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Firm internal knowledge blogs


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Case study on firm-internal use of blogs as a catalyst for knowledge sharing

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Firm internal knowledge blogs

  1. 1. KNOWLEDGE BLOGS IN FIRM INTERNAL USE Miia Kosonen M.Sc. (Econ.), Researcher Lappeenranta University of Technology, School of Business P.O.Box 20, 53851 Lappeenranta, Finland Tel +358 5 621 7280 Fax +358 5 621 6699 Kaisa Henttonen M.Sc. (Econ.), Researcher Lappeenranta University of Technology, Technology Business Research Center (TBRC) P.O.Box 20, 53851 Lappeenranta, Finland Tel +358 40 701 4407 Fax +358 5 621 6699 Kirsimarja Blomqvist Ph.D. (Econ.), Professor Lappeenranta University of Technology, School of Business P.O.Box 20, 53851 Lappeenranta, Finland Tel +358 5 621 7286 Fax +358 5 621 6699
  2. 2. KNOWLEDGE BLOGS IN FIRM INTERNAL USE INTRODUCTION Knowledge sharing in today’s distributed organizations is a challenge. Hierarchical structures may not support the fast flow of information or the efficient co-creation of knowledge from specialized and tacit individual knowledge bases (see Grant, 1996, Miles et al., 2000, Adler, 2001). There is therefore a need to devise new patterns for leveraging dispersed knowledge within organizations and across organizational borders. In the following we explore internal company weblogs as a potential new channel for sharing knowledge and expertise. Knowledge is deeply embedded in social interaction. Recent advances in ICT have led to the production of social software, the primary purpose of which is knowledge sharing (Teigland & Wasko, 2005). One example of this is the emergence of weblogs (or blogs), personal Web pages that incorporate regular posts in reverse chronological order about a particular topic, current events or personal thoughts and expression (Herring et al., 2004, Blanchard, 2004, Wagner & Bolloju, 2005). Our focus is on internal knowledge blogs. A small proportion of blogs could be classified as knowledge blogs, implying the online equivalent of professional journals in which authors share new knowledge in their professional domains: they report on their research progress, share references and make observations (Wagner & Bolloju, 2005). However, the application of blogs in knowledge management is a new phenomenon, and firms have been slow to do so. Current research fails to promote understanding of the applicability of blogs in networked teams and organizations, and of their role in the social processes of knowledge sharing and creation. 2
  3. 3. Thus we contribute to the emerging literature by exploring the critical factors involved in applying internal company blogs. Most studies have addressed only the rational part of mediated communication, i.e. the characteristics of communication technologies and their capacity for managing and transferring information. Our aim in this paper is to include the social perspective, and to provide a categorization that combines the rational-social and individual-organizational dimensions. We then report on a mini-case study in order to illustrate the identified factors. We argue that anyone wishing to exploit the potential of knowledge sharing through internal blogs should understand their nature and characteristics in order to be able to make the best possible media choices. BACKGROUND Knowledge blogs Knowledge blogs are used in internal communication for knowledge-sharing purposes (Zerfass, 2005): to promote a shared understanding of the perspectives of CEOs and employees (Dearstyne, 2005), to coordinate projects and present ideas, and to bridge the gaps between individuals with various views in order to identify new trends in innovation communities (Wagner & Bolloju, 2005). Knowledge sharing, collaboration and best practices are endemic in blogs (Ojala, 2004). Knowledge blogs appear at the intersection of professional communication and personal reflection. They serve as an ideal medium for experts sharing an interest in a specific 3
  4. 4. topic: they enable storytelling, reflection, the capturing of information, and the sharing thoughts or ideas, thus making individuals’ “hidden” processes more visible and promoting both personal and collective learning (ibid., Röll, 2004, 2006). Thus, they can offer business representatives a means for expanding the boundaries of knowledge sharing and creation (Herring et al., 2004). Blogs as a social medium facilitate the sharing of both objectified (codified) and collective knowledge (social/organizational practices and experiences). Approaches to computer-mediated communication Theories of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have been categorized as rational or social (see Kock, 2005, Webster & Trevino, 1995). The former rely on the hypothesis of rationality and effectiveness, involving users who select the communication medium of appropriate richness and level of social presence for each task. According to the early theories regarding the effects of CMC, the “richer” the media are (i.e. the more they allow nonverbal cues, provide immediate feedback, and convey personality traits), the better suited they are to human-to-human interaction (Short et al., 1976, Daft & Lengel, 1986). From a social perspective, alternative approaches concentrating on the applicability of CMC have emerged, including the social-influence model devised by Fulk et al. (1990), social information processing theory as developed by Walther (1996), and Lea and Spears’ (1992) theory of social identity and de-individuation (SIDE). According to the social-influence model, the technological features are not inherently decisive in the choice of communication media, but they are influenced by social-group norms and membership (Fulk et al., 1990, Markus, 1994). Walther (1996), in turn, suggests in his theory of social 4
  5. 5. information processing that the “cues-filtered-out” conditions in CMC do not prevent relational communication, although social relationships take a longer time to develop in computer-mediated groups than in face-to-face groups. The SIDE theory concerns processes of social identification and self-categorization, i.e. in-group and out-group membership (Lea & Spears, 1992). Attention should be paid to these processes given that similarity with group members is believed to strengthen the individual’s identity, which in turn has a positive effect on their willingness to co-operate (Järvenpää & Leidner, 1999, Kramer et al., 1996). THE MAIN FOCUS OF THE ARTICLE In the following we discuss the critical factors involved in applying internal knowledge blogs. Some of the issues are naturally also related to other organizational communication media, but here we assess them in the context of blog communication, its defining characteristics and patterns of use in organizations. The nature of blog communication We strongly believe that there should be conscious media choice in both firm-internal and firm-external knowledge sharing and creation (Robert et al., 2005). In order to exploit their concrete benefits, organizations should be aware of the strengths of blogs: they offer continuity, they concentrate on one or a few topics, and they promote efficient information management, the forming of networks around specific issues, the maintenance of shared narratives and the telling of stories (Wagner & Bolloju, 2005, Röll, 5
  6. 6. 2004, Cayzer, 2004). They also facilitate the building of personal identity/status and simultaneously provide users with high connectivity, thus cultivating the development of online networks. As a medium, they are time and space flexible as they do not tie the receiver to a certain place or time. They also allow the receiver to process the message until it is wholly understood, and to search for extra information to ease understanding or to evaluate content and creditability. Blogs leave a record of the issues discussed, which is an advantage in business situations, and typically offer easy access to additional resources through hyperlinks, trackbacks (reverse hyperlinks) and other recommended blogs (Cayzer, 2004, Herring et al., 2004). High-presence media seem to set demands on us that cannot always be fulfilled as we are not able to process so much information at once. Hence, Robert et al. (2005) came to the conclusion that rich media with a high social presence may ease the exchange of simple ideas, and hinder the exchange of more complex ideas (see Markus1 , 1994). This would imply that blogs could be well suited to more complex information exchange, to generating ideas, developing insights, and maintaining shared narratives (Wagner & Bolloju, 2005). On the other hand, they must attract the attention of the receiver: such low-presence media can be easily ignored (see Robert et al., 2005). Individual motivation and competence To be able to contribute through mediated communication, individuals have to possess the necessary skills and knowledge (Vartiainen et al., 2003). There is also the crucial question of motivation, as contribution requires time and effort (Kimble & Li, 2005). Articulating ideas through writing and storytelling seems to be one of the major motives for blogging 1 According to Markus, 1994, less rich media are often used by managers for handling complex tasks. 6
  7. 7. (Nardi et al., 2004). It is also a means of self-regulated learning: reflecting on one’s own learning and simultaneously accessing others’ reflections facilitate the development of a collective understanding of a topic (Baggetun & Wasson, 2006). In general, the main reason why people attach themselves to online social networks seems to be the motive to gain access to valuable information and knowledge for their personal benefit (Wasko & Faraj, 2000). It is probably employees’ intrinsic motivations that are decisive for active participation in blogging. However, employee motivation can also be enhanced by providing interesting content in the early stages of the implementation, and encouraging the free exchange of ideas (Waterson, 2005, Nardi et al., 2004). The role of technology In