Organizations find that knowledge often gets ‘stuck’ within the different professional cliques. In a health care setting, for example, nurses talk to nurses and doctors talk to doctors, and knowledge has difficulty passing between these two professions. However, all organizations have individuals who can act information ‘brokers’, bridging the gap between the professions.
One of the key success factors of an organization is that its executives, managers and employees or staff are able to share with each other best practices and processes, new routines, innovations and all other beneficial and important knowledge.
Unfortunately, rather than the smooth and widespread transfer of knowledge, organizations find that knowledge often gets ‘stuck’ within the different professions in the organization. Stefano Tasselli of the Rotterdam School of Management explored the patterns of knowledge transfer in an organization, focusing specifically on the social structures of professions.
In his quest to explain what might hamper or help knowledge transfer, Tasselli examined both the challenges of transferring knowledge to others (i.e. ‘ease of knowledge transfer’), and receiving knowledge from others (i.e. ‘receipt of useful knowledge). In short, his study examined transfer knowledge from the perspectives of both the source of the knowledge and the recipient of the knowledge.
Tasselli chose a healthcare setting for his study, as knowledge sharing between doctors and nurses is vital to the successful operation of a hospital.
The methodology of the study involved a detailed survey that asked 53 doctors and 65 nurses of a hospital department in Italy from whom they received knowledge and to whom they passed on knowledge. Concurrently with the survey, Tasselli conducted 21 semi-structured interviews with 9 doctors and 11 nurses from the department and a top administrator of the hospital.
The study revealed that the professional networks of nurses and doctors were structured differently. The nurses’ professional structure was more hierarchical with knowledge traveling from the nurse manager down to the nurses. This gave most nurses less opportunity to exchange knowledge with doctors. The doctors’ professional structure was less hierarchical — doctors were more likely to go directly to other doctors for knowledge. However, given this emphasis on peer-to-peer exchange of knowledge and advice, doctors were less likely to sharet their knowledge outside their profession.
An element of the social structures of both nurses and doctors were the status barriers between the profession — that is, differences in status between doctors and nurses instead of doctors and nurses viewing each other as peers.
The bottom line is that doctors were more likely to share knowledge with other doctors than with nurses; and nurses were more likely to share knowledge with other nurses than with doctors.
However, Tasselli’s study revealed, social structures also enabled individuals in certain positions to positively impact knowledge transfer through the organization.
One of the tenets of network theory is that those who occupy central positions in a network are more likely to act as a bridge spanning the divides with other networks.
The study showed that in a hospital setting clinical directors — responsible for the efficient and effective functioning of the medical staff, including providing clinical leadership to colleagues and junior personnel, coordinating the activities of departments, and being responsible for departmental budgets — acted as central authority figures who had both the motivation and the legitimate authority to transfer knowledge from one professional network to the other.
In terms of receiving useful knowledge, the study found that both nurse managers and junior doctors put themselves in position to be knowledge ‘brokers’ — that is, they were in a position to detect and acquire relevant knowledge, which they then shared throughout the organization.
In the hierarchy of the nurse network, nurse managers had easier access to doctors and the doctor’s knowledge than subordinate nurses. The brokerage opportunities for junior doctors emerged for a different reason: junior doctors were rotated through various departments, thus putting them into contact with new information that they could pass on to other junior doctors but also nurses. In addition, they were not hampered by the status barriers of the senior doctors, for whom informing nurses about new knowledge and information was not part of their responsibilities.
In short, while professional cliques do tend to keep knowledge to themselves, selected individuals in an organization have enough legitimate authority and motivation to broker knowledge across the inter-professional chasms in the organization — either by initiating information sharing (the clinical directors) or identifying and acquiring information (nurse managers and junior doctors).
Organizations and companies must make an effort to break down the barriers that form between professional groups. In the health care setting, for example, the hospital departments can have informal social gatherings that allow nurses and doctors to become more familiar with each other.
Organizations should also invest resources in developing a knowledge-sharing and collaboration culture. For example, they should reward inter-professional knowledge sharing and teamwork at all levels of the organization. Rotation between and within departments can also help.
However, informal inter-professional relationships are the key to more effective knowledge sharing. Any efforts to reinforce social relationships and break down status barriers between professions will pay dividends.
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