On the importance of social capital in knowledge sharing within virtual communities of practice…

by alison

My Twitter Class of ’08 by mallix, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  mallix 

As you may have noticed from my last entry, I am interested in how virtual knowledge sharing networks—virtual communities of practice—can be fostered and maintained through social media and/or other e-strategies. In organisations, it is proposed this continual sharing and learning helps the firm to remain competitive and able to respond to change. Also, there is huge potential for tacit knowledge to be shared, and with  downsizing currently taking place across my organisation, knowledge management has become a critical issue. Particularly of interest to me is the retention of tacit knowledge, since previous cutbacks in my organisation have caused a gap in mid-career employees whose organisational experience could ladder into upper management positions.

It seemed logical to me, then, to start with a fundamental question: What stimulates a virtual community of practice to share knowledge?

According to Daniel, Schwier & McCalla (2003), the development of social capital is an important piece towards fostering knowledge sharing in these groups. In other words, a cohesive, functioning community must develop. And members must trust one another. It makes sense, right?

Social capital can bridge cultural differences by building a common identity and shared understanding. The fact that building social capital requires continuous interaction enables people to identify common interests and build trust. This raises their level of shared commitment, and encourages a sense of solidarity within a community. Furthermore, from the perspective of organizational management, Prusak and Cohen (2001) claim that social capital can promote better knowledge sharing due to established trust relationships, common frames of reference and shared goals.

The authors go on to describe other issues that can occur with groups that are not part of the same institutional or organisational culture and how virtual learning networks such as EC&I 831 have some similarities to virtual communities of practice. They also remark that when groups are actively working together to share knowledge, there has been evidence of economic gains. Correspondingly, that would then also likey imply that performance is enhanced. They also say that just because groups trust one another and are able to cooperate, this doesn’t mean that social capital has been attained—it often has as much to do with how well members of the community connect, relate with one another and share a common language. These are called the structural, relational and cognitive dimensions of social capital ‘clusters’. And no one yet has the answers on how exactly to predict when social capital will be produced but it’s likely due to reciprocity and an awareness of social/group norms in the same way that we lend our neighbour a cup of sugar one time and along the line, when I need a couple of eggs…

But I’m thinking that virtual knowledge sharing communities of practice would be useful in my workplace, where my colleagues are located across multiple timezones. Even interdepartmentally this could be helpful, for instance, for our learning unit counterparts to discuss best practices, share ideas and materials. And the tacit knowledge is recorded!

I’m just wondering how to bring it all together—how do you build social capital? Do you think trust is key? Awareness? Common language? Reciprocity? What, in your experience has been the key ‘ingredient’ for a group to start openly sharing knowledge (virtual or not)? What, in your view, would be the most helpful for encouraging knowledge sharing in a virtual situation? What’s working for you in our virtual learning community?