Unequal Pathways to Knowledge

Human Resources

According to social network theory, people are on average only a few connections away from the information they seek. But in large organizations, this theory falls apart: some employees clearly have longer search paths than others in locating the knowledge they require. Is this simply because they have an inferior network?

Not really, say researchers from INSEAD and Apple University. Singh, Hansen, and Podolny suggest there are two dynamics at play. One, employees who belong to the periphery of an organization — women and those with lower tenure or poor connectedness to experts — have limited awareness of who knows what in an organization and a lower ability to seek help from others best suited to guide the search. Two, when these employees do seek information, they tend to contact colleagues like themselves who are also outliers.

The researchers say employees on the periphery need to cross social boundaries to discover “who knows what,” and that managers have a role in making this happen.

“We speculate that reliance on interpersonal networks remains crucial when a firm’s knowledge cannot be easily codified and stored in databases, when it changes quickly (making it difficult to keep track of who knows what), and when it is distributed across people who are not official experts,” the researchers write in their article The World is Not Small for Everyone. “This calls for managers to recognize that formal IT systems are rarely substitutes for inter-personal networks. The implication is that managers need to help members on the periphery develop their networks.”

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