Applying wikis to knowledge sharing and creation


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European Conference on Knowledge Management, Barcelona, 2007

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Applying wikis to knowledge sharing and creation

  1. 1. Exploring the Socio-Technical Dimension of Knowledge Management –Applying Wikis to Knowledge Sharing and Creation Miia Kosonen, Aino Kianto Lappeenranta University of Technology, Lappeenranta, Finland Abstract: As organizations are increasingly moving towards geographically dispersed and virtual forms of collaboration, knowledge sharing through social software such as wikis, is widely acknowledged as an important area of research and practice. Wikis are systems of interlinked Web pages that allow users to easily create and edit content. They represent an open-source technology for knowledge, focusing on its incremental creation and enhancement, and on multi-user participation. However, social software remains an under-investigated issue in the literature on knowledge management, and there are no previous studies demonstrating how organizations can successfully start using it. The influence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on knowledge sharing has been approached mostly from the individual perspective, considering the roles of ICT in either lowering or heightening the cognitive barrier to sharing. Accordingly, ICT tools are mainly designed to support the acquisition and retrieval of codified knowledge in order to improve individual knowledge bases. Less has been written on supporting informal emergent knowledge sharing within communities through novel collaboration tools. In this paper we examine how internal wikis have been successfully implemented in a case organization. We chose an information-rich case, the type of single case that provides various opportunities for learning about an emerging phenomenon. On the basis of our analysis we claim that understanding the implementation of wikis requires a socio- technical perspective focusing on the organizational context and activity system in which they are implemented rather than on their technological proficiency per se. We thereby demonstrate how implementing wikis hinges on the practical and context-dependent features of the organization. Furthermore, we claim that their implementation brings about change in existing social systems, and results in new kinds of social constellations, interactions and identities, which are manageable and controllable only to a limited extent. Keywords: wikis, social software, knowledge management, knowledge sharing, organizational culture 1. Introduction As organizations are increasingly moving towards geographically dispersed and virtual forms of collaboration, knowledge sharing through social software is widely acknowledged as an important area of research and practice (Davies, 2004, Wagner & Bolloju, 2005). Social software such as weblogs and wikis facilitate personal learning and reflection, support group-level knowledge sharing, help people to locate knowledge, and serve as a community memory that is easily accessible any time and anywhere. However, social software remains an under-investigated issue in knowledge management (KM). The influence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on knowledge sharing and creation has been approached mostly from the individual perspective in terms of the role of ICT in either lowering or heightening the cognitive barrier to sharing (e.g., Hendriks, 1999). Accordingly, ICT tools are mainly designed to support the acquisition and retrieval of codified knowledge in order to improve individual knowledge bases (Huysman & Wulf, 2006). Less has been written on supporting informal emergent knowledge sharing within communities by means of novel collaboration tools. Current research also lacks practical examples of the successful implementation of social software in organizations. Our paper, which is based on qualitative data, presents a case from a large company in the ICT industry that uses wikis for internal knowledge sharing and creation. We examine how internal wikis
  2. 2. have been incorporated into the organization, and relate our findings to the broader discussion on the socio-technical dimension of knowledge management. 2. Literature review Swan et al. (2000, p 1) define KM as consisting of “any processes and practices concerned with the creation, acquisition, capture, sharing and use of knowledge, skills and expertise”. Two major approaches to knowledge management have been identified in the literature: the technical view and the socio- technical view (Pan & Scarbrough, 1998; Meso & Smith, 2000). The technical view holds that supporting knowledge work is a matter of employing an optimal combination of information and communication technologies, such as web browsers, group-ware, and document management. The socio-technical view, in contrast, highlights the interplay of technology with the organizational context, and approaches organizations as complex combinations of technology, organizational structures, and corporate cultures and communities. Within the socio-technical view of knowledge management the community-based approach has been considered one of the most fruitful in terms of understanding knowledge sharing and creation (Brown & Duguid, 1991). Communities may be physical, mental or virtual. Knowledge creation thus requires negotiation among different social communities, which may have distinctive norms, cultural values and interests (Swan et al., 2000). Kotlarsky and Oshri (2005) identify two approaches to knowledge sharing: transactive memory (implying knowledge about who knows what), and collective knowledge (invisible structures or ‘collective wisdom’ built on language, history, and shared meanings). When knowledge is embedded in the collective, sharing is enabled through collaborative mechanisms that facilitate the exchanging of ideas and stories, the providing of information and expertise, and the debating of issues that are relevant to the community (Wasko and Faraj, 2000). Knowledge is increasingly scattered both within and across organizations, which creates new challenges from the KM perspective. In general, social software can support processes of distributed knowledge work, i.e. finding codified information, organizing personal information, making sense of information, negotiating