Online community as a source of social capital - A qualitative case study of "The Other IBM"

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School of Economics | Master's thesis
Organization and Management
Organisaatiot ja johtaminen
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The goal of this study was to better understand the life in an intra-organizational online community. A framework of social capital was selected to be used in studying and describing the social life inside a community through exploring what social capital in this context and environment really means. A research question of “What kind of social capital is formed in an intra-organizational online community?” was set. A goal of finding out if a community really could be formed in this type of an environment and to study the case community based on sociological definitions of a community to explore if these groups could rightfully be called communities was also set. To answer these questions, various qualitative research methods were used, drawing influence from ethnographic research. This particular set of research methods enabled the researcher to gain a reflexive understanding of what it is like to be a part of the Internet, and to capture the richness and complexity of social life. For the purposes of this study one online social group from a large multinational company was selected to be studied. Research was conducted during a three months period during which the researcher participated in community’s life almost daily. The most important method used was participative observation which was augmented with 20 semi- structured interviews with members and nine community calls. Also publicly available data and forum or blog discussions were gathered and analyzed. All the data was analyzed using techniques from grounded theory and discursive analysis. Based on the findings from this study it can be said that community formation is possible also in cyberspace inside the firewall. The group studied was found to be a community in its traditional sense while its members shared common activities and interests, even passions, and the group had a strong common identity. While some relationships were more professional, also relations of affect and strong friendships were created. It seems that with regards being active in promoting community’s mission the membership is divided into two camps – the teachers and the learners. This model fits well into Leave and Wenger’s (1991) concept of a community of practice with apprenticeship model and legitimate peripheral participation. All three types of social capital – structural, cognitive and relational – were found from this community. The community offers a resource or a platform for the network formation though leaving the resulting network quite open and interlinked with many other communities. Narratives and stories were used extensively and knowledge and practices were also transferred through artifacts. The community demonstrated to have a collectivist group norm and a strong norm of reciprocity was also visible. Members identified with the community and a common identity existed. The relationship between a community and social capital seems to be a complex and bidirectional one. While social capital can contribute to community formation, community also creates new social capital during the course of its daily life. Especially bonding social capital was thought to interact with the community.
social capital, online community, virtual community, social network
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