Online Communities and Knowledge Collaborations
- Samer FarajSamer FarajDesautels Faculty of Management, McGill University
- and Takumi ShimizuTakumi ShimizuDesautels Faculty of Management, McGill University
Online communities (OCs) are emerging as effective spaces for knowledge collaboration and innovation. As a new form of organizing, they offer possibilities for collaboration that extend beyond what is feasible in the traditional hierarchy. OC participants generate new ideas, talk about knowledge, and remix and build on each other’s contributions on a massive scale. OCs are characterized by fluidity in the resources that they draw upon, and they need to manage these tensions in order to sustain knowledge collaboration generatively. OCs sustain knowledge collaboration by facilitating both tacit and explicit knowledge flows. Further, OCs play a key role in supporting and sustaining the knowledge collaboration process that is necessary for open and user innovation. As collective spaces of knowledge flows, OCs are mutually constituted by digital technologies and participants. The future is bright for OC research adopting the knowledge perspective and focusing on how to sustain their knowledge flow.
- Knowledge Management
In the 21st century, knowledge creation and collaboration are increasingly recognized as fundamental practices that are crucial to the success of most organizations and communities. Our views of knowledge have shifted from that of a static and external organizational resource to a deeper recognition of its highly situated nature and its necessary enactment in everyday practices (Nicolini, 2011; Orlikowski, 2002). This has led to a growing recognition that knowledge emerges in communities focused on practice, where groups of people with shared interests and practices need to interact with each other, typically in a face-to-face relationship, to create and share knowledge that is essential for their practices (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
Recent technology advances, such as digital platforms, empower this enacted process of knowledge collaboration, which refers to “the sharing, transfer, accumulation, transformation, and cocreation of knowledge” (Faraj, Jarvenpaa, & Majchrzak, 2011, p. 1224), in the online context (Wasko, Faraj, & Teigland, 2004). As a result, an increasing number of organizations, including firms, nonprofit organizations, local associations, and governments, try to engage with online communities (OCs) to generate new ideas, support knowledge sharing, develop Question-Answer (Q&A) bodies of knowledge, and develop new products and services (Baldwin & von Hippel, 2011; Bayus, 2013; Faraj et al., 2011; Jeppesen & Lakhani, 2010).
This article is organized into four sections. The first section develops how OCs sustain knowledge collaboration by focusing on tacit and explicit knowledge flows in OCs. The next section identifies fluidity as a fundamental characteristic of OCs and emphasizes the importance of generative responses toward tensions in resources to sustain knowledge collaboration in OCs. A third section addresses the emerging link between OC knowledge collaboration and the innovation taking place in open and user innovation, with a particular emphasis on innovating with crowds. The fourth section addresses how digital platforms afford vibrant knowledge collaboration in OCs and explain the differences between them and their symbiotic relationship. The final section discusses promising directions for future research.
How OCs Sustain Knowledge Collaboration
OCs represent new forms of organizing that offer modes of involvement and collaboration that extend beyond what is feasible in the traditional hierarchy. Unlike formal organizations that have clear, well-established membership, boundaries, job descriptions, hierarchy, and compensation systems, OCs have fluid structures, open boundaries, high turnover of membership, and norms based on engagement and expertise (Faraj et al., 2011). Table 1 presents a comparison of formal organizations with OCs and offers a set of critical dimensions that are useful to explore these differences. The archetypal organization is characterized by an identifiable set of interconnected actors operating within a recognizable organizational boundary and where individuals are required to make daily contributions to the organization’s stated goals and their efforts coordinated and controlled by an internal hierarchy (Puranam, Alexy, & Reitzig, 2014; Scott & Davis, 2007). In contrast, the OC form of organizing relies on morphing boundaries, is sustained by the efforts of volunteers, possesses a weak hierarchy (if any), and follows the goals that the community agrees on (Faraj et al., 2011; Faraj, von Krogh, Monteiro, & Lakhani, 2016; O’Mahony & Ferraro, 2007).
