Knowledge workers are the fastest growing sector of today’s workforce. When Peter Drucker first coined the term, he described these workers as “high level employees who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal education, to develop new products or services”.
Knowledge workers make decisions rather than products, and their work is often much less repetitive than that of their predecessors. Thus, managing teams of knowledge workers can be very difficult, and typically requires a different approach than managing more traditional types of workers.
The struggle to help teams understand ‘who knows what’ and to then develop effective strategies for both accessing distributed knowledge and for bringing it to bear when needed are often the most difficult aspects of managing knowledge workers. One approach to this problem is to better understand the role of social capital in knowledge work.
Social capital refers to the links, shared values and understandings that create trust between individuals and within teams. These links have the potential to either facilitate or constrain the flow of resources such as knowledge across the network links. Research suggests that teams who are successful at establishing strong social capital links enjoy increased collaboration, improved knowledge transfer, and higher productivity levels as well as greater responsiveness and higher quality solutions to increasingly complex problems.
Two types of social capital relationships are particularly vital for successful knowledge work. First, knowledge workers need to have effective relationships with their managers. Given the wide spans of control that are often present in today’s organizations, many managers have limited time to devote to developing relationships with their employees. But managers who are less involved in their team’s networks will lose touch with the pattern of knowledge flows in those networks. When problems or issues arise, these managers will be unable to offer their workers helpful advice on ‘who knows what’, or how to best access needed knowledge.
Second, the relationships within knowledge teams need to be effective as well. Extensive distribution of knowledge across a working group potentially makes it more difficult for members to tap needed information. Teams with strong social capital are better placed to capitalize on expertise because of their increased familiarity with one another and their potential willingness to share information. Internal transfers of knowledge are often difficult to achieve and require the expenditure of extensive time and energy in the transfer process.
Teams with strong social capital ties will be better positioned to work through these challenges because they communicate more extensively with each other and have higher levels of trust, making them more able and willing to share information.
Fostering the growth and utilization of social capital among employees needs to be managed carefully. It’s easy to assume that social capital will just develop naturally as individuals work together. However, this is not the case. So here are four tips to cultivate social capital and help ensure that your teams maximize their potential for collaboration and knowledge exchange:
Lead by example. Demonstrate to your employees that sharing information and trusting one another are ‘the way things are done’ in your organization. We know that one way employees learn how to behave at work is by copying the behaviours that are modelled for them by their manager and other senior staff members. So, provide them with a strong example to emulate.
Encourage open communications. Ensure that your teams are meeting regularly enough to maintain open lines of communication. Consider asking them to complete team contracts, which set out the norms expected of all team members, including honest and meaningful communication. Make it clear that withholding information is not considered acceptable behaviour.
Give team members time to get to know one another. Create opportunities for them to socialize outside of their project meeting time. Research suggests that team members who are friends, and not just work colleagues, are more likely to share strong social capital ties. Celebrate birthdays, team milestones, and company successes with get-togethers that help employees build relationships.
Be extra attentive to your virtual teams. Geographically dispersed groups have a much more difficult time building the trust that is necessary for social capital development than do face-to-face groups. Think about how you can help your virtual team members share their expertise and skills with one another. Encourage strong norms of respect and timeliness in your virtual groups, and be aware of any cultural difference that may play a role in communication.