Using Social Networks and Communities of Practice to Promote Staff Collaboration in Higher Education

  • Niall CorcoranEmail author
  • Aidan Duane
Part of the Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning book series (IAKM, volume 8)


A lack of community at the heart of higher education institutions (HEIs) has led to a breakdown of collaboration and knowledge sharing amongst staff. There are a number of contributory factors, including the culture and structure of these organizations, and a divide between academic and other staff. The use of community-based knowledge management (KM) techniques, such as communities of practice (CoP), appears to have some potential in addressing this problem, and particularly when coupled with enterprise social networks (ESN) to create online communities. A case study of the implementation of an ESN and virtual CoP (vCoP) in a public HEI in Ireland is presented. The project involved an action research (AR) study conducted over a 12-month period and used qualitative data from focus groups and interviews to investigate a number of themes based on a conceptual model. The findings indicate that the barriers to staff participation are influenced by the prevalent organizational structure and culture, and a divide between faculty and other staff. However, individual benefits that accrue may influence greater participation, and organizational benefits that accrue may influence organizational strategies that drive change in structure and culture to promote the development of the knowledge sharing environment. A number of strategies for practice and specific tactical approaches for organizations to use are presented. In general, HEIs need to move towards a transformational culture for staff to be suitably motivated to participate in online communities and share knowledge freely.


Knowledge management Communities of practice Enterprise social networks Action research 

An idealised higher education environment would display the following characteristics: students attend in order to seek knowledge and learn from the academic instructors; the academic instructors impart their knowledge to the students and seek to expand their own knowledge through research activities; student support personnel work to enable both of those groups to achieve their goals; and they are all supported by management who fully understand their purpose in creating an environment where the ultimate goal of higher education can be achieved—the generation and transfer of knowledge. This appears a simple and straightforward depiction of what a higher education institution (HEI) should look like, one that would be widely understood by broader society, and indeed by many students that engage with HEIs. The majority of students are transient members of campus communities, whereas the staff of a HEI are the permanent members of the community, whose collective task is to maximize the learning and social experience for the student group, and this is the primary function of the majority of HEIs. This sense of all of these groups working together towards a common goal should stimulate a picture of community within these institutions, and also perhaps across the wider higher education sector, both nationally and internationally. Indeed, the very reason for the existence of HEIs, the process of facilitating learning, is central to the creation of community, and, according to Palmer (2002), “we have at our disposal one of the greatest vehicles for community building known to humankind—the one called education” (p. xv). If education is at the heart of community, then it is somewhat logical to expect that community would be at the heart of education and education institutions. It is somewhat of a paradox then, that this sense of community is in fact not widespread in many HEIs, although it would seem that a strategic plan for a HEI has yet to be written that does not espouse the goal of building campus community (Taub, 1998).

This chapter examines how social media tools, specifically enterprise social networks, can be used in an organization to enable staff knowledge sharing activity and build community. In determining that the prevalent organization structure and culture in higher education institutions have a negative impact on knowledge management, it looks at ways in which social media tools may help to improve this situation. It describes a case study that involved the implementation of an enterprise social networking tool used to underpin the development of a knowledge sharing environment centred on virtual communities of practice in a HEI. The research findings underpin a discussion that ties in the existing literature, and develops a number of strategies for practice, before concluding with recommendations for future directions.1

1 Organization Culture and Structure in Higher Education Institutions

The lack of community amongst staff working in HEIs is neither new nor perceived and has been the subject of discussion and research for decades. Indeed, Palmer (2002) stated: “academic culture has no sense of being part of a community” (p. 179). A structurally fragmented community may be rooted in the fact that HEIs were historically, largely founded and run by academics, but as they grew in size and student numbers it became necessary to include a wide range of administrative and support functions such as finance, human resources, information technology (IT) services, facilities, and library. Conway (2012) cited a 1966 speech by the noted botanist and educator Eric Ashby, in which he said “all Professors see all administrators as an evil. (If you are an administrator), say to yourself every morning ‘I am an evil, but I am a necessary one’” (p. 43). This sense of disengagement between academic staff and support staff does not seem to have gone away or even dissipated much in the interim. Castleman and Allen (1995) maintained that support staff have been a neglected part of the higher education workforce, with their issues often overlooked by management, and Szekeres (2011) described support staff as being an invisible group. Indeed, much of the literature seems to infer that the main reason for this cultural divide is the attitude of academic staff, who see administrative staff as unnecessary, interfering, and controlling (e.g. Dobson, 2011; Szekeres, 2011). In any case, HEIs simply could not function without the existence of support staff. Leaving the attitude of academics and the sensibilities of support staff aside, it is the manifestation of the structural and cultural divide between the two groups at an operational level that is most problematic for HEIs. A lack of understanding, trust and knowledge sharing between academic and support staff can lead to stifled development, both within an institution itself and of the institution. This position is not peculiar to either group in relation to the other but is very much a two-way street, and is described by Conway and Dobson (2003) as two groups with divergent value systems, and an interface that is less than positive, a situation often exacerbated when academics become full-time executives as academic managers.

