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The Transformative Power of
Knowledge Sharing in Settings of
Poverty and Social Inequality
Australian National University, Australia
Miami University, Oxford, OH, USA
Australian National University, Australia
Knowledge sharing is central to reducing inequality and alleviating poverty. However, communities in
settings of extreme poverty are often bounded by distinct perspectives and understandings that hinder
knowledge sharing. Furthermore, social fault lines may create internal boundaries that impede interaction,
further complicating knowledge sharing. Despite these challenges, some knowledge sharing efforts are
successful. The purpose of this study is to better understand how knowledge sharing overcomes boundaries
in settings of extreme inequality and poverty. Using qualitative data from rural India, we find that boundary
work performed by boundary spanners overcomes external and internal boundaries by creating space for
action, observation, and reflection in the recipient community. These actions, or syncretizing mechanisms,
transform newly introduced knowledge, which then facilitates further boundary work, resulting in community
transformation. Under certain circumstances, we see how boundary work and syncretism can lead to
significant knowledge and recipient transformation. Thus, we seek to contribute to the literature by more
fully exploring the transformative power of knowledge sharing within contexts of extreme poverty, and by
explaining the process by which it occurs.
base of the pyramids, boundary objects and workers, community action, inequality, knowledge sharing,
poverty, recipient and knowledge transformation, shared perspectives and social practices, social change,
Israr Qureshi, Research School of Management, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory,
727777OSS0010.1177/0170840617727777Organization StudiesQureshi et al.
2 Organization Studies 00(0)
Knowledge sharing is central to reducing inequality and alleviating poverty (e.g., Collier, 2002)
because it provides economic and social opportunities, and a pathway out of poverty and exclusion
(e.g., Larsen & Lilleør, 2014). However, significant challenges inhibit successful knowledge shar-
ing in settings of extreme social inequality and poverty. Communities in such settings are charac-
terized by both external and internal boundaries that make knowledge sharing difficult. External
boundaries arise from shared perspectives that include common narratives, shared assumptions,
and implicit causal models that constitute a ‘deep knowledge’ of community practice (Boland &
Tenkasi, 1995; Majchrzak, More, & Faraj, 2012; Seidel & O’Mahony, 2014). While these shared
perspectives and practices may facilitate communication within the community, they create barri-
ers to sharing knowledge across communities (Bechky, 2003; Carlile, 2002, 2004). Internal bound-
aries arise from exclusive social norms and practices that create barriers to knowledge sharing and
integration within the community (Lamont & Molnár, 2002; Mair, Wolf, & Seelos, 2016).
Despite the considerable challenges, knowledge sharing efforts in settings of extreme social
inequality and poverty are sometimes successful (e.g., Banerjee, Duflo, Glennester, & Kinnan,
2015). Thus, the broad purpose of this paper is to explore how boundaries can be overcome during
knowledge sharing in such settings. The extant literature provides a foundation for this effort, as
the topic of navigating boundaries to share knowledge has attracted considerable attention (e.g.,
Bechky, 2003; Carlile, 2002, 2004; Lamont & Molnár, 2002). One important stream has explored
how boundary objects create a common context to facilitate knowledge sharing across communi-
ties’ external boundaries (Bechky, 2003; Star & Griesemer, 1989). Such exchanges may result in
knowledge transformation as distinct perspectives are brought to bear and differences are negoti-
ated (Boland & Tenkasi, 1995; Carlile, 2002).
A second stream of literature highlights the effect of internal community boundaries on knowl-
edge sharing. This research is concerned with the influence of technology and knowledge on
organizational structure (Barley, 1986; Edmondson, Bohmer, & Pisano 2001; Orlikowski, 1996). A
core insight from this work is that as new knowledge and technology are introduced, the existing
social boundaries and the actions of key actors play a consequential role in shaping organizational
change (Robey & Sahay, 1996). For example, Barley (1986) details how a new technology and
knowledge (the CT scanner and attendant practices) had an important influence on organizational
structure. This study demonstrates how one hospital was able to render internal boundaries less
salient and integrate new knowledge and technology, while another hospital was not. This work
suggests that internal boundaries may be overcome as recipient communities are transformed, and
that such transformations are heavily dependent on how boundary work unfolds.
The insights from these research streams create an opportunity to better understand knowledge
sharing in the context of extreme social inequality and poverty. While the literature on boundary
objects highlights the importance of knowledge transformation during knowledge sharing, the lit-
erature on knowledge, technology, and organizational structure highlights the importance of recipi-
ent community transformation during knowledge sharing. Because communities in extreme
poverty often face both external boundaries originating from distinct community perspectives, as
well as internal boundaries originating from social norms and practices, both types of transforma-
tion are relevant to knowledge sharing efforts through boundary work or ‘the attempts of actors to
create, shape, and disrupt boundaries’ (Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010, p. 190; see also Gieryn, 1983).
Thus, we ask: How does boundary work facilitate knowledge and recipient transformation during
knowledge sharing in the context of social inequality and poverty?
To explore this question we use data from extensive fieldwork on a knowledge sharing effort
among rural Indian farmers. We studied the efforts of a non-governmental organization, Videotech,1
Qureshi et al. 3
that worked with local NGO partners to identify, record, and share agriculture practices with the
potential to dramatically increase yields. Though these new practices could potentially lead to
valuable outcomes for rural farmers, existing perspectives and social norms created powerful
boundaries that complicated knowledge sharing efforts. Our findings suggest that boundary work,
which included the introduction of boundary objects, more inclusive norms, and increased discus-
sion, had an important influence on knowledge sharing. Our findings illustrate an overall process
for how boundary work creates space for action, observation, and reflection by members of the
recipient community. We refer to these activities as syncretizing mechanisms and discuss how they
transform knowledge, which facilitates further boundary work and helps transform the recipient
community over time. Our findings suggest that knowledge and recipient transformation are deeply
intertwined in such settings and, thus, are integrally related to knowledge sharing.
Our study seeks to make three primary contributions. First, we describe the process by which
knowledge sharing leads to knowledge and recipient transformation in settings of extreme social
inequality and poverty. In doing so, we synthesize insights from two distinct streams of literature
and highlight the interrelation of knowledge and recipient transformation. Second, we introduce
the concept of syncretizing mechanisms, describe their relationship to boundary work, and clarify
the conditions under which their operation is most likely. Finally, we seek to contribute to practice
by calling attention to the role of boundary workers in facilitating transformation, particularly in
the context of extreme social inequality and poverty.
Knowledge sharing across boundaries in the context of extreme social inequality
Knowledge sharing is critical for alleviating poverty and reducing inequality (Collier, 2002). For
example, sharing the dramatic advances in agricultural techniques among the world’s poor has
become a major priority for public and private organizations (Larsen & Lilleør, 2014; World Bank,
2008). Communities in the context of poverty involved in agrarian activities can be understood as
knowledge communities, as they consist of a group of individuals engaged in common activities
and that share perspectives and social practices allowing for communication and participation
(Thompson, 2005). Knowledge sharing efforts among these communities face significant chal-
lenges because the internal and external boundaries that support the community structure can also
hinder knowledge sharing efforts.