As novel forms of organizing, OCs are increasingly seen as offering possibilities for complex collaboration involving a mix of organizational and individual actors focused on knowledge recombination, as well as radical innovation in products or services (Haefliger, Monteiro, Foray, & von Krogh, 2011; Holmström & Henfridsson, 2006). The existence of extraorganizational OCs allows inhabitants of formal organizations to participate in ongoing knowledge flows easily, away from the confines of hierarchy or narrow corporate goals (Lakhani, 2016; von Krogh, 2012). Further, due to the vibrancy of the community and its worldwide reach, OCs can be the site of unconventional and novel forms of collaboration that are still emergent but are striking in size and innovativeness (Faraj et al., 2016; Majchrzak & Malhotra, 2016; von Hippel, 2016). Given these novel possibilities for knowledge collaboration, OCs can be defined as collective spaces of knowledge flows that are continuously evolving and coconstituted by digital technologies and community members.
Table 1. Differences Between Formal Organizations and Online Communities
Expertise- and sociability-based
Highly skewed (power law)
The cocreation and sharing of knowledge require a careful development and management of within OC tensions in order for the community to grow and innovation sustained (Faraj et al., 2011; Majchrzak, Jarvenpaa, & Faraj, 2017). The arguments of this section build on the theory of organizational knowledge creation that explains the process of knowledge creation by individuals and how members can connect their individual knowledge to a larger knowledge system (Nonaka, 1994; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). This is a useful framework to address the various types of knowledge flows in OC knowledge collaboration. Nonaka’s knowledge theory puts particular emphasis on the interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge and its conversion from one form to another. Tacit knowledge is unarticulated and tied to actions and experiences. Explicit knowledge refers to knowledge that is captured and transmittable in writing and drawing. Tacit and explicit knowledge are not separate entities, but two ends on the same continuum (Nonaka & von Krogh, 2009).
Nonaka’s knowledge creation theory emphasizes the role of communities of interaction as a context for individuals to cocreate knowledge that develops and amplify knowledge in organizations and suggests the importance of organizational support (Nonaka, 1994). Such communities are in line with the broader phenomena of Communities of Practice, where members mutually engage, learn from each other, share stories and lessons, and develop their skills and by doing so reinforce identification with the practice (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991).
Organizational knowledge creation theorists, including Nonaka, assume that face-to-face interactions and dialogue are essential to create and share tacit knowledge (Hansen, 1999; Nonaka, 1994; Szulanski, Ringov, & Jensen, 2016). An essential characteristic of tacit knowledge transfer is the necessity of developing shared experience and engaging in repeat interpersonal interactions (Alavi, 2000). Similarly, Tsoukas’s dialogical model of organizational knowledge creation emphasizes deep dialogue through face-to-face interaction (Tsoukas, 2009). In the field of information systems, researchers have argued that digital technologies can facilitate knowledge creation and sharing by providing a space for dialogue and interaction among participants and making much information available to them (Alavi & Leidner, 2001).
However, information technologies, with their focus on information storage and retrieval, were perceived to have limited or poorer capability for tacit knowledge sharing compared to face-to-face interactions (Hislop, 2002; Stenmark, 2000). A major pitfall of information technologies is that they emphasize text and images and thus do not well represent social cues such as facial expression, intonation, and body language, which are so essential for effective human communication (Hislop, 2002; Kraut, Fussell, Brennan, & Siegel, 2002). As a result, most previous studies have established that it is primarily explicit knowledge that can be effectively transferred via virtual interactions and digital tools in OCs. Thus, most traditional knowledge management systems (e.g., Wiki, knowledge repositories, enterprise software, groupware) focus on allowing users to add, edit, mash up, and recategorize pieces of explicit knowledge and integrate them into a large body of structured knowledge (Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei, 2005; Sue, Lee, & Yoo, 2010).
