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Transactive Memory System and Creativity of Dutch Designers


The author declares that the text and work presented in this Master thesis are original and that no other sources other than those mentioned in the text and its references have been used in creating the Master thesis.

The copyright of the Master thesis rests with the author. The author is responsible for its contents. RSM Erasmus University is only responsible for the educational coaching and beyond that cannot be held responsible for its contents.


This research examines the impact of the transactive memory system on the creativity of Dutch fashion designers, architects and graphic designers. The transactive memory system (TMS) consists of individual expertise of members as well as their knowledge of ‘who knows what’ and is based on communication. The emphasis in this thesis is given to the retrieval function of the TMS. This function could have an impact on the process of idea generation.

In this research a special focus will be on the concept of ‘ba’, developed by Nonaka (1994). Central to the ‘ba’ stands the idea of knowledge creation during interaction.

Approximately five hundred designers were sent an online survey about the impact of the environment, knowledge creation and knowledge transfer on the retrieval of information during idea generation. The final number of cases used was 128 and these were empirically investigated using a multiple regression analysis.

Results showed that having connections with other individuals did have a significant impact on the creativity of Dutch designers during idea generation (β=.379 significant at level .001).

Furthermore, the use of explicit knowledge showed to have an unexpected positive moderating effect on the relationship between retrieving information and creativity (β=.202 significant at level .05). However, the other aspects did not show significant results.

Chapter 1 Introduction and research topic

‘The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your resources’

Albert Einstein

In order to be successful in the creative industry, designers have to be able to deliver what is perceived to be creative. But what is creativity?

Many researchers focused on the personality approach; defining creativity as a personality trait. Simonton (2003) argued that creativity has three essential components: person, product and process. These components have to be interrelated in order to recognize creativity. Koestler (1964) proposed that creativity involves a ‘bisociative process’- connecting two frames of reference to produce new insight or invention.

Amabile et al (2005) mentioned that creative performance can be affected by the work environment in every context; a school, a room, a design studio or organization. Amabile (1983) focused on the process of creativity and identified that social and environmental influences are also of importance in creative performance. She developed a framework, which describes the way in which cognitive abilities: personality characteristics and social factors might contribute to the different stages of the creative process. Social networks are taken as to be one of these social factors.

How does this work in the creative industry? Designers must have all of the resources and assets available in order to succeed in today’s highly competitive marketplace. But where do new ideas come from? And in what way do these ideas affect creativity?

Marlies Dekkers designs her collections based on a different concept than traditional underwear. Every collection is inspired by movies, art or literature. When she has a moment of inspiration, even if it is in the middle of the night, all the members of her designing team receive a text message with her idea. They all discuss this idea the next morning.

Rem Koolhaas has been successful architect for more than twenty years. He celebrates the chance-like nature of city life: ‘the city is an addictive machine from where there is no escape’. Another key theme in architectural design was introduced by Koolhaas. This notion: the ‘Program’, involves an act to contribute to human activities.

Over the past 15 years Viktor and Rolf have taken the fashion world by storm with their particular blend of cool irony and surreal beauty. They created The House of Viktor & Rolf that presents each of the designer’s signature pieces from 1992 to now, shown in a specially commissioned and characteristically theatrical installation. They are most well-known for their fantastical and concept driven designs and for their conceptually driven fashion show presentations. Subjects of their work include their analysis of fashion and the fashion industry, the idea of the fashion designer as a story teller, transformation and illusions.

Marlies Dekkers, Rem Koolhaas and Viktor & Rolf are successful, but are inspired in different ways. It could be interesting to know in what way social relationships affect creativity; what kinds of relationships are part of the process of generating ideas? Family, friends or peers? And within which context and with what means are these ideas shared, transferred or created?

Perry- Smith and Shalley (2003) focused on the importance of generating creative ideas and tried to explore the association between the context of social relationships and individual creativity.

