January 14, 2013

Why Your Organization Should Support a Knowledge Sharing Culture

Segretaria stressataThere is a fundamental problem that exists in the typical business workplace today. Chances are that you or someone in your office is already painfully aware of it. We’ve seen an explosion in the number of people whose jobs are directly related to their expertise, and for whom ‘what they know’ has become a kind of ‘insurance’ plan.

Have you ever heard a colleague proclaim “If I’m the only one who knows how to do this, ‘they’ can never fire me.” We’ve all heard similar comments and perhaps even nodded along, or said the words ourselves. But what is the actual cost of this kind of environment of knowledge hoarding. Research in fact suggests that it cuts much deeper than just the upfront issues with bottle necks and heavy retraining costs. The most serious costs of a knowledge hoarding culture are that the institution is stifled when it comes to innovation.

Business objects

In today’s economy innovation is incredibly important for virtually every organization. The constant quest for innovation is probably what inspired you to check out the latest eLearning blogs and to read an article like this one. We are guaranteed that our competition will innovate, and if we don’t, we’ll fall behind.

In this article I’ll talk about shifting from a knowledge hoarding culture to a knowledge sharing culture in your organization. I’ll include a deeper definition of knowledge management in order to help give a context for the issues of knowledge sharing. I’ll recount the current corporate climate and provide a hot list of motives to make this change a reality in your company. Finally, I’ll address the practical issues of implementing a culture of knowledge sharing. I should rather say that I’ll focus on the practical technical issues, as we won’t have time to go deeply into the social issues, and an enormous amount has already been written about that.

Defining Knowledge Management & Knowledge Sharing
So what is knowledge management? And what is knowledge sharing in that context?
Ron Young provides a useful definition of knowledge management in the corporate context. He says that “Managing knowledge effectively … is about identifying critical knowledge areas (things) that will make a ‘big difference‘… (STEP ONE: IDENTIFY THE BIG STUFF).


Young goes on to say that it involves “capturing and synthesizing new learning’s and ideas” (STEP TWO: CAPTURE A RECORD OF THE IMPORTANT STUFF WE HAVE LEARNED). Next Ron suggests that for knowledge management to be complete, knowledge sharing must occur. So he includes “… retaining knowledge, transferring or sharing knowledge (STEP THREE: SHARE & TRANSFER KNOWLEDGE IN A BROAD WAY AMONG EMPLOYEES).

Finally Ron reminds us that without using the ideas and knowledge that we’ve worked so hard to cultivate and share, the process cannot payoff. He explains that … “applying knowledge to make the best decisions requires the best communications, collaboration, learning and knowledge strategies, processes, methods tools and techniques. (STEP FOUR: APPLY WHAT YOU LEARN IN ORDER TO INNOVATE).

Knowledge Hoarding and the Current Corporate Climate
Knowledge management is of course entirely dependent on the context of companies today. It can be difficult to toss all large organizations into a single bucket. Corporate cultures can vary enormously, depending largely on the policies and histories they’ve experienced to date. There are, however, some commonalities that are frequently seen across various enterprises. Those are usually things like knowledge hoarding that relate to universal human behaviors.

Nobody wants to lose their job. So the idea of knowledge hoarding to protect one’s job is present wherever employees have witnessed downsizing, firings, or layoffs that the employees have regarded as arbitrary or capricious. If someone’s departure seemed unfair, you’re likely to consider whether or not you could simply be pummeled by the almighty hand of … ‘the boss.’
But we’ve been dealing with this sort of thing in business for ages.

It was no different 50 years ago. Why should anything change now? In this section I’ll examine that question as well as the issues surrounding a transition from the traditional culture of knowledge hoarding to a culture of knowledge sharing. I’ll also describe some potential organizational approaches to motivating participation in a knowledge sharing culture.

Business - group of businesspeople in office

One thing is clear when we start to examine this kind of cultural shift is that we are working with real people, who have deeply held beliefs and deeply entrenched behaviors. Motivating positive change can be extremely difficult, but it is impossible if the organization doesn’t make a significant change in terms of its management policies and choices. In order to adopt a policy of knowledge sharing, and maintain that level of innovation – companies will have to create atmospheres in which sharing knowledge is ‘safe’.

In other words, you can’t just mine the knowledge of the top performers, and then fire them all and replace them with earners. Such behavior will be detected by employees immediately, and you’ll end up with a culture far worse than you had to begin with. However, if your desire to innovate is authentic, and your belief in knowledge sharing as a road to that goal is genuine, you can approach the problem transparently and it is possible to implement this sort of approach. After all, there is something in it for everyone.

So how can we move our organizations from a culture of knowledge hoarding to a culture of knowledge sharing? Dr. David Zweig, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto has studied knowledge hoarding extensively and has made some recommendations. I’ve combined Zweig’s recommendations with my own to cultivate a simple list. These can be summarized briefly as;

  • Make it Safe
  • Make it Count
  • Make it Social
  • Make it Safe
    Create a safe environment for knowledge sharing. That means create a climate where people can be reassured that they will not be at risk for the knowledge and ideas that they share. Studies have shown that there are a few major fears and concerns employees have when it comes to knowledge sharing. Zwieg and colleague Susan Brodt identify these as distrust of management, insecurity in one’s job performance & organizational climate. In other words you’re afraid that the man is out to get you, you’re worried that people will find out you aren’t perfect, and nobody else does it, why should I?