general, blogs are free, lightweight and relatively easy to apply, as blogging software offers a platform for Web publishing with no need for additional tools. They are also easy to maintain. Much of the knowledge is in text form, possibly enhanced by multimedia attachments (Herring et al., 2004, Kelleher & Miller, 2006). Syndication formats such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Atom allow individual and community aggregators to collect, merge and sort blogging data from the ever-growing contents of the blogosphere (Cayzer, 2004). Organizational policies and support Kock (2005) stresses the fact that social influence may affect media choice, referring to the study conducted by Markus (1994) showing that employees used email at the request of managers even if they perceived it as a “poor” communication medium. Support from 7
  8. 8. managers and team leaders should be valued in the implementation of internal blogs. According to Holtz (2005), it is also important for policies on employee blogging to be clearly defined: the duality between personal reflections and professional status requires explicit norms. For instance, general guidelines covering each author’s personal responsibility should be provided – blogs convey individual thoughts and interactions, not corporate communication. Blogging policies should be made explicit before the implementation phase (Dearstyne, 2005) in order to prevent misuse of confidential or proprietary information, for example. The critical mass of users The defining feature of communication technologies is that they require a certain proportion of users, or a critical mass, and when this has been achieved their use should spread rapidly: having a critical mass allows the users to reach the largest number of people with the least effort (Markus, 1987). Blog communication provides users with high connectivity, as it is easy to form social networks of people who share similar interests. From the rational perspective, efficient communication still requires a number of bloggers who regularly post their thoughts and comment on others’ posts. On the other hand, growth in volume becomes a critical issue, as blogging networks require a balance between enough connections and the amount of information: one individual can reasonably manage only a certain number of community ties. Organizational culture 8
  9. 9. In order for knowledge sharing to succeed and be useful, organizations must value open-minded and non-hierarchical idea exchange (Wagner & Bolloju, 2005), and share a common ground with membership, identity and communication procedures, as the organizational culture is the binding factor for collaboration (Kimble & Li, 2005, Huq, 2005). Kelleher & Miller (2006) considered the potential advantages of organizational blogs over websites in three experimental groups; they found that blogs were perceived to have a more conversational tone, which appeared as an appropriate relational maintenance strategy for virtual contexts. They also seemed to enhance identity building and information richness through storytelling, which transfers personal and even tacit knowledge (ibid., Röll, 2004). Both personal and collective identities may be built up through blogging networks. Shared identity is critical for coordination as it lowers the costs of communication, and establishes explicit and tacit rules of coordination and influence. According to Kogut and Zander (1996), a shared identity leads to social knowledge that supports coordination, communication and learning: it implies a moral order, rules of exclusion, and norms of procedural justice. Some behavioral studies show the critical role of group membership in attributing the “insiders” and “outsiders”, and also suggest that attribution could ease potential dissonance between opportunism and loyalty (ibid., Kramer et al., 1996). Trust A lack of trust may prevent knowledge sharing (Kimble & Li, 2005). In general, trust is a multi-level concept. First, it takes self-confidence to be willing to express oneself openly 9
  10. 10. and to reveal one’s identity through blogging. Trust in the information and in the competence of the author(s) is also required. Knowledge has to come from a trusted source if it is to have a desirable effect on the receiver: processes of word-of-mouth are inherent in blogging (see Torio, 2005). Sufficient trust in the enabling technology is also needed, regardless of whether it is open-source software or a standardized company offering. Finally, the employee needs to be confident enough to express her/himself through blogs despite the possible threats and sanctions, such as being punished for making local information transparent organization-wide (Dearstyne, 2005). Figure 1 summarizes the ideas presented above in terms of the social-rational and individual-organizational dimensions in applying blogs. We propose that the rationally constructed factors provide the enabling structure for communication, while the actual outcomes are determined by both the social and rational factors. Understanding the nature of blog communication Rational: features, time, place, level of presence Social: building identities, relationships SocialRational Technology ease of use low costs information management Organizational policies and support decision-making management support Individual competence and motivation access to up-to-date information, reputation, sharing and learning, enjoyment Critical mass of users Organizational culture membership common ground shared identity Organizational Individual Trust 10