meanings, creating new ideas, establishing and maintaining personal networks, and collaborating in communities (Röll, 2004). If social software is to be used for KM purposes it has to match the organizational culture and communication climate; organizations should value open-minded and nonhierarchical idea exchange. The organizational environment also affects knowledge sharing through the level of task interdependence, employee autonomy and perceived peer support, for example: autonomous workers perceive greater utility in searching for knowledge and identifying innovative work patterns than employees who are monitored and receive detailed directions from managers, and thus lack self-efficacy. (Cabrera et al., 2006, Järvenpää and Staples, 2000) Wikis are server-based systems of interlinked Web pages that allow users to easily create and edit content (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001, Davies, 2004, Raman, 2006). According to Wagner & Bolloju (2005), they allow people to engage in knowledge creation and sharing through processes of collaborative editing. They represent an open-source technology for knowledge content, focusing on the incremental creation and enhancement of knowledge, and multi-user participation. According to Majchrzak et al. (2006), the benefits of using corporate wikis include an enhanced reputation, making work easier, and helping organizations to improve their processes. However, these benefits are more likely to be accrued in conditions in which novel solutions are called for rather than in the context of routine tasks. In addition, users have to trust in others’ abilities as contributors, i.e. to be able to identify credible sources of information. Davies (2004) pinpoints three key factors in wiki collaboration: understanding the social and technical aspects, which in turn promotes trust (in the technology, in the content, in the wiki community and in the concept/form of collaboration in general), and value – if it is to enable and maintain collaborative communities the wiki tool must be perceived as valuable on the individual level.
  3. 3. 3. Methodology Case studies are well suited to preliminary, exploratory types of research and in areas in which the existing theory is inadequate (Eisenhardt, 1989). In particular, the literature on the implementation and use of social software in organizations has typically adopted a fairly managerial approach by offering guidelines on how to apply weblogs or wikis, for example. We thus chose the case study as our research method. We focused on the experiences of applying and developing wikis inside an engineering organization. We chose an information-rich case, a type of single case that provides various opportunities for learning about the phenomenon (Patton, 1990). Given the scarcity of academic studies in the area of social software, wikis seem to be a phenomenon to which there is no easy access in the business context. This could also reflect their newness in corporate use. Hence we also provide a revelatory case (Tellis, 1997). Our case study draws on multiple sources of evidence: no single piece of evidence could be considered to provide a comprehensive perspective on the phenomenon under study. In order to illustrate the implementation of wikis in practice we conducted two group interviews, the first in March 2006 and the second in October 2006, with four representatives of a large ICT company. Four interviewees participated in the first interview round, which was organized as a telephone conference, and three in the second, which was conducted face-to-face. Both interviews lasted between one-and-a-half and two hours. They were tape-recorded and transcribed. We also engaged in additional informal conversations with the informants, and employed company-internal presentation materials concerning the use of wikis. The interviewed people were the corporate champions related to the implementation process. Hence, we focused on a non-dominant group of individuals in the organization, and allowed them to tell their stories (Auerbach et al., 2003).The interviewer directed the inquiry in the group interviews, but in a rather unstructured fashion. This interview type was chosen because it is considered a good means of helping the respondents to recall specific events, as well as the shared experiences related to them (Fontana et al., 2000). We analyzed the interview data using ATLAS.ti software. We coded the data inductively and then sorted it into categories based on regularities that occurred. Hence, the sorting was done by formulating the themes based on our main research question, in other words concerning the factors explaining the incorporation of wikis into the organization. This strategy enabled us to find the relevant parts of the data that required further analysis (Auerbach et al., 2003). The accuracy and value of the coding and the interpretations were ensured by means of data triangulation. We used multiple sources of evidence and established a chain of evidence with ATLAS.ti in order to increase the validity of the study (Yin, 2003). 4. Results Wiki adoption in the organization evolved from the bottom up, starting as an informal trial to match the needs of one software-development project situated on two different geographical sites. On the basis of his experience the focal employee, or corporate champion, became interested in wikis. The development work was thus driven by his willingness to experiment with them, and his ability to perceive how the project could bridge the ‘collaboration gap’. The risks were low because the tool was freely available and easy to launch. An important milestone in spreading wiki use outside of the pilot project was the offering of social support by peers and colleagues. In particular, the first internal customers to adopt the internal wiki encouraged the development as they immediately saw the benefits of the system. The developer, in turn, gave informational support to the emerging user community by providing simple ‘how-to-do’ guidelines for those interested in the subject. He was also able to react quickly to feedback and develop the wiki system to better match users’ needs. This has affected the success of internal wikis, but the large number of users has also had its reverse side: it is slower, more difficult and more costly to make changes as the user base grows and users are locked into the current system.
