The doctoral dissertations of the former Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) and Aalto University Schools of Technology (CHEM, ELEC, ENG, SCI) published in electronic format are available in the electronic publications archive of Aalto University - Aaltodoc.

Social Structures as Communities for Knowledge Sharing in Project-Based Environments

Inkeri Ruuska

Dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Science in Technology to be presented with due permission of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management for public examination and debate in Auditorium TU2 at Helsinki University of Technology (Otaniementie 17, Espoo, Finland) on the 19th of August, 2005, at 12 o'clock noon.

Dissertation in PDF format (ISBN 951-22-7671-2)   [2282 KB]
Dissertation is also available in print (ISBN 951-22-7670-4)


Project-based business environments pose special challenges for learning and knowledge sharing among the personnel primarily because projects are dispersed throughout the organizations, temporary and cross organizational. As a result many teachings may be lost once the project is completed. As people are dispersed, they may lose contact with their peers. This study focuses on the content of project knowledge and competences and communities for knowledge sharing in project-based business environments. Communities are special types of social structures involving people with a shared interest of a certain domain of knowledge. They share knowledge and experiences and create a shared understanding by interacting both face-to-face and virtually on an ongoing basis. Knowledge sharing is based on interaction between people (personalization strategy). Knowledge sharing strategies in project-based environments have mainly been based on codifying relevant knowledge into databases (codification strategy). Key concepts of social structures and practice-based learning theories offer the conceptual framework for the study.

The aims of the study are twofold. Firstly, this dissertation aims at studying project related knowledge and competences, as these form the content for knowledge sharing. Secondly, this study aims at reconceptualizing communities in project-based environments as recognized and formalized groups. The research is built around four data sets: 1) cases and qualitative interviews (N=36) on project related knowledge and competences; 2) one case with qualitative interviews (N=18) on social structures in a project-based organization; 3) a survey (N=150) complemented with qualitative interviews (N=11) on characteristics of 11 communities, and 4) a case study with qualitative interviews (N=11) on one specific community. The research methodology is based on the abductive approach, which allows a progressive dialogue between theory and empirical findings.

Project knowledge and competences have primarily been viewed as competence of a project manager and project group members at the individual level. However, the results of this study indicate that project groups need collective competence, which is based on shared understanding of the project as a whole, and which enables the group to achieve the ultimate goals of the project. Project knowledge management was insufficient in the projects and called for mechanisms to intensify interaction and enhance knowledge sharing in a complex project environment. Communities have been primarily studied as informal groups. This study argues that semi-formal communities in project-based environments serve as an overlapping semi-formal layer connecting the formal and informal structures. Knowledge sharing communities varied in their degree of formality from formal to semi-formal and informal. The dominant structure was a semi-formal community. Communities are learning-oriented and primarily the explicated learning goals promote outcomes at personal, community and organizational levels. Furthermore, in the task and goal oriented project environment, communities require certain formality, for example structure; project-related work activities, a coordinator who acts rather as a contact maker and not merely as an organizer of meetings, and organizational support in the form of encouragement to participate in the community. However, the boundaries of communities constantly shift as it is the members who socially set them. Therefore, despite the formalization that comes from the organization, it is the shared interest in the domain of knowledge, which binds the members together and communities thus remain self-organized.

Keywords: competence, learning, community of practice, project

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© 2005 Helsinki University of Technology

Last update 2011-05-26