Hidden iterations: Work coordination via tacit and codified knowledge networks in complex engineering
This study takes a network approach to investigate knowledge transfer patterns that underpin work coordination for collective performance in a contemporary, engineering-intensive setting. Specifically, we uncover patterns (or regularities) in the way in which engineers use interpersonal networks to pass on and exchange tacit and codified knowledge within and across formal organizational hierarchies. We argue that the distinct knowledge transfer patterns based on tacit and codified knowledge network ties give rise to two overarching coordination mechanisms: “hidden iterations” describing the continuous exchange of tacit and codified knowledge among dyads of engineers that takes place before decisions are formalized; and “bringing in the big guns” referring to high-ranking engineers providing tacit knowledge to colleagues in order to reduce ambiguity. Empirically, we use survey data on engineers in a large aerospace company to identify the distinct knowledge transfer patterns that determine the engineers’ work. We apply exponential random graph models as methodology that allows us to capture multiple structure-generating patterns based on the formal organization and tacit and codified knowledge transfers simultaneously. Our modelling results show, for instance, that the engineers transfer tacit knowledge down the formal hierarchy and codified knowledge upwards. We supplement the quantitative analysis with insights from qualitative interviews that allow us to elaborate how the different knowledge transfer patterns coalesce into broader coordination mechanisms that allow engineers to deal with the dual requirements for reliability and innovation that characterize their work. Our research contributes to the literatures on intra-organizational networks and coordination in knowledge-intensive organizations.