Space meets knowledge The impact of workplace design On knowledge sharing ?
An examination of the role the physical workplace plays in creating opportunities and barriers that influence knowledge management has become a matter of substantial debate.Design of good workplaces for knowledge sharing is considered a major challenge for any organisation.This study provides an insight into the impact of the design and use of the physical workplace on knowledge sharing.
Evidence presented in this study substantiates the position that the physical presence of an employee has the potential to impact performance and knowledge management. This assessment will be of use to researchers seeking to further examine the area of knowledge management.
Knowledge management, described as the intentional management of information has become increasingly important to organisations (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995; Alavi, 1997; Garvin, 1997; Wiig, 1997; Davenport and Prusak, 1998; Ruggles, 1998; Hansen, 1999; Zack, 1999a). In large part this has been fuelled by the exponential growth of the knowledge economy and the increasing number of knowledge workers who have become as essential for many firms competitiveness and survival (Tallman and Chacar 2010). For many emerging organisations face to face contact is essential in the dissemination of knowledge within that infrastructure (Ibid). The process of internal knowledge management is a dynamic element that must be maintained in order to produce results.
Knowledge is defined as a dynamic human or social process that allows a justification of personal belief as regards the truth (Nonaka 2011). Interaction between people, employees and consumers is one of the primary methods of communicating innovative and inspirational progress. Modern studies in the field of knowledge management have begun to shift focus from the importance of the physical workplace to those engaged in knowledge work (Becker 2004). The recognition of inherent value in the employee base adds incentive to capitalize on the low cost innovative opportunities that knowledge sharing creates (Tallman et al 2010). With critical insight established through the direct contact of the employees, the means of communication becomes a critical concern (Dakir 2012). International companies are recognizing this same value of face to face interaction as the social interaction between management sections, benefits production and development levels world-wide (Noorderhaven and Harzing 2009).
In their discussion of social capital, Cohen and Prusak (2001) emphasise the importance of the physical workplace for the exchanging of knowledge, specifically the distribution of ideas amongst individuals in a situation where they could not assume that others knew what they were required to know. Becker (2004) hypothesises that the choices an organisation makes about how space is allocated and designed directly and indirectly shapes the infrastructure of knowledge networks – the dense and richly veined social systems that help people learn faster and engage more deeply in the work of the organisation. This corresponds with the Dakir (2012) argument that technology is no substitute for live interaction among the members of the organization. Davenport et al (2002) undertook a study among 41 firms that were implementing initiatives to advance the performance of high-end knowledge workers who were regarded as critical to the company’s aims. They focused upon determining the elements that affected the knowledge work performance. Surprisingly, the issue that was most frequently dealt with by these firms involved the physical workplace – “the other common ones were information technology and management” (Davenport 2005, p. 166).
Davenport (2005) emphasises that the recognition of the importance of knowledge work has grown in recent years, but that our understanding of the physical conditions in which knowledge can flourish has failed to keep pace. The inclusion of emerging communication technology has been argued to provide a better opportunity for employee interaction (Rhoads 2010). This same element of improved long distance communication is credited with diminishing the valued impromptu inspiration that many firms rely on during day to day operations (Denstadli, Gripsrud, Hjortahol and Julsrud 2013). According to Davenport et al (2002) workplace design should be seen as a key determinant of knowledge-worker performance, while we largely remain in the dark about how to align ‘space’ to the demands of knowledge work. Davenport (2005) emphasises the point that “there is a good deal said about the topic, but not much known about it” (p. 165). Most of the decisions concerning the climate in which work takes place have been created without consideration for performance factors. This fact continues to diminish opportunities for in-house knowledge sharing and effective dissemination of intelligence (Denstadli et al 2013).
Becker (2004) points out that the cultivation of knowledge networks underpins the continuing debate about office design, and the relative virtue of open versus closed space. Duffy (2000) confirms these views when he admits that early twenty-first-century architects “currently know as little about how workplaces shapes business performance as early nineteenth-century physicians knew how diseases were transmitted before the science of epidemiology was established” (p. 371). This makes every emerging decision regarding effective knowledge sharing critical to the development of any organisation.
