Knowledge sharing within virtual communities of practice

“In an economy where the only certainty is uncertainty, the one sure source of lasting competitive advantage is knowledge”.
(Nonaka, 1991, p. 96, Harvard Business Review: pdf file)

During my master ‘Information and Knowledge Management‘ at the VU University, I attended the course ‘Knowledge Management Scan’.Within this stream, I wrote a scientific conceptual paper about the social influences that exist within electronic networks of practice and how these influences can affect members’ attitudes towards knowledge sharing on those virtual communities. Since I think the developed model and underlying logic can be interesting for scholars as well as practitioners, I will describe the paper’s key findings and propositions.

Although a significant number of studies devoted attention to communities of practice and members’ motivations to share knowledge within these networks, little is known about the social dynamics within virtual communities of practice and how they influence members’ attitudes towards knowledge sharing. This study integrates social influence theory and social capital theory to construct a theoretical framework that tries to enhance understanding how the virtual community’s social capital can act as antecedent for the social influence processes of compliance, identification and internalization. These influence mechanisms, in their turn, affect community members’ attitude towards sharing knowledge within the network. As such, the paper tries to lay a conceptual foundation for future empirical research, which can be relevant within the fields of knowledge management and social psychology.

Extended version:
Globally dispersed organizations face distributed settings where employees work across various boundaries. In order to create value from their intellectual capital, these organizations need to integrate this dispersed knowledge (Agterberg et al., 2010). A mean to do so, is the development of professional virtual communities (i.e., virtual communities of practice; Chiu et al., 2006). These electronic networks encompass online social interactions where knowledge is exchanged and developed. As Brown and Duguid (2001) already argued, practice related communities can be effective channels for knowledge sharing among practitioners by routing knowledge flows via practices. Because a professional virtual community’s value will be diminished without useful knowledge, knowledge contribution is key in this regard.

However, various scholars already identified motivational problems related to knowledge transfers in general (e.g. Hinds and Pfeffer, 2003), and within electronic networks specifically (Wasko and Faraj, 2005). One of the key determinants of an effective virtual community is the willingness of its members to share knowledge. This intention is based (among other factors) on the attitude the member has towards sharing knowledge within the community (Ajzen, 1991). Although prior research already identified some antecedents of knowledge sharing attitudes (e.g. De Vries et al., 2006; Bock et al., 2005), little is known about the role of these attitudes towards knowledge sharing within virtual communities. Furthermore, there exists a “lack of consideration of how the (…) interpersonal context as well as individual characteristics influence knowledge sharing” (Wang and Noe, 2010).Various scholars acknowledged this need for a more relational and social perspective on knowledge sharing activities (e.g. Borgatti and Cross, 2003).

This paper attempts to enhance understanding about individual’s’ knowledge sharing attitude related to virtual communities, by examining the social dynamics within these networks. It does so by analyzing the social influence processes that can exist within these communities, since attitude changes can greatly be motivated by group influences (Wood, 2000). In the context of professional virtual communities, members possess certain attitudes towards sharing knowledge within these communities. Because of these networks’ emerging and self-organizing character, members’ attitudes towards these networks are difficult to influence by a formal management approach. It should be acknowledged that “attitudes are social phenomena, [and] that they emerge from and are embedded in social interaction” (Wood, 2000, p. 561). It is because of this social embeddedness that social influence theory (which will be explained in the next paragraph) presents opportunities to enhance knowledge about why individuals will share knowledge within a virtual community.In line with Bagozzi and Lee (2002) and Cheung and Lee (2010), this paper utilizes Kelman’s (1958) theoretical framework that distinguishes between the social influence processes of compliance, identification and internalization. Their effects on the knowledge-sharing attitude within virtual communities will be explored. This is also highly relevant from a social psychology perspective as well, considering the “growing appreciation for computer-mediated persuasion” (Crano and Prislin, 2006, p. 346).

Dholakia et al. (2004, p. 242) previously addressed the need for understanding the antecedents of social influence within virtual communities, since “it is likely to provide significant managerial guidance regarding how to make virtual communities useful and influential for their participants”. This paper paper examines professional virtual communities’ social capital dimensions as antecedents of the three social influence processes, since social capital resides a set of social resources embedded in relationships (Tsai and Ghoshal, 1998), which can act as catalysts for these influence processes. Consequently, professional virtual communities can act as effective means to share information and as vehicles for social capital. By using Nahapiet and Ghoshal’s (1998) social capital framework and applying it within professional virtual communities, this study tries to contribute to current knowledge management literature by increasing understanding of the social influence effects of social capital within professional virtual communities on members’ knowledge sharing attitude. This objective leads to the following research question:

“How and to what extent does professional virtual communities’ social capital affect the social influences on members’ attitude towards knowledge sharing within these networks?”

Consequently, by drawing upon knowledge management, social capital, sociology and psychology literature, the paper developed a theoretical model to address the research question, as shown in the next figure.

Conceptual model for social influences on knowledge sharing attitudes within virtual communities of practice.
(image is clickable for larger size and better quality).

The paper’s contributions:
Although (professional) virtual communities are frequently used by practitioners to exchange knowledge and practices, little is known about the reasons why members contribute to these networks and how the social dynamics within these networks influence this willingness (Orhun and Hopple, 2008). As van den Hooff and Huysman (2009, p. 7) already indicated, “managing knowledge sharing is difficult (…) it is primarily social group interactions that stimulate knowledge sharing”. This article’s aim was to propose a theoretical framework that enhances understanding of these social settings. As a result, it offers three key contributions.

As already described, this study is prompted due to little consideration of the interpersonal contexts of virtual communities, and of the attitudes towards knowledge sharing within these networks in specific. Only little conceptual and empirical attention has been given to these dynamics (Wang and Noe, 2010). This article offers a theoretical framework that examines social influence processes within professional virtual communities and how they affect attitudes towards knowledge sharing.

A second contribution lies in the application of Kelman’s (1961) social influence classification of compliance, identification and internalization processes. Where most TRA- and TPB-based knowledge management theories only utilize the subjective norm concept (Bagozzi and Lee, 2002), this study suggests analyzing the effects on member attitudes via three social influence concepts within the professional virtual community context.

The last contribution relates to the inclusion of the community’s social capital as antecedent of the three social influence mechanisms. By perceiving the professional virtual community as a network comprised of valuable assets, applying Nahapiet and Ghoshal’s (1998) social capital framework produces a solid clarification of how these assets can act as antecedents of the social influences. Although Kelman (1961, 1974) already identified a distinct set of antecedents, the concept of social capital provides a richer opportunity in understanding the social dynamics behind influence mechanisms

If you’re interested, please contact me for a free copy. At the moment, I am executing my master thesis, which is partly based on the above outlined conceptual paper.

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