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This study explores the ways in which the affordances of social media not only increase open communication and knowledge sharing, but also promote covert behavior, creating dialectical tensions for distributed workers that must be communicatively managed. Drawing on a case study of the engineering division of a distributed high tech start-up, we find our participants navigate tensions in visibility-invisibility, engagement-disengagement, and sharing-control and strategically manage these tensions to preserve both openness and ambiguity.

These findings highlight ways in which organizational members limit as well as share knowledge through social media, and the productive role of tensions in enabling them to attend to multiple goals. Social media tools such as blogs, social network sites SNSs , wikis and microblogging are proliferating in organizations and providing new sites of collaboration, coordination, and community.

Our findings from interviews with members of a distributed engineering start-up organization reveal that social media are used strategically to limit as well as share information, and that participants negotiate tensions between openness and closedness in their work. More specifically, we find that distributed workers navigate tensions in visibility-invisibility, engagement-disengagement, and sharing-control and that they draw on affordances of social media in strategic ways to manage these tensions. We will now discuss current literature on knowledge sharing in social media and recast it from a dialectical perspective.

Emerging research on social media use in organizations often emphasizes its promise for increasing knowledge sharing e. Open knowledge sharing certainly has many benefits. For instance, organizational innovation depends on combining and integrating knowledge to develop novel processes, products, insights, and solutions Obstfeld, For instance, an IBM study of 1, CEOs found that social media technologies were widely thought to provide openness that contributed to company success by enabling them to draw on collective intelligence, be more agile, and act quickly for higher profitability and growth Fidelman, Much of the academic literature on social media also tends to take an optimistic tone that emphasizes the ways in which social media affordances will promote openness in organizational knowledge sharing.

For example, Brzozowski et al. It assumes that effective communication and knowledge sharing is characterized by openness, in terms of disclosure of both personal and task-related information and clear, unambiguous communication. Disclosure of personal and task-related information. Although open disclosure of information is often considered beneficial, there are strategic reasons why organizational members may not share knowledge.

While knowing more about others may improve working relationships, it may also increase awareness of differences and lead to interpersonal conflict. Managers and employees may also avoid openness in order to protect self-interests. Some organizational cultures may discourage knowledge sharing due to the need to preserve confidentiality and competitiveness of proprietary knowledge e. Finally, organizational members may simply be too pressed for time to document their knowledge, especially if there are no tangible incentives.

Clear, unambiguous communication. Further, organizational members are not always motivated to enhance clarity and consensus. Gibbs found that global team managers in a software outsourcing organization worked to preserve ambiguity in their reporting structure rather than imposing clear roles to better attend to competing goals and preserve flexibility to be more responsive to both employee and customer needs. Barley, Leonardi, and Bailey also found that automotive engineers employed strategies of ambiguity in presenting design solutions to members of other knowledge communities, especially in early design stages, in order to establish common understanding, promote compromise, and avoid conflict.

These studies highlight benefits of strategic ambiguity in fostering collaboration among diverse communities and increasing flexibility. Strategic technology use to limit knowledge sharing. There is evidence that mediated channels are particularly useful for such strategic and covert communication. Research finds that individuals use technology strategically in interpersonal relationships to regulate and restrict the flow of social information in face-threatening situations, due to its ability to obscure unattractive or embarrassing information and give their counterpart greater control over when and how to respond O'Sullivan, Birnholtz, Dixon, and Hancock examined how organizational members exploited ambiguities afforded by media use, finding that ambiguity played an important role in maintaining impressions and relationships.

It is important to note that these studies did not examine social media use specifically, and that social media tools are arguably richer in social cues than e-mail and other text-based forms of CMC. Nevertheless, they reveal that impression management motivations often drive technology use and that individuals often make strategic choices to limit or restrict information.

Choices to share or not to share knowledge in social media applications are likely to be influenced by such concerns as well. Although much of the emerging research on enterprise social media seems to assume that social media will and should promote knowledge sharing and open communication, such tools are also likely to be used in strategic ways to limit or obscure knowledge sharing.

As such, users may be motivated to use social media in particular ways that may constrain or limit knowledge sharing as much as they enable it. To explain the user-technology relationship and its mutually constitutive nature, we draw on an affordance view. Affordance Gibson, is a relational concept that takes into account both the material features of the technology and the subjective perceptions and goals of the user. In this way, an affordance lens is helpful in explaining why people use different technologies in similar ways or the same technology in different ways Fulk, Being a recent innovation, communication scholars are still exploring the affordances of social media.