  11. 11. Figure 1. The rational-social vs. individual-organizational dimensions and critical factors in the application of internal knowledge blogs A mini-case of applying blogs in a multinational firm The following is a real-life story of blogs in practice in a large ICT company. The mini-case demonstrates some success factors of knowledge blogs. We conducted a one-and-a-half-hour telephone interview with four representatives of the company in order to discuss why and how an internal blog platform had been implemented. The interview was tape-recorded and transcribed. Earlier, one of the interviewees had introduced his own wiki for research purposes. The use of wikis then expanded further, and in January 2005 an internal blog platform was taken into use. Initially, the organization did not support the development work: the evolution of wikis and blogs unfolded “bottom-up”. However, later the key developer was rewarded for his efforts. The use of blogs was minimal at first, but it expanded due to easy implementation and use, word-of-mouth inside the company, and motivated people, who also blogged in their spare time. Thus the critical mass of users was eventually reached. “People realized the value of blogs …It serves as a means of internal marketing, i.e. ‘I know about this, so you can ask me’. This, in turn, reduces internal overlap.” Bloggers are able to trust each other’s ability, as blogs efficiently convey expertise. The existence of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (personal status, enjoyment, access to valuable knowledge for personal benefit, getting to know who knows what) was also implied: for the individuals concerned, blogging was a means of capturing knowledge, gaining status and forming 11
  12. 12. relationships within the network. On the organizational level, blogs potentially increase efficiency. The interviewees explicitly described the differences between various communication channels and awareness of the pros and cons of blogging. Due to their highly personal nature, blogs carry an informal and conversational tone. They offer a more “human voice” than other low-presence media. On the other hand, they represent “a shot in the dark, where the echo may or may not resound…”. In this respect, e-mail was also strongly contrasted to blogging: “E-mail is a channel of power, control and information-hiding. This conflicts with the blogging culture, which is the equivalent of open-source ideology. You want to share what you know.” Thus the various cultures in organizations may conflict with each other and form barriers to the use of knowledge blogs. “Very often people come and ask ‘Can I write this? Who can publish it?’ The Net is still seen as it was with us, a highly official system. People do not yet understand that blogging is about bringing the informal coffee-room discussions into another kind of social space.” Again, the coin has two sides: sometimes bloggers unwittingly broadcast confidential “coffee-room wisdom” and make it available organization-wide. It is difficult to define company blog policies, and they seem to form through trial and error. The case could be summarized as follows. The process of internal knowledge blogs was initiated by a small core group, the members of which were aware of the opportunities and challenges of blogging, and were very familiar with technology-mediated social interaction. A critical mass of users was reached due to processes of word-out-mouth and 12
  13. 13. related trust, employee motivation and the easy implementation of personal blogs. On the other hand, the blogging culture is in its early stages and there is still uncertainty about its role as a medium, and about personal authority in terms of making contributions. It is also difficult to identify highly confidential issues from “knowledge to be shared”. DISCUSSION Theoretically, our paper contributes to the increasing understanding of how technology changes the way in which people interact socially and exchange knowledge with each other in a firm-internal context. We also categorized the critical factors involved in applying knowledge blogs for internal purposes. On a practical level, we presented a mini-case to illustrate the implementation process and the related critical factors. The role of storytelling and expressing knowledge for its further construction and refinement could be essential in the transfer of organizational knowledge (Brown, 2001, Lave & Wenger, 1991, Brown & Duguid, 1991). Blogs seem to be a potential medium to be applied in firm-internal knowledge sharing and creation in networked and virtual organizations. They are conversational, inexpensive and easy to use, they allow empowerment and the free expression of thought, and they convey expertise and contribute to building personal and collective identities. However, identity building may also lead to exclusive types of social networks if insufficient attention is paid to developing a trust-inclusive organizational culture, offering employee education on how to use blogs, and developing related organizational policies. 13