  4. 4. “It started out as a minor need, or a very specific need in project documentation. As we were able to solve the problem, we then noted that this would be nice for a variety of uses in our organization. - Now it’s a de-facto tool with over 7,000 users.” “We [as customers] could just send an email, that we would like to have this kind of feature, and in one hour it was all done. The system advanced during its use, and it was quite utopian, how well it really worked.” “We shouldn’t try to make everyone use wikis. The net effect to the firm can be negative. It’s more important to have the right tool and maximized productivity.” One of the success factors was internal branding and productization. The focal employee developed the wiki system to functionally resemble the corporate intranet. This, in turn, lowered the cognitive barrier to its adoption. As the use of wikis spread, the non-rational bases of thinking about how people were using the system in practice became more visible. Easiness of use and flexibility are naturally important, but even more than that the adoption relies on what the tool seems to be and feels like. “We did nothing else but changed the layout; what it looked like and how people felt about it, and suddenly it had much more credibility, people were attached to the system.” “It was not about explicit rules for setting the content of sites, but more about making it look more official and acceptable.” In addition, in terms of marketing wikis internally, much of the success has been due to positive recommendations and word-of-mouth, e.g., by agitators and internal hubs. According to the developers, the best way to market them seems to be through trial and practice. As a result, they have organically spread across the organization. “Only drug dealers and IT people have ‘users’… It’s difficult to attract people unless they see the concrete benefits, and feel that the system has true value. Then you don’t actually need to sell anything.” It is in the nature of social software to adjust to the needs of the surrounding organization: the user community determines both the structure and the content. Initiating and sustaining such collaboration requires a supportive organizational culture, in which people are trusted and encouraged to contribute. In other words, the tool must fit the context: wikis as such do not guarantee positive outcomes related to knowledge sharing and creation. Furthermore, not all wiki experiments will succeed, nor do they need to. Matching user needs and having a supportive culture seem to be the key facets in bridging ‘the chasm of death’ and attracting a critical mass of users to form a user community. The interviewees described the close connection between open-source ideology and informal collaboration tools such as wikis: in both contexts people freely reveal what they know and want to share their contributions with others. “Wikis are uncontrolled, informal tools, and they do not suit highly official tasks.” “When using email, people express power relations and hide information: who gets to know what, who is included and who is excluded. Wikis and weblogs are analogous to open source, where everything can be shared freely.” As users themselves take the role of focal players in the knowledge-sharing and utilization processes, organizational structures gradually become flatter and more horizontal. However, the culture of openness has its limits, and many employees feel uncomfortable about their rights and responsibilities. For instance, not every piece of information can be freely revealed in the firm environment, no matter how easy and flexible that would be. This causes much uncertainty among people: “Can I publish this? Who could do that?” It is relatively easy to implement practical guidelines on implementing social software, but it is much more difficult to give guidance and encouragement on how to use it, particularly in the corporate context. 5. Discussion Based on our findings, we emphasize that the implementation of virtual collaboration tools requires taking the social context and community into account, otherwise the potential of ICTs to support the social processes of knowledge sharing and creation may be compromised. According to Zack and McKenney (1995), the strategic advantage derived from the use of ICT is considered to result from having the appropriate social context, norms, politics, reward systems and leadership to take advantage of the
  5. 5. technology, and not simply from implementing communication technologies. In other words, it is not the technology that brings people together, but the existing social capital (Cohen & Prusak, 2001, Huysman & Wulf, 2006). When successfully embedded in communities, collaborative technologies go beyond the individual, codified bases of knowledge. Social software falls within the socio-technical dimension of knowledge management by interlinking informal discussions through which communities are maintained, and the supporting technology. Our results demonstrate the crucial role of a committed champion in the implementation process of virtual collaboration tools. This finding echoes those reported in earlier literature suggesting that champions are critical for advancing acceptance of new technologies in organizations and successfully implementing them (Beath, 1991; Lawless & Price, 1992). Internal technology champions are individuals who present and promote an outside technology (e.g., wikis) to their fellow organizational members, who are potential users (Lawless & Price, 1992, 342). In general, successful champions emerge informally, promote the novelty with conviction, persistence and energy, and are willing even to risk their position and reputation to ensure the novelty’s success within the organization. It seems from our case that the successful implementation of wikis requires a champion with these characteristics. It should also be noted that, in this case, wikis were brought to the organization by the champion without proper authorization, and they were disseminated further without formal acceptance or projection. Thus the process could be characterized as voluntary and even risky. Here the strong conviction and motivation of the initial champion was a decisive factor. Our case illustrates the fact that both technical and social support are critical for the dissemination of wikis. Kling and Lamb (1999) note that supporting IT infrastructures is often understood merely in terms of the physical architectures of systems and networks. However, “the hidden costs of computing” are also significant enablers of social-software implementation. In our case, this was realized as the