They argued that informal relationships are more beneficial, in general, than formal relationships for creativity. Informal relationships are not specifically required as a part of the job. These relationships are more likely to provide connections to people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives (Perry-Smith, 2008). Informal ties ease the process of communication rather than formal ties.

Conversations with others can therefore not only be a source of ideas, but also a driving force behind creativity. Nonaka & Toyama (2003) discuss the potential of these dialogues as they introduce the concept of ‘Ba’; a context or place, which can transcend beyond boundaries to create knowledge. Knowledge creation occurs as the actors synthesize tacit and explicit knowledge in social space. Conversations can create new knowledge and enhance creativity. Searching for information and getting inspired is essential during this process.

A transactive memory system (TMS) is a collective memory of who knows what. This is a shared system for encoding, storing and retrieving information (Wegner, 1986). The TMS is based on the idea that individual members can serve as external memory to others. Its value is determined by the willingness of members to search for the specific expertise. Members are able to benefit from each other’s knowledge and expertise if they develop a good, shared understanding of who knows what in the group/unit. They are able to develop deep expertise in specialty areas and they can rely on other members to provide access to others’ specific knowledge (Lewis, 2003). Retrieving information is a valuable asset of a TMS: individuals with specialized expertise can be found quickly. Designer creativity and the retrieval function of a TMS have not yet been associated with each other; connections to people who are creative or have specific expertise may help individuals be more creative (Perry-Smith, 2008).

Therefore the subsequent question will be central in this research:

What is the effect of the retrieval function of a transactive memory system on the creativity of fashion designers, architects and graphic designers in the Netherlands?

The following sub-questions can be derived:

– How is a transactive memory system used to generate new ideas?

– How is a transactive memory system used during the transfer of knowledge?

1.1 Research Objective

The objective of this research is to provide some new insights as to how the retrieval function of the transactive memory system (TMS) can have an impact on the creativity of designers.

The purpose of this research is to test theory and causal relations. The most appropriate research strategy will be the survey design since we are dealing with probabilistic hypotheses.

The numbers of respondents to the survey in this research were 128.

1.2 Thesis structure

The next chapter will discuss the theoretical issues, namely the concept of creativity and the transactive memory system. Chapter 3 will justify the chosen research design and the analysis of the results. The general discussion, implications and recommendations will be described in Chapter 4.

Part I
Chapter 2 Literature Review

‘Everything you can imagine is real’

Pablo Picasso

This chapter will discuss the relationship between the retrieval function of the TMS and creativity as well as different aspects that could moderate this relationship. The first section will explain how retrieving information can play a role during idea generation. The following part will discuss the cognitive elements that could impact this relationship such as absorptive capacity, scanning the environment, the usage of boundary objects and the role of a shared context (‘ba’). A conceptual model will be presented at the end of this chapter, displaying the presumed relationships.


Designers operate in a creative environment and are faces with innovative tasks. They should be able to identify trends and changes during idea generation. This phenomenon called environmental scanning can be used to retrieve relevant information.

Cohen and Levinthal (1990) argue that the ability to exploit external knowledge is critical during the generation of ideas. They introduce the concept of absorptive capacity, which is the ability to take in and make use of new knowledge. In this way, retrieving information requires prior related knowledge to assimilate this newly acquired information.

Sharing information means sharing knowledge. The context in which these interactions take place is crucial. Knowledge is created by means of interaction among individuals or between individuals and their environment. ‘Ba’ is the context shared by those who interact with each other (Nonaka & Toyama, 2003). Thus, designers could retrieve relevant information when participating in a ‘ba’.

To deliver creative products, designers need to be able to combine and integrate knowledge. They could face knowledge boundaries during interaction. Different boundary objects can be used to manage knowledge across boundaries (Carlile, 2002).

The first difficulty that needs to be addressed is the way different types of ‘ba’, the environment and the usage of absorptive capacity are related to retrieving information.

The second problem that needs to be addressed is how boundary objects are being used dring the generation of ideas.