External boundaries arise from the unique perspectives and understandings that characterize the
community (cf. Boland & Tenkasi, 1995). These shared perspectives develop over time as commu-
nity members build common narratives and reflect on their experience within a common context
(Bechky, 2003; Seidel & O’Mahony, 2014; Wenger, 1998). Shared perspectives include assumptions,
implicit causal models, and interests that constitute a ‘deep knowledge’ of community practice
(Majchrzak et al., 2012). These characteristics, which facilitate knowledge sharing within a commu-
nity, may lead to interpretation challenges and attribution errors across communities (Carlile, 2002),
particularly with tacit knowledge among communities with diverging interests (Carlile, 2004). In the
context of poverty and social inequality, shared perspectives may create significant external bounda-
ries that impede knowledge sharing. For example, rural Indian communities often share perspectives
grounded in fate and a mistrust of outsiders (Cotterill, Sidanius, Bhardwaj, & Kumar, 2014; Das,
2013). However, perspectives rooted in fate may conflict with knowledge being shared from outside
sources (Reichenbach, 1988), thus creating important external barriers to knowledge sharing.
In addition to external boundaries grounded in shared perspectives, knowledge communities
also share important social characteristics, including language, identity, and specific social
4 Organization Studies 00(0)
practices (Seidel & O’Mahony, 2014; Thompson, 2005). These social practices and norms may
privilege some community members while simultaneously excluding others from full participation
(Tilly, 1998). Symbolic resources and exclusive social practices fortify such internal boundaries
(Lamont & Molnár, 2002). These boundaries are especially rigid in the context of poverty and
social inequality, particularly when there is a high degree of disparity in power between commu-
nity members (e.g., Mair et al., 2016). In such cases, crossing internal community boundaries may
be extraordinarily difficult (Lamont & Molnár, 2002). Because effective knowledge sharing gener-
ally requires broad community participation, internal community boundaries engendered by social
inequality can create significant obstacles to sharing and integrating new knowledge.
Again, rural India provides an illustration of how internal boundaries affect knowledge sharing.
Both the caste system and gender inequality pose significant barriers to knowledge sharing. The
caste system forms the basis of social stratification in India, particularly in rural areas (Thorat,
Negi, Mahamallik, & Senapati, 2009). For example, caste determines a person’s occupation, mak-
ing it difficult for members of lower and scheduled castes (SC) to break the cycle of exploitation
and exclusion (Thorat et al., 2009). Gender is another social fault-line in India. The dominant cul-
tural norms of projecting men as protectors and breadwinners construct women as their life-long
dependants (Kabeer 2005). Men make most of the decisions in and outside of the family, and
women’s household work is often devalued. In rural areas, men relegate women to the agriculture
work they perceive as less skilled and tedious – e.g., sowing, transplanting, weeding, and harvest-
ing (Kaur & Sharma, 1991). When knowledge sharing requires participation and interaction across
caste or gender lines, such internal boundaries can create significant barriers.
Overcoming boundaries during knowledge sharing
Despite the difficulties, sharing knowledge across community boundaries is valuable to organiza-
tions and to society more broadly (Lainer-Vos, 2013; Majchrzak et al., 2012). Thus, how knowl-
edge sharing occurs is the subject of a considerable research (Bechky, 2003; Carlile, 2002, 2004;
Lamont & Molnár, 2002). Two distinct streams of research have important implications for the
success of knowledge sharing across boundaries in the context of social inequality and poverty.
The first explores the role of boundary objects in facilitating knowledge transformation (e.g.,
Bechky, 2003; Carlile, 2004), while the second examines how knowledge recipients are trans-
formed as they integrate new knowledge (e.g., Barley, 1986; Edmondson et al., 2001).
Boundary objects are an important tool for sharing knowledge across external boundaries
(Bechky, 2003; Carlile, 2002, 2004; Lainer-Vos 2013). Boundary objects are tools and practices
that can be shared across communities and that create a common context where members of differ-
ent communities can interact and communicate (Bechky, 2003; Carlile, 2002). Boundary objects
include visual representations or tangible objects that play a variety of roles, such as guiding
inquiry, enabling coordination, highlighting differing assumptions, and facilitating negotiation
(Carlile, 2002). Extant literature frequently describes the role of boundary objects in facilitating
knowledge transformation as different perspectives and knowledge are brought to bear (Bechky,
2003; Carlile, 2002). The transformation of knowledge through the integration of external and
local knowledge is often portrayed as the ideal outcome of knowledge sharing in the context of
poverty and inequality (Easterly, 2006).
The second research stream explores how knowledge sharing influences internal community
boundaries by transforming the recipient community (Barley, 1986; Edmondson et al., 2001;
Robey & Sahay, 1996). This research explores how knowledge sharing may require people to re-
examine their assumptions, beliefs, and social practices (Skilton & Dooley, 2010), potentially
resulting in the realignment of internal boundaries. For example, Barley (1986) details how the
Qureshi et al. 5
introduction of new technology and knowledge related to a CT scanner resulted in significant
changes in the hospital’s social order. Similarly, Edmondson and colleagues (2001) examine how
the successful implementation of new surgical techniques transformed the surgical team’s perspec-
tives and practices. This work suggests that the transformation of the recipient communities over-
comes internal barriers to knowledge sharing. A consistent theme in this work, however, is that the
existing social context and the actions of participants dramatically influence how the transforma-
tions play out (Barley, 1986; Orlikowski, 1996). Thus, it is essential to understand the role of
boundary workers, or those who take actions that alter the nature of extant boundaries and the
social context. Such recipient transformation may also be desirable as a means of reducing inequal-
ity (cf. Mair et al., 2016).
Taken together, this research underscores the importance of transformation during knowledge
sharing across boundaries. However, we know little about the process by which such transforma-
tions occur, particularly in the context of poverty. Thus, this study explores how boundary work
enables both knowledge and recipient transformation during knowledge sharing.
To understand the process of knowledge and recipient transformation, we carried out a qualitative
study in the poorest districts of Madhya Pradesh in central India. In Madhya Pradesh about 23.41
million people living below the poverty line (Government of India, 2013), and about 71% of the
population is engaged in agriculture as their primary livelihood (GOI, 2013). However, most farmers
struggle to supply their families with sufficient food, as most live in rural areas (72.4%) and subsist
on tiny, underproductive farm plots (GOI, 2013). Limited and uneven access to agricultural knowl-
edge exacerbates these challenges, leading farmers to use outdated and inadequate farming practices.
Given this, sharing useful agricultural practices among farmers has been a major goal of the govern-
mental and non-governmental sectors, though high costs and overall low adoption rates hamper its
impact (Adhiguru, Birthal, & Kumar, 2009; Glendenning, Babu, & Asenso-Okyere, 2010).
The challenges of knowledge sharing in Madhya Pradesh take place against a complex social
backdrop. Communities are bounded externally by shared perspectives, such as a belief in karma
(fate) and a mistrust of outsiders (Cotterill et al., 2014; Das, 2013). Additionally, internal bounda-
ries, primarily around gender and caste, also make knowledge sharing difficult. The caste system
divides society into four main groups, as well as scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST),
which fall outside the system and are considered to be of very low status. The clear caste bounda-
ries manifest in a variety of ways. For example, caste determines residency, with lower castes liv-
ing the farthest from the village centre. SC members, in particular, are isolated from society because
they are considered ‘impure’. They are excluded from entering higher caste households, venturing
into upper caste hamlets, and sharing the same well/water sources. Violations of these norms can
result in violent reprisals (e.g., Das, 2013). Gender is also a significant internal boundary. Men are
generally reluctant to include women in meaningful ways in village life, such as community deci-
sion making, engagement in paid economic activities, or even interacting across gender lines
(Nussbaum, 2000). Women often work in unpaid, labour-intensive subsistence farming, whereas
men work in technological intensive activities and cash crop farming (e.g., Alex, 2013).