  14. 14. FUTURE TRENDS In the emerging field of the knowledge-management applications of blogs, the success factors discussed above should be empirically validated and refined further. More research is also needed in order to enhance understanding of blogs as socio-technological innovations. Rice (1987) argues that, while computer-mediated communication systems process information about innovations, they are also an innovation that organizations must process, a phenomenon that has recently been illustrated in the development of blog communication. However, it is apparent from our emerging understanding of the co-evolution of innovations that organizations must also consider complementary and administrative innovations, such as organizational structures and processes that support the implementation of new communication technologies. CONCLUSIONS We identified several critical factors for applying internal knowledge blogs: understanding the nature of blog communication, individual competence and motivation, the role of technology, organizational policies and support, a critical mass of users, the organizational culture, and trust. Knowledge blogs may make organizational knowledge-sharing and related social networks more transparent through their ability to build identities, mediate both personal and collective knowledge, and serve as an institutional memory. They enhance 14
  15. 15. storytelling-type of knowledge-sharing, and thus contribute to the transferring of tacit knowledge in networked and virtual organizations. They also have the potential to link the informal and the formal organization, which is a major challenge for organizational innovativeness (see Dougherty & Hardy, 1996). The formal organization may enhance the application of blogs by promoting open communication and a culture of sharing, while also providing technological and managerial support. 15
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  21. 21. Torio, J. (2005). Blogs – A Global Conversation. Master’s Thesis, Syracuse University. Trevino, L., Webster, J. & Stein, E. (2000). Making connections: Complementary influences on communication media choices, attitudes and use. Organization Science, 11(2), 163-182. Vartiainen, M., Kokko, N. & Hakonen, M. (2003). Competences in virtual organizations. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Researching Work and Learning, 25-27th July, 2003, Book 1 (pp. 209-219). Tampere, Finland. Wagner, C. & Bolloju, N. (2005). Supporting Knowledge Management in Organizations with Conversational Technologies: Discussion Forums, Weblogs, and Wikis. Journal of Database Management, 16(2), 1-8. Walther, J. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3-43. Wasko, M. & Faraj, S. (2000). “It is what one does”: why people participate and help others in electronic communities of practice. Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 9, 155-173. Waterson, P. (2005). Motivation in Online Communities. In S. Dasgupta (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities and Technologies (pp. 334-337). Hershey: Idea Group. 21
  22. 22. Webster, J. & Trevino, L. (1995). Rational and social theories as complementary explanations of communication media choices: Two policy-capturing studies. Academy of Management Journal, 38(6), 1544-1573. Zerfass, A. (2005). Corporate Blogs: Einsatzmöglichkeiten und Herausforderungen. BIG, BlogInitiativeGermany, 27th Jan, 2005. Retrieved April 20, 2006, from KEY TERMS A blog (or weblog) is a personal web page including regular posts in reverse chronological order about a particular topic. (Herring et al., 2004, Blanchard, 2004, Wagner & Bolloju, 2005) Knowledge blog is a weblog for experts sharing an interest on a specific topic and for documenting knowledge in their professional domains. (Wagner & Bolloju, 2005) Organizational blog is a weblog that is endorsed by an organization and maintained by its official or semi-official representative whose affiliations to the organization are public. (Kelleher & Miller, 2006) Media choice refers to the examination and selection of communication channels i.e. in terms of media richness and the level of social presence. (Robert et al., 2005) 22
  23. 23. Social presence is the degree and type of mediated interpersonal contact and intimacy. (Short et al., 1976) Information richness refers to the ability of the media to transfer cues and provide immediate feedback. (Daft & Lengel, 1986) Knowledge management refers to a range of practices organizations use to identify, distribute and leverage knowledge to gain competitive advantage. 23