What motivates workers to share knowledge on online platforms within organisations?

Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Professor Chia-Huei Wu is Chair in Organisational Psychology. His research interests include: proactive behaviour, personality development, work design, overqualification and employees' subjective well-being.

Chiahuei wu_LUBS

It is estimated that 1 billion workers will not need to be physically present at a specific work location by 2035. The rise of digital nomads (people who can work from anywhere in the world) means more and more people will primarily interact and share knowledge online, and this trend is likely to accelerate in the post-COVID era of work. To deal with this new way of working, organisations are increasingly introducing online platforms to facilitate knowledge sharing among employees across organisational and geographical boundaries

These online platforms can facilitate open, flexible, and speedy flows of knowledge sharing among employees from within an organisation’s various locations. However, previous research has shown that participants using organisational online platforms are likely to share their knowledge by responding to questions from some, but not all participants.

Workers are likely to respond to questions from colleagues currently working in the same location and belonging to the same hierarchy (categorical similarities) or requestors in the same job role (expertise similarities). This is because peers working in a similar context or position are more likely to gain relevant and useful knowledge from each other, motivating people to respond to questions from peers.

However, one of the benefits of using organisational online platforms is to facilitate knowledge exchange widely, beyond those with categorical or expertise similarities. We thus sought to understand factors that can facilitate online knowledge sharing beyond those with categorical or expertise similarities.

The research

We used a longitudinal dataset spanning six months among 100 users on an in-house online platform of a professional service firm in Japan. The firm provides consulting and training services across various industries and has offices in major cities across the country. Being a leading professional firm with multiple offices scattered around the country, it introduced an online knowledge-sharing platform through which the consultants can exchange their knowledge on its products and services, client problems, and solution ideas.

Our research explored knowledge-sharing behaviours on organisational online platforms by considering three main factors: attributes of the requestor, attributes of the worker (respondent), and the worker’s job context. Specifically, we examined:

1. Whether the requestor has previously worked in the same location as the participants but now works in a different location (i.e. past-collocation history).

We focused on past-collocation history because past-collocation brings familiarity to workers, attracting workers’ attention to requests from someone they can link to. Workers may also see that sharing with someone with whom they previously collocated has lower risks than sharing with others with whom they have not collocated. Additionally, because the requestors are currently working in different locations, they may have new knowledge to share.

2. Whether the worker believes in generalised exchange (where individual do not receive benefits directly from the one to whom they provided resources, but rather from someone else in the social group).

Not all workers were keen to share knowledge with past-collocated requesters. This is because not everyone subscribes to the idea of generalised exchange. People with high levels of generalised exchange orientation (GEO) believe that benefiting others will eventually benefit themselves through indirect reciprocation. A strong belief in generalised exchange will make the worker open to sharing knowledge even when the return (i.e. receiving knowledge from others) is unknown.  Those low in GEO are skeptical about indirect reciprocation because they don’t believe that providing resources to other individuals will eventually lead to an indirect return to them, therefore they are less likely to respond to the requests even when they are posted by colleagues with past-collocation history.

3. Whether the work needs to use a wide variety of knowledge to complete their jobs.

This job condition means the worker sees the value of engaging in activities on the online organisational  platforms. This is because online platforms are a channel where individuals can acquire knowledge with fewer barriers than other communication channels; the key characteristics of online platforms are their openness and lack of boundaries. The questions posted on online platforms are visible to all employees and therefore employees do not need to know in advance who might have the relevant knowledge to answer their questions. People engage in generalised exchange when they can see the benefit of doing so and therefore jobs with higher knowledge variety will increase the attractiveness of potential return from generalised exchange on an online platform.

We found that employees are more likely to share knowledge on organisational online platforms when they have requests from colleagues with whom they have past-collocation history. Their willingness to share knowledge increases if they have high levels of GEO (i.e. they believe benefitting others will eventually benefit themselves through indirect reciprocation), and if they need to use a wide variety of knowledge to complete their jobs.

Practical implications

Our study has a number of practical implications for organisations that wish to utilise online platforms to facilitate knowledge sharing among employees.

First, we suggest that organisations pay attention to their employees' job design because not all jobs can equally motivate employees to engage in knowledge sharing on online platforms. Organisations should examine if they have such a job design feature to motivate employees to use an online knowledge-sharing platform. If employees' jobs do not require a variety of knowledge, introducing online platforms may not be an effective investment for organisations.

Second, our findings suggest that individuals with high levels of GEO are likely to engage in knowledge-sharing behaviors on online platforms, expecting indirect reciprocation. Given that receiving responses from other participants often promotes recipients' tendency to respond to other requests for a prolonged period, high-GEO individuals are likely to prompt other participants to become active on the platform.

Hence, organisations will benefit from attracting and selecting individuals with strong GEO, because they contribute to online knowledge sharing by encouraging other participants to engage in online knowledge-sharing platforms, as well as by actively providing responses.

Finally, if possible, organisations may consider routinely relocating employees across different office locations, providing employees opportunities to visit and work in different locations, or promoting global gatherings of employees from different locations. Even though such practices may incur costs for an organisation and may temporarily disrupt employees' work routines, our study indicates that, in addition to positive development and career-related outcomes, job rotation could also help promote knowledge sharing in a virtual environment, especially for organisations in multiple locations.  

Read the paper: Knowledge sharing on online platforms within organisations: An interactionist perspective on generalised exchange, Katsuhiko Yoshikawa, Chia-Huei Wu, Hyun-Jung Lee, Applied Pyschology, https://doi.org/10.1111/apps.12457

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