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Collective Ability

Executive summary


Collective ability in knowledge intensive work groups can be described as a pattern of related actions as the group members shape the social system of the group. The group members construct their activities based on an understanding of a system of related actions performed by themselves and others, and they relate their actions based on this understanding.

Executive summary


Collective ability in knowledge intensive work groups can be described as a pattern of related actions as the group members shape the social system of the group. The group members construct their activities based on an understanding of a system of related actions performed by themselves and others, and they relate their actions based on this understanding.

Collective Ability

The background to this dissertation is an increasing importance of knowledge integration as society and organizations are becoming increasingly specialized and knowledge more distributed (Tsoukas, 1996; Grant, 1996). Organizations today use knowledge to an extent that a single actor cannot oversee. In addition, no single actor can foresee what knowledge is needed when and where in the pursuit of organizational tasks. This makes organizations decentralized systems lacking an overseeing mind (Tsoukas, 1996:11). The ability to integrate knowledge therefore becomes an increasingly important factor in the competitive ability of firms and organizations (Grant, 1996). During the past decades knowledge and the management of knowledge have received considerable attention, both in science and in practice. A major part of this interest has been pursued under the label of Knowledge management, focusing on how to use information technology and formal structures to manage knowledge (Ruggles, 1998; Hansen et al, 1999), as well as the willingness of individuals to contribute to such systems (Morris, 2001; Cabrera & Cabrera, 2002). This perspective can be said to have an instrumental view of knowledge. Knowledge is seen as a functional resource that both can and should be led. This view has been criticized because it assumes that knowledge, like other production resources, can be freed from the individual, stored and transmitted between different formats and subjects with few complications (Schön, 1983, Alvesson, 2004). Knowledge however is a difficult concept to define, both theoretically and empirically.

Knowledge – a multifaceted phenomenon

What is knowledge? Like Grant (1996:110) says “this question has intrigued some of the world’s greatest thinkers from Plato to Popper without the emergence of a clear consensus”. Using a cognitive perspective knowledge could be defined as representations of a world consisting of objects and events (von Krogh, 1998). The key task of any cognitive system, for example the brain, is therefore to represent or model these as accurately as possible. From this perspective knowledge becomes universal. Two cognitive systems are assumed to achieve the same representation of the same object or event. An alternative constructionist perspective questions this basic assumption, referring to an ontological and epistemological position in which any representation of reality is an act of construction rather than a representation. Because knowledge resides in our bodies, and is closely tied to our senses 226 and previous experiences, knowledge cannot be separated from the individual and the specific situation. Instead of looking at knowledge as an object it is seen as socially constructed. It has therefore been suggested that the application of knowledge should rather be defined as knowing (Blackler, 1995). Such a position implies that knowledge is mediated, situated, provisional, pragmatic and contested. It suggests that knowledge needs to be studied as an active process involving a specific set of individuals in a specific situation. This directs our attention to the interaction of the individuals and the patterns of their behaviors and how that forms a work group and its use of knowledge.

The ambiguity of knowledge

In knowledge intensive environments, knowledge can be said to be an ambiguous phenomenon. A major challenge for work groups is the uncertainty and complexity making means, ends and outcomes of a task open for interpretation. Collecting more “facts” cannot be used to decrease uncertainty, since multiple perspectives and interpretations of the environment will remain. Since knowledge in these groups can be expected to be distributed among the members in a way that no single individual has control (Tsoukas, 1996), the process of integrating knowledge becomes subject to the individuals’ ability and willingness to participate and contribute in such a process. This in turn relies on individuals’ perception of the group and its members. Factors such as; trust in other individuals and their knowledge, commitment, feeling of psychological safety and self-protecting defensive behaviors become critical for knowledge integration. Knowledge integration becomes subject to individuals’ implicit coordination i.e. the kind and quality of their interaction. These aspects are under limited control of management and the use of traditional hierarchical structures may even be considered as an inefficient means of governing such groups. The process becomes dependent on how individuals use their individual judgment in the specific situation, giving them a high degree of influence over the process of knowledge integration.

