As large global corporations seek more effective ways to use the knowledge that exists in their far-flung enterprises, their size and diversity – the very qualities that offer so much promise – become hindrances. The technology that facilitates the digital lifeblood of these goliaths is also changing the nature of knowledge as a competitive advantage. What can be codified and stored, i.e. explicit knowledge, is depreciating at an accelerated pace, and can no longer offer sustainable advantage. It is tacit knowledge that is hard to put into words and even harder to quantify, the know-how of the “gut,” that remains the scarce commodity. It is contextual, timely, useful, and sticky. These qualities are valuable but also make tacit knowledge more difficult to share. The rewards are great for those firms that can do this well.
This research seeks to explore the role of trust in shifting the psychological levers that drive knowledge-sharing. We present a model of knowledge-sharing based on an “economic psychology” that extends beyond the narrowly rational and selfish view. We posit the use of economic reasoning in knowledge-sharing, that is, the daily tradeoffs and judgments that are weighed and made to optimize the scarce resource of time. That economic reasoning takes into account psycho-sociological considerations as well – such as the human desire to build relationships with others, the influence of others, the power of social status, the need to maintain a coherent self-identity, institutional norms, and the cultural meaning of the “gift.”
We follow the outgoing streams of knowledge from 35 strategy consultants at a large global management consultancy, and ask questions about the implicit relationships between sender and recipient. Email traffic is used as the medium in focus, for its widespread and intensive use at this firm as well as its capacity to be measured. While email has high predictive value in this firm as an indicator of “trusted network,” its obvious limitations required detailed follow-up surveys at the recipient level and a series of confidential interviews. In this research, we confirm the “virtuous cycle” between trust and knowledge-sharing, and uncover nuances that include the importance of proximity, the role of responsiveness in building trust virtually, the differences between sharing “up” and sharing “down,” and the contrast between proactive sharing and acquiescing to a request.
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