The search-transfer problem: The role of weak ties in sharing knowledge across organization subunits

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Citation: Morten T. Hansen (1999) The search-transfer problem: The role of weak ties in sharing knowledge across organization subunits. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (fulltext): The search-transfer problem: The role of weak ties in sharing knowledge across organization subunits
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) organization theory (RSS), knowledge transfer (RSS), social networks (RSS), product development (RSS)

Summary (Abstract)

Morton Hansen combines the literature on weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) and the literature on knowledge transfer to argue that weak ties are good for search, but perhaps less good for knowledge transfer. His paper is also connected to the broader product development literature in that uses a network datasets of 120 new product development projects in a large electronic company and uses time to market (a very typical product development variable).

In terms of the network literature, Hansen treats ties as strong and weak and characterizes weak ties as higher in search benefits but introducing problems associated with transferring knowledge. Pulling from knowledge transfer theory, he argues that knowledge that is codified and independent will, in general, be more difficult to transfer than knowledge that is tacit and uncodified and independent. Hansen's argument can be distilled into a 2x2 (p. 89) between strong and weak ties and codified and non-codified knowledge. He offers two formal hypotheses:

  • The weaker the inter-unit ties, the shorter the completion time when the knowledge to be transfered is highly codified and independent.
  • The weaker the inter-unit ties, the longer the completion time when the knowledge to be transferred is highly noncodified and dependent.

Groups from the dataset were from 41 different divisions within a very large company with a dataset that merged network based data and product development data as well as a series of controls.

Regressions show an negative effect of tie weakness of development time and this effect only holds when the the data is codified. As projects become less codified (and within the reasonable range), this effect switches.

The finding is that neither weak nor strong ties are particularly advantage in a general sense -- both have their benefits and drawbacks in terms of search and knowledge transfer. The benefit of weak ties is contingent on the complexity of the knowledge to be transfered across subunits.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Morton Hansen's article on the contingency of tie strength has been seen as broadly relevant and has been influential and highly cited with more than 2,200 citations 11 years after it's publication. It has been highly cited in the strategy literature, the literature on social networks, and the knowledge transfer literature. It places important contingencies both on knowledge transfer and on social network implications.