Treem and Leonardi propose four unique affordances of social media in organizations: visibility and association of content and people , as well as persistence and editability of content. They argue other collaborative technologies such as e-mail, instant messaging, teleconferencing, and collaborative software afford only limited visibility and association, as well as inconsistent persistence and editability.

While older technologies may be high on one or two of the affordances for example, e-mail affords persistence and editability , social media are distinguished by being consistently high on all four. Majchrzak et al. While literature often emphasizes the role of social media in increasing knowledge sharing, the affordances of social media may in fact promote both openness and closedness. Distributed workers are likely to navigate a dialectic of openness and closedness in their knowledge-sharing practices through social media. On one hand, they are motivated to share knowledge and communicate clearly with distributed others to accomplish tasks, build relationships, and achieve innovative solutions.

On the other hand, they are also motivated by impression management concerns to protect certain knowledge and communicate in ambiguous or deceptive ways. We draw on dialectical theory to explain this tension between openness and closedness and the ways in which it is communicatively managed. A tension is defined as an opposition between two conflicting poles, such that both poles are necessary but in contradiction with one another. More specifically, we argue that the affordances of social media are likely to create tensions between openness and closedness in knowledge sharing.

On one hand, social media may make it easier to identify distributed expertise Brzozowski, and motivate contribution, as employees' participation in a social media tool was enhanced by visible feedback to their posts and visible activity by managers and coworkers Brzozowski et al. On the other hand, social media may also be used for selective self-presentation Walther, as the ability to edit and craft messages may lead to manipulation or selective sharing of information, and the archived or documented nature of social media interaction may put limits on what is shared Ellison et al.

Such affordances may serve to limit rather than promote organizational knowledge sharing. Identifying the tensions associated with the affordances of social media helps to overcome the bias toward openness and present a more balanced account of how such tools may be used to promote and limit knowledge sharing. Accordingly, we propose the following research questions: What dialectical tensions arise in social media use among distributed workers?

How do they draw on social media affordances to strategically manage such tensions? To answer our research questions, we conducted a case study of a high-technology start-up organization producing innovative memory hardware and its supporting software. The company, which we refer to by the pseudonym of FlashTech, was founded on the East Coast in the mids and later shifted most of its operations to Silicon Valley for better business opportunities. The company had experienced rapid growth in its West Coast location specifically, drastically increasing in size during our study period to reach employees—about engineers and sales, marketing, and customer support employees—and was in the process of expanding its sales offices in Europe and Asia.

The company's evolution had resulted in a power shift in technical knowledge and decision-making, requiring a great deal of knowledge transfer from the East Coast to the West Coast offices and creating concern for East Coast employees over the future of their office and jobs. We conducted an initial site visit to the East Coast office and carried out informal interviews with several key personnel from that office as well as several managers from the West Coast office who were in town. This initial visit helped us gather data on the company and the context in which social media were used.

We also toured the facilities, including the lab, and learned more about the company's products and procedures. We used the insights gained to formulate our interview questions. The interview protocol is available from the authors. Based on the list of names we obtained from the head of the engineering division, we conducted in-depth interviews with a total of 12 engineers 10 men, 2 women in March and April of Nine were located on the West Coast and three on the East Coast.

The gender and location split is reflective of the distribution within the broader organization.

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Our goal was to get diverse perspectives on social media use and knowledge sharing from organizational members in both locations at various levels. We focused on the engineering division of the company, as that was its core business, and to bound our study in terms of job function and type of work.

Our study thus captured mainly collaboration among software and hardware engineers, rather than between engineering and other functions. The engineers worked in project teams drawn from both the West and East Coast offices. Their routine interactions involved knowledge exchange, daily communication, weekly meetings, and managing access to equipment in different locations.

We selected this organization because its distributed nature created some interesting knowledge sharing challenges, and we thought that employees at a high-technology company might use or see value in social media for collaboration across locations. In contrast to the large high-technology corporations studied in much prior social media research e. In fact, we found that FlashTech employees were generally quite resistant to using social media in the form of social networking applications although they used a variety of other electronic media for collaboration.