In this challenging context, Videotech, a non-governmental organization based in New Delhi, is
dedicated to increasing knowledge sharing among poor rural farmers across India and other devel-
oping countries. Videotech specializes in the knowledge sharing process, but relies on local NGO
partners to provide agricultural expertise and to run local operations. The local NGOs bring various
6 Organization Studies 00(0)
capacities. For example, some NGOs have more experience with women’s empowerment and oth-
ers focus more on agricultural issues.
The local NGOs identify existing agricultural practices with the potential to dramatically
improve production and/or cut costs, but also within the capacity of local farmers to implement.
Videotech and its local NGO partners use video recorders to capture the novel agricultural knowl-
edge and then the local NGO organizes screenings through the help of a moderator from the local
communities. In most cases, the local NGO selects male moderators from the upper caste; how-
ever, some NGOs in some locations also select moderators of different genders and castes. Prior to
a screening, the NGO moderator announces that a screening is to take place. These events typically
take place at night, when the visibility from small, rechargeable projectors is best, and are attended
by small gatherings of the local community, which we refer to as recipient groups.
These recipient groups are formed within community boundaries, but sometimes cut across
internal gender or caste boundaries, as depicted in Figure 1. The actual layout of the screening
event depends on the societal context of the village and the NGO moderator’s boundary work in
establishing norms for the recipient group. Figure 2 shows six typical layouts for the video, with
different combinations of gender and caste. In each of these scenarios, the viewers’ economic
and social status determined their distance from the screen, unless the moderator introduced
more inclusive social norms. The videos were screened for at least two years to a maximum of
eight years in the villages covered, and on average the NGOs generally worked in the communi-
ties for four years.
This context presented a particularly valuable opportunity to understand how knowledge
and recipient transformation occur. By studying knowledge sharing in rural India’s salient and
rigid gender and caste roles (Pattenden, 2011), we saw how knowledge crossed significant
boundaries. Furthermore, this knowledge sharing was easily observed because it took place in
a public forum. Finally, the study of knowledge sharing in a rural Indian environment is impor-
tant in its own right, as it has profound implications for issues such as poverty alleviation and
Figure 1. Community boundaries and recipient group.
Please note that this figure is intended to depict boundaries. More central circles represent more dominant castes.
Upper caste male-only groups were most common. In general, single gender and single caste groups were common
compared to mixed caste and mixed gender groups. See Figure 2 for common recipient group compositions.
Qureshi et al. 7
Economic Dominance Social Dominance Gender Dominance
a) Same caste men-only
dominant (D) &
c) Mixed caste men-
only screening: socially
dominant (D) &
e) Women (M) group
screening, men (D) allowed
to attend; moderator (VT)
didn’t set any norms
b) Same caste women-only
dominant (D) &
d) Mixed caste women-
only screening: socially
dominant (D) &
f) Women (M) group
screening, men (D) allowed
to attend; moderator (VT)
set clear norms of inclusive
Figure 2. Screening layouts.
Note: Schematic representation, the squares with dashed line represents house boundaries. The house boundaries were
more malleable for gender than for caste boundaries.
also represents an area that is relatively less understood by organizational scholars (George,
McGahan, & Prabhu, 2012).
Data collection and analytic approach
Our research focused on how knowledge sharing through video screenings impacts knowledge and
recipient transformation, though we did not have an a priori understanding of how this might occur.
Thus, we approached our research with a grounded theory approach in which we iterated between
data and theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The extended iteration allowed us to explore new con-
nections and ideas as they presented themselves. Our methodology also allowed us to explore
nuances and complexities in the local environment.
The data for this study were part of a larger data collection effort that involved five years of
fieldwork and several hundred interviews. Our data collection efforts included observation, semi-
structured interviews, group interviews, and examination of archival data (Creswell, 2012). The
various methods triangulated our findings and reduced bias due to social desirability or the limita-
tions of a single perspective (Fendt & Sachs, 2008). For this study, we focused on the video screen-
ings and related events. We observed 127 screenings and recorded these events when permitted by
Videotech. We took extensive notes during the events. Immediately before and after the event, we
8 Organization Studies 00(0)
conducted interviews with participants to capture their perspectives on what had occurred. In order
to assess the outcomes of the knowledge sharing events, we observed the adoption of practices, and
also talked to the village members, the NGO moderators, and other observers. We repeated these
observations and interviews over time. During 10 different trips we conducted 229 individual inter-
views with the farmers, 92 group interviews with the communities, and 85 interviews with the
moderators. In the interviews, we followed a semi-structured format in which we followed a basic
framework for interview topics, but also pursued interesting threads in the conversation (Denzin &
Lincoln, 2000; McCracken, 1988). We were particularly concerned with capturing the perspectives
of lower status groups and individuals and made efforts to ensure that their voices were heard
throughout the data collection process. We also observed video production, video screenings, agri-
cultural practices, and meetings of Videotech and the local NGO staff to capture their perspectives.
The first and third authors conducted interviews in Hindi and local dialects. The second author
conducted interviews in English with head office managers of Videotech and the partner NGO or
through a translator (or with the help of other co-authors) in the villages. Individual and group
interviews were recorded, transcribed into Hindi or local dialect, and then translated into English.
Guided by our ongoing data collection, two co-authors used an ‘open-coding’ approach to iden-
tify distinct concepts that repeated in quotes and observations from our data (Creswell, 2012). Data
analysis was carried out by using NVivo, version 8. Following the conventions outlined by Gioia,
Corley, and Hamilton (2013), we used this initial round of coding to identify first-order themes. In
identifying first-order themes, we paid particular attention to the actions taken by the NGO mod-
erators and community members to integrate new knowledge. Each first-order theme is grounded
directly in quotes and observations from our data. Over time, we iteratively refined and grouped
these themes until we arrived at a consensus (Miles & Huberman, 1994), resulting in the identifica-
tion of second-order dimensions. We repeated this iterative process between data and theory to
identify aggregate dimensions, which provided the basis for our overall process model of recipient
transformation (Gioia et al., 2013). Table 1 depicts the resulting data structure.
Videotech partnered with local NGOs in order to share useful agricultural knowledge across rural India.
However, external and internal boundaries made knowledge sharing difficult. To overcome such barri-
ers, moderators from local NGOs engaged in boundary work, which included forming recipient groups,
introducing video screenings, and setting rules that encouraged inclusion and discussion. In turn, this
boundary work created space for recipient groups to engage in syncretism – or the reconciliation and
unification of differing beliefs. We found that boundary work and syncretism were deeply interrelated.
Boundary work created space for syncretism to occur and syncretism legitimated further boundary
work. Together, they aided in knowledge and recipient transformation, as depicted in Figure 3.
Initial boundary configurations
While the recipient groups varied in their characteristics, we did find several overarching similari-
ties in their external and internal boundaries that affected knowledge sharing. External boundaries
were rooted in perspectives shared across the community, and community members frequently
expressed these in narratives (Boland & Tenkasi, 1995). One example was a belief that fate or
Karma determines destiny. Two farmers stated:
Nothing ever goes as we plan. Last year with my daughters, I worked day and night. What we received in
return? Nothing. All my crop got destroyed due to untimely rain. That is our fate. – region C
Qureshi et al. 9
This is our Karma. I cannot escape it. I am paying for whatever I did in my previous births. There is no
easy way to salvation. I have to bear all the pains in this birth for my past mistakes. Then only can I achieve
salvation. If that means my crops might fail repeatedly then so be it. How can I change that? – region D
Belief in fate was consequential for knowledge sharing as it could undermine the motivation to try
new things. Community members with this perspective believed their actions would have little
impact on agricultural outcomes, and they were reluctant to expend extra effort on experimenting
with new knowledge.