Both the organizational structure and the organizational culture of HEIs tend to promote the division of the organization into tribes or silos. Of course, divides exist in any organization where different professional groups interact and where professional groups are managed, with individual workers associating with projects, trades, departments, or functions, increasing the difficulties associated with knowledge sharing, coordination, and interaction between these groups. Shoham and Perry (2009) described the current structure of most academic institutions as characterized by a loose coupling between its faculty and staff units, and Kuo (2009) discussed the sense of disconnection between faculty and staff which makes it difficult for them to work collaboratively. James (2000) stated “an unusual organizational characteristic of universities is the deeply entrenched division in roles and status between academic and administrative staff” (p. 51). Santo (2005) argued that the reasons for this entrenchment lie in the fact that two very different knowledge bases are involved, and the interpretation of events by faculty and staff is different due to different values and priorities. This situation is exacerbated in many newer HEIs in a number of jurisdictions, where those institutions tend to be more bureaucratic in character than traditional universities, with a centralized and hierarchical management structure where all staff report to line managers and have less autonomy (Fullwood, Rowley, & Delbridge, 2013).

Many of these jurisdictions also mandate fee-paying, public HEIs, and coupling this with the ever diversifying makeup of the student population means that it is becoming increasingly important that the quality of the educational experience meets expectations. Service quality has now become a fundamental aspect of educational excellence. Aldridge and Rowley (2001) found that students perceive the quality of an institution’s learning environment both in terms of intellectual faculty and appropriate facilities of learning and infrastructure, and this perception will decide if their interest in the institution is retained or not. The students are motivated by both the academic and the administrative efficiency of their institution. Malik, Danish, and Usman (2010) believed that the quality of service delivery is contributed to through the cooperation of academic and support staff and by the interaction of both groups with students, and Bassnett (2005) stated that academic and support staff must work more closely together if this is to be achieved, with a need for a cooperative community based on mutual trust.

2 HEI’s Cultural Impact on Knowledge Management/Sharing

Given the cultural reality that lacks community in this dystopian depiction of modern HEIs, there is a consequential lack of knowledge sharing amongst staff. As knowledge management (KM) processes such as acquisition, storing, retrieving and sharing, are seen as crucial and core by knowledge intensive organizations (Nunes, Annansingh, Eaglestone, & Wakefield, 2006), it would seem logical that KM might form a key strategic concern for HEIs through which they could recognize, manage, and use their knowledge assets. Kidwell, Vander Linde, and Johnson (2000) believed that HEIs can derive significant value from developing initiatives to share knowledge for the achievement of business objectives, arguing that, if done effectively, KM can lead to better decision making capabilities, reduced development cycle time for curriculum and research, improved academic and administrative services and reduced costs. Nonaka and Von Krogh (2009) asserted that the outcome of knowledge sharing is the creation of new knowledge and innovation that will improve organizational performance, and a number of studies have shown that promoting knowledge sharing practices results in improved organizational effectiveness (Gupta & Govindarajan, 2000; Olivera, 2000; Petrash, 1996). Although the external transfer of knowledge is effectively managed by most HEIs (Kok, 2007; Pinto, 2012), the management of organizational knowledge and the promotion of staff knowledge sharing is largely neglected, with low levels of KM implementation and knowledge sharing evident in these organizations (Fullwood et al., 2013; Ramachandran, Chong, & Ismail, 2009). A lack of KM implementation and knowledge sharing, therefore, has significant negative impacts on the intellectual capital and the overall performance of HEIs, similar to any type of organization, commercial or otherwise (Fullwood et al., 2013; Sohail & Daud, 2009). According to Ramakrishnan and Yasin (2012), speed of curriculum revision and updating, and quality of administrative and support services, are particularly impacted in HEIs.