However, in recent years, a number of scholars have recognized the affordance offered by richer social technologies, such as social media or digital platforms, for richer and multimode forms of interaction that may facilitate tacit knowledge flow (Faraj et al., 2016; Panahi, Watson, & Partridge, 2013; Steininger, Ruckel, Dannerer, & Roithmayr, 2010). With Web 2.0 technologies, OC members are able to combine, remix, and redistribute existing content and collaboratively manage tags and filters (Shang, Li, Wu, & Hou, 2011). Thus, the technology infrastructure finally has reached a stage of development that enables the emergence of richer social processes that access, remix, deepen, share, and reconfigure both the explicit and the tacit knowledge present in the community.
Specifically, OCs can facilitate tacit-explicit or explicit-tacit knowledge flows among community members. An important mechanism is externalization, which refers to the process of converting hidden tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge through continuous dialogue with language, metaphor, and analogy (Nonaka, 1994). Thus, online discussion forums play a significant role in elucidating individual knowledge and sharing it among community members, as evidenced by empirical studies in fields such as open source software development, professional associations, hobby communities, policy deliberation forums, and firm-hosted knowledge sharing communities (Beck, Pahlke, & Seebach, 2014; Faraj, Kudaravalli, & Wasko, 2015; Hwang, Singh, & Argote, 2015; Ludwig et al., 2014; Phang, Kankanhalli, & Tan, 2015). Newer social technologies such as social media, discussion forums, and interactive blogs afford and accelerate this externalization process, which makes previously inaccessible tacit knowledge available and transferable.
Furthermore, OCs can support the conversion from explicit to tacit knowledge by experimenting, reflecting, and interacting with community members by enabling learning by doing. A combination of textual content, images, videos, and direct interaction can lead to increased opportunities for thinking, reflecting, deliberating, and reflection (Baralou & Tsoukas, 2015). OC members also can learn by engaging with the traces left by others’ interactions. Among the knowledge available in codified but searchable form are Q&A archives and repositories of how decisions were made and how problems were solved. Thus, a learner can gain indirect (but still pertinent) access to knowledge of the tacit variety just by searching and accessing specific topics and interactions pertinent to their context, or by exploring broadly and possibly increasing their nonfocal knowledge (Kuk, 2006; Lee & Cole, 2003).
Finally, OCs can directly facilitate the socialization mechanism, which is so crucial for tacit-tacit knowledge conversion. Tacit-tacit knowledge conversion is notoriously difficult due to the challenge for humans of engaging directly at the tacit knowledge level. This is why it is perceived to require active participation in a craft, copresence, the sharing of experiences, immersion in embodied practices, or a long process of contextualized interaction such as apprenticeship or on-the-job training (Nonaka, 1994). Thus, only to the extent to which an OC can offer support to such social processes can it be said to support tacit-tacit conversion. Effective tacit-tacit exchanges cannot be reduced to reading the posts on an OC or by asking the occasional question. Instead, the community members must pay close attention to active socialization and mindful interaction.
Tacit-tacit knowledge exchange can occur only through deep engagement in the social practice. Here, it may be useful to distinguish between the focal knowledge necessary to accomplish the task at hand and the subsidiary knowledge that corresponds to the complementary but background knowledge needed to perform the task competently (Polanyi, 1962). When OC participants deepen their understanding of a focal problem (e.g., by asking questions, validating boundary conditions of existing knowledge, and collectively solving complex problems), they also increase the stock of subsidiary knowledge and make visible standards of excellence that are available to all (Faraj et al., 2016; von Krogh, Haefliger, Spaeth, & Wallin, 2012). In this manner, by nurturing knowledge dialogue in OCs, participants not only learn focally, but also contribute to subsidiary knowing by other community members.
Deep dialogue no longer requires the face-to-face interaction previously thought to be necessary. Communication technologies have evolved sufficiently to provide a rich-enough mode of interaction. For example, Baralou and Tsoukas (2015) found that when project teams are geographically dispersed, they could enroll multiple tools to sustain interactions and would seek to create opportunities for “multiple dialogues with real others (given the space), invisible others (given the time) and artifacts (given technology and the textualized record of communication)” (p. 613). Also, Majchrzak, More, and Faraj (2012) showed that a cross-functional team relying only on virtual communication could transcend knowledge differences among team members through online dialogue-based practices such as cocreating the scaffold, dialoguing around the scaffold, and sustaining engagement. As these studies show, dispersed members can engage with shared practices and deep experiences. Of course, sustaining such processes is not automatic; it requires work by community members to facilitate tacit-tacit knowledge flows by mindfully contextualizing their experiences and practices.
