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Trust and knowledge sharing: A critical combination

Trust and knowledge sharing

A critical combination

Reproduced with permission of the publisher, as it originally appeared on the IBM website
Authors: Daniel Z. Levin, Rob Cross, Lisa C. Abrams and Eric L. Lesser
IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations
© Copyright IBM Corporation 2002
IBM Global Services, Route 100, Somers, NY 10589, U.S.A.
Produced in the United States of America 10-02
All Rights Reserved
IBM, and the IBM logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of International Business Machines Corporation in the United States, other countries, or both. Other company, product and service names may be trademarks or service marks of others. References in this publication to IBM products and services do not imply that IBM intends to make them available in all countries in which IBM operates.
29 August 2007


Recently, the IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations (IKO) studied the role of trust in knowledge sharing. Factors such as the strength of the relationship between the knowledge seeker and the knowledge source, the difference between competence-based and benevolence-based trust and the type of knowledge being exchanged were explored. Data from a two-part survey of 138 people in three companies were analyzed to discern how trust affects knowledge sharing and how individuals evaluate the trustworthiness of others when seeking knowledge. By applying this new insight, managers can take explicit actions to help build trust—and, in turn, encourage knowledge sharing.

Trust is critical



“How can I encourage people to share what they know?” is a question often posed by mangers in today’s knowledge-driven organizations. Much of the academic and business literature, and personal experience, suggests that having employees work together over an extended period of time can lead to successful knowledge sharing. Yet, there exists little systematic evidence about why this actually promotes effective knowledge transfer. Without understanding the linkage between regular, ongoing employee interactions (commonly called “strong ties”) and effective knowledge sharing, managers often don’t know what they can do to foster valuable knowledge exchanges. Should they colocate people in a common work area? Should they send people on “ropes courses” and ask them to discuss their innermost thoughts and feelings? Most of the research and advice in the marketplace provides little, if any, real guidance on these issues.

To obtain a more robust understanding of the issues related to personal relationships and knowledge sharing, the IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations (IKO) conducted a survey of 138 employees from three companies: a division of a U.S. pharmaceutical company, a division of a British bank and a large group within a Canadian oil and gas company. All three groups were composed of people engaged in knowledge-intensive work, which anticipated a reliance on colleagues for information. The respondents were asked to consider a project on which they had recently worked and to rate the usefulness of the knowledge they received from those that they sought for advice on that project. The results of the survey — which were similar across the three companies—identified some action-oriented recommendations for companies looking to share knowledge across their organizations more effectively.1, 2


Trust: The missing link

This first part of the project set out to address a fundamental question: “Why do strong ties between coworkers appear to facilitate knowledge sharing?” The study results suggest that the “magic ingredient” that links strong ties and knowledge sharing is trust. In the business community, discussions about trust have typically been characterized by vague terminology, hand waving and a frequently heard refrain of “it’s all about the culture.” However, given the importance of this topic, a more rigorous understanding of trust—its different forms and its development—is critical to the success of an organization’s knowledge-sharing efforts.

The study results point to two specific types of trust that are instrumental in the knowledge-sharing process: benevolence-basedtrust and competence-basedtrust. When most people think about trust, they are typically thinking of its benevolence-based form — in which an individual will not intentionally harm another when given the opportunity to do so. However, another type of trust that plays an important role in knowledge sharing is competence-based trust. Competence-based trust describes a relationship in which an individual believes that another person is knowledgeable about a given subject area.

Either type of trust can exist independently. For example, an employee can trust that a coworker knows the information that the employee needs (competence), but the coworker may not trust that he will be forthcoming at the time when the information is needed (benevolence). Conversely, the employee can be confident that there may be other people who are willing to assist the employee (benevolence), but these people might not possess the knowledge or skills required (competence). Overall, results revealed that knowledge exchange was more effective when the knowledge recipient viewed the knowledge source as being both benevolent and competent.

With regard to the original question about the connection between frequent interactions and effective knowledge sharing, this study highlights an important conclusion: It is trust, not the presence of strong ties per se that leads to effective knowledge sharing. In fact, the survey also resulted in a somewhat surprising discovery: trust can develop even when there was only infrequent interaction between individuals (“weak ties”). Essentially, although trust can be created through frequent, ongoing communication, it can also form between people who do not converse with each other on a regular basis. Therefore, it is possible for effective knowledge sharing to occur in both strong-tie and weak-tie relationships as long as competence- and benevolence-based trust exists between the two parties.