The most common means of identifying creativity has been through its products. In architecture, music, writing, art and even scientific discovery the presence of a creative product is of importance (Akin & Akin, 1998)

Creativity is generally defined as the production of novel, useful ideas or problem solutions. It refers to both the process of idea generation or problem solving and the actual idea or solution (Amabile, 1983).

Drawing on the assumption that novelty is the distinguished feature of creative work, Simonton (1999) focused his theory on variation. In this theory, the process of variation primarily contributes to idea novelty; it is guided by the existence of knowledge elements that are available for combination into new variations within the creator’s mind. According to Simonton (1999), the initial selection of ideas goes on within the mind of the individual creator, through a process of testing them against relevant criteria for novelty. Once an idea has been selected by the creator, developed, and communicated, there is often a second selection process by relevant individuals in a social group or community. In Simonton’s view, creativity depends in large part on novelty, and because novelty is largely a function of cognitive variation, interacting with other individuals is likely to increase the probability of creativity.

Creativity is a choice made by an individual to engage in producing novel ideas; the level of engagement can vary from situation to situation. In this thesis creativity is defined as thinking outside of general frames of reference that leads to generation of novel ideas, solution to problems, or innovations (Akin & Akin, 1998).

In order to create a new product, diverse ideas become available from past experiences. In this way, individuals enrich their own knowledge domain with other knowledgeable persons who help them to retrieve and apply knowledge components during idea generation (Taylor & Greve, 2006).

This means as a conclusion that individual creativity and the ability to deliver innovations depend on interactions in social systems (Amabile, 1996). Relevant ideas can be generated through communication and through the retrieval information from external sources. External knowledge and the interpretation of the environment can be such sources.

2.1 Transactive memory system & creativity

Creativity does not just play a role in arts, invention and innovation; it also is a part of our everyday life (Runco, 2004). He defines creative thinking in terms of cognitive processes that lead to an original and adaptive insight, idea or solution. What is unique about this definition is the reliance on cognitive processes. This definition assumes that all creative work requires some cognition and that everything we do requires information processing. Creative ideas generated from one’s cognitive processes are influenced by the individual’s personal experiences. A combination of individual and other’s knowledge is an ideal means to obtain information and be creative. Strategic management researchers have proposed a knowledge processing view of the firm that emphasizes the importance of social interaction as the process through which knowledge is created and transferred in organizations (Kogut & Zander, 1992; Nonaka, 1994).

Nanaka & Takeuchi (1995) argue that knowledge consists of tacit and explicit dimensions. Explicit knowledge is that which can be expressed in words and numbers. It is easily communicated and shared in the form of hard data, codified procedures or universal principles. In contrast, tacit knowledge is highly personal, difficult to formalize and consist of subjective insights; intuitions and hunches (Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Alavi & Leidner, 2001). These forms of knowledge are mutually dependent and have qualities that reinforce each other. It is via the process of continual interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge that new knowledge is created. Nonaka & Toyama (2003) argue that knowledge creation starts with ‘socialization’, which is the process of converting new tacit knowledge through shared experiences in day-to-day social interaction.

A transactive memory system (TMS)

has been defined as a combination of an individual’s knowledge and a shared awareness of who knows what (Wegner, 1986). This represents a ‘divided up into portions’ type of knowledge sharing. TMS was initially proposed to explain the knowledge residing amongst intimate couples and family members when they are able to bring together disparate knowledge to solve a problem. This means even though the solution to any issue at hand may not be readily available, family members do know how to come together and develop a response. Wegner (1986) explains that members are able to benefit from each other’s knowledge and expertise if they develop a good, shared understanding of who knows what in the unit/group. TMS is built on the distinction between internal and external memory encoding. Often, individuals encode new (tacit) knowledge internally, in their own memory. However, even more often individuals encode or use knowledge encoded externally.