Drawing on Nonaka’s knowledge creation theory, this article has argued that OCs enabled by recent digital technologies facilitate and sustain knowledge flows and collaboration among community members. Although a majority of organizational studies emphasize the critical role of rich, face-to-face interactions in the creation and sharing of tacit knowledge, there is an emerging stream of research suggesting that OCs can be spaces for both tacit and explicit knowledge flows that lead to knowledge creation, sharing, and collaboration among participants.
Sustaining Knowledge Flows in OCs
A fundamental characteristic of an OC that facilitates knowledge flows is its fluid nature (Faraj et al., 2011). OCs are not stable objects; rather, they morph and evolve over time. They have porous boundaries and a changing composition, resulting in a high turnover in membership because people can join and exit freely. As a result, the knowledge conversation, with its twists and turns, can be both an attractor and a detractor for potential or existing members. Among members, OC engagement is highly skewed: Participation follows a power law distribution in which a small percentage of highly engaged members contribute most of the content or address other members’ questions (Johnson, Faraj, & Kudaravalli, 2014; Phang et al., 2015).
Another feature of the OC is its lack of hierarchy and reliance on an open governance structure. Unlike formal organizations, with their centralized and hierarchical governance structures, OCs are not characterized by rigid hierarchies, and their governance appears to emerge gradually over time in a bottom-up manner (Aaltonen & Lanzara, 2015; O’Mahony & Ferraro, 2007). Positions of power do exist, though, as opinion leaders, frequent contributors, and moderators may play an implicit coordinative role. However, these are not the same as formal hierarchical roles; instead, they correspond to informal, voluntary roles (Butler, Sproull, Kiesler, & Kraut, 2007; Collier & Kraut, 2012). Indeed, participants may view the OC as a social field and thus devise independent strategies for participation that enhance their status or provide them with marks of distinction (Levina & Arriaga, 2014).
This raises the question of what constitutes leadership and whether it operates in a similar fashion as in face-to-face settings. A recent empirical study comparing the behaviors and utterances of high-posters in three OCs found that those named as leaders by their peers occupied a core network position in terms of moderator role and network centrality, and were active boundary spanners. However, those leaders used language differently than do other high-posters: they produced a large number of positive, highly readable posts, relied on clear language, and stayed focused on the core conversation in the community (Johnson, Safadi, & Faraj, 2015). Another empirical study focusing on what leaders do online similarly uncovered the fact that beyond contribution behavior, both social capital and sociability were related to being named as a leader by their peers (Faraj et al., 2015). These findings extend and nuance previous research showing that boundary spanners who bridge to other communities in order to bring new knowledge are more likely to be seen as leaders (Dahlander & Frederiksen, 2012; Fleming & Waguespack, 2007).
Beyond the role of leaders and core members, it may be beneficial to emphasize the link between the fluid nature of OCs and the fluctuation in the OC’s knowledge resources (i.e., the continuous and dynamic change in resources) that are either internally generated or flow from outside the community. Since resources have both positive and negative consequences for knowledge collaboration in OCs, the fluctuations in resources create tensions in OCs (Faraj et al., 2011). Tensions in OCs dynamically change over time as resource availability changes. Faraj et al. (2011) identify five main tensions in OCs: (a) passion, (b) time, (c) socially ambiguous identities, (d) social disembodiment of ideas, and (e) temporary convergence.
