Synopsis of Fluid Teams and Knowledge Retrieval: Scaling Service Operations

In 2015, it was estimated that the Indian information technology (IT)-enabled services industry generated revenue of $146 billion, up from $105 million in 1989. A compound annual growth rate of over 30% for greater than 25 years is a remarkable industrial success story.

However, the rise of the Indian IT-enabled services industry was not simply a story of being in the right place at the right time. The major players in the industry, such as Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services, and Infosys, all made significant investments in their own capabilities to gradually move their way up the global value chain. When company performance depends on how knowledge is used, scaling a global service operation is challenging particularly in developing economies such as India. It requires acquiring knowledge across the organization. For example, software development projects involve identifying a solution to client requirements, writing the software code to create the solution and then testing the final product. To accomplish this work, it is necessary to draw upon one’s own experience and training. However, an individual may not have encountered a given type of problem previously, and so, needs to turn to others for help. Nevertheless, their globally distributed employees often lack ready access to knowledgeable colleagues and struggle to gain the knowledge from the colleagues in another country or another time zone. In addition, many individuals in developing markets are relatively early in their careers, and are therefore not only removed from knowledgeable senior mentors, but also have less personal experience from which to draw upon in their daily work. Global organizations may want their employees to learn the most salient organizational information, but people early in their careers, or in remote offices, are likely to be on the “periphery of knowledge networks.” Workers on the periphery of knowledge networks therefore have a stronger need to gain the knowledge than those workers in the center.

To address this need of knowledge retrieval, leading Indian IT-enabled services firms invested in building electronic knowledge repository (KR) systems. To create a KR, experts from across the firm codify best practices and useful insights, and store them in an information system. These KRs are constantly available to every employee across time zones and continents. A well-designed KR could help individuals access knowledge they would otherwise lack and help organizations manage the challenge of making knowledge available to employees independent of their social and geographic positions. In other words, a KR thus could function as a knowledge-access equalizer.

However, the presence of a KR alone will not solve the problem of knowledge access for those at the periphery of the organization unless it is used. Previous research has examined how the characteristics of the stored knowledge—such as employee perceptions of its quality—influence its use, but less is known about how knowledge network position—such as central versus peripheral—affects knowledge retrieval. In this paper, we explore whether individuals on the organizational periphery take advantage of KRs, or KRs function more to enrich individuals whose experience and position already provide them better access to other knowledge sources.

We obtained archival data on knowledge retrieval at Wipro Technologies, a global outsourced provider of software services headquartered in India. Repository use was tracked for 10,703 individuals in 481 software project development teams on a per-click basis. We linked these empirical data with other Wipro databases including archival team and project characteristics. We then examined how individuals on the periphery of knowledge networks—due to inexperience, location, lack of social capital, gender, and role—access knowledge from a knowledge repository. Figure 1 illustrates our main results. Unexpectedly, we find that workers who are more experienced, located in the central organizational offices, on teams with greater familiarity and managers actually use the knowledge repository system more frequently than those who are not. In other words, individuals whose experience and position already provide access to vital knowledge use a knowledge repository more frequently than individuals on the organizational periphery. We argue that this occurs because the knowledge repository—despite its appearance of equivalent accessibility—is actually more accessible to central than peripheral players. Our results suggest that knowledge retrieval is not simply an individual activity based on relative need, but is instead inhibited by an individual’s network position. In other words, knowledge retrieval is facilitated when workers know how to reap value from the knowledge repository, which ironically improves with increasing access to other sources of knowledge.

Figure 1. Knowledge Network and Knowledge Repository System Use


Our study provides a critical perspective on team effectiveness for today’s global firms, which increasingly deploy teams with fluid and distributed membership. For these teams to be effective, their leaders and managers must learn how to support coordination of work between unfamiliar and virtual teammates. KRs offer a potential plug-and-play technology solution by making knowledge available even to people with limited interpersonal knowledge access. Unfortunately, the KR does not overcome the taxing conditions faced by today’s work teams to reach those at the organization’s periphery. Inexperienced, remote, or front-line individuals, as well as those on unfamiliar teams, do not draw on the organizational resources provided in the KR. Taken alone, this technology solution fails to resolve the challenges facing globally distributed teams.

Our setting and analyses also provide a novel perspective on virtual teams. Little research has been done to understand the relationship between virtual teams and their deploying organization. Workers spread across the globe are often working on similar projects for similar clients, and could thus, benefit greatly from each other’s expertise. Therefore, keeping virtual workers connected to what the organization knows may provide strategic value. However, we show that dispersed individuals are less likely than their centrally located counterparts to make use of the organization’s knowledge resources. Not only do they confront challenges accessing their teammates’ knowledge, they also face challenges accessing the organization’s electronic stores of knowledge. We conclude that knowledge repository is unlikely to scale service operations without additional intervention.



Valentine MA, Tan TF, Staats, BR, Edmondson AC (2018) Fluid teams and knowledge retrieval: Scaling service operations. Manufacturing Service Operations Management 21(2):346–360.