According to Wegner (1986) a TMS can be explained as a set of individual memory systems in combination with the communication that takes place between individuals. He argues that an individual’s memory system becomes connected with those of other individuals involving three stages:

Directory updating. Directory updating or expertise recognition is the process by which team members learn which topics others know without learning the actual information within each topic. Furthermore, members come to understand their own areas of expertise within the team

Communication to allocate information. Communication to allocate information is characterized by a team member using his or her directory of expertise to forward new information outside of his or her domain(s) of expertise (Anand et al 1998).

Communication to retrieve information. Although it is important to possess relevant knowledge, the knowledge must also be utilized to be successful. Communication to retrieve information is the process by which individuals seek specialized information from the team’s domain expert to help in task completion when their personal knowledge bases are insufficient.

A transactive memory system will be most effective when knowledge assignments are based on the members’ actual ability, when there is a shared understanding between the members and when members fulfill expectations (Brandon & Hollingshead, 2004).

This research focuses on the process to retrieve information for it is in the retrieval process where usefulness and efficiency of a TMS can be achieved (Wegner et al 1985). This retrieval process could result in the creation of new knowledge. The creation of new knowledge leads us to creativity. Creativity could be seen as a mental event by which an actor intentionally goes beyond his or her previous experiences in order to gain novel and appropriate outcomes; the TMS can help individuals to achieve these outcomes (Pandza & Thorpe, 2009).

Transactive retrieval requires determining the location of information and sometimes entails the combination or interplay of items coming from multiple locations. This process begins when the person who holds an item internally is not the one who is asked to retrieve it. In transactive memory this can occur when individuals respond to a particular information label and one group member retrieves one item whereas a second member retrieves something quite different. In their discussion it could be determined that two items add up to yet a third idea. These so-called external components of information are not personally known but can be retrieved when required (Anand et al, 1998). If we ask a question to a person who is a well-integrated part of a transactive memory network, this person is often able to answer (after consulting with other network members, of course) with information well beyond his or her internal storage. When team members correctly identify the experts and delegate tasks based on an individual member’s expertise, they perform better (Hollingshead, 2000). Brandon and Hollingshead (2004) argue that representation of tasks is critical to the structure of the TMS; the features of tasks are embedded in the transactive memory process.

In this way, team performance in terms of creativity may depend on whether the group can correctly recognize and utilize the knowledge of its members (Brandon & Hollingshead, 2004). The interaction of different perspectives enabled by a TMS is a large contributor to the discovery of insight and the creation of knowledge (Jehn et al, 1999; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Nonaka & Toyama, 2001).

As individuals will retrieve relevant information via a TMS, it is probable designers will discover new knowledge and improve creativity. Thus, the following hypothesis is defined:

H1: The usage of the retrieval function of the transactive memory system is likely to contribute to creativity

2.2 Interpretation and creating

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, creativity is concerned with generating novel outcomes (Pandza & Thorpe, 2009).

Creativity is defined as the production of novel ideas that are useful and appropriate to a given situation (Amabile, 1983). Cognitive styles are recognized as core characteristics of individual creativity. Cognitive style is a person’s preferred way of gathering, processing and evaluating information. It influences how people scan their environment for information, how they organize and interpret this information and how they integrate their interpretations that guide their actions (Amabile, 1988; Woodman et al., 1993).

According to Miliken (1990), action involves a response based on scanning and interpretation of information. Choo (1996) argues that the principal information process is the interpretation of news and messages about the environment. Individuals must determine what information is significant and should be attended to. Interpretation involves the development of ways of comprehending information; the fitting of information into some structure for understanding action (Thomas et al, 1993). Interpretation of the environment also requires identifying threats and opportunities (Miliken, 1990); which requires designers to assess the meaning and significance of each trend, change and event they noticed during the scanning phase.

During this phase information is gathered. If one has access to more information, it is also important to select information that is useful to interpret issues (Thomas et al, 1993). Another purpose of scanning is identifying the key trends, changes and events in an environment that might affect performance (Miliken, 1990).

