Motivation Inter-organizational knowledge creation is important for organizations with limited resources to achieve and maintain competitive advantage. However, uncon-ditional sharing contains risks for participating organizations. Especially the intricacy of multivalent relationships in inter-organizational networks poses a risk to organizations as they often face indirect links to rivals: an organization might not know their knowledge sharing partners relationships to third parties, however, these third parties might access an organizations knowledge through transitive sharing by the organizations knowledge sharing partners. Despite this risk, practitioners and academia hardly pay attention to protecting knowledge and mainly have their focus on facilitating sharing. However, without taking knowledge protection into account, benefiting from knowledge sharing is challenging. Still, research on knowledge protection is in its infancy and, hence, this thesis (a) empirically investigates knowledge protection behavior of organizations in inter-organizational networks and (b) contributes to theory for describing knowledge protec-tion behavior in inter-organizational networks.
Background Research on knowledge protection takes place from an organizational perspective and an inter-organizational perspective. From an organizational perspective, research focuses on asserting behavioral control over employees sharing behavior or establishing protection routines. Form an inter-organizational perspective, the emphasis is on dyadic, contractual relationships where protectiveness of sharing partners and the role of trust in sharing is discussed. However, research on knowledge protection in inter-organizational networks is scarce. Especially networks where inter-organizational ex-change relationships are multi-dyadic, non-hierarchical, and non-contractual are rarely investigated from a knowledge protection perspective. Yet, the understanding of knowledge protection behavior in inter-organizational networks is still in its infancy. As a consequence, theory for explaining knowledge protection in inter-organizational neworks advances slowly due to a lack of empirical investigations in network settings. Three theoretical lenses on knowledge protection exist. Transaction Cost Economics (TCE) focus on contractual- or equity-based relationships, the Relational Perspective focuses on building trust and social capital. Whilst the former does not count for non-hierarchical and non-contractual exchange relationships, the latter underestimates that network members might be unknown to each other or the existence of indirect links to competitors. This thesis argues from the Knowledge-based View of the firm (KBV). From a KBV perspective, organizations can build protection capabilities in form of or-ganizational routines to protect their knowledge in inter-organizational networks.
Purpose This thesis seeks to answer the following research question:
“How do organizations protect their knowledge in inter-organizational networks?”
The phenomenon of interest in is how organizations protect their knowledge in inter-organizational networks that are characterized by multi-dyadic, non-hierarchical, and non-contractual knowledge exchange relationships. This thesis sheds light on this phe-nomenon by answering the research question stated above. As part of this research ques-tion, this thesis discusses protection capabilities that are supportive in this process. Therefore, this thesis uses the KBV as a starting point to develop a capability perspective on knowledge protection.
Answering the research question is necessary to pave the way for developing theory in the field of knowledge protection towards a theory of explaining knowledge protection behavior in inter-organizational networks. As a first step, this thesis aims at providing descriptions of how organizations behave. This constitutes a basis for future research developing theory of explaining why organizations protect knowledge in inter-organizational networks.
Methodology The research presented in this synopsis argues from an interpretivist stance, following the belief that gaining access to “knowledge protection reality” is only possible through social constructions such as language or shared meanings and, hence, social reality cannot be understood independently of the social actors that make sense out of this reality. Starting from this interpretivist stance, this thesis builds on two pil-lars: (1) an empirical study and (2) conceptual work.
According to (1), 60 qualitative, semi-structured interviews were performed with rep-resentatives from member organizations of 10 inter-organizational networks. Qualitative data analysis included informed inductive coding and initial categorization, axial coding and diagnostic cases, and cross-case analysis.
According to (2), conceptual work was performed as accompanying research to (1). The conceptual work focused on developing the concept of protection capabilities fur-ther. Protection capabilities as a theoretical attempt to establish a capability perspective on the empirical data. Pertinent literature was reviewed and synthesized to a model of protection capabilities.
Contributions There are three core contributions from the empirical and concep-tual work in this thesis.
Finding 1: Three informal practices of knowledge protection in inter-organizational networks: or-ganizations apply three informal practices to protect their knowledge in inter-organizational networks: (1) selecting trusted subgroups in the network, (2) excluding crucial topics and sharing on selected topics, and (3) excluding details and sharing meta-knowledge. We found that (2) and (3) do not protect knowledge at the expense of shar-ing but increase mutuality and reciprocity of sharing in inter-organizational networks.
Finding 2: A sharpened concept of protection capabilities and three types of protection capabilities to support knowledge protection in inter-organizational networks: protection capabilities are organi-zational routines or a set of routines combining protection resources that are embedded through actions by employees of the organization. These actions are mainly determined by the governance structure of the routines. This structure refers to the organizational structure and the network governance structure. Three types of protection capabilities are proposed: concealment (protecting knowledge from unwanted identification), ambi-guity (protecting knowledge from unwanted assimilation), and enforcement (protecting knowledge from unwanted application).
Finding 3: A capability perspective on knowledge protection has only limited power to describe knowledge protection behavior in inter-organizational networks: literature argues that organiza-tional capabilities consist of a structural and an agency component. For the agency com-ponent, literature assumes that individuals act as stewards towards the organizational goals framed by the structure of these routines. Knowledge protection has a different assumption. Individuals can have diverging goals or are unaware of organizational goals towards knowledge protection and unconsciously leak knowledge. Hence, a capability perspective is limited in describing how individuals act at the boundary of the organiza-tion during their day-to-day business. As a consequence, psychological contract theory is consulted in this thesis to explain the agency aspect of protection capabilities.