Spreading the Knowledge – a question of working conditions or man management?

The creation, use and sharing of knowledge within a firm is crucial to building a competitive advantage, whatever the industry. How to achieve this is the challenge. One might expect a blanket approach be taken to team organisation and working conditions in order to get the best out of employees in this regard. However, recent research recommends a more case-by-case method that accounts for the innate motivation and level of autonomy of each individual within a firm.

The production and exploitation of knowledge within a firm is a key HRM issue, implicating not just employees and the extent to which they share knowledge with their colleagues but also the processes employed and the potential intervention of management to improve those processes. For individuals to gain satisfaction and reward from sharing the fruits of their labours and for the firm as a whole to benefit from such intra-organisational exchanges, the right approach to teams or individuals has to be adopted. Herein lies the question – is an all-encompassing policy designed to create the right working conditions for whole teams the answer or a more individual investigation of the needs and motivations of each member of a team? Recent research points to the latter.

A climate for cooperation….and motivation

The goal of any manager should be to get each employee to put a personal effort into their work to the benefit of the overall team and firm. Achieving this can depend upon the innate level of commitment to the task of each team member, also known as “intrinsic motivation”. Some employees derive a natural pleasure from their work, others less so. The goal is therefore to create the required conditions to get everyone pulling in the right direction. Known in research circles as a “cooperative climate”, this process refers to informal ways of getting employees to feel good about working with one another, in the style of teambuilding exercises out of the office designed to encourage social exchange and, subsequently, knowledge sharing once back in an office environment. However, not all employees react as positively to such exercises, so managers should be wary of trying to get all their team members to play “happy families” with one another.

The freedom to work

Interrelated with the concepts of the cooperative climate and intrinsic motivation is the very real phenomenon of job autonomy, which has a major impact upon motivation levels and the resultant desire (or otherwise) to share knowledge. Autonomy rhymes with freedom and independence within one’s position in a firm, which is the natural wish of many. Of course, responsibility and accountability come with autonomy but, ultimately, it also implies having to work under less supervision and guidelines, freeing up time for employees to engage in more knowledge sharing with their colleagues. However, the crux point is both very simple and all-encompassing – no two employees are the same, in terms of commitment, the need for particular working conditions or independence. It is for this reason that a micro rather than a macro approach has to be taken to investigating the interrelation between these cooperative climates, intrinsic motivation and autonomy as potential drivers of knowledge sharing.

Understanding what makes workers tick

A recent case study of the Copenhagen HQ of the MAN Diesel multinational focused on the departments where knowledge sharing is a key activity (Engineering, R&D, Sales and Marketing, Technical Service, and Purchasing) with two objectives: to understand the impact of both intrinsic motivation and job autonomy on the link between establishing a cooperative climate and encouraging knowledge sharing. The results confirmed the theoretical suspicion that the more autonomous a worker is, the less they require particular conditions to be set up in order to foster knowledge sharing. In addition, those with a natural enthusiasm for their work were also less in need of a cooperative climate in order to pass on the fruits of their labour to the colleagues.

Implications and investigations

In light of these findings, managers should consider going down the route of trying to understand each team member’s level of motivation and degree of/desire for autonomy. They should also take heed of the implied risks as well as costs involved in trying to create and impose particular working conditions in order to nurture knowledge sharing. The results clearly underline the danger in pressuring employees into ways of co-working with which they may not feel comfortable. Getting to know what makes each member of one’s team tick may seem a lengthy process, but it could save managers a lot of time and energy in comparison with imposing ultimately unsuccessful cooperative climates. Knowledge may be power, but only when exploited in a way that suits each individual within a team.


This article draws inspiration from the paper Understanding the climate-knowledge sharing relation: The moderating roles of intrinsic motivation and job autonomy, written by Oscar Llopis and Nicolai J. Foss and published in The European Management Journal 34 (2016).

Oscar Llopis is an assistant professor of Strategy and Innovation at Rennes School of Business, France. His research interests include Innovation Management, Academic Entrepreneurship, Economics of Innovation, Science-industry interactions, and Social network analysis.

Nicolai J. Foss is a professor of Strategy and Organisation at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research interests include Strategic Management, Organisational Design, Entrepreneurship, and the methodology of the Social Sciences.