Another external boundary was mistrust of outside knowledge. This mistrust, understandable in
an environment with a history of elitist, external domination, created significant difficulties for
knowledge sharing. For example, a male farmer expressed this (though in an interview three years
later, he was more optimistic):
Table 1. Data Structure.
First-order concepts Second-order themes Aggregate dimensions
Belief in fate and Karma
Belief that actions will have no consequence on
Mistrust of outside knowledge
Mistrust of outside organizations
regarding outside influences
Exclusion based on gender
Women not allowed to participate
Exclusion based on caste
Lower caste members not allowed to
participate meaningfully in community functions
Exclusionary caste practices
Structuring group composition
Recipient group formation Boundary work
Screening events that consist of a gathering of
recipient group to watch and discuss video
Introduction of boundary
Moderator encourages discussion
Moderator encourages inclusion
Introduction of new norms
Recipient group experiments with new actions
Recipient group engages in observation
Recipient group engages in reflection
Reconciling and Uniting old
and new knowledge
Recipient group adopts new perspectives
and practices regarding fate and openness to
Recipient group adopts new perspectives and
practices regarding gender and caste
Recipient transformation Transformation
Prior perspectives and knowledge are
integrated with new information introduced
through screening events
Knowledge adapted for local context
Knowledge transformation dependent on
Recipient transformation dependent on
knowledge and recipient
Differences in communities
Differences in NGO moderators
Differences in partner NGO experience
Points of disjuncture
10 Organization Studies 00(0)
It is not about this company or that company. Everyone want to fool us, and exploit our ignorance. They
sell things which are not useful to us. They give information that help them sell their product whether we
need them or not. I have become skeptical of these outsiders and their information. – region A
These shared perspectives, which enhanced communication within the village, created critical bar-
riers to accepting knowledge from outside the village.
Internal boundaries of gender and caste structure also created barriers to knowledge sharing
(Agarwal, 2001; Benería, 1995; Kabeer, 2005). Male community members often held strong beliefs
of their dominance in the community, and they limited female community members to prescribed
domestic and field labour. Consequently, male farmers were often vocal in their desire to exclude
female participation in video screenings:
Women should stay at home. They should not roam around in the night. This is not good for family.
Anyway, they are not intelligent and will not be able to grasp anything. – region B
They have no brains. It will be waste of time to show them video. They will not get anything. – region A
They are not literate. They cannot understand what is being shown. Ultimately, we are the ones who have
to explain to them. – region B
Women, on the other hand, expressed a desire to view the screenings. However, they understood
the social constraints that prevented full access to this knowledge:
I do want to watch these videos. I know they are very useful. I am unable to watch as [videos] are screened
in the evening. I have so much work to do in the evening. Various household chores. Cook food for
everyone… You name it. How can I watch video in the evening when there is so much work to do? It is
expected that I be the one who will do all this work. – region A
These exclusionary practices formed a social boundary to potentially hinder knowledge sharing,
particularly when new knowledge required input from women.
Figure 3. Process model of recipient transformation.
Qureshi et al. 11
The recipient communities’ caste system (Das, 2013) also had important implications for knowl-
edge sharing. The caste system prescribed specific roles for community members, and deviations
were inappropriate or unacceptable. For example, members of less dominant castes were limited in
their participation in community gatherings. In discussing this exclusion, two upper caste members
No, they [weaker caste] cannot attend the screening in our house. If [Videotech’s partner] want them to see
videos they [partner] can form their [weaker caste] own group. Our village tradition does not allow us to
mix with them. – region A
It is not common. They [SC] do not attend screening with us. You know this is village and we have some
rules. If they want to attend screening, we ask them not to step inside house. They can stay outside house.
They can see and listen from there. Some of them come to see video but not very often. – region B
Members of lower caste groups also reported this exclusion:
It is not easy for us to attend screening. In this village they [dominant caste] do not treat us well. Some of
us tried initially but were not allowed to watch the video. We complained to [Videotech’s partner] then
screening was shifted to Choupal (common area). They [dominant caste] sit near the [projector] and we are
made to stand very far. We can hardly listen and see anything. So we stopped attending. – region D
Consistent with literature on rural India (Reichenbach, 1988; Riaz & Qureshi, 2017), we found that
communities’ perspectives and practices created important boundaries around and within the vil-
lage. Despite the challenges, a more inclusive recipient group had many potential advantages. For
example, women held knowledge on implementation of new practices because they were the pri-
mary field labourers while men understood the market implications of decisions, such as costs of
inputs and the potential to increase sales. Only in inclusive recipient groups could new knowledge
be truly reconciled and integrated into local practice.
While external and internal boundaries made knowledge sharing difficult, local NGOs worked
with moderators to form recipient groups, introduce video screenings, and implement more inclu-
sive norms. In some areas, moderators invited anyone who was interested to attend screenings.
This resulted in screening events dominated by male upper caste community members. However,
in regions that were ultimately more successful in knowledge sharing, moderators were more
intentional in creating inclusive groups. We observed that moderators in such regions focused on
fostering inclusion and encouraging dialogue.
We observed, in general, that NGO moderators worked hard to foster inclusion during video
screenings and introduced a number of practices to alter social norms. For example, one NGO cre-
ated women-only groups, and conducted screenings just for them. The NGO actively encouraged
women to ask questions and discuss their experience freely, rendering the screenings a ‘safe space’
where marginalized community members could freely communicate (cf. Kellogg, 2009). Once it
became clear that women could fully participate, the NGO moderator requested that they bring one
male member of their family if they felt comfortable. This created mixed-gender groups; however,
the women were allowed to ask questions first, before men were given the chance. Over time this
restriction was withdrawn. These moderator actions created new social norms during the screen-
ing. Their efforts were a form of boundary work that shaped external and internal boundaries to
enable knowledge sharing (cf. Gieryn, 1983; Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010).
12 Organization Studies 00(0)
In other areas, NGO moderators encouraged inclusive social norms for castes. For example,
moderators encouraged lower caste groups to attend screenings with upper caste groups and to ask
questions. These efforts were not easy, but they did increase interaction. A regional head of a local
When I look back it appears that encouraging villagers to have group members from all the communities
[social groups] was a good decision… It wasn’t easy to include different castes. It was much more difficult
to get them discuss with each other… For the first year or so this created some friction within the group
and sometimes in the village. As time passed and with enormous efforts from our moderators… this
actually resulted in having more social interactions among various communities [social groups]. In some
villages or rather a few villages, they now celebrate festivals together, visit each other more frequently. In
some cases, we also observed that lower caste and upper caste members sit together not for screening only
but for their day-to-day interactions. – regional head, region D
Additionally, the moderators encouraged discussion among participants during video screenings.
To do this, the moderator asked questions, provided time for responses, mediated dialogue, and set
ground rules for participation. This approach helped to clarify details of the video, and made the
contents accessible to community members who had to sit farther back, as described by a
Not all farmers can hear or see video. This is true when there are many of them. I ask farmers who are
sitting close to projector, what did they see? What is not clear to them? Once they start discussion, other
farmers who were away from projector start asking more questions. – region A
Enhancing discussion sometimes meant discouraging dominant group members from speaking so
that varied ideas from all members could be heard.
In summary, the NGO moderators acted as boundary spanners as they were able to negotiate
across different boundaries and engage in their boundary work. Overall, the video screening events
served as boundary objects as they were plastic enough to be adapted to local circumstances, while
rigid enough to preserve core characteristics across distinct locations (Star & Griesemer, 1989).