Research purpose and questions

How can groups in this setting integrate their knowledge in an efficient way, and manage the situation of uncertainty and complexity, when no one is in control? This is the underlying research question of this dissertation in which I use a combination of quantitative and qualitative research to study the challenges of knowledge integration in work groups. The thesis pursues the argument that knowledge intensive work groups, in order to have a high utilization of their knowledge resources, need the ability to move back and forth between a state of reflection and action. The process resembles that of the practitioner’s reflection-in-action (Schön, 1984). However, in work groups this must be a collective process. Using two perspectives on knowledge integration that are seldom combined; integration as group learning and integration as enactment of a collective system, the dissertation combines theories of group learning behavior (Edmondson, 1999), transactive memory 227 (Wegner, 1987) and collective mind (Weick and Roberts, 1993). The first research question of the dissertation is:

What are the key factors and activities of knowledge integration between individuals in ambiguous settings? How do these factors relate to each other and to the effectiveness and efficiency of the group?

To study this I first develop a model bringing together variables that in previous research have been related to the efficient use of knowledge in teams. The model is tested based on a survey of 60 work groups from 17 different organizations. The second research question of the dissertation is:

How is knowledge integration on a group level formed and organized, and what is the role of the participants’ representations and enactment of the group in this process?

The second question relates to how individuals construct meaning and how this is related to their enactment of the collective system of the work group. This is investigated in a qualitative study of 8 workgroups from 3 different organizations. I first analyze the use of reflective behavior and the enactment of a transactive memory system in the work groups. The groups are categorized according to their degree of knowledge integration. In a second step I analyze their organizing behavior using an analytical framework of organizing activities based on Hoskings (1988) concept networking.

Results and conclusions

The survey of 60 work groups

The results from the survey can be summarized in three main points. First, the empirical data supports the hypothesis that both the learning behavior and the enactment of a transactive memory system are related to group efficiency.

Second, the study indicates that it is only when these two processes appear in combination that they relate to efficiency. This is confirmed in three ways. First, we can see that it is not sufficient that the groups receive what they consider as knowledgeable and competent resources. Only when there is a sufficient level of psychological safety within the groups are these resources related to efficiency. Previous research on transactive memory systems has suggested that teams need trust in the competence of the knowledge resources (Faraj & Sproull, 2000). Other studies have suggested that reflective behavior in groups is related to a feeling of personal safety amongst the group members (Edmondson, 1999; Argyris & Schön, 1996). By combining these factors the current study shows that psychological safety mediates knowledge credibility in relation to efficiency. Second, the study also shows that reflective behavior is not related to efficiency, as previously suggested (Edmondson, 1999), unless the group members interact with heed. Studies of collective systems in high-reliability organizations (Weick & Roberts, 1993) have shown how these systems rely on group members’ heedful interaction for their functionality and absence of accidents. This study 228 adds to these findings, showing that knowledge intensive organizations in general (not only those focusing on high reliability) are also reliant on heed in order to release their potential of knowledge exploration and exploitation. Thirdly, the reflective behavior of the groups could not be related to efficiency unless the representation of the task and group was well developed. Again, this suggests the usefulness of combining elements of previous studies on learning and collective systems respectively. Representation is a concept used in theory on what forms collective behavior (Mohammed & Dumville, 2000; Weick & Roberts, 1993). This study indicates that groups need a well defined representation in order to be efficient in their reflective behavior, and not only in their enactment of an already defined system. However, this becomes somewhat of a paradox. The reflective behavior in itself is assumed to be needed in order to develop the representation in ambiguous situations. Where does this circle start? Who is to develop the representation, assuming that the knowledge needed is distributed amongst the group members, but the representation is needed in the reflective behavior? The survey indicates that leader coaching was the variable with the highest impact on forming the representation. This suggests a critical role of the leader in this process, but it also indicates a continued dependence on a leader, which seems incompatible with the conditions of the knowledge distributed organization. The leader alone cannot be expected to have the knowledge necessary to form the representation. This interaction between leader and group members in forming the representation of the group therefore became one of the important questions to be studied in detail through interviewing and observing 8 work groups in practice.