Monitoring and analyzing the environment enhances the ability to enter new knowledge domains. Information about the environment can be gathered through different channels, such as personal relationships with peers (Danneels, 2008). Daft and Lengel (1986) explain that the interpretation of the environment is the source of information processing. Cohen and Levinthal (1990) argue that the ability to recognize the value of new information using prior knowledge is critical to innovative capabilities. This phenomenon, called absorptive capacity is used to give rise to creativity; using prior knowledge to assimilate and use new knowledge. An amount of absorptive capacity is needed to increase both the ability to acquire new knowledge and the ability to retrieve and use it (Cohen & Levinthal, 1990).

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the retrieving function of the transactive memory system could be used to acquire new data, which is combined with the creation of new interpretations about the environment, which in turn can reduce the uncertainty about the environment. Taking the importance of the ability to interact in different contexts, scanning the environment could put some people in more advantageous positions than others to be creative. Some persons are considered to have contacts with individuals in other fields of expertise who may possess or develop knowledge that can have an impact on their current work. Creative individuals who interact with other designers and are aware of trends could be considered to achieve more creative ideas. Individuals can scan the environment and benefit from this novel information flow. TMS can increase this learning process and can act as an interactive mechanism (Austin, 2003). A certain amount of absorptive capacity and environmental scanning could affect the relationship between the retrieval function of the TMS and creativity. Therefore the following hypotheses are defined:

H2: high levels of absorptive capacity will moderate the relationship between the retrieval function of the TMS and creativity, such that retrieval is more likely to have a positive relationship with creativity

H3: environmental scanning will moderate the relationship between the retrieval function of the TMS and creativity, such that retrieval is more likely to have a positive relationship with creativity

2.3 Boundary objects

Interacting to develop a shared understanding can be done using language and other symbols.

Individuals articulate what they intuitively know through dialogue and discourse (Choo, 1996). Texts are a variety of forms including written documents, verbal reports, art work, spoken words, pictures, symbols, buildings and other artifacts (Philip et al, 2004). Carlile (2002) define these objects as ‘boundary objects’. The notion of boundary objects was first introduced by Star and Griesemer (1989), who described the attributes of boundary objects that enable them to serve as translation devices; they have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable and function as a means of translation. Boundary objects can adapt to different context simultaneously while maintaining a common identity across all context, allowing each group to decontextualize its knowledge for use in common space and recontextualize it for use in its own practice (Bowker and Star, 1999). Boundary objects are enabled via ingoing transactions but also enable interaction. Carlile (2002) distinguishes among different types of boundaries- syntactic, semantic and pragmatic- that require different types of boundary objects:

Repositories supply a common reference point of data, measures or labels across functions that provide shared definitions and values for solving problems. This object establishes a shared syntax or language for individuals to represent their knowledge.

Standardized forms and methods provide a shared format for solving problems across different functional settings. These objects provide a concrete means for individuals to specify and learn about their differences and dependencies across a given boundary.

Objects, models and maps are simple but complex representations that can be observed and then used across different functional settings. These objects facilitate a process where individuals can jointly transform their knowledge.

A syntactical approach is based on the existence of a shared and sufficient syntax at a given boundary. A common syntax or language is shared between the ‘sender’ and receiver. Integrating devices are processing tools (repositories) and integration is accomplished through processing information. When novelty arises, the sufficiency of the syntax is in question and another boundary is faced. A semantic approach recognizes that there are always differences in kind and the emergence of novelty is a natural outcome in settings where innovation is required. Integrating devices are seen as processes or methods for translating and learning about differences at a boundary, but when negative consequences are faced, another boundary arises.

A pragmatic approach recognizes that knowledge is localized, embedded and invested in practice. This view highlights the negative consequences that can arise given the differences at a boundary. Integrating devices (objects, models and maps) are used to create new knowledge. Sketches can be seen as a pragmatic boundary object during idea generation. In order to move beyond a knowledge barrier, designers can use sketches to communicate and explain their ideas to others.