The boundary work created the space necessary for knowledge transformation.
Group members engaged in three central activities in response to screening events – action, obser-
vation, and reflection. Together, we refer to action, observation, and reflection as syncretizing
mechanisms as they were the central means by which recipient group members worked to unify
and reconcile their prior perspectives and practices with the new perspectives and practices intro-
duced through video screenings. These syncretizing mechanisms were interrelated and iterative
and could proceed in any sequence. Collectively, they represented a powerful mechanism for
Video screening events were intended to inspire action among community members. Indeed, the
simple act of joining a recipient group and attending was challenging and important, as a female
I was very hesitant – you can also say scared. It is not common for women in our communities to speak in
the presence of men. I almost refused to be part of women screening group in which men will be allowed
to attend. Then I talked to [another woman who has accepted to be member of this group] and gained
courage. I thought ‘Let me give it a try. If it doesn’t work I can stop attending.’ – region C
Qureshi et al. 13
Screenings inspired other actions, too. Some, like this male farmer, chose to implement new
I liked the idea of cultivating vegetables. I used to grow gram [chickpea]. Never tried anything else. I
discussed with other farmers. None of them were ready to change their traditional crop. I decided to go
ahead alone. – region B
These actions cut against the grain of existing community perspectives or social boundaries. For
example, including women or lower caste community members contradicted community norms.
Thus, the video screenings inspired a variety of actions among recipients and helped loosen the
grip of existing perspectives and practices.
Observation was also a key activity in the recipient groups. Not every group member chose to
act after a screening, but many observed as others experimented with new perspectives and prac-
tices. In some villages, observation involved a high degree of coordination. In one village, the
farmers coordinated their efforts so that each farmer implemented one new practice. They then
shared their observations with each other to facilitate rapid learning:
We do not have very big farmland. Most of us have about two bigha [0.32 hectares; 0.80 acres]. We cannot
try many practices [simultaneously] in our small land… In this village we are like a big family, related to
each other. We have same family name. Some of us are even related. If you ask someone his father,
grandfather and so on, you will find some of us have same grandfather or great-grandfather. No one in this
village is of different caste… We trust each other. We do not hide anything… So each one of us tried a
different practice. Observed how each one is doing… Helped each other, and learned from each other. –
village head, region B.
In other cases, observation proceeded in a more ad hoc fashion. Overall, observation provided a
relatively low-cost means for understanding new perspectives and social practices.
Finally, the screening events provided important opportunities for reflection as recipient groups
considered their experiences against the new knowledge. Reflection occurred frequently during the
screening events themselves. For example, group members often engaged in deep discussion, as
described by a moderator:
When we introduce a new practice, not just a new variety of crop they already grow but something they
have not done before. This kind of videos sometime results in very rich discussion. Farmers want to see
video repeatedly, I mean go back and forth, or stop video at particular point and discuss. This is very
interesting to them. They like it. Sometimes our battery get exhausted and we say sorry folks we will come
again. – region B
Reflection also occurred in other settings – before and after screenings and by groups and
I am not used to speaking in public. In a group I mostly keep quiet… I talk to women sitting nearby me
during the screening. After the screening when I come back home, I talk to my mother-in-law and
sometimes to my husband… Mostly I keep thinking about what I usually do in field and what was shown
in the video. Sometimes I just talk to myself… These videos make me aware of what I have been doing.
Not always correctly… – female farmer, region C
We gather in this place [central open space] every night… We spend much more time on the nights of screening.
We discuss whether this new practice [that was screened] is really going to help us…. I mean, not everyone is
equally interested but somehow we all end up discussing about the screening. – village head, region D
14 Organization Studies 00(0)
In summary, action, observation, and reflection acted as syncretizing mechanisms through
which community members unified and reconciled existing beliefs and practices with new ideas.
The extent to which the NGO moderator could introduce new social practices and provide space
for syncretism to occur relates to their impact. The relationship between syncretism and NGO
moderator actions evolved: as moderator actions could create more space for syncretism, syncre-
tism could create space for further moderator actions.
The interdependence of boundary work and syncretism
While boundary work by NGO moderators could spark syncretism, the transformation process also
depended on the complex interplay between boundary work and syncretism over time. Initially, the
NGO moderator could influence social practice only in small ways. However, the extent to which
these practices created space for syncretism and transformation allowed the NGO moderator to
take further actions. Thus, the relationship between syncretizing mechanisms and boundary work
evolved over time. Real change often required years of effort, as this moderator noted:
It took more than two years. It became easier once we were able to convince them and demonstrate the
advantages of having both male and female farmers in the screening. Now in these villages it has become
the norm to have groups where women are the primary member and their family members are observers.
– region C
The following example illustrates the interdependence between boundary work and syncretism.
Videotech worked with NGO partners to produce a six-minute video explaining how to test seed
germination rates. We attended screenings of this video in several villages in region D. In this
video, a farmer explained how to test wheat seed for germination rates. While the video clarified
many aspects of the process, the frequency of sprinkling water was not mentioned. In village A, 15
women and 9 men attended the screening, but the moderator had not engaged in meaningful bound-
ary work to promote the inclusion of women. The following excerpt shows how traditional internal
boundaries determined participation when a female participant asked how frequently water should
be sprinkled on the gunny bag. Women are indicated with a ‘w’ and men with a ‘m:’
[w1 hesitantly asked in very low voice, as if just trying to talk to moderator]: How frequently
should we sprinkle water on gunny bag?
[m1 before the moderator could say anything]: You must water it every few hours. It is a
simple common sense, you must know this. [Then turned towards moderator] How will seed
testing help us earn more?
[m2]: I think that seems a bit too much. I don’t know about wheat germination but I attended
another session. It was for gram (chickpea). In that film the farmer mentioned that we should
sprinkle water every day. Preferably in the morning.
[m3]: We can leave this watering business to women, they will do it. Let us ask him [moderator]
whether this can help us get more wheat.
[w2] but if we do…
[m3, towards w2, in raised voice]Don’t interrupt, let men talk first. What is the use of learning
how to do something that is not beneficial? If we cannot make more money then why bother?
Moderator: Uncle, this is their group. Let them ask questions. Everybody will have time to
ask. [towards w2] So what you were trying to ask?
[Several men laughed, and a few commented] She has no clue. Babuji, we don’t have much time,
why waste it on stupid questions?
Qureshi et al. 15
[w2 did not respond to moderator’s request. Moderator then checks if any other women want to
ask anything and encourages them to ask questions. However, none of them show any interest in
asking questions. Some men kept making fun of them, and incessant laughs and comments
[m4 to moderator] Do you know what are the benefits of seed testing? Will this result in high
productivity? More yield?
The moderator explained various benefits of the seed testing, though the video covered most of
them. From here onward, only the men discussed. The women stayed silent. The entire discussion
centred on monetary benefits rather than on how to do it. After 20 minutes of discussion, the mod-
erator concluded the screening.
In this setting, there was very little opportunity for syncretism. Men asked questions that aligned
with their traditional perspectives and women were excluded. Neither observation nor meaningful
reflection occurred. Action, at least among the women, also seemed fairly unlikely, as there was no
opportunity to discuss potential approaches. Because of this, there was little space for syncretizing
mechanisms to play out, thus stymieing knowledge or recipient transformation.
