Research Output

Capital in communities: the case of the Cipher Challenge

  Much of the literature on communities of practice is concerned with enhancing collaborative work at the level of a single organisation (for example, Huberman & Hogg, 1994) or networks of organisations (for example, Huang, Newell, & Galliers, 2002). It is generally accepted that such collaborative work in these communities depends on the encouragement of knowledge sharing between parties. Therefore several studies from the early-1990s onwards (for example, Constant, Kiesler & Sproull, 1994) have sought to understand the factors that encourage and inhibit knowledge sharing in environments where extensive use is made of technology. More recently this work has considered, for example, knowledge sharing with reference to collaborative software development (Lerner & Tirole, 2002) and economic self-interest in discussion groups (Gray & Meister, 2001, May), as well as attempted to model transactions that occur when parties collaborate in communities (Faraj & Wasko, c2001).
Researchers have concluded that knowledge sharing is more likely to occur when individuals hold strong beliefs about organisational ownership of their information and expertise (Jarvenpaa & Staples, 2001, p. 165), and when a positive attitude towards knowledge sharing is promoted within the organisation (Bock & Kim, 2002). These conclusions apply to the business environment where individuals are bound into a particular set of operations with a common corporate goal. How applicable are they, however, in a “social” setting in which participants have no work-based commitments to one another?
This paper reports on a research project that examined the motivations to knowledge share in a world-wide virtual community comprising an e-group of over 2,500 code breaking enthusiasts. The discussion group included school children, amateur code breakers and professionals. For just over one year the members of this community were in competition with one another to decipher ten messages that had been encrypted in the The code book published on 2 September 1999 (Singh, 1999). They exchanged messages to provide hints, ideas, support and encouragement about the Cipher Challenge. Five Swedes won the challenge on 7 October 2000.
Of particular interest to the study was the tension between the goal of each participant to win the £10,000 prize and the apparent willingness of individuals to help their rivals. What were the factors that motivated weakly tied individuals, located in a virtual community, working towards a goal that only one (or one set) could achieve, to share valuable knowledge capital? Results were derived from data generated from answers to a questionnaire survey and follow-up interviews with e-group members. They revealed interesting findings. Although motivation to participate was ostensibly to share knowledge, personal gain – in terms of help with particular problems, and support and encouragement from others in the same position – was a more important factor for engagement. Lessons learnt on the importance of knowledge capital and social capital to the group’s membership may be applicable in certain business settings where virtual communities of practice are “created” to meet corporate goals.

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  • Date:

    30 November 2002

  • Publication Status:


  • Publisher


  • Library of Congress:

    QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science


Hall, H. (2002). Capital in communities: the case of the Cipher Challenge. In Virtual communities 2003



Virtual communities; knowledge sharing; Cipher Challenge; e-group; social capital; corporate goals;

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