Uncertainties as Barriers for Knowledge Sharing in Enterprise Social Media

(Full article published as – Trier, M.; Fung, M.; Hansen, A. (2017) European Conference on Information Systems 2017, Portugal)

Transferring knowledge has become a key challenge for global organizations and social media offers new opportunities to digitalize and support this process. However, the successful implementation of a social media based knowledge transfer environment is marked by several uncertainties that can become a barrier for the participants’ adoption. There is only limited existing research studying the types of uncertainties that employees perceive and their impact on knowledge transfer via social media. To address this gap, this article presents a qualitative interview-based study of the adoption of the Enterprise Social Media tool Yammer for knowledge sharing in a large global organization. We identify and categorize nine uncertainties that were perceived as barriers by the respondents.

These uncertainties could be categorized into three groups:

  1. Participant-related uncertainties. A first group of participant-related uncertainties relates to interactions with unknown others. ESN participants are (1) uncertain in evaluating the audience’s level of expertise, which made it difficult to estimate (2) the contents of the audience’s reactions. For important issues, there was no confidence in (3) whether people would get activated and respond at all, as the employees found that the systems is not about asking someone directly.
  2. Response-related uncertainties. A second group of response-related uncertainties relates to the results received from fellow employees. Asking questions was avoided sometimes in urgent situations as employees were (4) uncertain about how to deal with the incoherence of answers reflecting the different local approaches from across the globe. At the same time the quality of the answers was a concern as people were (5) uncertain about the local applicability of the proposed solutions. When looking through past answers, the informal conversation principle lead to (6) uncertainties of how to effectively search for and find relevant solutions in the platform.
  3. Platform-related uncertainties. A third group of platform-related uncertainties relates to the abstract positioning of the platform. First, employees were (7) uncertain about the purpose and benefit of the platform, once they compared it to their tools in use. This had bearings on the selection of contents to share as users were (8) uncertain about what is appropriate content to share, in particular with regards to confidentiality. Confidentiality surfaced not only as a legal concept but also an instrument of power games, where information that could legally be shared was not posted to gain local advantages. A final derived barrier is the difference between the management’s assumed dissemination level and the actual everyday use, leading to a (9) uncertainty related to the reach of the platform in terms of getting the attention of potentially relevant colleagues.

The study revealed that the uncertainty types play an important role in affecting employees’ participation and willingness to share. We further derive necessary critical managerial interventions that ensure a successful ESM implementation for knowledge sharing.

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