Further, when the level of trust remained constant, survey respondents suggested that weak ties actually led to more valuable knowledge than strong ties. That is, people reported getting their most useful knowledge from trusted weak ties. This point may seem surprising at first, but conceptually, it makes sense. Individuals with strong ties often have similar kinds of knowledge; they are aware of the same people, ideas and concepts. However, individuals with weak ties are likely to have connections to different social networks and are exposed to different types of knowledge and ideas. Therefore, weak ties might be potentially more useful than strong ones in finding out answers because of the different perspectives and information that these people can offer for a given problem. The key to effective knowledge transfer, though, is that these ties — whether strong or weak — need to be trusted ties.

Different types of knowledge require different forms of trust

The second key question in the study asked, “Does the nature of the knowledge itself affect the importance of trust in knowledge sharing?” Presumably, when the knowledge sought is simple and straightforward—such as directions to an office location—one does not need a significant amount of competence-based trust in the knowledge source (although one may require benevolence-based trust to believe that the knowledge source is choosing to give accurate directions). However, when the knowledge required is more experiential, difficult to verify or tacit in nature (for example, how to negotiate the terms of a multimillion dollar alliance), the knowledge seeker requires a relatively larger amount of competence-based trust in the provider of that knowledge.

Indeed, the results showed that competence-based trust had a major impact on knowledge transfers involving highly tacit knowledge. This is a significant finding, because much value-added knowledge found in organizations is often experiential and difficult to codify. For knowledge transfers involving codified knowledge, competence-based trust was less important. The importance of benevolence-based trust was also examined and found to be significant in both explicit and tacit knowledge exchanges.

Making the decision to trust a knowledge source

After establishing that trust is a critical component in the knowledge-sharing equation, the next substantial issue to be addressed was, “What are the factors that a knowledge seeker uses to evaluate the trustworthiness of a knowledge source?” Previous studies have suggested that individuals use any or all of four factors to make this determination (see Figure 1).


Rationale Attributes examined
Demographic similarity Many business and communication experts have highlighted the importance of similar characteristics in fostering communication and the development of trust.
  • Gender
  • Age
Organizational similarity Elements of organization design, such as formal structure, HR practices and governance are likely to have a direct effect on trust in organizations.
  • Similar job function
  • Close physical proximity
  • Worked on same project
  • Relative position in hierarchy
Social capital Recent studies have suggested that the presence of an ongoing relationship between individuals has an impact on trust and knowledge sharing.
  • Strong ties between the knowledge seeker and knowledge source
  • Shared vision and goals
  • Shared language and terminology
Knowledge source The actions of the knowledge source can influence the knowledge seekers decision to trust that person.
  • Availability (Does the knowledge source have free time and attention to devote to the knowledge seeker?)
  • Discretion (Is the knowledge source able to respect confidentiality?)
  • Receptivity (Is the knowledge source a good listener?)

Figure 1. Potential attributes that influence a knowledge seeker’s decision to trust a knowledge source.
Source: IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations.

IKO research found that knowledge seekers relied on various factors to determine whether they felt an individual was trustworthy. These factors were different, depending upon the type of trust (competence-based versus benevolence-based) involved. As summarized by Figure 2, three factors were important in determining competence-based trust:

  • Common language

  • Common vision

  • Discretion.

When evaluating benevolence-based trust, these same factors were viewed as important, as well as two additional ones:

  • Receptivity

  • Strong ties.


Attribute Definition Significant impact on competence-based trust Significant impact on benevolence-based trust
Common language The extent to which the knowledge source and seeker understand each other and use similar jargon and terminology Yes Yes
Common vision The extent to which a knowledge source and seeker have shared goals, concerns and purpose Yes Yes
Discretion The extent to which the knowledge source is viewed as keeping sensitive source information confidential Yes Yes
Receptivity The extent to which the knowledge source is a good listener No Yes
Strong ties The extent to which the knowledge seeker and source converse frequently with each other and have a close relationship No Yes

Figure 2. Significant attributes that influence a knowledge seeker’s decision to trust a knowledge source.
Source: IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations.

Trust: Implications for organizations

The results of the study underscore that trust — or lack of it — can have serious implications for organizations. While managers often struggle to figure out the value of the “soft stuff” associated with knowledge management, the results of this study clearly highlight the importance of trust in enabling effective knowledge sharing. As a result, promoting an environment in which employees have the opportunity to develop both competence- and benevolence-based trust needs to be a central part of an organization’s knowledge management agenda.

The study also highlights that when it comes to knowledge sharing, trusting people’s benevolence consistently matters, but trusting their competence is even more important when the knowledge is difficult to codify. For individuals to take advantage of experiential, or tacit, knowledge, they must believe that the knowledge source is both willing to help and is well-versed in the particular discipline. Finding people who are willing to assist others and are “knowledgeable” about a particular subject can be difficult, especially in large, dispersed organizations where individuals do not have the opportunity to get to know others involved in the same type of work. Also, individuals themselves may be reluctant to let others know about their expertise, either because they do not believe that their knowledge is relevant or they simply do not want to bring attention to themselves.

