Measuring performance of knowledge-intensive workgroups through social networks

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    34 June 2009 Project Management Journal DOI: 10.1002/pmj

    INTRODUCTION

    The performance of individuals in knowledge-intensive work in anyform of organization remains critical to the success of both individual-level and organization-level goals. Understanding the factors thatenhance and diminish the performance levels of individuals is there-fore a necessity for monitoring and managing performance. Accordingly, agrowing body of research in management and organizational psychologyproposes to understand performance by decomposing its constructs basedon task level and contextual levels (Borman & Motowidlo, 1993). Theoriesfrom information systems (IS) research, for example, suggest that individualperformance can be understood by examining the task-technology fitwithin organizational human resources (Goodhue & Thompson, 1995). Inproject environments, much emphasis is on models of the personal attrib-utes of project personnel that relate to performancefor example, teamleadership effectiveness (Thamhain, 2004), management and leadershipstyles (Dvir, Sadeh, & Malach-Pines, 2006; Turner & Mller, 2005), and softskills such as motivation (Muzio, Fisher, Thomas, & Peters, 2007; Peterson,2007). However, these models do not account for the importance of socialprocesses that weave together a rich fabric of human or technology-enabledsocial and professional relationships that contribute largely toward per-formance. To this end, an emergent discipline of social networks theory andresearch takes as its central premise the embeddedness (Granovetter, 1985,p. 1065) of individuals in social networks. The novelty of this stream ofresearch lies in how it draws on the structural properties of individuals in asocial network to explain outcomes such as individual performance.

    In this article, we examine the inherent relationship between profession-al network structure and individual performance by developing a theoreticalframework based on existing literature in the sociology, information science,and management science disciplines. By obtaining a pattern of network ofadvice-seeking interactions, we examine the fine-grained associationsbetween an individuals network properties, measured by social networkstructure, position, and tie variables, and its relationship with performance,measured by the individuals performance attitude about the various dimen-sions of task-level activities. The following section lays the conceptual foun-dation for the study, followed by the epistemological stance taken and theoretical justification of the hypotheses developed for the study. The latterparts of the article discuss the methodology for the study, including the sur-vey development procedure, followed by results and discussion.

    Measuring Performance ofKnowledge-Intensive WorkgroupsThrough Social NetworksKon Shing Kenneth Chung, Project Management Graduate Programme, University ofSydney, AustraliaLiaquat Hossain, Project Management Graduate Programme, University of Sydney,Australia

    ABSTRACT

    In this article, we examine the effect of socialnetwork position, structure, and ties on the per-formance of knowledge-intensive workers indispersed occupational communities. Usingstructural holes and strength-of-tie theory, wedevelop a theoretical framework and a valid andreliable survey instrument. Second, we applynetwork and structural holes measures forunderstanding its association with perform-ance. Empirical results suggest that degreecentrality in a knowledge workers professionalnetwork positively influences performance use,whereas a highly constrained professional net-work is detrimental to performance. The find-ings show that social network structure andposition are important factors to consider forindividual performance.

    KEYWORDS: social network; structure; ties;position; performance; knowledge-intensivework

    Project Management Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2, 3458

    2009 by the Project Management Institute

    Published online in Wiley InterScience

    (www.interscience.wiley.com)

    DOI: 10.1002/pmj.20115

  • June 2009 Project Management Journal DOI: 10.1002/pmj 35

    BackgroundSocial NetworksBy social network, we mean a con-stituent of two or more actors (individ-uals) who are connected through oneor more relationships such as providingadvice, information, and so on. Socialnetwork studies have long been con-cerned with exploring structural and tieeffects, with a view toward illuminatingand explaining patterns of relation-ships in order to infer some outcome.For social network scholars, the raisondtre is that the structure of relation-ships among actors and the location ofindividual actors in the network haveimportant behavioral, perceptual, andattitudinal consequences both for theindividual units and for the system as awhole (Knoke & Kulinski, 1992). At theindividual level, the debate concen-trates on how the structural position ofan individual in the network impacts anoutcome, such as performance, of thatperson.

