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02 Jul 2014

Research: How middle managers' knowledge search practices can turn into organizational innovations

Dynamic industries continuously generate unusual questions and non-routine events. Middle managers, as central individuals of knowledge systems, often have to respond to these situations for which their current practices and processes offer no adequate solutions. In so doing, they can craft new solutions, and develop organizational capabilities – by either modifying existing routines or creating new ones.

This article by Vincent Mangematin is the subject of the 1st GEM LAB Executive Summaries.

From the article

The two faces of knowledge search : new solutions and capability development, Organization Studies 0(0) 1 – 33. Esther Tippmann, Vincent Mangematin and Pamela Sharkey Scott, 2013.

Through 38 knowledge search processes analyzed, this research uncovers concrete practices of acquiring and making use of knowledge in four multinational companies. If mid-level managers are supposed to have the best access to knowledge, they nonetheless face significant challenges in their search practices: difficulties locating (and sometimes targeting) knowledge; feeling isolated from knowledge, especially when large geographical distances separate them

Efficiency of socialized knowledge search

Strong functional specialization and geographic distribution encourage managers to pursue more isolated problem-solving paths, relying on their own experience. However, to devise solutions to non-routine events, they need to overcome existing knowledge distributions challenges and to broadly search the organization's knowledge system. They can use existing personal links, search for new links, for diverse sources, or arrange regular updates with remote colleagues. Socializing is necessary for them to scope the knowledge needs interactively, to discuss the issue with the focal team, and with specialists, or to develop cross-functional problem solving teams.

In many situations, routine modification and associated narrower knowledge searching is an effective response. But if the development of new routines is needed, wider socialized search and more active efforts are also necessary to overcome distribution challenges. Managers will have to browse, articulate and create new linkage between previously disconnected knowledge. This lead to the highly valuable strategic outcome of creating totally new routines - a crucial asset for the organization's long-term renewal.

Key points

  • Organizations that develop knowledge use advantage by supporting a knowledge sharing climate with intense interpersonal networking and socialized searches - especially at a mid-management level - are likely to be more effective in bottom-up transformation and development of capabilities through devising solutions to unusual problems.
  • Systematic centralized knowledge accumulation appears to be a hurdle to developing new solutions (managers are more inclined to search for « ready-made solutions »), while difficulties localizing knowledge stimulate wider social activities and gives more opportunities to innovate.
  • It seems important to develop awareness of the inherent value of middle managers knowledge search practices, especially when it is related to unusual questions, and to trust their ability to create new organizational solutions.
Mara Saviotti

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