Deprez and Tissen (2009) illustrate the strength of the knowledge sharing process using Google’s approach: “one company that is fully aware of its ‘spatial’ capabilities”. The spatial arrangements at Google’s offices can serve as a useful example of how design can have a bearing on improving the exchange of knowledge in ways that also add value to the company. The Zurich ‘Google engineering’ office is the company’s newest and largest research and development facility besides Mountain View, California. In this facility, Deprez and Tissen (2009) report: “Google has created workspaces where people literally ‘slide into space’ (i.e. the restaurant). It’s really true: Google Is different. It’s in the design; it’s in the air and in the spirit of the ‘place’. It’s almost organizing without management. A workplace becomes a ‘workspace’, mobilizing the collective Google minds and link them to their fellow ‘Zooglers’ inside the Zurich office and to access all the outside/external knowledge to be captured by the All Mighty Google organisation” (2009, p. 37).
What works for one organisation may not work for another and this appears to be the case in particular when it comes to Google (Deprez et al 2009). Yet, some valuable lessons in how the workplace can be used to good effect can be gained from Google’s operations. For this precise reason, research was carried out at Google Zurich to provide both theoretical and managerial insights into the impact of the design and use of the physical workplace on knowledge sharing (Ibid).
Studies comparing the performance of virtual and co-located teams found that virtual teams tend to be more task oriented and exchange less social information than co located ones (Walther & Burgoon 1992; Chidambaram 1996). The researchers suggest this would slow the development of relationships and strong relational links have been shown to enhance creativity and motivation. Other studies conclude that face-to-face team meetings are usually more effective and satisfying than virtual ones, but nevertheless virtual teams can be as effective if given sufficient time to develop strong group relationships (Chidambaram 1996). This research implies the importance of facilitating social interaction in the workplace, and between team members (virtual and co-located) when the team is initially forming. Hua (2010) proposes that repeated encounters, even without conversation, help to promote the awareness of co-workers and to foster office relationships. McGrath (1990) recommends that in the absence of the ability to have an initial face-to-face meeting other avenues for building strong relationships are advised to ensure the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the team’s interaction. So although interaction alone is not a sufficient condition for successful collaboration, it does indirectly support collaboration. Nova (2005) points out that physical proximity allow the use of non verbal communication including: different paralinguistic and non-verbal signs, precise timing of cues, coordination of turn-taking or the repair of misunderstandings. Psychologists note that deictic references are used in face-to-face meetings on a regular basis, which refers to pointing, looking, touching or gesturing to indicate a nearby object mentioned in conversation (Ibid).
Newlands et al (2002) analysed interactions of two groups performing a joint task in either face-to-face or a video conference system. They found that deictic hand gesture occurred five times more frequently in the face-to-face condition the virtual interaction. More recent research has found that extroverts gesticulate for longer and more often in meetings than introverts (Jonnson 2006). Barbour and Koneya (1976) famously claimed that 55 per cent of communication is non-verbal communication, 38 per cent is done by tone of voice, and only 7 per cent is related to the words and content. Clearly non-verbal communication is a key component of interaction and virtual interaction systems need to replicate this basic need, especially in the early stages of team forming or when the team consists of a high proportion of extroverts. The physical co-location of teams also facilitates collaboration (Ibid). A seminal piece of research carried out by Allen (1977) demonstrated that the probability of two people communicating in an organisation is inversely proportional to the distance separating them, and it is close to zero after 30 metres of physical separation. Furthermore, proximity helps maintain task and group awareness, because when co-located it is easier to gather and update information about the task performed by team members (Dakir 2012).
A recent survey of workers at highly collaborative companies found that most “collaborative events” are short (with 34% lasting fewer than 15 minutes) and the majority take place at the desk (Green 2012). It is likely that these impromptu interactions relate to sharing information (perhaps on the PC) or answering queries rather than lengthy intense discussion and development of joint ideas. Interactions at desks may facilitate tacit knowledge sharing by overhearing relevant conversations between team members, but such interactions can also be considered a distraction if not relevant (Denstadli et al 2013).