Individuals must be able to alter the content of a boundary object to apply what they know (Carlile, 2002). As novelty of the situation increases, this study argues that designers, who face more pragmatic boundaries, will need boundary objects to see consequences of social interactions with others. In the engineering industry, all the information is expresses in a common framework using 3-D design so that everyone concerned with the project can quickly respond to each other (Baba & Nobeoka, 1998). Visual tools, such as sketches, facilitate the processing of novel information and may lead to a faster understanding (Feiereisen et al, 2008). Thus the following hypothesis is developed:

H4: the usage of pragmatic boundary objects will moderate the relationship between the retrieval function of the TMS and creativity, such that retrieval is more likely to have a positive relationship with creativity

2.4 Knowledge through ‘ba’

Information becomes knowledge if it is given meaning through interpretation and interaction.

Knowledge exchange cannot simply be a matter of transferring it across groups engaged in different practices; knowledge must be transformed through decontextualization and recontextualization (Spender, 1996)

Tsoukas (2002) argues that these mechanisms to interact can be used to predict and guide behavior. These tools can enable a skilled user to get things done and need to become instruments through which we act- of which we are subsidiarily aware- not objects of attention. Objects can be used to ease the transfer of tacit knowledge, since this knowledge is not visible. Tacit knowledge is highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or share with others. Whereas explicit knowledge can be expressed in words and numbers and shared in the form of data (Nonaka et al, 2000). The most explicit kind of knowledge is underlain by tacit knowledge (Tsoukas, 2002).

Although the tacit knowledge of each individual is personal and unique, it can be absorbed by others through social relationships and collaboration (Mascitelli, 2000).

Nonaka (1994) introduced the concept of ‘ba’ to be specific to knowledge creation in order to include these concept-specific items. According to him, ‘ba’ can be thought of as a shared space for emerging relationships. This space can be physical (e.g an office), virtual (email, teleconference), mental (shared experiences, ideas) or any combination of them. What differentiates ‘ba’ from ordinary human interaction is the concept of knowledge creation. According to Nonaka et al (2000), ‘ba’ provides a platform for advancing individual and collective knowledge. Knowledge is embedded in ‘ba ‘where it is then acquired through one’s own experience or reflections on the experience of others (Nonaka et al. 2000). An environment is created, whether physical or virtual, that lends itself to the creation and sharing of knowledge. It can emerge in individuals as well as in teams and is an existential place where participants share their contexts and create new meanings through interactions (Nonaka & Toyama, 2003).

Participants of ba bring in their own contexts and through interactions with others and the environment, the contexts of ‘ba’, participants and the environment, change. A good ‘ba’ needs participants with multiple contexts and yet a shared context is necessary for a ‘ba’ to exist (Nonaka et al, 2000). It sets a boundary for interactions among individuals and yet the boundary is open. It is not bound to a certain space or time (Nonaka and Toyama, 2003).

When participating in a ‘ba’, it is important that these individuals share time and space through their direct experience.

As mentioned before a good ‘ba’ can provide a platform for advancing individual and/or collective knowledge ( Nonaka et al, 2000).

A TMS can be seen as a combination of knowledge possessed by individuals and focuses on the utilization of expertise (Hollingshead, 2000; Lewis, 2003; Wegner, 1986).

This expertise could be gathered by the retrieval function of the TMS, creating a ‘ba’, where during interaction, new insights and new knowledge can be developed and in turn, could enhance creativity.

An originationg ‘ba’, a dialoguing ‘ba’, a systemizing ‘ba’ and an exercising ‘ba’ support a particular knowledge conversion process and there by ‘ba’ speeds up the process of knowledge creation:

2.4.1 Originating ‘ba’

An originating ‘ba’ takes place in a world where individuals share feelings, emotions, experiences and mental models. An individual sympathizes or further empathizes with others, removing the barriers between the self and others. It is the primary ‘ba’ from which the knowledge creation process begins

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