Engineering Serendipity: The Role of Cognitive Similarity in Knowledge Sharing and Knowledge Production

74 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2019 Last revised: 20 Nov 2019

See all articles by Jacqueline Lane

Jacqueline Lane

Harvard University

Ina Ganguli

University of Massachusetts at Amherst - College of Social and Behavioral Sciences - Department of Economics; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Center for International Development

Patrick Gaule

University of Bath

Eva Guinan

Harvard Medical School; Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Karim R. Lakhani

Harvard Business School - Technology and Operations Management Group; Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science; Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Date Written: November 12, 2019

Abstract

We consider how the cognitive similarity between knowledge-sharing partners affects the knowledge-production process, namely knowledge transfer, creation, and diffusion. We theorize that knowledge production is systematically shaped by the field and intellectual similarity between knowledge-sharing partners’ disciplines of study and domain area interests. To estimate relationships, we designed and executed a natural field experiment at a medical symposium, in which exogenous variation was introduced to provide some of the 15,817 scientist pairs with opportunities for serendipitous, face-to-face encounters. Our data include direct observations of interaction patterns collected using sociometric badges, and detailed longitudinal data on the scientists’ publication records for six years following the symposium. We find both cooperative and competitive effects of cognitive similarity on knowledge production. While knowledge sharing increases the transfer of scientific concepts between scientists with some intellectual overlap, it reduces the diffusion of scientific knowledge between scientists from the same field. In contrast, cognitive similarity does not have a direct effect on knowledge creation, but we find that scientists who have initiated early-stage collaborations with one another are more likely to persist and publish together. The findings suggest that some cognitive similarity between knowledge-sharing partners can boost organizational knowledge production, but too much similarity may impede it.

Suggested Citation

Lane, Jacqueline and Ganguli, Ina and Gaule, Patrick and Guinan, Eva and Lakhani, Karim R., Engineering Serendipity: The Role of Cognitive Similarity in Knowledge Sharing and Knowledge Production (November 12, 2019). Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 20-058. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3487999 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3487999

Jacqueline Lane

Harvard University ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Ina Ganguli

University of Massachusetts at Amherst - College of Social and Behavioral Sciences - Department of Economics ( email )

Amherst, MA 01003
United States

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Center for International Development ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-9066 (Phone)

Patrick Gaule

University of Bath ( email )

Claverton Down
Bath, BA2 7AY
United Kingdom

Eva Guinan

Harvard Medical School ( email )

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
450 Brookline Avenue, Suite M1B29
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-632-4932 (Phone)
617-632-3770 (Fax)

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute ( email )

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
450 Brookline Avenue, Suite M1B29
Boston, MA 02215
United States
617-632-4932 (Phone)
617-632-3770 (Fax)

Karim R. Lakhani (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School - Technology and Operations Management Group ( email )

Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-495-6741 (Phone)

Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science ( email )

1737 Cambridge St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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