3 Improving Knowledge Management in HEIs

In searching for ways in which to improve the overall sense of community with a consequential effect of improved staff knowledge sharing, KM must offer some hope, and the use of a number of community-based KM techniques and tools may present new directions for HEIs to explore. Amongst these are Communities of Practice (CoP) and Enterprise Social Networks (ESN), which can be combined to create virtual communities of practice (vCoP). The idea of CoP was first introduced in 1991 by the cognitive anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger and describes a group of people who share crafts or professions or areas of common interest, and they can evolve naturally or can be created specifically (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The rigid bureaucratic organizational structures which are prevalent in many HEIs can serve to stifle any sort of real knowledge sharing (Bannister, 2001; Parker & Bradley, 2000), and CoP can be used to circumvent these structures by creating spaces where both academic and other staff with common interests can come together in informal groups and settings to share knowledge. In order for CoP to work efficiently in the modern workplace, it is necessary to introduce some mechanism for online interaction for community members (Hart, 2015), both to capture ideas and allow collaboration in time and space that suits everybody. According to Lewis and Rush (2013), Web 2.0 tools can be applied to enabling vCoP, which would be particularly useful in multi-campus environments. Web 2.0 tools for KM are essentially social media tools such as social networks, blogs, and wikis. Social media are computer-mediated tools that allow people to create, share, or exchange information, ideas, and media in virtual communities and networks (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). The application of these technologies within workplaces to facilitate work-related communication and collaboration is referred to as “enterprise social networks” (Richter & Riemer, 2013). Workers can use ESN software to work closely together on group activities and tasks, helping team members to communicate effectively, and it is particularly useful for geographically dispersed groups or organizations. In the context of vCoP, the ESN presents additional benefits, particularly by presenting a convenient and always-on environment for collaboration, and providing a relatively straightforward means for anyone to establish vCoP According to Laal (2011), the use of corporate social media tools has given somewhat of a new impetus to KM, and Levy (2013) maintains that these tools have the capability to refresh KM practices because they have a special collaborative and sharing emphasis and because people will be expecting to find them and use them in organizations.

3.1 Case Study of an ESN Implementation in a HEI

This section profiles an action research project to implement and develop an ESN for staff collaboration and knowledge sharing in a public HEI. The following discussion describes the study context, action research process, data collection and analysis, and findings.

Higher Education Context

The study was undertaken as an action research (AR) project, in a public, multi-campus HEI in Ireland with approximately 6500 students and 600 staff, over a 12-month period from September 2015 to August 2016. As the research focused on staff knowledge sharing, the student population was not part of study. AR involves the active participation of the researcher and seeks to bring about change within the organization in which it is conducted. It is an iterative process normally constructed with a longitudinal design to allow time to examine changes as iterations of the research progress (Baum, MacDougall, & Smith, 2006). Furthermore, while AR involves an intervention by a researcher in an organization with the aim of improving the context and gaining relevant knowledge of the intervention, according to Venters (2010), it also assures the active interest of management and has the advantage of enabling access to situations usually unavailable to other research approaches. The practical aspect of the project involved the implementation of ESN tools in the organization, specifically Microsoft’s social networking tool called Yammer, and the promotion and support of these to facilitate the establishment of vCoP. Yammer is a social network that is entirely focused on a business. It facilitates group conversation and collaboration and has many similarities to familiar social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. The project involved the creation of a Communities Portal and the use of ESN to facilitate the establishment and operation of vCoP. The portal acts as a collection point for all of the vCoP in the organization, and allows users to see what communities are active, join communities, or create new ones (Corcoran & Duane, 2018).

Action Research Process

The AR project engaged three cycles that followed a process of Diagnosing, Action Planning, Action Taking, Evaluating and Specifying Learning and was adapted from a model developed by Susman and Evered (1978). The first cycle of the AR project involved the technical implementation of the ESN, and this was used to create a number of vCoP. A Yammer feature called Groups directly facilitates the hosting of communities and provides an online environment for file sharing, conversations, etc. The Groups feature makes it a suitable tool to support vCoP and the primary reason that it was selected for the project. During an exploratory process, a number of staff members had expressed an interest in establishing communities, and these became community leaders for a number of vCoP that were setup as Yammer Groups. Communities were trained in the use of Yammer and the principles of CoP, and specialist training for community leaders was also provided. As the user base and resultant activity on Yammer increased, a number of ESN champions were identified. Social network champions are typically individuals who tend to be immediately comfortable with using systems and will have a higher level of engagement than other users. According to Hart (2015), champions are crucial to stimulate the growth of the network and attract more users. These more active users were engaged in order to create a more formal recognition for their role and to empower them to promote the ESN in the organization (Corcoran & Duane, 2018).