There are two acknowledged methodological approaches: quantitative and qualitative (Creswell 2005). The quantitative method involves identifying variables in a research question which are then utilized in order to collate numerical data (Ibid). The qualitative research is open to interpretation allowing personal answers to be incorporated into the study (Creswell 2005). The researcher considered both options in order to complete the necessary goals.
Types of Data
There are two forms of data: primary, or newly generated data, or secondary, previous data generated within existing studies (Creswell 2005). This study required the acquisition of primary data creating the need for relevant instruments. A survey with 5 open-ended questions has been created and subsequently conducted with centred on 548 employees working at Google Zurich. This was done in order to explore the perceptions of Google employees with regard to the environment in which they work with a focus on factors that affect knowledge sharing in the work environment.
Methods of Data Collection
The qualitative data analysis employed a Content Analysis technique to reveal participant perceptions of their work environment. The survey questions were designed to explore employee perceptions regarding the following dimensions:
1) Activities that allow for increased exchange of knowledge;
2) Advantages of frequent interaction with colleagues;
3) Individuals or groups dependent on the frequent interaction with co-workers orgroup members;
4) Factors that facilitate interaction within the workplace
5) Factors that inhibit interaction with others in the workplace.
Survey participants responded to five open-ended questions and rated their answers using a five-point Likert scale where 5 was ‘most important’. Using a Content Analysis approach (Creswell 2005; Leedy and Ormrod 2005; Neuendorf 2002), the interview responses were analysed. Content Analysis is a qualitative data reduction method that generates categories from key words and phrases in the interview text; it is an evidence-based process in which data gathered through an exploratory approach is systematically analysed to produce predictive or inferential intent (Creswell 2005). Content Analysis was used to identify themes or common concepts in participants’ perceptions regarding the culturally and environmentally distinctive factors that affect interaction in the workplace (Neuendorf, 2002). This process permitted the investigator to quantify and analyse data so that inferences could be drawn.
The Content Analysis of survey interview text was categorically coded to reflect various levels of analysis, including key components, words, sentences, or themes (Neuendorf 2002). These themes or key components were then examined using relational analysis to determine whether there were any relationships between the responses of the subjects. The analysis was conducted with Nvivo8® software which enables sorting, categorising, and frequency counts of invariant constituents (relevant responses). Content Analysis was used to critically evaluate the survey responses of the study participants, providing in-depth information regarding the factors related to workplace interaction.
Sample Respondent Characteristics
The invited population consisted of 675 individuals and a total of 548 individuals participated in the survey resulting in a response rate of 81 per cent. Of these 548 completed surveys, 35 responses were discarded because the respondents only partially completed the survey. The final sample consisted of 513 respondents. The key characteristics of these respondents are summarized in Table 4-1.
Table 4-1 Sample Respondent Characteristics
Tenure< 2 years
> 5 years153
Time Building Use< 1 year
> 2 years140
Time Desk Use< 3 months
> 12 months143
Age< 20 years
> 50 years0
Other Google Office
Sales and Marketing
< 10 respondents73
In order to provide an audit trail of participant responses to the thematic categories that emerged from the data analysis, discussion of the findings precedes the tables of data, within a framework consisting of the five survey questions. An overall summary is provided at the conclusion of the discussion of findings. During the analysis of data, common invariant constituents (relevant responses) were categorically coded and associated frequencies were documented. Frequency data included overall frequency of occurrence as well as frequencies based on rating level (5 = most important to 1 = least important). Invariant constituents with a frequency of less than 10 were not included in the tables. Study conclusions were developed through an examination of the high frequency and highly rated invariant constituents in conjunction with the revealed thematic categories.
Question 1: Main Activities that Allow Exchange of Knowledge
Table 4-2 provides high frequency invariant constituents (relevant responses) by survey participants demonstrating themes within the data for Question 1. Thematically, the analysis revealed the following primary perceptions of participants in terms of main activities that allow knowledge exchange: (a) meetings of all types; (b) whiteboard area discussions; (c) video conferencing; (d) email, and (e) code reviews. These elements demonstrated a high frequency of importance ratings, and a moderate percentage of respondents rated these elements as ‘most important’ (rating 5). Other themes revealed through the analysis included the importance of writing and reading documentation, Instant Messaging (IM) text chat, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and extracurricular/social activities. All other invariant constituents with a frequency of greater than 10 are shown in Table 4-2.