In contrast, we observed a screening in region C where a different process unfolded. The video
was exactly the same as mentioned above; however, it was made in the local dialect and showed a
local female farmer. The screening was conducted for a women-only group, but male family mem-
bers were allowed to participate. There were 12 women and 10 men. Here, the NGO moderator had
engaged in significant boundary work regarding women’s roles over a long period of time. The
moderator had established the norm that women primarily asked questions during screenings,
though men would have an opportunity to discuss or ask questions if they felt that something
important was missing. This boundary work created much more space for syncretism, as seen in
the following discussion:
[w1 requested video to be stopped and played back where the farmer in the video is sowing seed
in the soil]: How deep should you push the seeds? She [farmer in the video] is placing them
just below the surface.
[w2]: I think it will be fine if you just push it underneath the soil (surface). This should be no
different than what you normally do in your field. Only difference may be, I think, in this test you
just want to see whether all the seeds germinate. So it doesn’t matter even if they are not pushed
to proper depth.
[w3]: When we are sowing in the field, we sow seeds well beneath the surface. This way plants
get some support. Here we are only interested in checking how many of the seeds germinate. You
can just push them gently.
[There were some discussions, where women talked to someone sitting next to them, mostly
about how many seeds they should use and what should be the distance between two seeds
within a row and that between two rows. The screening proceeded further.] After completion of
video, a woman participant [w4] asked: How much water should we use and how frequently
should we sprinkle water on the soil?
[w5]: In the video, [name of the woman farmer in the video] was sprinkling water on the top of
gunny bag and not directly on the soil. This is important. Otherwise some of your seeds will be
drained out of soil and soak in the water. That way they may not germinate. I am not sure how
frequently you should water them.
[w6]: I think you may need to water it multiple times a day if not every few hours.
Moderator: I don’t think watering every few hours is a good idea.
16 Organization Studies 00(0)
[w3]: I know. I think I heard from [name of w7 who was not present at the screening], she tested
her seeds. Not sure if this was for gram or maize. She used to sprinkle water every second day.
[w8, informal leader of the group with agri-training at an agriculture centre nearby]: It depends
on the soil you use for seed (germination) test. Sandy soil that you have [points towards w6]
requires frequent sprinkling. Maybe twice or thrice a day. [Name of w7] has better soil [looks
at w3], she may need to sprinkle water only once a day or maybe once in two days.
[This conversation about frequency went for about another 10 minutes before it turned to quan-
tity of water to be used for each sprinkling.]
[w9, seated far from screening and who could not see well]: How much water should I sprinkle?
Should I just moisten the gunny bag covering the soil? Or should I completely saturate soil with
[It was not clear from the video how much water should be used; however, those who were sit-
ting near the screening wall could make a reasonable guess that the farmer in the video used the
amount of water that would be enough to soak the gunny bag and reach the soil beneath but will
not drench or flood the soil below.]
[w10, also sitting very far from the wall, and close to w9, suggested]: Use as much water as
you can. Any extra water will seep out.
[w11, seated near the screen]: You should use water carefully; if you use too much water then
you run a risk of spoiling your seeds. Testing is not different from actual sowing.
[m1, male farmer closer to the screen but to the left with other men and moderator]: The farmer
in the video was simply sprinkling a few drops, she was careful in sprinkling water across the
gunny bag. She was not just pouring water in one spot.
[This led to some back-and-forth among the farmers. The discussion then changed topics to the
economic utility of the method.]
In this setting, syncretizing mechanisms played out more fully. The recipient group members
engaged in a rich discussion to reflect on how the new information in the video related to existing
observations and understandings. The potential for action was also greater, as members had the
opportunity to share thoughts and insights and encourage one another. However, this syncretism
depended on prior boundary work that broke down existing gender boundaries. Women were able
to contribute meaningfully to syncretism.
Recipient and knowledge transformation
In some villages, boundary work and syncretism resulted in important knowledge and recipient
transformation. Recipient groups were transformed as they integrated new perspectives and sof-
tened some of the internal boundaries by changing the norms of interaction. Knowledge transfor-
mation occurred when it was recombined with existing community knowledge.
Recipient transformation. Recipient groups were transformed as their perspectives and practices
changed. Through syncretism, some recipients became more open to ideas from outside the com-
munity. As their willingness to entertain new ideas and hear about new practices increased, their
fatalistic views slowly shifted. They began to believe their actions could make a meaningful differ-
ence in the productivity of their crops, as this farmer stated:
I had very simple approach. I used to leave everything to God. Why should I worry about anything? It is
ultimately in HIS hand. If he doesn’t want, I will not be able to grow anything. Therefore, beyond throwing
seeds in my field, I never used to do anything more… Through these videos I have learned that I can do
Qureshi et al. 17
many things to increase yield. Now I believe that my actions can lead to better results. This realization was
very important. – region D
The nature of boundaries around and within the recipient groups also changed in some areas. For
example, ideas of equality began to take root as male farmers viewed the contributions of women
during video screenings in a more positive light. One male farmer described his change in
I will not say that things have changed a lot. They remain same in many aspects… I must admit that I now
believe that women can enhance the discussion around screenings. Five years ago when screenings started
I used to believe that women have nothing to add to discussion and they should not be included in the
screening. Now I support their inclusion. Actually, I promote their inclusion in the group. – region C
Similarly, recipient transformations softened external boundaries as community members became
more open to outside knowledge:
In the past, whenever any company [organization] came to our village, they always pretend first to help us.
Whatever help they provided was not useful to us. Then they start selling their product. In our village no
one trust these companies [organizations]… In general we are suspicious of any outside information.
Naturally when [Videotech’s partner] came to our village, we didn’t welcome them. Now after five years
and after seeing hundreds of their video, many of us have changed our views. We still do not adopt new
practices immediately but we are open to watching them and to listening to them. – region D
Two female farmers in different villages also provided examples of recipient transformation by
explaining how norms changed in regard to women’s engagement:
[Moderator] knew many of us as well as men in this village. He encouraged us to ask questions. We were
a bit hesitant – many of us were very shy. Men used to do all the talking. [Moderator] used to constantly
remind them that this is women’s group and they should be allowed to talk. Over time, encouraged by
[moderator], women started talking and asking questions. Even today we are not completely comfortable
talking in presence of men, but many of us regularly participate in the discussions. – region D
We had very tough time initially. As usual women do all the household chores. Also work on the farms.
Finding time for the screening sessions was difficult. My husband was not at all supportive of my attending
these sessions. Other men in the village also used to taunt us. Make fun of us. Then [videotech’s partner]
decided to add separate sessions for men, as well. They used to show exactly same video to women group
and men group… We started discussing the video at our home… My husband now seeks my opinion
before implementing any new practice. I cannot say this is very common. But I talked to several group
members and some of them had similar experience. – region D
As a result of boundary work, the perspectives and social practices began to shift in some areas
over time. While these changes occurred within recipient groups, inclusive norms and more open
perspectives began to spill over to the broader community. For example, in region C, women who
had attended screening sessions for several years marched 20 km to protest at a government office
after their land was illegally confiscated. The government officials were surprised because they
assumed women from such a small village would not defend themselves. However, because of
their altered perspectives and practices, the women were more willing to engage in collective
action. Similarly, in region D, lower caste members were able to raise issues around inequality that
they previously had accepted as their fate. For example, after several years of screenings, lower
caste members insisted on having representation on the village committee that was responsible for
18 Organization Studies 00(0)
buying farming inputs. After months of haggling, the village committee that was previously only
represented by upper caste members agreed to include lower caste members and later nominated
one of them as secretary.