Packages of interventions for the second and third cycles of the AR project were based on the evaluations of the interventions carried out in the previous cycles. These cycles focused on growing the user base on the ESN, nurturing the development of the online communities and promoting the establishment of additional vCoP. A number of initiatives to increase the number of Yammer users were developed, including the provision of additional functionality, such as support groups, working groups, department groups, and information feeds. This led to a number of groups being established on the network with different characteristics from the CoP, such as department groups and academic course groups, and other project groups established for particular purposes, such as organizing events and conferences. These types of groups have the advantage of engaging staff who may not be initially interested in community participation, and their inclusion is an important strategy for the long-term viability of the network. Both cycles included awareness campaigns, comprising of mass emails, advertisements on information portals, and digital signage; Webinars; and live training sessions (Corcoran & Duane, 2019).

Data Collection and Analysis

The study itself was qualitative in nature, and the primary data collection methods used were focus groups for Cycle 1 and semi-structured interviews for Cycles 2 and 3. Reflective journaling was used extensively throughout the AR cycles in order to capture interpretations of the interventions for each cycle, and also to capture informal conversations, observations, and anything else to do with the project. The content of a number of conversation threads from the ESN was also analysed to determine the depth of engagement of staff with particular communities (Corcoran & Duane, 2018). According to Miles and Huberman (1984), data analysis is based on segmenting the data into parts, and then reassembling the data into a coherent whole. A thematic analysis was performed on the data and this was achieved by largely followed the methods developed by Bryman and Bell (2011), for analysing transcripts. These methods require an extensive reading of all the transcripts together to try and recognize patterns before any coding process begins. The NVivo 11 application was then used to manage the extensive coding process, and was useful for the combination and reduction of codes to produce categories, from which the findings were derived.


All staff have a perception of the existence of a divide between the two major staff groups, academic staff and support staff. However, this view is more strongly held by support staff, indicating a stronger desire in this group to feel a sense of belonging to community and the organization in general. The widely accepted isolating nature of the academic role, coupled with the siloed organization, help to contribute towards a culture that limits opportunities for staff interaction, collaboration and knowledge sharing. The structure of the organization is generally recognized as being a significant impediment to the development of a collaborative workspace, and its size and geographical dispersion were also highlighted as problematic in this regard. The strongest individual barrier to participation is time, with fear and trust issues also presenting as inhibiting factors. Some interviewees attributed their reluctance to use the ESN to a lack of understanding of the nature of social media tools by their managers. This created a fear that management would not understand why a member of staff would want to participate in a community that was not necessarily part of their area of expertise. A number of subjects felt that social media has no application in the workplace and see it as a frivolous activity with no professional characteristics. The concept that certain people see knowledge as a public good and are very willing to openly share knowledge with others, and look for it in return, was fully supported by the findings. The online activity of these individuals has a positive effect on the development of communities. Staff are also motivated to participate in communities if they either find their engagement to be enjoyable, interesting or stimulating, or can derive other benefits from participation, such as making their working lives easier or gaining some rewards in terms of career progression or other forms of recognition. Another strong motivational factor is the opportunity that participation presents for reducing workloads through acquiring knowledge from other community members. This was particularly applicable to newer academic staff when it came to preparing class materials, and the concept of “not having to reinvent the wheel” arose on a number of occasions (Corcoran & Duane, 2017, p. 563).

All of the participants strongly believed that engagement with the communities’ model and general participation in the network would be of considerable benefit, both to themselves in their jobs and personal development, and to the wider organization. Much of the commentary was aspirational in nature and indicated a desire for cultural change that may follow on from the existence of an active and vibrant knowledge sharing environment. However, a number of more tangible organizational benefits were also elucidated, including the possibility for vCoP to break down social divides and help to eliminate siloes. A perceived benefit that was strongly held by support staff was the possibility that community participation would help to bridge the divide between them and the academic staff group, consequently reducing the sense of their group isolation and making them feel more a part of the organization. The benefits of having ready access to knowledge through vCoP and ESN participation also drew some commentary. The ESN presents a significant opportunity to improve communications across the organization, providing pathways to reach staff who would not normally meet on a day-to-day basis, and this is a particular benefit for multi-campus HEIs that may have departments and faculties spread across multiple sites (Corcoran & Duane, 2017).