A third result from the survey shows that work groups are dependent on both a feeling of the group supporting the individual, in the form of psychological safety, as well as of individuals supporting the group. The latter process is that of heedful interrelating. These concepts are taken from the two different views of knowledge integration. The grouplearning perspective traditionally emphasizes the importance of conditions in which people are prepared to learn. In this case the group being supportive of group members’ reflective processes through openness, respectfulness and the absence of defensive behaviors. The collective system perspective, on the other hand, looks at what mechanisms make people act as if they were a group, like a collective mind (Weick & Roberts, 1993). This theory suggests that the difference separating a collective mind from other groups resides in the quality of the group members’ interactions in the form of; “noticing, taking care, attending, applying one’s mind, concentrating, putting one’s heart into something, thinking what one is doing, alertness, interest, intentness, studying, and trying” (Ryle, 1949:136, cited in Weick & Roberts, 1993:361). The current study confirms that both these aspects are critical for group efficiency.

Interviews and observations in 8 work groups

The second study consisted of two steps. In the first step the 8 work groups were categorized according to their level of knowledge integration. Analyzing their reflective behavior and enactment of a transactive memory system, 2 work groups were rated as 229 having a high level of knowledge integration. Of the remaining groups, 3 could be said to have unbalanced knowledge integration, either dominated by reflective behavior or by enactment of a transactive memory system. Finally, 3 groups could be categorized as having a low level of knowledge integration in both dimensions. Using an analytical framework of networking behavior (Hosking, 1988), organizing activities in the form of knowledge exchange, development of relations and developing narratives for retelling the “story” of the group, were studied in the work groups. Networking, as the way of group members to contribute to the organization of the group, could be related to knowledge integration. As all categories of work groups were to some extent engaged in networking behavior, the concept of heedful behavior can be used to define differences in the enactment of organizing behavior through networking.

Results from the combined studies

Combining the studies suggests that the model developed for the survey could be extended by integrating the results from the qualitative study. Two variables could then be added.

A challenge in combining the studies is that networking and representation seem to have a reciprocal relationship. Networking can in practice be seen as the activities supporting the content of the representation. The ambiguous situation characterizing the knowledge intensive groups also imply that the implicit representation of the group is complex from the beginning. The groups don’t have to develop complexity, they need to handle it. Hence networking can be seen as a reaction to complexity. Either the group handles complexity by limitations and simplifications, or it tries to enact complexity. In the latter case complexity can only be enacted collectively through a high level of heedful networking. Therefore the representation within the group is also a reflection of its networking activities. In this process the formal leader as well as other role models can initially be expected to have great influence. Over time however, all group members have the possibility to increase their influence through networking activities. To show this relationship the variable Group member coaching is introduced. The variable is termed coaching, since to some degree all group members are subject to their own self-leadership in this process. All group members will also, to some extent, influence other group members. Hence, they are coaching both themselves and others. Finally, the studies are combined by developing the concept of collective mind (Weick & Roberts, 1993) so that it can describe knowledge intensive work groups acting as a collective:

Collective ability in knowledge intensive work groups can be described as a pattern of related actions as the group members shape the social system of the group. The group members construct their activities based on an understanding of a system of related actions performed by themselves and others, and they relate their actions based on this understanding. The development of the representation of the system is dependent on the degree to which the group members are involved in this process, and their coaching of themselves in order to contribute their knowledge resources. Variations in the heed with which the group members interrelates their actions and experiences and show subordination as well as integrity influence the collective ability. It decides the groups’ ability to relate their combined knowledge resources to the task and the situation. A high level of heedful interaction in networking increases the integration of knowledge, and by that the collective ability to handle ambiguous tasks and situations.

Managerial implications

Against this background it is suggested that there is a need for a new way of looking at knowledge integration. There is a need of a perspective that integrates different aspects of knowledge and integration, as well as includes the dependence of the involved individuals and the specific situation. The implication of the dissertation is that knowledge integration in knowledge intensive environments is seen as a phenomenon driven by the behavior of all the involved individuals. The role of the leader, if the perspective is knowledge integration, will mainly have to be considered as that of supporting a collective process, in which the aim must be to emancipate knowledge rather than manage it. Since no one can define the complete representation or control the resources available for the execution of the task in knowledge intensive environments, the relevant outcome and use of resources cannot be determined in advance. Hence, traditional means of setting objectives and evaluating performance become problematic. Therefore, a final managerial implication will have to be that there is also a need to develop new forms of measuring and judging performance in these environments.

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Philip Runsten


PhD, Stockholm School of Economics

Senior Consultant, Founder

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