Knowledge transformation. Similarly, knowledge transformed to meet local needs as a result of
boundary work. Vermicomposting – creating compost through the cultivation of worms – provides
an example of knowledge transformation. We observed vermicomposting screenings in three dif-
ferent regions. In region A, it was screened to men-only groups and the discussion focused primar-
ily on the economic implications, with no questions about implementation. In region B, a similar
screening (adapted for the local dialect) was shown to women-only groups. Here, the discussion
centred on implementation, with little focus on the economics. In both cases, vermicomposting
knowledge was never transformed with local knowledge, and these practices were never imple-
mented. However, in other villages in region B, vermicomposting videos were shown to mixed-
gender groups. In these cases, men and women contributed their perspectives and interpretations
of the new information. As NGO moderators introduced new practices and perspectives over time,
the group engaged in syncretizing mechanisms. The result of this cumulative effort was successful
knowledge transformation and the implementation of these practices.
In some cases, knowledge transformation included adaptations to make the knowledge more
appropriate and valuable for the local context:
You can see this everywhere. They see the videos. Then they go to their field and realize they cannot do
exactly as shown in the video. Most of the time because they do not have the material exactly as shown in
the videos but also sometimes they realize that they need to make minor changes to fit the learning to their
own situation. – moderator, region A
Points of disjuncture
Why does boundary work result in recipient and knowledge transformation in some cases but not
others? Our findings point to several possible points of disjuncture. First, prior social differences
of communities could either facilitate or impede change. For example, in areas with higher tribal
populations, gender norms were easier to break, as the initial gender perspectives and boundaries
were less rigid. An elderly woman from a tribal region said:
Our ancestors, and even some of us, used to live in forests. We had to help each other. Men, women,
children every one used to work side by side. In last 30–40 years we have started farming. Most of our
women work alongside with their men. In upper caste, women mostly stay at home or work in field by
themselves. – elderly woman, scheduled tribe, region C
In other areas, gender and caste barriers proved insurmountable. For example, it was difficult to
form mixed-gender or mixed-caste groups in areas with a higher concentration of upper caste
members or hyper-animosity among castes:
We were unable to form any women-only group, nor we could convince men to include a few women in
their groups. This area has large population of Rajput and Thakur, who are known to be very conservative
when it comes to participation of women in social interactions especially in presence of men. – Moderator,
The villages I cover are very sensitive. There have been many incidences of violence by upper caste
members on the lower caste members. Even initiating a dialogue about inclusion of lower caste members
Qureshi et al. 19
in the video screening groups can create a difficult situation for me. Initially I explored some options, but
I quickly gave up. – moderator, region A
In this way, the initial social context influenced the extent of knowledge and recipient transforma-
tion. In general, we observed that caste boundaries were harder to overcome than within-caste
gender boundaries (though these issues were often interrelated). One potential explanation is that
overcoming gender boundaries directly benefitted each household (in terms of transforming valu-
able knowledge), while the dominant caste perceived it against their interest to let a lower caste
access new practices. It was also important to note that within-caste gender boundaries were less
rigid for the lower versus the upper castes.
Second, differences among NGO moderators could alter the process of change. For example,
while a rarity, women and lower caste moderators from outside the village were effective in
addressing gender and caste issues, provided they were accepted by the recipient group. NGO
moderators from upper castes could apply different symbolic resources during boundary work (cf.
Lamont & Molnár, 2002). In some cases, such moderators simply reinforced existing caste norms.
However, in other cases, these caste members were highly effective in exerting their social influ-
ence when introducing new practices to promote change.
Finally, the experience and skill of the local NGO influenced the process. Some partner NGOs
had extensive experience in specific regions or with specific issues. For example, the partner NGO
in region C had extensive experience in creating women’s groups to increase women’s empower-
ment. They applied this experience to the screening events, and were effective in introducing new
Sharing knowledge in the context of social inequality and poverty is of critical importance, but is
often challenging given internal and external community boundaries (Collier, 2002; Larsen &
Lilleør, 2014; Mair et al., 2016). This paper articulates the process of knowledge sharing in the
context of inequality and poverty. We found that successful knowledge sharing depended on both
boundary work, that softened boundaries and created space for knowledge transformation, and
syncretism, that helped reconcile differing perspectives. Moreover, we found a reciprocal, dynamic
relationship between boundary work and syncretism that resulted in knowledge and recipient trans-
formation. However, we also found evidence that the initial social structure, the characteristics of
the boundary spanner, and the experience of the organization initiating knowledge sharing influ-
enced the process to potentially disrupt or facilitate opportunities for transformation.
Extant literature provides an important foundation for our study (e.g., Majchrzak et al., 2012;
Slavova & Metiu, 2015). This work calls attention to the ways in which knowledge transformation
can facilitate knowledge sharing across external boundaries (e.g., Bechky, 2003) and how knowl-
edge can transform the internal boundaries of organizational and social structure (e.g., Barley,
1986). Building on this research, our study suggests that knowledge sharing may provide an impor-
tant impetus for social change. However, successful knowledge sharing involves coordinated inter-
action between boundary spanners and the recipient community, ultimately depending on the
complex interplay between boundary work and syncretism, or the reconciliation of different per-
spectives and knowledge. Elucidating this process speaks to a larger body of work that has some-
times questioned the value of knowledge sharing as a tool of development. While existing literature
20 Organization Studies 00(0)
has sometimes criticized knowledge sharing efforts as ineffective (e.g., Easterly, 2006), our study
helps clarify the circumstances and processes that facilitate positive outcomes.
Our study also contributes to the literature by synthesizing insights from literature on knowl-
edge sharing across boundaries (e.g., Carlile, 2004) and literature on the relationship between
knowledge, technology, and organizational change (e.g., Robey & Sahay, 1996). Both streams of
literature deal with the problem of sharing knowledge across community boundaries. However,
they suggest two fundamentally distinct approaches for overcoming these obstacles. The literature
on knowledge sharing across boundaries focuses on how communities can communicate, coordi-
nate, and negotiate their differences. In contrast, the literature on knowledge and organizational
change focuses on how the community itself can change, thus reducing the differences themselves.
Our findings suggest that these distinct processes are highly interdependent – recipient transforma-
tion creates additional space for knowledge transformation and vice versa.
The integration of knowledge and recipient transformation is important for several reasons.
First, existing literature describes boundary objects as serving to re-contextualize knowledge and
evoke the loci of practice for each community (Bechky, 2003). As such, boundary objects are
viewed as a medium to bring various perspectives to bear, which can then serve as a negotiation
point for contributing communities (Carlile, 2004). In contrast, our findings indicate that boundary
objects are only part of the story (albeit an important part). Boundary objects are embedded in
boundary work, which can create space for syncretism to occur. Viewed in this light, part of the
function of boundary objects and boundary work is to create ‘safe spaces’ where knowledge and
social transformation can occur (cf. Kellogg, 2009). While action, observation, and reflection can
occur anywhere, the social structure in our study generally constrained the ability to socially and
inclusively enact such mechanisms. However, in the safe spaces boundary work created, syncre-
tism occurred as the community collectively acted, observed, and reflected. So we see how bound-
ary objects (and boundary work in general) influence ‘iterative sensemaking of questioning existing
attitudes, behaviors, assumptions, and values and exploring alternatives’ (Reinecke & Ansari,
2015, p. 638). Such reflexivity has the potential to lead to ‘interpretive shifts’ or changes in under-
standings of the world (Reinecke & Ansari; 2015). Viewing boundary objects in a more integrated
manner allows for a more nuanced perspective of what boundary objects do and the mechanisms
through which they operate.
