By Melissa J. Anderson

A new Harvard Business School working paper reveals what may be obvious to many supervisors: corporate knowledge repositories or social networks are no replacement for good old face to face coaching.

The researchers, Melissa A. Valentine, Harvard Business School; Bradley R. Staats, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School studied thousands of downloads from Wipro Technologies’ Knowledge Repository (KR) over the course of two years, and found that while, in some cases, the technology helped experienced teams perform more efficiently, KRs didn’t do much for inexperienced employees or those working in a satellite location away from the home office.

While some have theorized that KRs could help employees in periphery locations or those new to the job, the researchers believe that these system do more to help internal, experienced staff who are more comfortable using the technology, and in essence know the “right questions” to ask.

Experienced workers in central locations have a better shot at learning to navigate the Knowledge Repository and using the information appropriately. They explain, “Both central and peripheral players enjoy the ‘open border’ of the Knowledge Repository because of its impersonal interface and universal availability. However, central players have more than a terminal and a password; they also enjoy ready access to knowledgeable colleagues who can teach them the language of Knowledge Repository use, or at least help translate for them.”

The research suggests that while the technology may be useful, it doesn’t replace the value of an experienced manager or coach to mentor talent that is new to the company or has been posted at a peripheral location. As more companies establish locations in developing markets, and these locations are a key stepping stone for junior budding leaders, the study underscores the importance of having seasoned managers on hand to help guide these individuals – and the company – to success.

Knowledge Flows

The researchers tested a number of hypotheses designed to reveal more information about how knowledge flows between employees and teams, and found that experienced, centrally located employees had a double advantage – they knew more, and they knew how to find out more. While the research shows that KRs can be useful for companies, they wind up being more useful for people who need them the least – and less useful for those who need them the most.

The report authors write:

“The main finding of this study is that KR use in a large, global firm was dominated by people who were operating at the center of organizational knowledge networks, because of their experience, location, or familiarity with teammates. KR use also was associated with objective team performance. This presents a conundrum.”

Core players are advantaged to begin with, because of their enabling work conditions, which also support them in securing additional resources. Thus, instead of the Knowledge Repository equalizing knowledge access across organizational members, we showed that the knowledge-rich became richer through Knowledge Repository use. These results present crucial implications in two research domains: team effectiveness and knowledge management.

In particular, they say, this creates a challenge for global companies in the consulting industry, in which teams are fluid and reassigned frequently to new locations. The technology alone is not sufficient to furnish the knowledge and experience that junior, distant teams need to put them on a level playing field with more experienced, centrally located ones.

Experience Disparity

The research also showed that on teams with a mixed level of experience, more seasoned individuals had more access to KRs, effectively blocking more junior members from accessing the technology as frequently.

“This may reflect a deliberate and functional choice (i.e., KR gatekeepers) or an unspoken status dynamic in which a low-status person feels inhibited in proactively accessing the KR. In either situation, the inexperienced people on these teams would not gain experience with the system. A KR has been conceptualized as a learning tool, but it can only function as such if it is not limited to the most experienced users.”

This scenario again shows the importance of individual coaching – rather than relying on a gatekeeper to access the network, more experienced employees should be encouraged to mentor junior team members on usage of the KR. By doing so, teams build stronger relationships and increase their overall organizational knowledge, ensuring experience is passed down to the next generation of leaders.