The tool you use might be of minor importance for flourishing online collaboration and knowledge sharing

Researches found that group members who identify with a group and believe that knowledge acquisition is important, might compensate for technical flaws in the tool used for knowledge management and social collaborations. What are the implications at work from a study which brings back the social context to online collaboration and moves beyond the importance of good user experience for technology supporting it?


In their article “Knowledge Contribution in Organizations via Social Media” published in the Journal of Personell Psychology, Behringer, Sassenberg and Scholl discuss interesting insights in how knowledge sharing, identification with a work group and the perceived usefulness interplay. They found that identification of a person with his/her work group facilitated knowledge contribution when the tool used (e.g. a wiki, a blog or a forum) was perceived as useful. The participants in the studies intended to share (and actually shared) more knowledge, when they identified with the respective group and the tool in use seemed useful to them. Behringer, Sassenberg and Scholl tested their hypothesis in two scenarios. The first one was a hypothetical scenario for a group of psychology students who should evaluate a potential future learning platform and rate their willingness (besides other aspects) to contribute by collaborating on the platform. The more the participants identified as psychology students and the more useful the perceived the new learning platform, the more they intended to contribute knowledge. Also, the more the participants identified with the group of psychology students, the more important they perceived collective knowledge contribution. Surprisingly, if participants rated collective knowledge acquisition as important, they intended to contribute with more knowledge when the perceived usefulness of a tool was low. This “compensation hypothesis” (high value of knowledge sharing could potentially compensate for a low perceived usefulness of the tool for sharing knowledge) could be almost replicated in a business context. Employees of a technical product development department tended to contribute more to a common wiki used at the department, when they identified more with the department and when the usefulness of the wiki was rated high. Also, a high group identification comes along with a higher importance of collective knowledge acquisition. When the usefulness of the wiki was described as low and group success was important, employees contributed more to the collaboration going on in the wiki.

These results strengthen my views on the success for digital collaboration platforms. For making a tool for collaboration successful, people come first. Without a positive and supportive team spirit, the case for the importance of sharing knowledge is hard to make. Once all employees feel that they belong to their work group, knowledge sharing seems like an obvious thing to do to become better and improve performance. It seems like the tool comes second place, because group belonging and success might compensate for badly designed tools. This emphasis again that the majority of time should be spend with building the team and raising awareness for knowledge sharing instead of selecting a tool and getting fancy about all the shiny functionalities. Still I believe we have a long way to go. It is naive to believe that all knowledge sharing at work happens online. It is especially the “brokers” (those employees switching between offline and online environments seamlessly and involving less technology-savy colleagues) who play an important role in knowledge sharing and collaboration. Digital contribution to team work is only one part of the equation. Measuring intention to contribute on a learning platform or contributions to a wiki are easy to measure, but digital collaboration is more than that. It is liking and sharing posts, connecting information, posting content in different ways. More than the mere amount of posts and activities, digital collaboration is all about the content as well. Without qualitative content, social collaboration and knowledge sharing is useless. Someone needs to create the content which can be shared. Also the context of collaboration is more complex in the workplace than as described in the studies. Mostly, a tool is used by the entire company, not only selected departments. Besides sharing information, this makes connecting information and making relevant information available even more important. Power is also an underestimated aspect in digital collaboration. Also in the digital world, there are loud and quite collaborators. Some of them more visible than others. Tools can contribute to social collaboration and make it more effective, but it is too easy to say that they come without challenges.


Full reference of the article

Behringer, N., Sassenberg, K., & Scholl, A. (2016). Knowledge Contribution in Organizations via Social Media. Journal of Personnel Psychology, Journal of Personnel Psychology, 2016.

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