Knowledge Sharing & Protection in Networks of Organizations


Research Challenge

Research problem in the Layers Context: At the beginning of our empirical study on informal learning in networks from the Healthcare and Construction in 2014 to 2015, we witnessed that organizations joined networks of organizations to draw on collective knowledge and utilize interaction with other organizations in the network. In the Healthcare sector, networks of professionals collaborate beyond the boundaries of single organizations where they are employed while at the same time collaboration in these networks of professionals is crucial to fulfilling their jobs within the organization. In the Construction sector we witnessed that companies join forces to jointly develop sustainable construction in a network whilst they are potential competitors on the market. Also in case of the application partner Bau-ABC (as a center for vocational training) apprentices are employed at different construction companies and have to collaborate beyond the organizational boundaries at Bau-ABC.

Participants of our study highlighted many advantages of this engagement in network activities like wide access to knowledge resources or higher knowledge quality. However, they also mentioned risks of engaging in networks of organizations. The participants highlighted that they are constantly struggling with realizing the benefits whilst avoiding the risks from engaging in network activities.

Theoretical Contribution

Towards a general research problem: Organizational knowledge creation theory explains the process of making available and amplifying knowledge created by individuals as well as crystallizing and connecting it to an organization’s knowledge system. Collective knowledge creation takes place when individuals team up, e.g., in communities [1] [2] to share and jointly develop knowledge. Networks provide firms with access to knowledge and the membership results in repeated and enduring knowledge exchange relationships [3] and scale learning in two ways: (1) they encourage learning by promoting the rapid transfer of self-contained pieces of information and (2) they foster learning by encouraging the novel synthesis of information and thus becoming the locus of innovation [4].

In this process of knowledge development, knowledge protection has been mostly considered as a barrier although few research highlighted its importance as a contributor to successful knowledge management [5]. The concept is about the prevention of (1) unwanted knowledge spill-overs [6], (2) knowledge loss [7], and (3) the reduction of knowledge visibility [8]. (1) focuses on leakage of knowledge to not authorized people, (2) on leaving or retiring employees, and (3) is concerned with observability of knowledge by externals.

Literature on balancing knowledge sharing to scale learning and knowledge protection in networks is scarce. On the one hand, balancing protection and sharing is widely under researched [9]. Also, literature recent literature on knowledge protection strongly focuses on dyadic relationships and does rarely take network settings into account [10]. Within the scope of Layers, we published a literature review on knowledge protection that provides a research agenda for knowledge protection [11].

During the empirical studies 2014 and 2015, we followed the research question: how do members of networks of organizations balance sharing and protecting knowledge? During our evaluation study 2016, we collected evidence that Layers tools can support organizations to balance sharing and protecting knowledge and, hence, facilitate scaling learning.

Studies and Methods

Throughout the years 1-4 in Layers, several studies gradually worked their way through to be able to address the problem under discussion. As a first sign of evidence for the importance of knowledge protection, the studies of year 1 served as preliminary orientation and mapping of problems (user stories). However, evidence on the problem under discussion was collected from two studies performed in Layers: (a) the empirical studies 2014 and 2015 and (b) the evaluation study 2016.

Empirical study 2014-2015: this study aimed at exploring practices of informal learning in networks of organizations in Healthcare and Construction. During this study, we came across the high importance of balancing sharing and protecting knowledge in networks of organization. During this study, we developed the stated research question and explored practices of balancing sharing and protecting knowledge in networks of organizations. We performed 91 semi-structured interviews with representatives from 16 networks between April 2014 and October 2015. Data were analysed starting with an informed inductive coding procedure [12] exploring concepts, themes and issues emerging from the data themselves. Following this, axial coding and cross-case analysis were performed to identify patterns of practices to balance sharing and protecting knowledge

According to (b), the evaluation study 2016 gave us the chance to explore how Layers tools impact learning in the selected pilots. Besides, we also had the chance to explore (at least expectations of) how Layers tools support employees of organizations in balancing knowledge sharing and protecting when these employees participate in network activities.

Evaluation study 2016: 9 semi-structured evaluation interviews and 22 Focus Groups between March 2016 and September 2016. Data for this learning scenario were analyzed according to the following question: how do the Layers tools help organizations collaborating in networks to shape and use network communication spaces in a way that they can manage the ambidexterity of sharing and protecting knowledge.


Findings from the empirical study 2014 and 2015: we found that organizations of networks try to balance sharing and protecting by deciding (a) how much to share (level of detail & topic), and (b) with whom to share (selection of groups) [11] [13] [14]. We found that organizations strongly rely on trusted relationships and collaborate in trusted subgroups. However, we found that organizations collaborating in networks often struggle with the assessment of other network members according to the members’ knowledge sharing behavior. A lack of reciprocity of sharing, knowledge misuse, or transitive sharing are exemplary risks that organizations foresee when they cannot assess other members in the network. As a result organizations struggle with deciding with whom they can share knowledge. As a consequence, organizations strongly focus on reducing the level of detail (depth) and the topics (breadth) for sharing in network communication spaces. We find that all three practices occur in all of our investigated networks and are vital for organizations to manage the ambidexterity of sharing and protecting knowledge in network communication spaces.

