Gaining connections - or losing focus

KIM, Yongsuk | JARVENPAA, Sirkaa L | GU, Bin

Along with the chance to access a myriad sources of knowledge, going online also opens up countless, and often enjoyable, opportunities for distraction from the task at hand. This, of course, is not a problem for individuals who, say, start off on a golfing community site looking for advice on their putting technique only to end up, a few clicks later, sharing their holiday anecdotes on a travel platform. But will a lack of focus always be an issue for organizations that develop online communities with the aim of boosting job-related knowledge sharing and collaboration among staff?

The prevailing view in the relevant research literature has been that sharing members with other communities, even other professional ones, is problematic. It is supposed that these members will then have less time to pass on information to their colleagues in the ‘focal’ online community.

However, in their study, Yongsuk Kim, Sirkkaa L Jarvenpaa and Bin Gu, looked at how useful knowledge gained in other online groupings can be productively shared in the focal community.

In their paper, the authors theorize that such a net gain can only be achieved if two conditions, concerning opportunity and motivation, are met. First, there had to be a high degree of ‘external bridging’ by members of the focal community to a network of other, dissimilar, communities. Second, the members of the focal community had to be strongly connected to one another. 

To test this theory, data was collected from 76 organizational online communities established by a global energy company with a highly skilled workforce spread across more than 100 international work sites. Each of these communities had its own forum that hosted discussion threads on topics such as the most suitable valve to be used for a specific function.

From the data, four key variables were evaluated. Community responsiveness was assessed by calculating the monthly average number of replies per discussion thread. The allocation of time and attention to other communities was found by working out, on a monthly basis, the relative portion of community visits made by members outside the focal community. The strength of the connection between two communities (the external bridging) was determined via the number of members they shared. Finally, the strength of the connection between members of a focal community was calculated by taking the sum of actual ties divided by the number of possible ties.

The study found that a community will gain a positive return from the time its members spend elsewhere online, when it is both internally cohesive and when it shares its members with other communities that don’t have the same knowledge base. It would be inefficient for its members to spend time dipping into other communities, if these communities possess redundant information or if the members don’t then share with their peers the knowledge they’ve picked up.

So how can work forces be nudged into using the time they spend online more productively? The study suggests that a useful first step is to conduct a network analysis of community data, including membership, site visits, and posts. If this analysis identifies groups of communities that are over-connected, or individual communities that aren’t internally cohesive, community managers can then consider how to improve external bridging and internal bonding.