champion exercised an important role in providing support for the novel users of wikis. Our results also demonstrate that their implementation is an ongoing social process, characterized by continuous incremental adaptations, rather than a one-shot act. The ability to continuously adjust the technology to the specific organizational context in which it is used seems to be an important success factor in the implementation of wikis, just as it is in the adoption of any other external technologies (Leonard-Barton, 1995). Our results also underline the role of informal social networks in successful implementation. The informal organization, unplanned and emerging from personal friendships and needs, greatly influences organizational behavior (Tannenbaum, 1966). Informal networks can cut across formal organizational charts, and at best function as significant channels of knowledge sharing and creation and thereby enhance work and the attainment of the organization’s goals. However, informal groupings can also inhibit and sabotage organizational success, such as by inhibiting information flows or transferring information that is negative to the firm (Krackhardt & Hanson, 1993). Informal networks may be more important in terms of knowledge sharing, feedback and the quality of results than formal networks (Lin, 1971). It has been estimated that up to 70% of all communication within organizations takes place through the ‘grapevine’, i.e. informal, uncontrollably spreading rumors or gossip (Crampton et al., 1998). In our case too, the initial interest in trying out wikis was spread through face-to-face conversations between the champion and colleagues who were sitting on the same floor of the office building. In the case we studied, one aspect that strongly influenced the success of the implementation of wikis was what they looked and felt like. When the interface and layout were made consistent with the organization’s intranet, the number of users radically increased. This implies that the sensual, aesthetic dimensions of social technologies should also be given conscious attention. On the more general level of organizational studies, a novel strand of research examining the aesthetic experiences of the corporate landscape has emerged in recent years (e.g., Gagliardi, 1996), but the aesthetic dimension has so far been largely neglected in the area of knowledge management. This offers a useful and interesting avenue for future research.
  6. 6. Kling and Lamb (1999) argue that too often champions and sponsors of new technologies believe that other employees will “naturally” see the benefits of adoption, and do not pay enough attention to explaining what these benefits are. However, people need good reasons to change their work-related practices and are likely to adopt changes, for example to start using wikis, only if they see the direct benefits for their work. It could further be argued that the key to successfully implementing wikis (or any technological knowledge-management tools for that matter) lies in understanding the identities of the organizational actors and the ways in which they conduct their day-to-day work. As Spender (2007, 16) notes, “We can be surprised how readily people change when they believe changes will enhance their power and identity”. If organizational actors perceive wikis to be something that enables them to do their work more efficiently and effectively, and to improve their chances of conducting meaningful and inspiring tasks, then they will be more willing to start using them. According to our findings, once people try them and find them useful, they will be motivated to continue to use them and there will be less need for further internal marketing. Our case also demonstrates the importance of the organizational culture in the implementation of wikis. A culture that supports knowledge sharing and collaboration enables organizational actors to derive the best benefits from social software. An important cultural factor also seems to be the acceptance of mistakes and occasional failures, as these necessarily happen in an open collaborative environment. Previous studies have emphasized the necessity of such cultures for collaborative innovation (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001). Overall, our results demonstrate the importance of adopting a socio-technical approach towards knowledge management. We further argue that if an organization is to enjoy sustained benefits it should realize that there is more to knowledge management than the implementation of technological solutions. According to the resource-based view, sustainable competitiveness is based on the possession of strategic assets, which are valuable, rare, imperfectly imitable and non-substitutable in nature (Barney, 1991). In this context, the technology-centered approach to knowledge management seems limited in its ability to provide sustainable competitiveness for the organization (Meso and Smith, 2000) because information and communication technologies are not rare - they are easily available and acquired from the market. Furthermore, in as far as the outputs built through these technologies are explicit and codified, they are easily imitated by competitors. Finally, there are various options for almost all technological solutions, and the technological tools of knowledge management therefore do not satisfy the non-substitutability criterion for strategic assets either. Thus, if organizations want to create sustainable value through knowledge, they should not limit their knowledge-management activities merely to uncritically acquiring the latest available technological solutions, or judge the suitability of a given technological tool on the basis of its technological sophistication and effectiveness. Instead, they should opt for a more comprehensive approach, which takes into account both the technologies and the social environment in which they are to be utilized. If an organization is to successfully implement wikis and to do so in a manner that enhances its value-creation capabilities, it should consciously synchronize the technological possibilities they offer with the practical, context-dependent realities it is facing and the social patterns through which its day-to-day work is conducted. Thereby wikis can provide it with an additional source of sustained competitive advantage. References Auerbach, C. and Silverstein, L. (2003) An Introduction to Coding and Analysis, Qualitative Data. University Press, New York. Barney, Jay (1991) “Firm resources and sustained competitive advantage”, Journal of Management, Vol 17, pp 99-120.
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