Findings from the evaluation study 2016: we found that Layers tools can help members to balance sharing and protecting knowledge to scale learning. First, Layers tools support sharing of collective knowledge (for details please see Individual and Collective Learning in Collaborative Knowledge Building). Layers tools increase the amount of communication spaces in networks. For example, LTB has chat functions to communicate with other users across organizational boundaries, and Ach So! allows to shares knowledge in form of videos with other users from different organizations. Furthermore, Confer and Bits & Pieces allow discussions between the users across organizational boundaries.

Participants from the pilots highlighted that Layers tools have the potential to better manage sharing and protecting knowledge. One important aspect mentioned was control over knowledge flows. Tools like Confer, Bits & Pieces and LivingDocuments allow to specifically define what topics, details is shared with whom and, hence, protect from leakage. However, at the same time this has positive effects on collaboration. One participant of a Focus Group from Pilot A of Healthcare mentioned:

there’s also other bits about personal information for doctors and stuff that you might want to not share […] because it’s a small business you could see that there’s bits of contractual stuff that you might want to keep private versus process stuff which you might be much more open with.

User of Living Documents in Healthcare Pilot A

Living Documents gives us more control, because it’s giving the right information to the right group of people at the right time […] So you can say look, I need answers to this, this is relevant to your particular aspect of your job then I can see that being very useful because if you give them a long… I’ve done it before where you get a document and I’ve read it and I’ve gone, read page 4 and 5 because the rest of it is just not applicable but if I give them a twenty page document they just switch off […]. And they’re more likely to respond in a timely manner then because they’re actually reading.

User of Living Documents in Healthcare Pilot A

Another important aspect was the possibility to create subgroups where reciprocity of sharing can be achieved. For example, in the construction pilots, we witnessed that LTB and AchSo are used to define with whom knowledge is shared in a network or community. The reason is that the possibility to establish groups help them to assess whether recipients act reciprocally:

Except you have two, three really good colleagues. Then you would show them new tricks but not with all and sundry. Because it is your knowledge what you worked hard for. […] if you have few colleagues from the construction site [in the AchSo group] you can share your knowledge. Because if you share your knowledge and the recipient does not, and nothing comes back, that would really make me angry. […] you need to make sure that you benefit from it.

User of AchSo in Construction Pilot Plant Operators, August 2016

Put in a nutshell, Layers tools give organizations more control to shape communication spaces. That is, organizations can define what they share (details and topics) with whom (groups). This way, Layers tools support organizations in managing the ambidexterity of sharing and protecting knowledge in networks of organizations.


This section reflects upon the the core findings for Layers from both empirical studies 2014 and 2015, and evaluation study 2016.

Reflections from empirical studies 2014 and 2015

To scale learning in networks of organizations, balancing sharing and protecting knowledge is crucial: The introduction and diffusion of Layers tools offer great opportunities for informal learning and knowledge exchange. However, collaboration and joint knowledge creation in networks of organizations are not free of risks for the participating organizations. Hence, fruitful collaboration in networks is not only determined by benefits from sharing between organizations but also from how successful organizations can achieve their protection requirements during collaboration.

To scale learning in networks of organizations, IT-enabled communication spaces need to be provided: Each network organization has different requirements what knowledge should be shared or protected, network management and the design of collaborative IT like Layers tools should take into account the need of organizations’ to shape communication spaces.

Reflections from evaluation study 2016

First, Layers tools allow customizing user groups to support with whom to share. Evaluation results indicate that Layers tools like Ach So! support organizations in defining their own communication spaces according to the dimension with whom knowledge is shared. The creation and administration of virtual group spaces (e.g. LTB, AchSo) allows to select and invite members for collaboration and establish reciprocity of sharing.

Second, Layers tools allow customizing knowledge depth and breadth. Evaluation results indicate that Layers tools like LTB and Confer allow to improve specifying what and how much is shared across organizations. On the one hand, LTB helps to control knowledge depth of sharing by allowing to bundle different sources of knowledge in form of stacks. Through a stack structure, knowledge can be easily divided into topics that have different level of access rights for different audiences. Confer allows to provide access to a document that leaves out details of a discussion. This way, depth of knowledge sharing can be better controlled.

Such IT-enabled mechanisms provided by the Layers tools support organizations in creating trusted subgroups, excluding topics, and excluding details from sharing. This way, the IT-enabled mechanisms provided by the Layers tools facilitate capacity building of organizations to balance sharing and protecting knowledge. On the one hand, the mechanisms increase the “learning capacity of organizations”, i.e. their Absorptive Capacity to identify, assimilate and use knowledge. On the other hand, the mechanisms support the establishment of a protective capacity of an organization [15]. This capacity can be understood as the counterpart to Absorptive Capacity and, thus, supports managing the ambidexterity of sharing and protecting. Through better controlling what topic and what level of detail is shared with whom, organizations could establish concealment, ambiguity, and enforcement capabilities helping to build protective capacity [16].

Summarizing, Layers tools have the potential to help organizations to balance sharing and protecting through offering IT-enabled mechanisms to create trusted subgroups, to exclude topics, and to exclude details from sharing. This way, Layers tools have to potential to facilitate scaling learning in networks of organizations as they allow organizations to better balance sharing and protecting knowledge.

Further Readings

Contributing Authors

Ronald Maier

Stefan Thalmann


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