World Economy Has Shifted


02 Nov 2017

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Knowledge Sharing

Language diversity and informal networks

Farhan Ahmad


World economy has shifted from industrial manufacturing oriented economy to one based on knowledge and information. Organizations around the world are under constant pressure to develop valuable knowledge and utilize it efficiently in order to stay competitive in the market. Knowledge has become the principal organization resource which provides the competitive advantage in dynamic environment (Grant, 1996; Hansen, Nohria, & Tierney, 1999). It has been argued that knowledge is of little value if it is not shared in the organization. Success of the organizations in today’s globalized world largely depends on its efforts to develop humane knowledge and to share it within the firm (Wei, Stankosky, Calabrese & Lu, 2008; Woods, 2001). According to the previous research knowledge sharing between employees is positively related to firm innovation capability, team performance, and reduction in costs and profit improvement (Collins & Smith, 2006; Hansen, 2002).

In recent years much has been written on the relation between cultural diversity and knowledge sharing (Lauring, 2009). Major reasons for growing importance of culture in knowledge sharing are increase in number of multinational companies and immigration. Cultural diversity in the workplace has become a common phenomenon in organizations (Nataatmadia & Dyson, 2005). In this era of globalization where boundaries are permeable and workforce is very diverse, the role of the culture in knowledge sharing has become very prominent. People from different cultures behave, communicate and interact in different ways. "Different national cultures will differently influence employees’ tendencies to engage in knowledge sharing behavior" (Wei et al. 2008, p.2). While studying the knowledge sharing in a multicultural setting, Chow, Deng & Ho (2000) found that Chinese participants were less likely to share their knowledge with American counterparts who were considered as out-group members. Researchers have argued that national culture influences the interpersonal communication, networking and humane behavior which affects their intention to share knowledge with others in a multilingual organization (Wei & Crowston, 2010).

There has been research on the role of culture in knowledge sharing including the communication component, however previous literature lacks the studies on the role of language diversity in knowledge sharing (Piekkari, Welch & Welch, 1999). A possible reason for less attention in exploring the role of the language in knowledge sharing is bundling of the language into the culture. Researchers and practitioners presume that the culture management also includes the language management. "However, the bundling of language into a culture box has masked its influential role on various aspects of organizational operations" (Welch, Welch, Piekkari, (2005, p.14). Organizations usually see the language differences within their organization as simply a translation issue that could be solved by the latest technology however they fail to conceptualize that how language diversity can effect informal communication and knowledge sharing (Carol, 1999).

Most of the previous studies examining language diversity in organizations focused primarily on the effect of language diversity on formal communication at international level (Lauring & Selmer, 2011). Language is not merely a tool for formal communication but it also affects the informal communication, socialization and network building (Charles, 2007; Marschan, Welch & Welch, 1997) which effects knowledge sharing between members of an organization (Kalla, 2006). Language diversity as important component of culture has potential to affect the knowledge sharing within multilingual organization and in light of this, the research attempts to study the effect of language diversity on knowledge sharing in multilingual workplace.

Literature review

Due to potential benefits of knowledge sharing, researchers have invested their efforts in determining different organizational and individual level factors that influence knowledge sharing. At organizational level, knowledge sharing has been studied from different perspectives, for instance, effect of management support, organizational structure and knowledge management systems (Wang & Noe, 2010; Lee, Kim & Kim, 2006). Recently the research focus in knowledge sharing has been shifting from organizational level factors toward more individual and interpersonal level factors (Oscar, 2011). It has been noted in earlier studies that humane factors play critical role in knowledge sharing that is a complicated process that involves social, psychological and professional dynamics (Chua, 2003). Management support and knowledge management systems are not very helpful in developing knowledge sharing practices if interpersonal and individual characteristics are not taken into account (Carter & Scarbrough, 2001). Although research in knowledge sharing from individual and interpersonal perspective is limited but efforts have been made to investigate the role of different factors in knowledge sharing, such as cultural diversity (Ford & Chan, 2003; Voelpel, Dous, & Davenport, 2005), motivational factors (Jarvenpaa & Staples, 2000; Lin, 2007), social relations and networks (Chiu, Hsu & Wang, 2006), personality (Cabrera, Collins, & Salgado, 2006).