Individuals have several options to make others aware of their expertise, including: participating in informal communities of practice, answering questions posed on internal discussion boards, presenting during formal and informal meetings and training classes, and mentoring junior employees. By engaging in these types of activities, individuals have the opportunity to display their experience and engender competence-based trust with their coworkers.

What can managers do to facilitate trust?

Finally, a significant implication of this study is that managers can affect the extent to which trust is developed among employees. The following list presents some actions that managers can take to help build trust among individuals:

  • Create a common understanding of how the business works
    One area where managers can have an impact is the development of a common context, or common understanding among employees regarding the nature and goals of the work. Several of the factors that were significant in building benevolence- and competence-based trust, such as shared language and goals, relate to the importance of building a shared view of how work gets accomplished, how it is measured and how it is ultimately rewarded. Creating this common understanding can make it easier for employees to focus on mutually held goals and values, and reduce the amount of time and effort spent on individual issues and motivations.

  • Demonstrate trust-building behaviors
    Another area where managers can influence the level of trust is the modeling and recognition of trust-building behaviors, such as receptivity and discretion. Employing active listening skills and encouraging employees to voice their concerns in an atmosphere where their issues will not be improperly disclosed can build trust between managers and employees. For example, as the newly appointed CEO of Mattel, Robert Eckert said, one of his most important early actions was to eat lunch in the cafeteria as often as possible, allow employees to ask him questions anonymously, and listen carefully to the tone and words that people used in conversation with each other.3 All of these practices helped him develop a strong rapport with his new coworkers and raised his level of perceived trustworthiness.

  • Bring people together
    Managers may have some discretion in determining the physical locations in which people work together. The IKO study highlights that although frequent interactions do not always build trust, bringing people together can spur the conversations that can signal an individual’s benevolence. Therefore, managers need to consider how they can create both physical and virtual spaces where people can easily interact with one another. Although it may be impossible or impractical for team members who are located in different sites to work together consistently in the same room, managers should think about ways to bring people together — especially early in the project life cycle — and then periodically in the future to recharge the relationships and maintain their connections. Further, organizations can leverage tools, such as collaborative spaces and instant messaging, to make it easier for team members to communicate with one another when they cannot be co-located.


Fostering knowledge sharing is more than simply putting people together in a conference room or sending them on experiential learning programs. It is about creating an environment in which people are able to discern whether their colleagues are both knowledgeable and willing to extend their knowledge to the benefit of others. Without building a sense of competence- and benevolence-based trust between the knowledge seekers and sources, firms will find it difficult to take advantage of perhaps their most valuable resource — their employee know-how. Although trust is negotiated by people firsthand, managers can play a substantial role in creating the conditions through which trust is developed and fostered.


  1. Abrams, L., R. Cross and D. Levin. “The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Role of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer.” Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations white paper, March 2002.

  2. ————— “Why Should I Trust You? Antecedents of Trust in a Knowledge Transfer Context.” Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations white paper, May 2002.

  3. Eckert, R. “First Person: Where Leadership Starts.” Harvard Business Review, November 2001: 53.

To see how IBM can help improve trust and knowledge sharing within your organization, contact us atiko@us.ibm.com or visit our Web site at ibm.com/services/strategy

About the authors

Lisa Abrams is a Research Consultant at the IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations. You may e-mail Lisa at labrams@us.ibm.com.
Rob Cross is an Assistant Professor at the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia, and a former member of the IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations. Rob’s e-mail address is robcross@virginia.edu.
Eric Lesser is an Executive Consultant and Research Manager at the IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations. Contact Eric at elesser@us.ibm.com.
Daniel Z. Levin is a faculty member in the Organization Management Department of Rutgers Business School, Rutgers University. Contact Daniel at levin@rbs.rutgers.edu.

The IBM Institute for Business Value develops fact-based strategic insights for senior business executives around critical industry-specific and cross-industry issues. Clients in the Institute’s member programs, the IBM Business Value Alliance and the IBM Institute for Knowledge-Based Organizations, benefit from access to in-depth consulting studies, a community of peers, and dialogue with IBM strategic advisors. These programs help executives realize business value in an environment of rapid, technology-enabled change. You can send an e-mail to iko@us.ibm.comfor more information on these programs.

Short summary
Trust is a vital building block in the knowledge-sharing cycles of organisational communication.

Keywords and relevant phrases
benevolence-based trust, business goals, colleagues, communication, competence-based trust, connections, corporate culture, co-workers, discretion, discussion boards, expertise, interaction, knowledge, knowledge-intensive work, knowledge management, knowledge seeker, knowledge sharing, knowledge source, listening skills, managers, mentoring, motivation, opportunity, presentations, projects, receptivity, relationship, training, trust, trustworthiness, values 

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