Online Community as Space for Knowledge Flows

Information Systems Research recently published a special section on Collaboration and Value Creation in Online Communities. In the Introduction section, Samer Faraj, Georg von Krogh, Eric Monteiro and Karim R. Lakhani – many familiar authors who I would like to thank for their high-quality research around open source software communities and other OCs – discuss the knowledge flows shaping community dynamics. And it’s open access, hooray!

As a social-media activist and former academic reseacher on Online Community phenomena from knowledge and innovation management point of view, I am a bit worried to see such excellent material published (only?) in a scientific outlet. Just imagine it, I will not attach a picture here. White paper, small text, thousands of words, perhaps one figure to ”illustrate” something – a figure that looks like someone just spilled a bottle of ink onto his sudoku. When exploring and theorizing around OCs, we need to use channels suitable for our core audience: online community managers, digital communication enthusiasts and open-innovation advocates. Most likely they will not read that pale full paper. In parallel with scientific publishing, we should share our insights through blogs, videos or infographics. This is why I decided to summarize a few points from the article.


Firstly, for anyone with Knowledge Management background it is always a pleasure to see Online Communities discussed from knowledge creation or organization-theory perspective – not merely economic, marketing and technology, which have long dominated both research and practice. There is also a wide stream of socio-psychological inquiries on OCs.

Yet, as the authors aptly note, existing IS research has primarily focused on why people participate in OCs, or taken an ”overly structural perspective where actors and actions are represented by network position, frequencies of ties or inference from linked others” (p. 669). Social network analysis is a feasible approach for OCs, but it is not enough alone:

A strictly structural perspective may not reveal the full dynamics of OC with its multiple layers of actors and activities. It may well describe the information that is being shared and created in OCs, but falls short of revealing the antecedents and trajectories that explain why the content emerged in the first place. (Faraj et al., 2016, p. 669)

This leads us to why the article was written. We have to look more in detail how and why knowledge is created in communities relying on digital channels and platforms. Strongly agree!

Online Communities bring together large masses of geographically dispersed invididuals around an activity, interest or identity. Many OCs exist alongside of traditional organizations, but others reach beyond their boundaries and open lateral streams of knowledge. What is surprising in 2017 is that we still need research agendas and general debate around how and why OCs change the ways we organize collaboration and social interaction. As Robert Reich noted in The Work of Nations already in 1991 – before the World Wide Web, social media or Internet of Everything – hierarchies are being replaced by communication and influence relationships. This results in more flexible organizational forms that rely on peer-to-peer collaboration in achieving their objectives.

Therefore, reading the recent OC article reminded me of something. What is it? Oh yes, my PhD thesis! In 2005-2008, I tried to convince corporate- and team-oriented management scholars (and there were many of them) that we are facing a drastic change in how work is organized and value created. I’m not quite sure about my success. Luckily there were some leading practitioners who already understood – not surprisingly, mostly from ICT firms such as IBM, Nokia or Dell. It was a bit depressing, both funding- and motivation-wise, to speak about open innovation communities or crowd wisdom in more traditional corporations who relied on being closed, hierarchical and totally unaware of social software.

Like current authors, I also criticized the overly focus on the misleading online-offline dichotomy and the well known bias in existing studies: discussing individual motivation to participate and neglecting community.

Communities are thus not exclusively formed by knowledge workers specialising in a certain domain, but increasingly involve contributions by leading users and hobbyists, customers and business partners. The core promise – and distinction – in virtual communities lies in their informal and voluntary nature. (Kosonen 2008, p. 83)

The definition of an OC by Faraj et al. is pragmatic. Communities emerge when participants focus on their interactions on sustaining knowledge flows, relying on a digital realm in which participant choose to dwell and engage in online activities. Equal attention needs to be paid to both the social aspects as well as the technology shaping the innovation and participation. This could be coined as the socio-techical perspective on OCs (Kosonen, 2008, p. 84): the interplay between communication technology and the broader social context in which people interact with each other.

Faraj et al. note how there are three unique characteristics of OCs: fluidity in membership, swift trust, and an epistemic orientation. The latter implies OCs do best when they are focused on developing and sustaining a social practice (photography, programming, parenting and so on), not just any interest or topic. Fluidity is represented as self-designed tasks and roles, such as community management and organizing collective efforts.

A heterogenous populace unbound by rigid organizational norms joins willingly and seemingly effortlessly to share a practice, build a solution or just deepen their knowledge on a topic. The apparent freedom from organizational constraints enables some to take on tasks and roles in an OC that would be difficult to achieve in a ”real” organization. The open structure of OCs allows participants to create roles for themselves either as subject matter experts or as organizers of collective efforts (Zhang et al., 2013). (Faraj et al., 2016, p. 672)

The critique follows. The tricky part in the article is relying on SECI model of knowledge creation. Nonaka’s famous work has been cited over and over again and replicated across a variety of organizational and community settings. In the online landscape, researchers either maintain tacit knowledge is absent, or conclude it wasn’t, which is ”unconventional” or ”surprising”. No, it is not. Simply understanding what tacit means would do.

So, what’s wrong with SECI model, then? It has been criticized for its focus on knowledge conversion as the vehicle for creating new knowledge. We may ask why is it exactly the conversion between tacit and explicit that is needed? If we follow the early work by Polanyi (1962), the whole idea of separating between the two knowledge types seems to be a misunderstanding. Human knowing always carries a tacit element.

As I have participated in Online Communities for around 20 years now, studied many, facilitated a few, discussed, networked and educated people around them, I would prefer an approach where knowledge creation does not equal SECI model but the ways to bring together and match diverse thinking.

There is always a threat for OC members – like for any community, for that matter – to become a bubble collective, a small group of like-minded people who only accept one truth. It is hard to imagine such communities to become sources of radical new ideas, unless radical innovation means disturbed thinking in action. As long as researchers only list SECI processes they have identified from OCs, we miss the answer to one fundamental dilemma:

How Online Communities find a balance between enough thought diversity (large networks) and enough sociality (trust, shared norms, common language), as both are needed simultaneously to create new knowledge?

Answer to this question might be of  interest for large masses of people, such as community managers and moderators, knowledge management researchers, innovation-oriented practitioners and anyone struggling to find sense and meaning in social-media based communities. Unless we find better means to establish dialogue between diverse viewpoints, I do not think Online Communities excel in radical innovations. Small improvements and incremental innovation – why not.

There is a growing stream of research and practical evidence on the promise of less firm-centric approaches to problem solving and knowledge creation. In addition to the question I set here, we need to understand how OCs are governed, as Faraj et al. also note. There are shared forms of authority based on expertise, as well as shared leadership (Johnson et al., 2015). And this is my favourite part of the article: OCs should not be ”over-organized”, as this is likely to weaken the knowledge flows which are at the heart of community life.

Let them be fuzzy, fluid, informal and chaotic – just like human creativity and thinking have always been.


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