    Social Networks and PerformanceNetwork effects on individuals abilityto perform better have been document-ed in studies on communications, soci-ology, and social psychology (Coleman,1988; Guetzkow & Dill, 1957; Leavitt,1951). Previous studies further demon-strate that actors with a dense socialnetwork perform better (Oh, Chung, &Labianca, 2004; Reagans & McEvily,2003). Furthermore, actors who are richin structural holes (i.e., having connec-tions to social clusters or groups whoare themselves not well connected) arebetter situated in their social networkto obtain, control, and broker informa-tion (Burt, 1992). Beginning with earlyliterature about communication pat-terns and the performance of groupsand individuals in project and organi-zational contexts, researchers demon-strated that, rather than being remote,impersonal, and rigid, knowledge-intensive work was actually communal,reflecting a strong interpersonal net-work of interconnected workers. Thestudies also suggested that informal

    networks were equally or more impor-tant than formal networks in knowl-edge-intensive work, with the premisebeing that individual performance wasa function of network structure(Gabbay & Leenders, 2001). In fact,studies relating network structures toperformance have shown that in-degree centrality, betweenness central-ity, and density in network structuressuch as advice networks were related to coordination and project-relatedperformance (Hossain, Wu, & Chung,2006).

    Problems Related to GeographicallyDistributed Knowledge-Intensive WorkThe quality of job performance inknowledge-intensive work is affectedby a variety of factors, such as experi-ence, education, keeping abreast ofwork-related and technologicalchanges, and so on. Holding such indi-vidual properties constant, perform-ance to a large extent is the product ofobtaining the right information toaccomplish the task at hand or to solvecomplex problems. For example, find-ing information and finding expertisefor handling the right information iscrucial for job performance. However,although knowledge and expertise arecritical resources, their mere presenceis insufficient to produce high-qualitywork. As Faraj and Sproull (2000) argue,expertise must be managed and coordi-nated in order to leverage its potential.This entails knowing where expertise islocated and where it is needed, andbringing needed expertise to bear. Thisproblem is accentuated when geo-graphical barriers are imposed. Grinter,Herbsleb, and Perry (1999) argue thatirrespective of the area of expertise,product structure, processes, and cus-tomized steps in organizational work,one of the most pertinent problems isthe location of expertise.

    In distributed project environ-ments especially, Cross and Cummings(2004) claim that individuals who arenot aware of the location of expertiseelsewhere and who have fewer ties

    spanning organizational and geo-graphical boundaries will have difficul-ty obtaining useful information forwork purposes. Furthermore, there isplenty of literature that emphasizes theimportance of social and professionalnetwork structure, position, and tiediversity. For instance, individuals whotend to be in closed networks tend tohave nondiverse ties, and the interac-tions are usually with the same individu-als. Such individuals are less successfulin adapting to a changing environ-ment and in receiving useful and novelinformation, and their work is thusmarked with low-quality performance(Ancona & Caldwell, 1992; Cummings,2004; Podolny & Baron, 1997; Reagans &Zuckerman, 2001).

    Research QuestionsGiven the arguments above, the follow-ing questions motivate this research: How can individual performance be

    understood through the emergentpatterns of social processes that con-stitute performance?

    How can it be evaluated? What is the role of social influence

    and social networks (that create suchinfluence) in understanding individ-ual performance?

    Why is understanding social networkstructure and position important forunderstanding individual perform-ance?

    How does one account for social fac-tors, apart from personal and demo-graphic factors, that are important forenhancing individual performance inproject environments?

    In order to shed light on the abovephilosophical questions, one needs toexplore possible answers by reviewingthe literature in the area of social net-works and performance. While there iscurrently a lack of literature that tiesthese constructs together coherently inproject contexts, it is important thatthese constructs are explored individual-ly, jointly, and holistically in a sequentialmanner. Figure 1 depicts a conceptual

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