Table 4-2 Data Analysis Results for Question 1: Main Activities Allowing for Exchange of Knowledge
Invariant ConstituentOverall number (Frequency)By Rating
Informal discussion/face to face mtgs/stand ups35114977603332
Formal planned meetings/conference room mtgs2184061563823
Whiteboard area discussions/brainstorming5822131094
Video Conferencing (VC)5841620144
“Extracurricular Activities” (e.g., pool, socializing, Friday office drinks, etc.)4522151016
Writing/Reading docs specifically wiki pages/sites34210697
Chat (unspecified in person vs. text)3387873
Shared docs/doc collaboration1703554
Read/write design docs specifically1202505
Question 2: Main Advantages of Frequent Interaction with Colleagues
Table 4-3 provides high frequency invariant constituents (relevant responses) by survey participants demonstrating themes within the data for Question 2. Thematically, the analysis revealed the following elements representing the primary perceptions of participants in terms of the main advantages to frequent interaction with colleagues: (a) knowledge and information exchange and transfer; (b) staying current on projects and processes; (c) social interaction; (d) learning from others; (e) faster problem resolution; (f) efficient collaboration; and (g) continuous and early feedback. The following themes received a high frequency of importance ratings and a large percentage of ‘most important’ and ‘important’ ratings (rating 5 and 4, respectively) included: knowledge sharing, staying in touch and up to date, learning from others, faster resolution/problem solving, better collaboration, and feedback. Although socialising was revealed to be a strong overall theme, it also demonstrated lower importance ratings. Other themes revealed through the analysis are provided in Table 4-3.
Table 4-3 Data Analysis Results for Question 2: Main Advantages of Frequent Interaction
Invariant ConstituentOverall number (Frequency)By Rating
Knowledge sharing/exchange of information/Knowledge transfer149753919124
Staying in touch/up to date/ more info on projects and processes11358281782
Learning/learning from others/learning new things/increased knowledge base7217281485
Understand problems/needs – faster resolution and quicker problem solving7025241146
Better/more efficient collaboration67428953
Feedback/continuous feedback/early feedback661729893
New and better ideas/flow of ideas/creativity/ brainstorming6525151474
Teamwork/being part of a team/teambuilding5110121892
Get work done/efficiency/speed462613241
Better understanding of what others are doing and how/workloads4415171002
Everyone on same page/shared vision/focus on goals of team32109652
Better personal contact and easy interaction27561123
Avoid misunderstanding/work duplication27810441
Helping others/getting help (when stuck)26391031
Good/happy atmosphere/work environment2412858
Motivate each other/inspiration2151582
Improving quality of work/performance1615910
Knowing latest news/innovations1203216
Question 3: Individuals or Groups that are Dependent on Frequent Interaction
Table 4-4 provides high frequency invariant constituents (relevant responses) given by survey participants demonstrating themes within the data for Question 3. Thematically, the analysis revealed the following elements representing the primary perceptions of participants in terms of individuals or groups that are dependent on frequent interaction of the participant: (a) my team/project teammates/peers; and (b) managers. The first theme demonstrated a high frequency of importance ratings with a moderate percentage of ‘most important’ and ‘important’ ratings (rating 5 and 4, respectively). Although the theme of managers was revealed to be a relatively strong overall theme, it also demonstrated lower importance ratings. Other themes revealed through the analysis are shown in Table 4-4.