The perceived organizational and individual benefits indicate that the promotion of collaboration and staff knowledge sharing should be a priority for management and reflected in organizational strategy. Management have a central role to play in shaping the knowledge sharing environment by leading change initiatives and promoting the use of vCoP and ESN as KM strategies, and the existence of vCoP, supported by ESN, is essential to build a successful knowledge sharing environment. Furthermore, community leaders and champions are pivotal to the success of vCoP and ESN because they are instrumental in helping the user base to reach a critical mass, where enough users are producing enough content for the network to become self-sustaining.

4 Discussion

This section outlines the potential benefits of CoP and ESN, and a knowledge sharing environment underpinned by ESN and vCoP. These are tied in with the case study findings and developed under a number of themes, including the role of management, the role of champions and leaders, and organizational structure and culture.

Benefits of CoP

Much of the CoP literature describes the benefits to the organization if CoP are adopted as a KM technique, and individual benefits derived from participation are also widely discussed. CoP can also deliver different benefits to different types of organization. For example, Lesser and Storck (2001) suggest that they have the potential to overcome many of the inherent problems for slow-moving, hierarchical organizations that have to exist in a fast-moving, virtual economy. They are also an effective way for organizations to share knowledge outside traditional structural boundaries, suggesting that CoP would be a beneficial KM technique for public sector organizations such as HEIs to adopt. However, because communities do not appear on the organizational charts and balance sheets of organizations, they can only be considered as a hidden asset, and this presents a difficulty in determining how exactly they deliver value. This may also present a problem for highly risk-averse organizations, such as public sector bodies, which generally need to be able to quantify a return before making an investment. Rather than attempting to quantify the benefits of a CoP model, a better approach may be for the organization to develop an understanding of how CoP can create value. Lesser and Storck (2001) suggested that thinking of communities as engines for the development of social capital would be helpful, and argued that the development of social capital in CoP leads to behavioural change, resulting in greater knowledge sharing, and this in turn can positively influence organizational performance. Additional studies across different industries have been carried out that appear to validate this suggestion (Cordery et al., 2015; Paasivaara & Lassenius, 2014).

Benefits of ESN

Similar to CoP, the benefits of ESN implementation and use for organizations can be difficult to quantify in terms of specific deliverables and direct value. Various consultancy firms make claims such as “effective use of social technologies can result in 20–25% improvement in knowledge worker productivity”, which appears in a 2012 McKinsey report (as cited in Mäntymäki & Riemer, 2016, p. 1042). For organizations that are considering the introduction of an ESN, claims of this nature, which are generally neither scientifically nor empirically tested, are not helpful. More beneficially, there is a growing body of research arguing that ESN can bring many and significant benefits to organizations through increased communication and knowledge sharing and increased social capital (Davison, Ou, Martinsons, Zhao, & Du, 2014; Leonardi & Meyer, 2015). Some recent empirical research furthers this by making positive associations between ESN use and employee performance (Riemer, Finke, & Hovorka, 2015), and finding that ESN can help to overcome some of the barriers to organizational knowledge sharing, such as motivation to share knowledge, and developing and maintaining social ties (Fulk & Yuan, 2013).

For HEIs, the use of ESN is seen to have the potential to promote communication amongst staff and encourage interaction across functional areas, and between academic and support staff (Schneckenberg, 2009; Zhao & Kemp, 2013). Corcoran and Duane (2019) proposed that there is an opportunity to use ESN and vCoP as on-boarding tools to support new staff, where participating in relevant online communities would allow them to assimilate into the organization more efficiently and provide a means to tap into the existing organizational knowledge base. Leidner, Koch, and Gonzalez (2010) investigated the use of ESN in this fashion, and found that participation can immediately increase the sense of cultural belonging to the organization, make the environment exciting for entry-level workers, and increase morale amongst a “Generation Y workforce” (p. 229).

