Engineering serendipity: When does knowledge sharing lead to knowledge production?

Jacqueline N. Lane*, Ina Ganguli, Patrick Gaule, Eva Guinan, Karim R. Lakhani

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)
69 Downloads (Pure)


We investigate how knowledge similarity between two individuals is systematically related to the likelihood that a serendipitous encounter results in knowledge production. We conduct a field experiment at a medical research symposium, where we exogenously varied opportunities for face-to-face encounters among 15,817 scientist-pairs. Our data include direct observations of interaction patterns collected using sociometric badges, and detailed, longitudinal data of the scientists' postsymposium publication records over 6 years. We find that interacting scientists acquire more knowledge and coauthor 1.2 more papers when they share some overlapping interests, but cite each other's work between three and seven times less when they are from the same field. Our findings reveal both collaborative and competitive effects of knowledge similarity on knowledge production outcomes. Managerial Summary: Managers often try to stimulate innovation by encouraging serendipitous interactions between employees, for example by using office space redesigns, conferences and similar events. Are such interventions effective? This article proposes that an effective encounter depends on the degree of common knowledge shared by the individuals. We find that scientists who attend the same conference are more likely to learn from each other and collaborate effectively when they have some common interests, but may view each other competitively when they work in the same field. Hence, when designing opportunities for face-to-face interactions, managers should consider knowledge similarity as a criteria for fostering more productive exchanges.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1215-1244
Number of pages30
JournalStrategic Management Journal
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The analysis strategy relies most critically on the research design's randomization. We use dummy variables for each symposium night and room (i.e., fixed effects) to control for unobserved night and room characteristics. To test Hypotheses (H2c) and (H2d) , we use the dummy variable, to capture whether scientist‐pair {,} included a grant recipient. Among the 306 scientists, 13 pilot grant proposals were awarded funding, comprising 6.54% of pairs with grant awardees. Grant awardee i j

Funding Information:
This work was conducted with support from Harvard Catalyst/The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health Awards UL1TR001102, UL1TR000170, UL1RR025758-02S4, and UL1TR002541), Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard University, Harvard Business School Division of Research and Faculty Development, and financial contributions from Harvard University and its affiliated academic health care centers. The authors also acknowledge Harvard Catalyst infrastructure for support and cooperation in implementing the experiment and providing new data for this analysis. The authors are thankful to Charles Ayoubi, Ethan Bernstein, Linus Dahlander, Giada Di Stefano, Adam Kleinbaum, Rory McDonald, Siobhan O'Mahony, Ryan Raffaelli, Misha Teplitskiy, and the review team at SMJ for comments on earlier drafts. The authors would also like to thank Ruihan Wang for help with data collection.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors. Strategic Management Journal published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Structured keywords

  • ECON Applied Economics


  • innovation
  • knowledge production
  • knowledge sharing
  • knowledge similarity
  • natural field experiment


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