Table 4-4 Data Analysis Results for Question 3: Individual/groups dependent on frequent interaction of participant
Invariant ConstituentOverall number (Frequency)By Rating
My team/project teammates/peers12887191435
All reports/related teams34717442
Engineering teams (various)28188200
All of them1191010
Other engineers using my project/peer developers of my tool1015310
Question 4: Factors Facilitating Easy Interaction
Table 4-5 provides high frequency invariant constituents (relevant responses) by survey participants demonstrating themes within the data for Question 4. Thematically, the analysis revealed the following elements representing the primary perceptions of participants about factors that facilitate easy interaction: (a) common, proximal, and open workspace areas; (b) common functional areas; (c) sufficient and available meeting facilities; (d) excellent communication tools; and (e) video conference facilities. The theme of open and common workspace areas/shared office space demonstrated a high frequency of importance ratings with a very large percentage of ‘most important’ ratings (rating 5). Other revealed themes, particularly the second listed theme, demonstrated relatively high overall frequency, but these themes did not demonstrate the strength of importance that the first theme did. Other themes and invariant constituents revealed through the analysis are shown in Table 4-5.
Table 4-5 Data Analysis Results for Question 4: Factors Facilitating Easy Interaction
Invariant ConstituentOverall number (Frequency)By Rating
Open and Common workspace areas/shared office space/desk locations/sitting together175103342594
Common shared Areas (e.g., Kitchen, play/game rooms, lounges, library, etc.)173406642178
Enough facilities for meetings/availability of meeting and conference areas90192730122
Great communication tools (email, VC, chats, dist. Lists, online docs, wireless, VPN, mobile…)80113014187
Video Conference meeting rooms/facilities78192518124
Onsite lunch/dinner/common dining area (free food and eating together)5071511134
Whiteboard areas for informal meetings431018771
Corporate culture/open culture/ open communication culture431811932
Casual and social environment/open atmosphere36195921
People: easy going, friendly, smart, knowledgeable, willing to help35149336
Company calendar/planned ops for meeting/ scheduled meetings1937621
Geographic co-location/same time zone1374200
Travel/trips to other offices1212135
Chat (non-specific text or in person)1124302
MOMA/social networking/wiki pages/company docs1010342
Question 5: Factors Inhibiting Interaction with Others
Table 4-6 provides high frequency invariant constituents (relevant responses) by survey participants demonstrating themes within the data for Question 5. Thematically, the analysis revealed a single strong element and several elements with less relevance as inhibiting factors. The physical geographic differences – specifically the time zone differences – were noted by a majority of participants as the most important element that inhibited interaction with others. Study participants perceived their overscheduled and busy work lives, noise levels in their workspaces, and shared work environments to be contributing inhibitory factors with regard to interaction with others. These elements also demonstrated high frequencies of importance ratings with a moderate percentage of ‘most important’ ratings (rating 5). Other themes revealed through the analysis are shown in Table 4-6.
Table 4-6 Data Analysis Results for Question 5: Factors Inhibiting Interaction with Others
Invariant ConstituentOverall number (Frequency)By Rating
Physical Geographic distance/ timezone differences16411536931
Very busy/Overscheduled people/ overbooked calendars/ too many meetings4517161020
Crowded/noisy environment/ noise in shared space33196440
Defective VCs/ VC suboptimal/ VC equipment not working2597720
No meeting rooms available2286620
Too few VC rooms in some locations / lack of available VC rooms1949501
Open Space: no privacy, interruptions/ disruptions1958321
Information overload/ too much email1562610
Large office building/building size and layout/ too many people, difficult to find people15114000
Team split between multiple sites or large distance between team members in same bldg1545420
Need more whiteboards/lack of informal areas with whiteboards1135210
Language barrier: lack of correct English/not knowing colloquial lang. or nuances1151311
Lack of time/deadlines1152121
Different working hours within same time zone1053200
Both the literature and the survey have illuminated interesting facets of the work environment and the need for personal communication. The analysis of the 513 participants’ responses to five open-ended questions from the employee perception survey revealed patterns of facilitating and inhibiting factors in their work environment. Nonaka (2011) clearly illustrates this point with the argument that the communal environment promotes a standard of communication not found in the technological alternatives. Further, the shift away from the organization to the person orientation provides a fundamental benefit to every employee (Becker 2004). With a rising recognition of individual value, the organisation is building employee trust. Participants in this study preferred frequent, informal opportunities for the exchange of knowledge. The opportunity for growth was centred on the capacity to exchange concepts in a free and easy manner (Nonaka 2011). The evidence presented in this study demonstrates that these opportunities were more valued by team members with high knowledge exchange needs. This is line with the increased depth of knowledge and ability to meet technical needs through employee communication (Tallman et al 2010). A combination of professional advice can benefit the entire production and development process. In this study, transactions among participants were often brief, and were perceived to require limited space – often just stand-up space – with noise-regulating options not found in open-office environments. Dakir (2012) demonstrates the environment has the potential to add to or detract from employee communication, making this factor a critical consideration. Spontaneous and opportunistic knowledge-sharing transactions were valued, and technology provided a platform for this type of knowledge exchange to occur. This evidence from the survey corresponds with the literature illustrating that increased communication and sharing in the workplace enhances the entire operation, as well as providing new and fresh opportunities and innovations (Tallman et al 2010).