Knowledge Sharing Environment

For genuine social interaction to take place in online communities, they need to be relevant, purposeful and appealing in order to engender a real desire or need to engage with them. The network also needs to provide an environment that is similar to what people are already used to on the social web, which embodies the underlying open ethos that people enjoy, rather than be a forced environment for conversations. Therefore, the choice of the network tool itself is important, and it must provide an interface and functionality that people expect from a social media platform. The provision of a familiar tool makes the system more attractive to users, and also reduces the need for extensive training. However, it does not reduce the need for training in CoP, which is essential to provide members with a complete understanding of what communities are, how they operate, and to provide a set of guidelines or a framework to work within (Corcoran & Duane, 2018).

Role of Management

The attitudes, actions and behaviours of leaders and managers have an important role to play in the context of knowledge sharing in HEIs. In order to promote and cultivate knowledge sharing behaviours amongst staff, management must provide opportunities and manage the processes for staff to share and transfer their knowledge (Bircham-Connolly, Corner, & Bowden, 2005). According to Wang and Noe (2010), the general perception of the existence of a knowledge sharing culture in the organization is enhanced when management is supportive of knowledge sharing. However, such support will only arise if management recognize the benefits of staff collaboration, knowledge sharing, and the use of modern social media platforms for these purposes. Such an understanding can be difficult to develop in the absence of quantifiable, short-term benefits to the organization. Although a certain number of communities may develop within an organization from the bottom-up, for the long-term success of a CoP-based KM model, management support and participation is absolutely necessary. In general, leaders are aware that they should engage with employees, and particularly through social and digital channels, but they tend not to. There are a number of reasons for this including fear that such engagement would result in a weakening of power relations, reducing their ability to control and command. Li (2015) maintains that collaboration depends on trust and leaders must learn how to trust their staff on platforms such as an ESN, although the tools themselves are not as important as managements’ understanding of the purpose and nature of the tools. Using platforms such as ESN requires organizational change, and that change generally needs to be led by management. This requires visionary leadership, defined strategic objectives, and a commitment to lead the organization through the necessary change. Fidelman (2012) describes this change as organizations becoming “social businesses”, requiring new strategies, which take “time, persuasion, planning, teamwork, and measurable goals” (p. xiv). However, this process may be quite difficult for bureaucratic and hierarchical organizations, of which HEIs are typical examples. This problem may also be exacerbated in HEIs by the requirement for a different set of leadership skills than needed in business, and Spendlove (2007) concluded that HEIs have no organizational strategies for identifying or developing leadership skills. However, if the value of greater staff collaboration and knowledge sharing can be recognized, a vision for how to develop it, and the expected outcomes, can be provided. The development of a community management plan to support the vision, specifying the people, processes, resources, and technology required, should follow. Lastly, the execution of the plan requires the identification of leaders and champions who will help to promote the vision and the changes associated with it (Corcoran & Duane, 2019).

Leaders and Champions

According to Borzillo, Aznar, and Schmitt (2011), community leaders are specific people within a community who undertake organizing roles with the objective of developing and sustaining the community. They are typically the founders of particular communities and are invariably the driving force behind them. The vitality of CoP is very dependent on the interest and commitment of their leaders, and communities that do not have dedicated leaders are bound to fail (Corcoran & Duane, 2018). Another important role in vCoP is that of champions, a role that is increasingly recognized as being central to the growth of an ESN in an organization (Chin, Evans, & Choo, 2015; Oostervink, Agterberg, & Huysman, 2016). During the early growth phase of an ESN, the conversations tend to be dominated by a number of individuals who use the technology freely and enthusiastically, and are generally comfortable with using social media, consistent with Rogers’ (1995) diffusion of innovations theory. The identification of these individuals is central to opening up the ESN to everyone in the organization as they, in conjunction with community leaders, keep conversations and activity within communities at levels that are necessary to attract other users and reach a critical mass for sustainability, where enough users are producing enough content for the network to become self-sustaining. According to Geddes (2011), the level of users required for the success of technological adoption and social networks is generally accepted to be 15% of the total population.

Organizational Culture

The willingness and motivation of staff to share knowledge and participate in ESN and vCoP is influenced by a number of factors, almost all of which are inexorably linked to the culture of the organization. The majority of public HEIs exhibit strong, hierarchical organizational cultures, which are driven by rigid and bureaucratic organizational structures, largely mandated by national policy. This is in turn is influenced by additional factors over time such as the attitudes and actions of management and the organizational strategy. For example, it is widely recognized in HEIs, and indeed in the wider public sector, that organizational structures encourage the creation of silos and lead to staff isolation (Bannister, 2001; Tippins, 2003). Organizations that can create an open and transparent culture help to make employees feel empowered and have a voice, making them feel more connected and loyal to the organization (Lok & Crawford, 2004; Trice & Beyer, 1993).

