Understanding factors that enhance or diminish performance levels of individuals is instrumental for achieving individual (low level) and organisational (high level) goals. In this study, the effect of social network structure, position, ties and information and communication technologies (ICT) use on performance attitudes of knowledge intensive workers in dispersed occupational communities is investigated.
Based on social network theories of strength of weak ties and structural holes, and the social influence model of technology use, a theoretical framework is developed. In conjunction with qualitative interviews conducted with subject matter experts, the framework is used to further develop and refine a valid and reliable survey instrument. Secondly, network measures of degree centrality, density, structural holes (constraint and efficiency), tie strength and tie diversity are applied for exploring the association with ICT use and performance from a sample of 110 rural general practitioners.
Empirical results suggest that network structure, position and ties of knowledge workers play a crucial role in individual performance and ICT use. In particular, degree centrality and task-level ICT use was found to be positively associated with performance while ego-network constraint was found to be negatively correlated with performance. In terms of ICT use, functional diversity and degree centrality were positively associated with task-level ICT use whereas ego-network efficiency was found to be negatively correlated with ICT use at the communication-structure level. Among the variables that showed significance, degree centrality best explained overall variance for performance, and functional diversity best explained overall variance for task-level ICT use, although professional accreditations remains a potent indicator also.
The results from this study resonate with findings from past literature and extend traditional theory of social networks and performance within the micro level to include geographically dispersed individuals involved in knowledge intensive work. For individuals in such non-competitive settings, traditional network theories such as structural holes theory still apply. However, a key finding is that network structure is a much more potent predictor of performance although network position is important. The second key finding addresses a major gap in the literature concerning understanding social processes that influence ICT use. As the technology acceptance and the social influence models lack empirical evidence from a social networks perspective, this research shows that rather than the strength of ties which functions as a conduit of novel ideas and information, it is the functional tie diversity within individual professionals networks that increase ICT use at the task-level.
Methodologically, the study contributes towards a triangulation approach that utilises both qualitative and quantitative methods for operationalising the study. The quantitative method includes a non-traditional “networks” method of data collection and analysis to serve as a fine complement to traditional research methods in behavioural studies. The outcome is a valid and reliable survey instrument that allows collection of both individual attribute and social network data. The instrument is theoretically driven, practically feasible to implement, time-efficient and easily replicable for other similar studies.
At the domain level, key findings from this study contradict previous literature which suggests that professionals in occupational communities such as general practitioners decline in performance as they age. In fact, findings from this study suggest that age and experience do not affect for performance; rather, there is a negative relationship between experience and task-level ICT use, and that task-level ICT use is positively associated with performance in terms of attitudes to interpersonal care. Furthermore, degree centrality is also positively associated with professional accreditations, such as fellowship of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, which is conducive to performance in terms of attitudes to interpersonal and technical care. The contextual implication from the quantitative and qualitative evidence of this study is that while contemplating strategies for optimising ICT use or for improving attitudes to quality of care at the technical and interpersonal level, the importance of social structure, position and relations in the practitioner’s professional network needs to be considered carefully as part of the overall individual and organisation-level goals.