A second important implication of the integration of knowledge and recipient transformation is
the overall structure of the process. When the primary goal of knowledge sharing is knowledge
transformation, interaction may most fruitfully occur at the periphery between communities, within
‘indeterminate spaces’ where negotiation and sense-making can occur (Lainer-Vos, 2013). In such
cases, knowledge transformation occurs as boundary workers or other community representatives
cross boundaries to interact with disparate communities to share knowledge on a particular prob-
lem. In such cases, interactions between communities will end when the problem is resolved
(Carlile, 2002). In contrast, when knowledge and recipient transformation are intertwined, the
process may best play out in the centre of the recipient group as boundary workers engage people
through boundary objects to introduce new perspectives and social practices. Creating safe spaces
in the centre of community life facilitates syncretism, community participation, and meaningful
community change. The process is recursive and enduring, as the community evolves its perspec-
tives and social practices over time.
Our study also suggests that the outcomes from knowledge and recipient transformation may be
more profound than the literature sometimes suggests. For example, boundary objects are often
portrayed as being used to solve particular problems, with minimal influence on communities
where knowledge originates. For example, Carlile (2002) describes how members of design engi-
neering, manufacturing engineering, and production crossed community boundaries to design an
Qureshi et al. 21
onboard vapour recovery valve. While they used boundary objects to transform knowledge and
solve a specific problem, Carlile’s account suggests little enduring change to the communities
themselves. In contrast, the integration of knowledge and recipient transformation may result in
dramatic changes to community knowledge, perspectives, and practices. These changes endure
beyond knowledge sharing. Communities that have enacted changes may be much more willing to
continue learning from outside sources.
Finally, this study further integrates insights on power and social exclusion with knowledge
sharing theory (Contu & Willmott, 2003). Our contribution relates to how social exclusion influ-
ences knowledge sharing through technology. A rich body of work details social norms and
exclusion in rural, developing world contexts (Craig & Porter, 2003). There is a strong tradition
in this literature that explores how certain groups are excluded from broader participation in
society because they lack access to technology, which influences their ability to receive new
knowledge (Cushman, McLean, Zheng, & Walsham, 2008). This study seeks to extend these
insights and integrate them more fully with knowledge sharing theory by exploring the specific
implications of social exclusion. Unlike previous work, our study shows that social exclusion
influences knowledge sharing, even when the community has physical access to digital infra-
structure (cf. Duncombe & Heeks, 2002; Venkatesan, Eversole, & Robinson, 2004). Instead,
practices by high status groups, such as exclusion, criticism, and social norms, can prevent other
groups from meaningful participation (cf. Metiu, 2006). We hope that such insights lay the
groundwork for a more systematic theory of social exclusion and knowledge sharing in a devel-
oping country context.
The unique context of our study warrants a discussion of theoretical boundaries and generaliz-
ability. This study took place in an environment with extreme resource scarcity, strong social
norms, and limited access to knowledge. Thus, our findings most appropriately generalize to simi-
lar situations. However, while some of the specifics are most salient in the developing world, the
insights may apply to other settings where relatively autonomous recipient communities are
expected to share and integrate knowledge. For example, joint ventures might create a scenario
where distinct communities of practice come into contact with the goal of extensive learning (cf.
Lane, Salk, & Lyles, 2001). In such cases, knowledge and recipient transformation may be critical
in facilitating knowledge sharing. In contrast, we would expect that knowledge and recipient trans-
formation might apply less in settings where the integration of knowledge to solve a specific prob-
lem supersedes broad-based knowledge sharing.
Our study suggests several potential avenues for future research. First, we encourage future
researchers to build on existing organizational theories to better understand how specific pro-
grammes may contribute to solving social challenges. Our study suggests that knowledge sharing
may provide a pathway for social change under certain circumstances. Similarly, Mair et al. (2016)
found that a programme designed to improve water and sanitation in a similar context could also
facilitate social change through the ‘scaffolding’ of mobilizing resources, stabilizing new struc-
tures, and concealing true organizational goals. Both of our studies suggest the complex interplay
between structure and action in accomplishing social change.
We encourage future research to clarify the structural, organizational, and behavioural anteced-
ents that facilitate social change. For example, future research might explore how knowledge and
recipient transformation are complementary and in what ways they act as substitutes. Future
research could also disentangle the effectiveness and trade-offs of different pathways toward social
and organizational change. For example, researchers might ask, how do features of the social con-
text influence the temporal relationship between boundary work and action, observation, and
reflection? Such research would have important implications across a variety of contexts, includ-
ing outsourcing, globally distributed teams, and social entrepreneurship.
22 Organization Studies 00(0)
Finally, we believe that our study has important practical implications for knowledge sharing.
Our study highlights how those sharing knowledge must carefully consider the characteristics of
the recipient community. When recipient community perspectives and social practices vary from
those of the source, the actor initiating knowledge sharing may need to engage in efforts to trans-
form the recipient community rather than transfer new practices. Such an approach has implica-
tions for the structure of knowledge sharing efforts. One obvious example of this is the choice of
transmission channel. In our study, communal video screenings provided a fruitful opportunity
for engagement and discussion, both of which were critical for community transformation. Other
technologies may provide fewer opportunities. Mobile technology, in particular, is much more
individualized, thus lessening the opportunity for discussion. While we believe that mobile plat-
forms offer great promise in terms of increasing access to knowledge, we encourage practition-
ers to carefully consider the trade-offs in terms of community transformation. A second practical
implication of our study is how practitioners influence the success of knowledge transfer by
engaging in specific practices. Of particular importance were the ground rules that the local
NGOs implemented for discussion. In some regions, NGOs were much more successful in facili-
tating rich discussion that spurred permanent community changes. While we saw little evidence
that the NGOs changed the broader social context in the short time-span of a few years, our study
suggests that small changes in practice can have dramatic effects on the success of knowledge
sharing across social groups. In conclusion, our study explores knowledge sharing in the context
of inequality and poverty. We explore how boundary work and syncretism can transform knowl-
edge and the recipient community. While the process is complex and fragile, such efforts may
present an important path for social and economic transformation in some of the poorest areas of
This research was supported by Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (GRF Grants: PolyU 548210 to the
first author and PolyU 549211 to the first and the third author), travel funding from the Higgin Kim Business
Program at Miami University (to the second author), and IDRC Doctoral Research Award (# 107473-
99906075-074 to the third author).
1. To preserve anonymity we have used a pseudonym for the organization.
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Qureshi et al. 25
Israr Qureshi is a Professor at the Research School of Management, Australian National University. He is
currently involved in multiple research projects that investigate various aspects of social value creation
through social entrepreneurship, indigenous entrepreneurship, and ICTD. He uses both qualitative and quan-
titative approaches, and his research has been published in Academy of Management Learning and Education,
European Journal of Information Systems, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Experimental Social
Psychology, Journal of Management, Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Organization Behavior,
MIS Quarterly, Organizational Research Methods, and Organization Studies, among others.
Chris Sutter joined Miami University in 2013 after completing a PhD at Ohio State. His research focuses on
how best to foster entrepreneurship in developing countries as a means of economic development. Specifically,
he studies how knowledge and institutions influence entrepreneurial activity in these environments. His work
has been published in leading academic journals such as Academy of Management Journal, Journal of
Business Venturing, and Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice. He has ongoing or completed fieldwork in
Guatemala, Nicaragua, India, and Ghana.
Babita Bhatt is a Lecturer at Research School of Management, Australian National University. She earned her
PhD from Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interest lies at the intersection of
community, civil society and organizations. She applies social capital theory and capability approach to
understand how social impact is achieved by organizations engaged in poor communities. Her work has been
published in Organization Studies and Journal of Business Ethics, and has received funding from IDRC,
Canada and RGC, Hong Kong.