Management has an important role to play in helping to change the culture through developing and implementing organizational strategies that stimulate staff collaboration and knowledge sharing. However, a number of authors argue that managing cultural change is difficult and that a natural change of culture is more likely, taking place through the socialization of new staff over time (Ogbonna & Harris, 1998; Pascale, 1985; Sathe, 1983). Sathe (1983) developed a conceptual model of how an organizational culture perpetuates itself, and argued that attempts at culture change should focus on the means of perpetuation such as communications. Indeed, the development of a common understanding of the organization’s mission and goals can be achieved by the creation of a robust social, communications and collaboration framework. It is also possible for culture change to be led through a bottom-up approach, where pockets of excellence and influence can have a significant impact on the overall behaviour of the organization, through individuals described by Pascale and Sternin (2005) as “positive deviants” (p. 72), and these can be likened to the roles of community leaders and ESN champions.

Although most staff are motivated to participate in a knowledge sharing environment and recognize both the individual and organizational benefits of doing so, in many cases they are either unable or unwilling to break free of the boundaries that the organizational culture places around them. In the context of HEIs, this is exacerbated by the existence of a divide between academic and other staff in the organization. In some cases, staff will share knowledge freely if a convenient and meaningful environment is available, and they are suitably motivated. The presence of vCoP in this environment is important as a motivator for participation as these can help to break down the structural and cultural boundaries that inhibit knowledge sharing. vCoP must be relevant, purposeful and appealing for staff to participate in them. Although CoP can and do emerge from the bottom-up, their growth is helped by a positive approach from management that fosters a sustaining environment where they can flourish. The ESN presents additional benefits, particularly by presenting a convenient and always-on environment for collaboration, and providing a relatively straightforward means for anyone to establish vCoP.

5 Strategies for Practice

If ESN and vCoP are to be successfully used by HEIs as part of a KM implementation, a number of high-level, strategic objectives will first have to be negotiated and addressed in these organizations.
  1. 1.

    Because a hierarchical organizational culture is a barrier to staff interaction, collaboration and knowledge sharing, organizations require a developed understanding of their culture to inform meaningful and achievable strategic vision and goals in order to change it. Organizations should consider the use of specific models and frameworks to develop this understanding.

  2. 2.

    This culture is prevalent in the majority of public sector HEIs and is largely contributed to by state-mandated organizational structures. Tackling this problem with a view towards implementing alternative organizational structures requires sectoral understanding of the problem and willingness at national level to influence change.

  3. 3.

    The divide between academic and support staff in HEIs further limits the opportunities for staff to collaborate and share knowledge. The existence of this divide must first be recognized and understood by management if it is to be dealt with.

  4. 4.

    Management support is pivotal to the success of KM initiatives, and management must understand their role in KM initiatives from facilitation to participation.

  5. 5.

    Knowledge sharing environments, underpinned by ESN and vCoP, must be adequately designed, resourced and supported. To achieve this, the selection of an ESN platform must be given due consideration. vCoP terms of reference and generic blueprints should be established, and these should be bolstered by structured training.

  6. 6.

    For ESN and vCoP to become established, the roles of community leaders and social media champions are very important. Individuals in the organization, who exhibit the traits of these roles, should be identified, encouraged, and incentivized to participate.

  7. 7.

    The establishment of ESN and vCoP provides opportunities for mentoring and supporting new staff, and these should be examined by Human Resources departments that are interested in the efficient assimilation of new staff into the organization. As many of these staff are likely to be regular social media users, it would also reinforce the resultant practices as part of an everyday work routine, and increase the ESN user base rapidly.

  8. 8.

    The terminology used to describe work-based social media tools can be problematic and inhibit many staff from using them. Those implementing ESN should be cognisant of this and apply community-based terminology instead of social, which can carry connotations of frivolity and is seen by many as having no place in professional work settings.

Once established, a knowledge sharing environment based on ESN and vCoP must be carefully nurtured and managed, not only if it is going to develop, but if it is to survive at all. Many organizations are now developing new roles to help with this, such as an Enterprise Community Manager. These roles have the overall responsibility within the organization for the development and management of the knowledge sharing environment, through providing support for staff who want to participate, creating general awareness, and identifying staff who see knowledge as a public good with a view towards making them ESN ambassadors, as some of their functions. There are also a number of specific, tactical things that organizations can do in order to manage a developing knowledge sharing environment.
  1. 1.

