Communities and Social Networks in Organizational Knowledge Communication

Organizational Communication

In his seminal work, Gerhard Maletzke (1963: 18) defines communication as the mediation of meaning between creatures. The complexity and omnipresence of communication is prominently expressed in the first axiom by Watzlawick et al. (1969 (1967): 53) that one cannot not communicate. This postulate has become an established part in studies on interpersonal communication and has been widely accepted as well as misunderstood by communication scientists and scholars. Based on the work of Fisher (1978), Krone et al. (1987) adopt four conceptual approaches to human communication of (1) mechanistic, (2) psychological, (3) interpretive-symbolic, and (4) systems-interaction perspectives as a framework for the study of organizational communication. As an adoption from the study of human communication, these perspectives provide a suitable theoretical framework of organizational communication with a focus on the interpersonal relationships.
The mechanistic perspective views communication “as a transmission process in which a message travels across space (a channel) [and time!] from one point to another” (Krone et al. 1987: 22). With regard to organizational communication, especially research of organizational communication networks takes the position of a mechanistic perspective: it puts its focus on the communication flows among individuals. This is also applies for a variety of network studies on organizational communication (see, e.g., Monge and Eisenberg 1987).

Knowledge Communication in Organizations

Following Schenk (1984: 244), from a network perspective communication in organizations can be differentiated according to three dimensions: (1) structure, (2) function, and (3) system. Structure focuses on the repetitive, relatively stable sets of communicative relationships that exist between the members of an organization. Function is the consequences of communications that could be described as production, maintenance of the social relationships and innovation (adaptation) (with reference to Barnard 1951 (1938)). The system level is the aggregation of individuals, which provide the basic units of analysis from dyadic relationships to the whole organization.
The function of knowledge communication in organizations is learning, innovation, and decision-making with regard to development and management processes as well as with regard to strategic orientation on the individual and organizational levels (on information, knowledge, and decision-making processes see also Sorg 1982). Choo (1996) identifies these three areas in which an organization uses information strategically: (1) to make sense of change in its environment, (2) to create new knowledge for innovation, and (3) to make decisions about courses of action.
From the perspective of socially constructed knowledge creation, Weick (1979) seems to be useful to serve this perception. He “proposes a model of organizations as ‘loosely coupled’ systems in which individual participants have great latitude interpreting and implementing directions” (Choo 1996: 333; with reference to Weick 1979). Since here it is conceived that knowledge resides in the minds of individuals, this personal knowledge needs to be converted into knowledge that can be shared and transformed into innovations. “During knowledge creation, the main information process is the conversion of knowledge” (Choo 1996: 338). And these conversion processes must happen for every individual times and again. Therefore, processes of knowledge creation are strongly connected to processes of knowledge transfer and transformation. It seems useful to further explore similarities of and differences between personal, organizational, and network knowledge and the corresponding processes of knowledge sharing in
future research.

Formal and Informal Organization

Informal social relations in organizations have been subject to research since at least the 1930s with the classical Hawthorne studies (Roethlisberger and Dickson, 1947). The studies of the late 1950s considered a large discrepancy between formal and informal social structure as negatively influencing the overall cohesion at the work place as well as the performance of an organization (see, e.g., Coleman 1956; Dalton 1950).
Regardless of the direction of impact of the informal network on the formal organization, there is a general consensus that it is impossible to understand processes within the formal organization without taking the influence of the existing informal relationships into account. As Barnard (1951 (1938): 120) wrote in the 1930s: “Formal organizations arise out of and are necessary to informal organization; but when formal organizations come into operation, they create and require informal organizations”. Or as Blau and Scott (1962: 6) stated in the 1960s: “In every formal organization there arise informal organizations”. And they continue: “The constituent groups of the organization, like all groups, develop their own practices, values, norms, and social relations as their members live and work together. The roots of these informal systems are embedded in the formal organization itself and nurtured by the very formality of its arrangements.”
This leads to the conclusion that it is not only impossible to understand processes within the formal organization without taking into account the influence of the existing informal relationships, but that the study of informal relationships within organizations needs taking into account the formal organizational structure as well. The application of social network analysis as a method to support organizational knowledge communication takes this fact into account.

Communities of Practice and Social Networks

The focus of research and practice on the interpersonal relationships and informal structures in organizations has lead to various conceptualizations of organizational and inter-organizational knowledge communication in communities and social networks. The social perspective has emerged as the dominant paradigm in information and knowledge management studies in the last few years. Such a social constructionist view of knowledge exchange considers not only single individuals and dyadic interpersonal relationships but also social aggregates and their structural patterns. A growing literature studies and describes the concepts of communities and networks from the perspective of knowledge management (see, e.g., Botkin 1999; Erickson and Kellogg 1999; Erickson and Kellogg 2001; Lesser et al. 2000; Schmidt 2000; Brown and Duguid 1991; Lesser 2001; Wenger 1999; Collinson and Gregson 2003; Liyanage et al. 1999; Powell 1998; Seufert et al. 1999a; Seufert et al. 1999b).
In the knowledge management debates, particularly the concept of communities of practice (CoP) has become an influential approach. From the background of anthropologically oriented pedagogics, Lave and Wenger (1991) introduced the concept of communities of practice. Central to their concept is the role of “legitimate peripheral participation” that describes how knowledge and skills are transferred in groups through modes of guidance, implicit learning, and growing participation in communities. The importance of communities of practice for processes of knowledge sharing and learning in organizational environments is based on their capacity to wholly integrate knowledge and learning into their social practices without treating them as individually isolated processes beyond everyday life (Lave and Wenger 1991: 47-48). In their concept, knowledge is not localized in the individual person but in the group through forms of socially constructed meaning (Lave and Wenger 1991: 50). The concept of communities of practice was quickly transferred from learning theories to the domains of knowledge management, human resource development, and business administration. Especially in R&D environments, it is of overall importance to effectively support and manage communities and innovation networks.

* A comprehensive version of this text and all references can be found in the book presented here.

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