While passion drives member contributions to OCs, passion also might have negative effects on OCs, such as interpersonal conflict and flame wars (Hinds & Bailey, 2003). On the one hand, the more participants spend time in OCs to contribute and respond to others’ ideas, the more the ideas can be improved. However, that same high level of participation may lead to discouraging newcomers from engaging (Silva, Goel, & Mousavidin, 2008). Socially ambiguous identities such as anonymity may encourage active participation by reducing concerns about status differences; but it also can induce unruly behavior (Jessup, Connolly, & Tansik, 1990). Similarly, the social disembodiment of ideas (i.e., its public good perception) can encourage OC members to integrate and recombine others’ ideas and contents.
At the same time, those ideas and content can be easily misunderstood and misused due to lack of context (Kane, Majchrzak, & Johnson, 2009). Finally, temporary convergence might be helpful to avoid fault lines and disorganization of knowledge collaboration. Yet the lack of convergence can be dysfunctional and hinder continuous collaboration among OC members. In summary, these tensions in OC resources have the potential to both facilitate and hinder knowledge collaboration. How OCs organize in response to these tensions is essential for sustaining knowledge collaboration.
To manage tensions in resources and sustain knowledge collaboration in OCs, Faraj et al. (2011) identify four types of generative responses: (a) engendering roles in the moment, (b) channeling participation, (c) dynamically changing boundaries, and (d) evolving technology affordances. First, OC members can enact and take charge of a temporary and emergent role that is specific to a situation or that solves a timely organizing need. While these emergent roles may evolve over time and their occupants may vacate them easily, the macrostructure of the community remains stable (Arazy, Daxenberger, Lifshitz-Assaf, Nov, & Gurevych, 2016).
Second, OCs focused on knowledge need to present knowledge effectively, and sometimes shield newcomers and members from the difficult dialogue that is often necessary to settle issues and provide precision. One emerging approach is to create separate front and back narrative spaces to channel participation. Such an arrangement is easily seen on Wikipedia, where the front page of the collaborative work is separate from the back page, where the preparation of material and negotiation of differences are best done. Thus, a combination of front and back narratives is helpful to channel participation (Goffman, 1959; Ross, 2007).
Third, an OC can manage its boundaries by being differentially inviting to the external world. For example, when the community becomes too introverted or engages in internecine conflict, then loosening the community boundary or proactively inviting “immigrants” can have a positive impact. Alternatively, when the OC is inundated by unwanted visitors who degrade the social and knowledge climate, then a tightening of the boundary can be called for. Indeed, resilient OCs embrace diversity, but at the same time, they accept that the boundary of OCs can vary over time because of changing membership and evolving interests (Ren, Chen, & Riedl, 2016).
Fourth, the evolving digital technologies that support the OC and provide affordances for various forms of knowledge collaboration need to be managed and enrolled in to help manage the community dynamics. Various built-in features, such as the ability to vote on entries, the use of badges, or a rating system, can encourage or hinder how participants review and recombine others’ contributions. For example, participants in an open source software community harness multiple technologies to create temporary protected digital spaces when deep collaboration work requires it (Shaikh & Vaast, 2016).
In conclusion, the fluidity of an OC is not a limitation, but it can be put to productive use by actively governing the tension in resources that accompany it.
OCs and Open Innovation
This section discusses the link between OC knowledge collaboration and open innovation. Open innovation is increasingly taking place in communities and outside the boundary of firms. In the Schumpeterian view of innovation, organizations allocate resources to internal innovation activities (e.g., research and development, product development, and commercialization) and sustain those innovation efforts in order to maintain a competitive advantage over competitors. While this closed model of innovation is still dominant in many organizations and industries, organizations are gradually adopting open innovation policies referred to as “the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation” to increase the market for their innovation (Chesbrough, 2006, p. 1).
More recently, a broader movement to encourage open innovation has emerged. It is an emergent form of organizing and innovating where individuals, firms, or communities participate in the design, development, and distribution of products, services, and solutions. This new form of innovating democratizes innovation from producer-driven activities to user- and community-driven activities (Baldwin & von Hippel, 2011; von Hippel, 2005, 2016).