    A communities’ model need not be limited to CoP and can be expanded to include communities of interest, communities of place, such as campus communities in multi-campus HEIs, and external communities.

  2. 2.

    Case studies of successful CoP within organizations should be developed in order to learn from their success and to promote the CoP model.

  3. 3.

    Metrics should be established to measure the health and success of communities.

  4. 4.

    Best practice guides for ESN users should be developed to help establish its use as part of daily work routines.

  5. 5.

    Strategies can be devised to increase participation rates in CoP by moving members along the membership life cycle as per Lave and Wenger (1991).

  6. 6.

    The use of ESN as a teaching and learning tool should be promoted, not alone in its usefulness in that regard, but also with a view towards engaging more academic staff with the platform.


6 Conclusion and Future Directions

The main limitations associated with studies in the field of social media implementation and usage, and indeed with the use of KM tools and techniques in general, are related to the time available to carry out the research. The concept of ESN in organizations is relatively new and particularly so in HEIs, who are rarely to the fore in the implementation of information systems for either their teaching or corporate practices, and, according to Leidner and Jarvenpaa (1995), academic institutions typically lag behind businesses by about 10 years in the adoption of new technologies. According to Holtzblatt, Drury, Weiss, Damianos, and Cuomo (2013, p. 1), the adoption of social software in organizations can be very slow, with user interaction, changes to work practices, and, most importantly, the impact on business outcomes, all taking time to emerge. In order for these “long-tail effects” to be realized, social communities must reach a critical mass, and the impacts are only seen in large populations over long periods of time. The problem is further exacerbated in the higher education context by the nature of the academic year, during which there are significant periods when academic staff are largely absent from campus, including a three-to-four-week period in December/January and an eight to twelve-week period from June to August (Corcoran & Duane, 2018). Longer term studies, conducted over a number of academic years, would overcome this limitation and allow for the introduction of more quantitative measures, informing mixed-method approaches to provide greater understanding of the implications of achieving strategic goals for knowledge sharing, both in terms of the derived benefits to both the organization and individuals, and also for the culture of the organization. Comparable studies on the use of CoP in different industries have been carried out and would provide useful comparators for similar studies in HEIs (e.g. Cordery et al., 2015; Paasivaara & Lassenius, 2014).

The existence of a divide between faculty and other staff is not perceived equally by the two groups, and further study is required to examine why this is the case. Much of the research to date into this phenomenon has been from a staff perspective (e.g. Conway & Dobson, 2003; Szekeres, 2004), and a different approach giving equal credence to both perspectives might yield more balanced results. The role of management support for the success of ESN and CoP initiatives is perceived differently by the management group and staff in the wider organization, with staff perceiving management’s role as of far greater importance than management do themselves, and this unequal perception warrants further investigation. The importance of the role of transformational leaders in HEIs and their impact on organizational culture change has been investigated in certain jurisdictions (e.g. Basham, 2012; Bryman, 2007). Further studies in the contexts of ESN implementations and the use of CoP would extend the body of knowledge on organizational culture in HEIs.

In summary, organizational culture and structure are major barriers to staff knowledge sharing in HEIs and this is exacerbated by the existence of a divide between academic and other staff. Management have a significant role to play in shaping a knowledge sharing environment, underpinned by modern social media tools, such as ESN, and this can only be achieved through transformational leadership that recognizes the existence of the postulated problems in the first instance, and then sets about changing the organizational culture to one where staff will openly and willingly share knowledge and collaborate with each other. The existence of vCoP is essential to build an active knowledge sharing environment, and community leaders and champions are pivotal to the success of vCoP and the ESN. In addition, staff must be suitably motivated to participate in the knowledge sharing environment, and this will only happen with a change to a transformational culture within the organization.


  1. 1.

    Selected portions of this chapter have been part of Niall Corcoran’s DBA Thesis, submitted to Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland, in August 2017. Further excerpts appear in articles published in the VINE Journal of Information and Knowledge Management Systems, the Australasian Journal of Information Systems, and an IGI Global publication, Educational and Social Dimensions of Digital Transformations in Organizations. See the Reference List for full details.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Information TechnologyLimerick Institute of TechnologyLimerickIreland
  2. 2.School of BusinessWaterford Institute of TechnologyWaterfordIreland

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