Social knowledge sharing networks are central to organizational success, but with the growth in distributed global organizations, many firms are struggling with the challenge of creating and maintaining relationships that cross geographic, disciplinary, national, and cultural boundaries. This study investigates communities of practice within multinational engineering and construction organizations to build a theory of inclusive, global, knowledge sharing networks. Through social network analysis and qualitative interviews, the research team will theorize knowledge connection formation drivers and knowledge flow patterns. Existing techniques allow us to map networks of relationships, this project will go much further by:

  1. identifying and measuring the influence of geographic location, discipline, business practice, and generation on knowledge sharing connections 

  2. determining the central sources of knowledge and directional flow of knowledge within the networks 

  3. analyzing and explaining the conditions facilitating and impeding intra-organizational boundary-spanning knowledge sharing connection creation 

  4. determining why knowledge flows in a particular direction

As the movement toward distributed international organizations grows, the networks of social relationships that encourage the transfer of knowledge within a firm will weaken and knowledge sharing will become increasingly difficult. A better understanding of the drivers underlying the formation of knowledge-sharing connections and their ongoing maintenance can improve our effectiveness in addressing major societal and organizational challenges. This research will advance social science theory of knowledge sharing in global, interdisciplinary, technology-based communities of practice and provide recommendations for creating and maintaining multi-lateral knowledge sharing connections to enhance interdisciplinary communities of practice in multinational engineering and construction firms.


Research Methods

To understand the formation and structure of global knowledge sharing networks, we start by asking CoP members who they share knowledge with using survey methods. Then, using this data, we follow up with semi-structured interviews with select network members to identify how and why particular network patterns occur.  In this study, we initially collected data from two global CoPs in two different organizations as part of a pilot study. Then, from Spring of 2012 through Fall of 2013, we deployed surveys in three additional CoPs, and followed up with more than 75 semi-structured interviews.


  • Even though CoPs are intended to span geographic and cultural boundaries, there is a strong tendency for employees to share most strongly with others who are in the same country, and of the same culture.  These patterns are broken up by geographically integrated training, employee mobility, and task assignments that bring together people in different countries, and different cultures.  The facilitation of an online, collaborative platform did not inherently produce boundary spanning behavior. 

  • Companies must make intentional decisions about their internal structures, and divisions into different industries (e.g. oil & gas, transportation, etc.) and functional groups (i.e. civil engineering, accounting, etc.), are two of the most common internal groupings of employees.  Most companies emphasize either industry or functional organization, and this choice influences patterns of everyday work.  In the CoPs studied, knowledge sharing was limited by either industry or functional groupings, and these patterns aligned with everyday work patterns.  In other words, if the company emphasized industry groupings, then very little knowledge was shared between industry groups.  Everyday work patterns therefore dictated patterns of knowledge sharing connection. 

  • Within CoPs, knowledge sharing connections form through four primary mechanisms:

  1. Organizational control – employees become connected through reporting structures, or because a higher authority requires coordination. 

  2. Organizational opportunity – employees become connected because they have the opportunity, but not a requirement to interact, either by working on a project together or sharing an office. 

  3. Social networks – employees become connected because they are introduced by a mutual friend, or because they are searching for knowledge and are referred by someone in the company to someone else. 

  4. Impersonal searching – employees become connected through enterprise level search engines.  This includes knowledge management systems that enable profile and expertise searching, or searching by job title.

Of these four mechanisms, organizational control and organizational opportunity were by far the most frequent means of connecting. Although most companies spend the majority of their money creating enterprise level search tools as “knowledge management” systems, this research found that these systems were not effective in creating new connections.

The CoPs studied facilitated four major types of knowledge sharing connections, each of which facilitate different kinds of coordination between professionals.  As a classifying principle, these categories typify different degrees of common knowledge between two parties in a knowledge sharing connection.

  • Overlapping connections occur when professionals have the same job roles and knowledge (e.g. two plumbers).  Similar knowledge and experience makes the connection efficient for specific problem solving, shop talk, and transfer of best practices. 

  • Complementary connections occur when professionals are not interchangeable in their job roles, have very different knowledge bases, and yet need to coordinate to accomplish a single task (e.g. a plumber and an electrician).  With complementary connections, the diversity of knowledge leads to innovation, task coordination, and cross pollination of ideas. 

  • Growth connections occur between more and less experienced professionals, when the less experienced is learning from the more experienced employee.  Growth connections create an environment of apprenticeship, learning, and duplication of knowledge resources. 

  • Non-overlapping connections occur between two professionals that have no apparent overlap in skills or knowledge, as with a plumber and a financial auditor. Although both may work for the same company, there is no strategic purpose to ongoing knowledge sharing between the two. 

By controlling membership to CoPs, managers can use this information to create more strategic CoPs.  For instance, if a company has stagnated in their work practices and has very little innovation, creating communities of complementary connections could help to spur creative ideas.