Knowledge and Technology transfer is an important area where strategy, teamwork and leadership meet. Collective knowledge is the type of knowledge companies aim for as it supersedes the individuals working in the company and – perhaps more importantly – it can create a longer lasting competitive advantage as it is harder to copy or “buy” (by hiring away people).
However, the strengths of your collective knowledge also provides obstacles for intentional knowledge transfer as with joint ventures, alliances, or with mergers.
Typically, knowledge or technology transfer is done by “boundary spanners” or people who understand the knowledge to be transferred and who maintain contact with both the internal party and the party to which the knowledge needs to be transferred. This is an efficient knowledge transfer method until we have to deal with collective knowledge.
Collective knowledge is “the knowledge embedded among individuals regarding how to coordinate, share, distribute, and recombine individual knowledge”. Think about a jet engine project involving 569 interdependencies among 54 components… The complexity of collective knowledge is high and is not carried by isolated individuals. Transferring collective knowledge is helping the recipient unit to replicate all coordination routines, the “syntax” and cross-expertise understanding of the source unit. This type of process cannot be done by one individual, you need a collective bridge according to Zhao and Anand.
A collective bridge is a joint team of both sourcing and recipient units with a configuration of the key ties matching the complexity of the collective knowledge to be transferred.
The effectiveness of a boundary spanner structure to transfer knowledge decreases as the complexity of the knowledge increases. When dealing with collective knowledge the boundary spanner structure fails. An example of a collective bridge is a joint venture of Volkswagen in China where a group of 41 Chinese R&D engineers were trained on-the-job in Germany.
The collective bridge is a fascinating example where strategy, real team work, and leadership are joint together.