Since the seminal work of Eric von Hippel established that users, not producers, play a dominant role in the innovation process (e.g., von Hippel, 1976), a large number of studies have confirmed the importance of resourceful users with seemingly tangential needs to modify and innovate products beyond what is available on the existing market (Franke & Piller, 2004; Urban & von Hippel, 1988; von Hippel, 2005). It may be relevant at this stage to clarify that user innovation typically focuses on users and how they adapt products to their own needs, while open innovation tends to be broader in scope and focuses on how the multiple actors, including users and producers, innovate collectively (von Hippel, Ogawa, & de Jong, 2011).
OCs play a key role in promoting open innovation by encouraging knowledge collaboration among multiple actors who share common interests, as well as providing spaces and tools to seek advice, support each other, and assist others in developing and customizing innovation (Faraj et al., 2016; Franke & Shah, 2003). Further, organizations are learning to more effectively engage the crowd to innovate. A community can positively bridge between individual actors (e.g., lead users or other commercial actors intending to provide complementary services) and the focal organization. OCs can tap into rich sources of innovative ideas and aggregate and integrate diverse contributions from members into solutions for complex problems (Boudreau & Lakhani, 2013).
A recent study evaluated the performance implication of adopting a community organizing structure (where all members’ work is visible) versus a contest organizing structure (where members have no access to each other’s work). The results indicate that community-organized innovation can lead to greater process efficiency and higher average and maximal performance than contest-organized innovation (Boudreau & Lakhani, 2015). Thus, an emerging body of work is pointing to the effectiveness of OCs in supporting open innovation activities.
Thus, OCs as collective spaces for knowledge flows are highly effective at solving complex innovation problems by facilitating user-to-user and user-to-producer interactions on a novel scale. A number of successful, innovation-focused OCs have managed to sustain a mixed participation of individual participants and commercial firms. Such firms partially relinquish their control over the process to gain the many benefits from participation: monitoring user reactions, evaluating actual product performance, observing product adaptations, identifying lead users and talented inventors, communicating with core users/developers, and seeking solutions from the community members. In von Hippel (2016), the emergence of the community is described as a counterpart to the firm as the essence of the emerging free innovation paradigm.
Digital Platforms and OCs
This section addresses how digital platforms afford knowledge collaboration in OCs and identifies key differences between OCs and digital platforms. Digital platforms correspond to the digital technologies that been developed to change the way that individuals and organizations work, collaborate, transact, and develop business models (Benkler, 2006; Gawer, 2014; Yoo, Henfridsson, & Lyytinen, 2010). Research on digital platforms has sought to clarify their characteristics and examine their operating mechanisms, with a focus on how organizations can use these platforms to amplify their innovation capabilities and develop competitive business models (Cusumano & Gawer, 2002; Eisenmann, Parker, & Van Alstyne, 2011; Jeppesen & Lakhani, 2010). However, there is significant puzzlement, among both researchers and practitioners, over where the differences exist between the digital platforms and the OCs that sustain them.
Digital platforms create value through economies of scope and scale and have been labeled as generative in terms of affording novel and unexpected connections among platform participants. Generativity relates to the “technology’s overall capacity to produce unprompted change driven by large, varied, and uncoordinated audiences” (Zittrain, 2006, p. 1980). Strategy and innovation researchers have addressed this generative nature of digital platforms by examining how openness and governance of the platform affects platform generativity (Boudreau, 2010; West, 2003), how architectures influence participation and evolution of the platform (Baldwin & Clark, 2006; Tiwana, Konsynski, & Bush, 2010), and how firms use digital platforms to amplify their innovation and competitive advantage (Eisenmann, Parker, & Van Alstyne, 2011; Gawer & Cusumano, 2014) or their emergence as innovation ecosystems (Barrett, Davidson, Prabhu, & Vargo, 2015; Yoo, Boland, Lyytinen, & Majchrzak, 2012).