Language and informal networks

Previous research shows that knowledge sharing is profoundly dependent on the social environment and informal networks within the organization. The role of informal networks in knowledge sharing is crucial and for many years knowledge management literature has espoused the virtues of the informal networks (Granovetter, 1973; Freeman, 1991; Hansen, 1999). Informal networks are important devices for knowledge sharing between individuals which not only provides the basic structure for knowledge sharing at individual level but also add value to knowledge management efforts of an organization (Conway, 2002). Language as an important component of the culture may affect the development of informal networks as well as knowledge sharing trends within these networks.

Building social and informal networks within the organization is part of the work life. In a professional setting, networks develop spontaneously due to mutual interest and socialization activities of the employees. Interpersonal communication, small talks at cafeterias and informal gatherings are vital for building social and informal networks (Waldstrøm, 2001). However in a multicultural setting people may withdraw from gossip, small talk and informal gatherings due to their lack of desire or inability to communicate in the major language of the group. When people avoid social conversation in a multilingual environment, they avoid an important social practice which affects their ability to develop and maintain social networks (Emler, 2001). According to Park, Hwang & Harrison (1996), sometimes withdrawal from interpersonal communication is due to nonnative speakers’ limited repertoire of linguistic registers that allows them to communicate better professionally rather than socially and they do not want to make silly mistakes in public which may affect their professional status. However it is not always limited language skills that discourage individuals from interacting and socializing with others who speak different language. People feel certain comfort while communicating in their own language particularly in informal talks and discussions. Individuals’ tendency to communicate and socialize with others who have same language and culture enhances the chances of social bonding and network building (Piekkari, Vaara, Tienari & Santti 2005; Makela, Kalla & Piekkari, 2007). Recent studies have observed this phenomenon in multicultural organizations where employees are more eager to communicate with someone from their own speech community. According to Tange & Lauring (2009), when encountered a work related problem in a multicultural organization, employees prefer to consult someone from their own speech community rather than approaching an expert who does not speak their language. Frequent communication between the speakers of the same national language may develop a monolingual network i.e. a network that consists of the members who speak the same national language. According to Charles (2007) same language speakers in a multilingual organization have tendency to develop their own group and network. Such informal networks have strong cohesiveness and information flows rapidly and regularly within the network (Burt, 1997). Membership of the informal network opens up the opportunities for members but at the same time such networks build the barriers to entry for those who are outsiders in terms of language and culture (Quibria, 2003). "Being able to show that you can use linguistic terms appropriately according to the norms associated with a particular group helps to establish your membership of it both to the other members of the group, the in-group, and those outside it, the out-group" (Thomas et al., 2004, p.165).