Team members communicated and exchanged information primarily through telephone including Skype voice calls and video conference , e-mail, wikis, Google Docs for Business, and group instant messaging Google Talk or Skype chat , as well as informal face-to-face meetings and hallway conversations. While not normally considered social media, the affordances of Skype chat and Google Docs as used by FlashTech engineers were consistent with social media.

For instance, they used Skype to create group chat sessions for each product they were working on and kept them active throughout the day. The persistence of messages in such open sessions also provided team members not involved in the immediate conversation the opportunity to check in later and stay updated.

Meanwhile, the use of Google Docs for Business for sharing content and technical documentation provided affordances of persistence and editability of content, as well as interactive commenting and association with others for whom this content was relevant.


FlashTech engineers thus drew on a suite of tools that collectively provided them a high level of each of the social media affordances of visibility, association, persistence, and editability Treem and Leonardi, All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. The interviews lasted an average of 45 minutes and transcripts provided a total of double-spaced pages. First, each author read through two of the transcripts six in total and assigned codes to the data through open coding.

The authors then discussed their codes and came to agreement on a set of codes to be applied in the second stage of axial coding. In the process, tensions in social media use began to emerge. In the next step, all of the instances of tensions in the data were flagged for more in-depth analysis. A second round of coding was performed on these excerpts specifically. Through a number of subsequent discussions, the authors engaged in selective coding to refine the codes and translate raw codes into broader themes.

In this process, three dialectical tensions arising from social media affordances emerged—visibility-invisibility, engagement-disengagement, and sharing-control—along with their respective communicative responses, which constitutes our emergent theoretical structure.

Table 1 provides sample codes and quotes.

The role of openness in explaining innovation performance in a regional context

Due to the geographical dispersion of FlashTech between the East and West Coasts and the complex nature of computer engineering work, employees drew heavily on collaborative technologies to provide access to coworkers and remote equipment. Skype chat in particular was used as a collaborative tool to increase transparency in scheduling and use of remote machines that were under development. It also increased the visibility and accessibility of remote coworkers.

At the same time, it also enabled them to hide or avoid being disturbed. The East Coast engineers, in particular, were highly sought after by the waves of new hires on the West Coast due to their longer tenure and greater product expertise, and were often barraged with questions and requests for information. As he states, his status as an expert increases his workload as he gets more immediate requests. Thus, being visible is not necessarily desirable for him. This tension was exacerbated by the 3-hour time difference between the East and West Coast offices, which not only limited hours for synchronous team interaction but resulted in East Coast engineers receiving a flurry of requests from their West Coast counterparts at the end of their workday.

I don't know if they realize I'm going to be leaving soon, but I'm going to get my questions then.

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Strategic response. As P3 explained:. Sometimes when I try to get something done, I just go to the Skype icon and select 'Invisible' so it looks like I'm not online.

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I'll still see any messages that come in. I'll see issues that come up, but I can choose to respond when I want to. Going invisible was therefore a strategic move that enabled better time management, as the engineer could limit his or her availability to others and respond only when he or she chose to. Becoming invisible thus enabled distributed workers to remain available while working undisturbed.

Unlike the visibility-invisibility tension which concerned the signaling of employees' presence or availability, the engagement-disengagement tension concerned employees' attention allocation. As FlashTech was a rapidly growing start-up company in a highly competitive industry, its engineers worked long hours to meet tight project deadlines, while staying updated and troubleshooting issues in other parts of the system. In the process, distributed workers needed to be readily connected to one another, often across teams, for interactive discussion of ideas, technical issues, and alerts about new developments.

Their use of Skype chat afforded them quick interactions and constant updates, which were informative but could be distracting. Project teams would create a chat session for each product and topic they were working on, and keep multiple chat windows—sometimes 10—15 at a time—open throughout the day with running conversations about technical challenges and updates. Software manager P8 described this collaborative process:.

We have dozens of Skype groups running. People can be working in two to three Skype groups, almost simultaneously exchanging information. For each system that's being shared, we have a Skype group.


We have a team Skype group for people to ask generic questions…Skype is like a bunch of hallway conversations with a history. We can jump in…scroll all the way up, and oh, here's all the information I need to catch up on the conversation and chip in if I need to…You can even get someone in…and they can see what occurred and catch up quickly.

This is similar to how public social media tools like Facebook's News Feed or Twitter's Trends are used; real-time content is streamed and stored, but typically recent information receives the most attention. Nonetheless, actively monitoring several Skype groups could be cognitively taxing.