    These can and should be addressed by creating a shared climate rich in rewards for collaboration and sharing. You will also want to ensure employees that nobody is judging their performance and that these efforts cannot and will not be used to evaluate them. They need to know that their knowledge sharing efforts cannot be used against them in any way, and can only count toward positive outcomes. Finally you’ll need to create a framework for sharing, both socially and technologically where the atmosphere is strongly conducive to sharing. You’ll need to openly and publicly proclaim this as a priority both for the company and for individuals.

    Make it Count
    In order for this to catch on in the organization, Zwieg and other researchers suggest a reward system. You’ll need to incentivize participation in the knowledge sharing – perhaps by making it a key factor in the annual performance review of individuals. Keep in mind that the performance indicators here need to be focused on the ‘ACT OF SHARING KNOWLEDGE’ rather than on the quality of work or other elements – in order to obey the first principle.

    Make it Social
    Finally, leverage the technology to make the shared knowledge a SOCIAL experience. Keep the humanity in it. People love to create and share in a social context. This is in part because the social space can provide a kind of intrinsic reward that can be even more motivating than the financial incentives of performance reviews. By working within the kinds of social media conventions we’ve seen evolve in the last few years, incorporating video & audio, making the content human and relevant – in tune with today’s technologies you both create a record of the shared knowledge and you further motivate participation.

    People are motivated to participate for many reasons. One often underestimated motivation is to help others. You can appeal to the desire to aid others in order to solicit buy in from some of your more committed employees. You can also motivate participation by promoting the project as the work of the ‘team’ refocusing energy on the idea that when the company thrives, individuals thrive. You can also motivate individuals by financial and performance incentives.
    Dan Pink has an enormously successful video on YouTube with nearly 10 million views to date in which he describes the psychological and behavioral research behind motivation. I’ll share the link with you so you can enjoy the video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

    Pink reveals some interesting research which shows that financial rewards that stack incentives based on performance, you can actually get negative outcomes.

    Understanding motivation in your organization is going to require some deeper understanding of your own corporate climate. You may well find that one of these approaches is better for you in one context than it might be for the next person. The big keys to keeping motivation in tact in this context are going to revolve around those three principles I just mentioned. Make it safe, make it count (maybe financial, maybe interpersonal) and Make it Social.

    Practially Speaking: How you Can Shift from Knowledge Hoarding to Knowledge Sharing in Your Organization
    So the time comes to consider how you can implement a knowledge sharing culture technically. In this section I’ll describe the more practical elements of implementing a knowledge sharing solution. You’ll want to identify the experts, facilitate the capture of information & knowledge via technology, and track the outcomes in order to optimize your methods in the future.
    The first step is to identify the leading thinkers in your organization. Note that this directly correlates to the concepts I expressed at the top of the hour. Remember: Identify, Capture & Share.

    Identification of the big ideas and knowledge in your organization can often be linked to the identification of the thought leaders in your company. Look for people who have demonstrated innovative thinking, who are quick to express ideas at meetings, or who have been identified as experts by others. You might also look for people who seem to cause bottlenecks, or who everyone misses seriously when they are absent. These are the individuals most likely to have vast hoards of knowledge that you’d love to unlock. And these are the people who you’d really want to get working actively and willingly on the sharing of knowledge.
    You’ll want to work with this group to get consensus, to reassure them and dissuade any concerns about sharing information and ideas. You’ll also want to incentivize their participation.

    Once you’ve got buy-in, you’ll need to create a technology infrastructure that can support both a water-cooler like sharing atmosphere, and an ongoing record of the knowledge, which is useful for application of the shared knowledge down the road. There are a variety of technologies that can support modern threaded discussions and social interaction, but virtually none that leave the humanity – the individuality in the communication. Let’s face it; you lose a lot when the conversation is entirely text.

    Adobe engineers looked closely at this problem from a technical perspective and found that while there very little had been done to remove the technical roadblocks to facilitating knowledge sharing. We knew we had an application – called Adobe Presenter, that facilitated training and information sharing by enabling people to effortlessly add audio and some interaction to their PowerPoint decks. But research shows that capturing more of the expert – ideally video is the ideal solution to creating an engaging and relevant record of ideas and information. It was in that light that the team created a new branch of Adobe Presenter – a video branch that enables people to create production quality videos with just a few buttons.

    It is hands down the easiest way in the world to create professional quality videos, from the comfort of your desktop.
    Notably, the Adobe Presenter Video Creator solution solves the Capture, retention and transfer problem. It provides an easy to implement technology that fills this middle ground. As we look forward I’m sure that additional technologies will emerge, giving us more and more options to consider for capturing a record of these ideas.

    Finally you’ll want to track the outcomes of your knowledge sharing initiative. There are a variety of elements that can be tracked. You’ll want to keep a record of communications that employees have which involve knowledge sharing so that you can include those efforts in annual reviews, and so that you can cultivate the most important ideas and information to be used in the innovation. In fact, as innovation is our key objective, you’ll want to ensure that the innovation projects are directly rooted in the records created by the knowledge sharing culture.

    You’ll also want to survey your workforce, both management and staff in order to understand what’s working and what isn’t. You’ll want to get a better sense of perceptions that people and groups have about these measure and work to adjust your approach to strengthen the buy in in the future.

    Man with Touchscreen Assessment

    In summary, there is a significant problem here that can be addressed by migrating a knowledge hoarding culture to a knowledge sharing culture. The potential benefit to every individual in the organization is substantial. These are problems that can be solved with a steady, authentic approach to modification of the behaviors and climate, and simple inexpensive resolution of the technical needs.

    If you have any comments please feel encouraged to share them in the comments section below.

    Posted by Allen Partridge11:56 PM
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