The research at Google provides further support for the view of some leading companies who strongly believe that having workers in the same place is crucial to their success (Noorderhaven et al 2009). Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer communicated via a memo to employees that June 2013, any existing work-from-home arrangements will no longer apply. Initial studies theorized that the work at home system would provide a better platform for workers, even on a local level (Dakir 2012). Many points of the memo cited in this Yahoo example, parallel the literature presented in this study. Her memo stated (Moyer 2013): “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” This is clearly in line with the Coehen and Prusak (2001) assertion that the physical workplace is a critical element of the dynamic business. “That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” This element of the her reasoning is nearly identical to the argument presented by Dakir (2012), that a successful company do so, in part, by promoting communication and teamwork in the office, the technical alternatives are not enough.
“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together….Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices” (Moyer 2013). This section is directly in line with emerging studies citing the vital nature of the interaction and face to face employee contact (Heerwagen et al. 2004).
This study has clearly demonstrated that Mayer is not alone in her thinking; Steve Jobs operated in a similar fashion as well (Davenport et al 2002). Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 431). This assertion by Jobs closely resembles the argument presented in the Rhoads (2010) study that found a clear correlation between the communication capacity and opportunity for successful innovation and progress. Following this philosophy led Jobs to have the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.Mayer’s former colleague at Google agrees (Ibid). Speaking at an event in Sydney February 2013, Google CFO Patrick Pichette said that teleworking is not encouraged at Google. This reflects the consensus that is emerging that time in the office is not only valuable but necessary to sustained competition in the industry (Denstadli et al 2013). Pichette believes that working from home could isolate employees from other staff.
Companies like Apple, Yahoo! and Google are holding on to (or have started embracing) the belief that having workers in the same place is crucial to their success (Dakir 2012). This appears to be based on the view that physical proximity can lead to casual exchanges, which in turn can lead to breakthroughs for products. Heerwagen et al (2004) illustrates that it is evident that “knowledge work is a highly cognitive and social activity”. Non-verbal communication is complex and involves many unconscious mechanisms e.g. gesture, body language, posture, facial expression, eye contact, pheromones, proxemics, chronemics, haptics, and paralanguage (Denstadli et al 2013). So, although virtual interaction can be valuable it is not a replacement for face-to-face interaction, particularly for initial meetings of individuals or teams. Furthermore, the increase in remote working has indicated that face-to-face interaction is important for motivation, team-building, mentoring, a sense of belonging and loyalty, arguably more so than in place-centred workgroups (Deprez and Tissen 2009).
The role of knowledge management in the workplace has become an increasingly valuable segment of a company’s resources. This study examined the practice of working remotely versus employee interaction in the work place providing many illuminating developments. Despite the early optimism that emerging technology was going to provide the end all to employee work habits have proven less than fully realized. The evidence in this study has continuously illustrated an environment that requires the innovative, face to face interaction in order to maintain a competitive edge in the industry. Further, the very environment that promotes this free exchange of ideals is not adequately substituted by technology. In short, the evidence provided in this study has clearly demonstrated the advantage that the in house employee has over the remote worker.
The impromptu encounters between employees are very often the elements needed for progress. What is clear is that in order for a business to capitalize on their full range of available resources virtually requires, face to face personal interaction in order to fully realize the firms full potential. In the end, it will be the combination of leadership, teamwork and innovation that provides business with the best environment, not necessarily how much technology is available.
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