Limited communication and socialization between the different language speakers may generate the feelings of social exclusion among the minority language speakers in a multicultural setting. Social exclusion through language can also affect the individual’s sense of belongingness (Marschan et al. 1997) which may have positive or negative affect on the network building behavior of the employees. Common negative effect is that lack of social cohesiveness due to language diversity may motivate the people to stay away from social participation and thus reduces the prospects of interpersonal communication and network building. However current research suggests that there may be some benefits attached with social exclusion and isolation Phillips (2003). Social inclusion is sometimes so important that people may try to be more friendly and active in social circles (Hornsey & Jetten, 2004). Desire to belong is high especially if being part of the main group or network leads to career opportunities and access to valuable knowledge sources. Isolated members in a multicultural environment in which they are socially separate or less connected to the main group sometimes put extra effort to become part of the main group (Thomas, Ogden & Neale, 2003). People try to share their distinctive knowledge with others in order to maximize their feelings of belongingness and to ascertain their usefulness in the multicultural organization. Some studies suggest that isolated members may be more active than connected members of an organization in sharing their divergent and unique perspectives in group assignments and in collective conditions (check widen book). A study by Williams and Sommer (1997) found that after experiencing exclusion, female members of a group exerted extra efforts in the group work in order to prove their value and to enhance their self-esteem. On the other side, sometimes existing group may also value the diversity because culturally diverse members can expose group to external knowledge sources. Diverse members can bring different perspective, information sources and experiences that add value in the existing network (Reagans & Zuckerman, 2001; Page, 2007; Quan, Bo, Xiaomin, Yanghua, Wei & Hengshan , 2011). Diversity is associated with cognitive diversity which enhances the problem solving skills of the group (Pelled, 1996; Van et al., 2004). If the existing members of the network value diversity and perceives it as positive factor then they would be eager to enhance their network knowledge by including the new members who are diverse in terms of culture, profession and language. It leads to the possibility of developing a multilingual network that consist of the members whose national language is not the same. Communication and knowledge sharing pattern within a multilingual informal network is likely to be different than monolingual informal network. Informal network with language diversity may have uneven pattern of interaction and it affects the individuals’ knowledge of "who knows what". Moreover an employee’s power and position within an informal network is very important when it comes to his/her ability to access and share knowledge with other members of the network (Waldstrøm, 2001). Previous studies emphasize that language is source of power and it influences the strength of personal ties in a multicultural organization (Lauring & selmer, 2011; Vaara, Tienari, Piekkari & Säntti, 2005) which has implications for knowledge sharing within multilingual informal networks.

Promoting knowledge sharing within an organization is a huge challenge in today’s business environment (Kogut & Zander, 1992) and development of successful knowledge sharing practices needs deep understanding of the factors that affect informal interpersonal communication. Language is an important component of culture and it effects the informal communication and building of informal network in multilingual environment. Knowledge sharing at individual level depends primarily on informal networks and language has strong potential to affect the way the informal networks develop and knowledge sharing practices within informal networks. So far, we do not have clear understanding of different factors that affect knowledge sharing (Makela et al., 2007). There is need to develop better understating on the role of language in knowledge sharing because knowledge sharing is of critical importance in today’s world and therefore it needs to be studied from different perspectives. Previous literature lacks the comprehensive study on the role of language in knowledge sharing particularly in context of informal networks and this study tries to fill this research gap. The purpose of this research is to study the effect of language on knowledge sharing in an organization with multilingual workforce. This study will achieve this aim by focusing on the following two questions.

How does the language diversity effects the way informal networks develop within an organization that has multilingual workforce?

To what extent knowledge sharing pattern within informal network (multilingual and monolingual) is affected by the language (similarity or dissimilarity).


The ideal setting for this study is an organization which has workforce with language diversity. An organization will be considered to have language diversity if it has the employees whose mother language is not the same regardless of the use of the lingua franca in the organization. Finding such a setting in Finland should not be a difficult task because Finland has adequate number of immigrants and expatriates. Moreover Finland has a lot of Swedish speaking Finns whose mother tongue is Swedish.

Semi structured interview followed by the questionnaires will be useful in thus study. Interviews will be helpful in generating the information about the way informal networks develop within organization and questionnaires will allow understanding the knowledge sharing patterns within informal networks. Questions can be continuously added and refined based on the interviews with the subjects (Lauring, 2009) because it will allow the greater depth and understanding of the unknown themes.

Contribution by the study

This research contributes to the field of knowledge management by developing our understating of effect of language on the knowledge sharing. This study adds into the knowledge sharing research by emphasizing on the link between language diversity and informal networks in a multicultural setting. It will be helpful in increasing our understanding of the different effects of language on knowledge sharing at individual level which should be considered while developing knowledge management systems and knowledge sharing practices in a multicultural organization.


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