and learning across distance to strengthen their operative units. Communities of practice have become a central notion for the management of knowledge in organizations. However, the elaboration of communities of practice seems to assume that the members regularly work together or at least meet during lunchtimes and at meetings in which they share their work experiences. Some, though, do not have the opportunity to work together or meet directly face-to-face, since they are spread around large geographical areas. The purpose of the present work is to elaborate on this issue. This dissertation addresses gaps in existing literature regarding the role of managed networks and communities for knowledge sharing in distributed organizations. In particular the role of collaborative ICT and identity construction is discussed. The overarching research question for this dissertation is: What are the main factors hampering and facilitating knowledge sharing through managed networks of competence? The two sub- questions are: 1) What is the role of the GoToMeeting™ tool, when sharing knowledge in managed networks of competence? 2) What is the role of identity construction for knowledge sharing in managed networks of competence? The overarching theoretical idea that this dissertation extends is structuration theory. ICTs are from this perspective seen as structural resources that shape the social practices of the participants using them while being influenced by this use. Through this duality of technology comes the shape of the community and the identities of those participating in it. This approach combines Giddens structuration theory with Wengers theory on communities of practice, and emphasizes the social, technological and contextual factors that contribute to the dynamics of networks and communities of practice. The empirical context includes the following networks: The Fishery Network in the Norwegian Taxation Authority and two accident networks, two networks for psychological well-being and the network for occupational hygiene in the Norwegian Labor Inspection Authority (main research site). This research is aligned with the social constructivist approach to grounded theory where categories and concepts emerge from my interactions with the field and questions about the data. The strength of this approach is twofold: 1. The social constructionist view has the ability to uncover some of the complexity of human sense making. It views knowledge as socially constructed through interactions in particular contexts. This perspective goes beyond the deterministic perspectives of ICT and organizational structure (network structure), where both are thought to have embedded features influencing people. 2. Grounded theory analysis is particularly useful for the explorative nature of this research project. Data consist of interview data and observational data collected from 2008 to 2012. This thesis contains five papers, contributing to different perspectives and the perspectives are: Paper 1: Media use, social networking and knowledge sharing, Paper 2: Work role identities and their barriers to online knowledge sharing, Paper 3: The sharing of work practice across distance, Paper 4: The use narration to overcome learning barriers when sharing complex practices, and, finally, Paper 5: Focusing on how the construction of identity influences the transfer of knowledge in a managed and online context. This study offers deep insights into the role of the collaborative ICT tool GoToMeeting™ for knowledge sharing. Findings underline that the tool has limitations regarding knowledge sharing, in particular for communities with a more interpretative knowledge orientation. However, closeness to actual work practice is also accomplished by the participants’ use of actual documents, stories and pictures when sharing online. Yet, the participants find it hard to interact socially, to get to know each other and to discover who knows what, which is very important for knowledge sharing. Technology is not the only problem here. Other contextual factors – individualism, group size, mixed signals from management, managerial control and overload of top-down issues create problems for the networks. The main theoretical contribution of this work is the enlargement of structuration theory into knowledge sharing through online managed networks of competence. The dissertation develops a perspective that views technology (ICT) as a medium for identity construction. The findings underline that some work identities are more difficult to signify online than other identities, hence influencing the trajectories of the communities in the organization. There is an emphasis in this dissertation that knowledge sharing is hard to enact in traditional ways online. Though, to some extent the participants establish new ways to share knowledge by means of storytelling and the use of work documents and pictures from an inspected site. Grounded on this, the study contributes to the practice based idea that ICTs can facilitate knowledge sharing by facilitating the observation of the work practices of others. Furthermore, this study extended the emergent perspective on ICT use, and in particular the negative impact of ICT mediated multitasking from work activities to online networks of competence meetings. This study contributes to the communities of practice literature, by changing the focus from identity construction as a facilitator for knowledge sharing, as described in the literature on communities of practice, to the role of identity as a barrier which hamper knowledge sharing. The findings demonstrate that multiple and contradictory identities create barriers linked to knowledge interests and commitment. In particular, my study emphasizes the identity problems in the relationship between old-timers and the newcomers which may hamper the sharing of experiences from old-timers to newcomers. This dissertation contributes also to the study of organizational and social identity by extending the fragmented view of social identities and identity in organizations to managed networks of competence. Findings contributes to our understanding of the tensions between organizational knowledge and professional knowledge that is nurtured by the networks of competence, and the more tacit work-based knowledge which is usually constructed in a master–apprentice relationship during work, which creates unclear learning trajectories for the newcomers participating in the networks of competence. To nurture formal networks of competence, this study highlight that there is a need for managers to; 1) better understand the participants traditional ways of sharing knowledge to support interaction, 2) take on an leadership role to clarify the purpose of the formal networks, but not control what network members are discussing, and finally 3) give the networks concrete tasks to develop their competencies, social network and in particular the know-who. Finally, I suggest that it is necessary to look more deeply into how ICT mediated knowledge sharing, personnel turnover and organizational change in current organizations can change communities in organizations and how organizations add to the differences between the generations as important areas which should be prioritized in future knowledge management research.