Planting Seeds for Organic Growth
Companies are coming up with ways to tap crowds online for innovative ideas, product support and better ways to connect with their customers. And there is a right way to do it.
Feb 22, 2018

Planting Seeds for Organic Growth

As Featured In 
MIS Quarterly

How “Knowledge Seeding” Grows Platforms and Online Communities

Harnessing the power and wisdom of the crowd has become a critical source of knowledge and funding — just look at the popularity of crowd-sourced online review sites like Yelp and the funding platform Kickstarter. Now companies are coming up with ways to tap crowds online for innovative ideas, product support and better ways to connect with their customers. And there is a right way to do it, according to new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

To be successful, a company needs its employees to prime the pump by rolling up their sleeves and participating in the crowd-based knowledge-sharing community that the company creates, the researchers find. They study a practice called  “knowledge seeding,” and point to how any investment in it can go a long way to encourage more user contributions in online communities. Peng Huang and Sunil Mithas, Smith School professors in the Decisions, Operations and Information Technologies department, along with Ali Tafti at University of Illinois at Chicago, examined the online knowledge-sharing community created by SAP, a leading enterprise software vendor. The SAP knowledge platform includes forums, expert blogs, articles, e-learning catalogs and a code-sharing gallery for members to contribute their knowledge and ask questions. SAP devotes significant resources to the platform, with full-time employees who provide free technical support to users by monitoring and answering questions posted in discussion forums, a practice that leads to significant increases in user contributions on the platform.

“We show that firms can optimize their community management efforts by making smart investments at the right time and to the right target user groups, and we highlight the conditions under which their investments receive the greatest payoff,” the researchers write.

The researchers find that making knowledge seeding investments in online communities can be particularly effective when a firm introduces new products or technology platforms that have significant learning curves. Firms get a lot mileage out of having employees available to provide free support and build a knowledge repository that users can tap to overcome learning hurdles and more quickly adopt the new products.

Even firms that have limited resources can optimize their investments to see the greatest return. The researchers say firms should pay particular attention to lead users, who tend to be the earliest to join the community, hold the most up-to-date knowledge about the products and are the most active contributors. Firms should direct their limited knowledge-seeding resources to target those lead users by addressing their most pressing questions and issues first. Then the lead users can provide peer support to answer the questions from the rest of the user community.

The researchers suggest having a recognition reward system, such as one implemented by SAP, to quantify users’ knowledge contributions and help identify lead users.

Huang and Mithas point out that firms need to regularly re-evaluate investments in their online knowledge-sharing communities. They find a firm’s return on investment tapers over time, as the contributions from the lead users decrease.

In addition, the researchers found that companies see greater returns when they invest in their online communities in countries with higher levels of information technology infrastructure, as users in those regions are better at recognizing the value of new knowledge seeding made by SAP, assimilating it and putting it to productive use.

Read more: Platform Sponsor Investments and User Contributions in Knowledge Communities: The Role of Knowledge Seeding,” is featured in MIS Quarterly.

About the Author(s)


Peng Huang is an assistant professor in the Decisions, Operations and Information Technologies Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. His research interests include: 1) platform-based information technology and innovation ecosystem in the enterprise software industry; 2) how consumers search for information and make decisions in the context of electronic commerce, and its implication for public policy and firm strategy. His research has appeared or is forthcoming in premier scholarly journals such as Management Science, MIS Quarterly, and Journal of Marketing. His work received the Runner-Up Best Conference Paper Award at the 2009 International Conference on Information Systems.

Dr. Sunil Mithas is the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Information Systems in the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and the author of the books Dancing Elephants and Leaping Jaguars and Digital Intelligence: What Every Smart Manager Must Have for Success in an Information Age. He earned his PhD from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and an engineering degree from IIT, Roorkee. Before pursuing his PhD, he worked for nearly ten years in engineering, marketing, and general management positions with the Tata group.

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