This attribution of the label generativity to what is essentially a technology platform has recently been described as problematic (Faraj et al., 2016). Like most technologies, a platform cannot be successful or even sustained without the presence of an active community of participants. Thus, describing a platform as having the quality of being generative obscures the role of the community and the various social and economic mechanisms that are so essential for sustaining a thriving operation. In contrast, OC research focuses on the actions of the various actors, their social embeddedness, their practices, and the richness of their interactions. Without a flourishing OC to engage with the platform, there is no successful platform, no matter what its technological features are. Put more directly, OCs, as spaces of knowledge flow, are mutually constituted by participants who share common interests and the underlying digital technologies (Faraj et al., 2016).
A further source of difference between digital platforms and OCs relates to governance. A digital platform is centrally governed and its architecture under the control of the platform owner (Boudreau, 2010; Tiwana et al., 2010). For example, Apple has full control over the iOS ecosystem, and its interests are not often aligned with the needs of the community. For instance, Apple decides who can publish iOS applications through the App Store and what kinds of information can be accessible from third-party developers. On the other hand, the governance in OCs is more decentralized and more reflective of the community’s needs and dynamics.
Despite these differences between digital platforms and OCs, their relationship is complementary. The digital platform can be designed to offer a number of affordances that, if embraced by participants, can play a critical role in promoting vibrant social interactions in OCs. For example, social interactions and innovation activities in user communities can be facilitated by providing toolkits, including design assist tools, online discussion space, and module libraries (Franke & Piller, 2004). Ren et al. (2012) show that platform functions for fostering group identity and interpersonal bond can have a significant influence on user participation and attachment in the OC.
Shaping behaviors (i.e., modifying already contributed resource) that are enabled by the underlying Wiki platform promote knowledge reuse in the community (Majchrzak, Wagner, & Yates, 2013). As these studies demonstrate, the success of OCs heavily relies on technology affordance enabled by digital platforms. However, the mere existence of digital platforms does not guarantee vibrant social interactions and deep engagement in the community. Thus, it is preferable to consider digital platform generativity and social interactions in OCs as being in a mutually constitutive relationship.
This article has proposed that the knowledge-based view of OCs can be fruitful to understanding how OCs are emerging as collective spaces for knowledge flows. OCs benefit from both tacit and explicit knowledge flows and the fact that these flows sustain knowledge creation, sharing, and collaboration among participants. Knowledge collaboration in OCs seems to function without the benefit (or hindrance) of the hierarchical and governance mechanisms present in formal organizations.
OCs sustain knowledge collaboration by managing generative responses toward tensions in resources that are rooted in the fluid nature of OCs. OCs also can play a significant role in open innovation by encouraging vibrant interaction among participants and collectively generating novel ideas and solutions for complex problems that previously could not be addressed by the firm. Finally, digital platforms afford knowledge collaboration in OCs, but a need exists to understand more precisely the mutually constitutive relationships between digital platforms and OCs. These arguments have implications and create promising research avenues.
First, the question of how to grow and sustain OCs and their knowledge flows over time remains open. For example, under what circumstance should an OC boundary be actively managed, and what will be the impact of knowledge flow and member inflow? It is not clear if extreme fluidity (e.g., rapidly changing boundaries of an OC) will be beneficial to member engagement and retention, or how the tensions in resources can best be managed to sustain knowledge exchange. These are core research questions to understand the mechanisms of knowledge collaboration in OCs (Majchrzak et al., 2017). Second, little research has examined how OCs should be governed or the role of OC leadership in sustaining them. Third, the mutual constitution of technologies and OCs’ sociality is still understudied. Examining how digital technologies, including platforms, afford vibrant social interactions and knowledge flows is key to understanding value creation in OCs (Barrett, Oborn, & Orlikowski, 2016; Leonardi & Vaast, 2017).
Finally, further research is needed on the link between OC and open innovation. Can the OC be archetypal for the emergence of a communal way to organize that balances the needs of multiple actors (including users and firms) in an organizing scheme that goes beyond the firm, but is more convergent than the market? Looking beyond the duality of firm and users, OCs already appear to be turbocharging the process of innovation channeling diverse actors into productive endeavors. In sum, the future is bright for OC research adopting the knowledge perspective and focusing on their knowledge flows.
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