The interactive nature of the open chat windows provided interruptions as new updates popped up on the screen. Allowing oneself to become too engaged in the discussions and attending to all messages could be terribly disruptive to work. Some requests for help, for example, were quite complex and time-consuming to resolve, especially when they involved troubleshooting a computer program:. When I'm busy trying to get stuff done, suddenly I get interrupted. I have to stop what I'm doing and think about something else, and address someone's concerns, which is one of the drawbacks of Skype as opposed to email.

Email, you can reply on your own time, but Skype seems to have more immediacy to it. If you're not careful, it can just pull you away for an hour, because now someone wants you to debug their system. This quote by software engineer P3 again reveals the immediacy of Skype compared to e-mail. In this way, engagement with others was not always desirable. Corresponding desires for disengagement may have been particularly prevalent for our computer engineers, who generally preferred to work autonomously without much social interaction.

We become engineers because all we have to do is sit in front of the computer. We don't actually have to talk to people. Given the engineers' preference for careful deliberation and reflection in isolation from others, FlashTech managers found Skype groups a more immediate and engaging forum for quick, interactive discussions in order to speed up the pace of their time-sensitive work. They also faced pressures to disengage as well, though, due to the sheer volume of messages.

Although they generally appreciated the interactivity and immediacy of Skype groups, managers and employees devised strategies to deal with the pressure for constant engagement by finding ways to disengage. Managers especially tended to be involved in many conversations, and they devised an efficient way of dealing with the tension by monitoring the status of various projects in the Skype chat threads but limiting their engagement only to crucial issues that required their attention.

In an information-rich environment in which technology such as social media provides continuous information streams, attention is a scarce resource. As the head of engineering, people tend to pull me into a lot of conversations because they think I care. Maybe I do, and maybe I don't, but I sort of get to the part where I can figure out if something needs my attention or not. More importantly, it enabled managers and other busy employees to simultaneously engage yet disengage from conversations. The ability for engineers and especially managers to quickly scan updates in information streams and limit their participation accordingly afforded them an enhanced ability to manage communicative interruptions.

Given the highly competitive nature of FlashTech's industry, knowledge sharing across teams—as well as across geographical locations—was critical. While social media affordances enabled ease of knowledge sharing, the tools were also subject to leaks. Concerns about confidentiality and job security often resulted in attempts to control rather than share certain types of knowledge. Job security-related tension. East Coast employees were acutely aware that they were in a precarious position as hiring had been frozen in their office while it continued at a rapid pace on the West Coast.

West Coast employees were less aware of it, but East Coast employees felt their job security threatened. They're going to be the orphan office, not getting much new and other things like that. They're holding tight to what they know…Because they're remote, they don't want to share quite as much. Thus some of the East Coast experts faced concerns that sharing their expertise would make them and their site expendable, which created pressures to control rather than share knowledge.

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  8. The West Coast managers disputed this and suggested that such concerns were unfounded, stressing that they tried to keep the East Coast engineers involved in all matters, including them in video-based meetings, even flying them in periodically to meet with the rest of the team to ensure they did not feel isolated. So it's one-way communication…I think because that site is big and wants to make all the decisions. They're forced to tolerate this site because we have the knowledge they don't. Confidentiality-related tension.

    Another concern that created tension between sharing and controlling knowledge was related to confidentiality of information. Much company information was considered proprietary or sensitive and was not intended for even all internal audiences. Certain documentation, for example, was restricted to only team members working on a particular project. Thus, assessing the appropriate audience for a particular piece of information or documentation was a constant concern, as FlashTech members were aware that not everyone may be interested in it and attempted to avoid unnecessary sharing with irrelevant parties.

    Software engineer P3 explained how Google Docs was used for document sharing:. If somebody wants to see it, fine. I don't want to first of all, bombard everybody with something they may not be interested in. FlashTech employees largely preferred more bounded media such as Google Docs in which they could limit the audience for particular documents and information, rather than public or enterprise social media tools meant for interaction among large-scale audiences.

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    The engineers were also aware of the highly competitive nature of the industry their company was in and had concerns about proprietary information falling into the hands of their competitors:. We work in a highly competitive field. The award is designed to highlight the role of technology and innovation as drivers of European growth and prosperity.

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