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Why People Fail to Share Knowledge

Knowledge SharingEffective knowledge sharing is the lifeblood to knowledge-based organizations. High-performing organizations are ones that have mastered the art of empowering their newer employees with the knowledge and experience of the more-tenured, highlighting new ways of thinking and doing, and fostering a broad set of avenues for knowledge to flow up, down, and sideways throughout the organization.

Through my years of KM consulting, I’ve noted that too often an organization will focus on trying to fix the tools and technologies around knowledge capture, management, sharing, and finding, without addressing the behavior, processes, and culture that feeds mature knowledge sharing organizations.

Within this framework, the “if you build it they will come,” concept is blatantly false. Most team members won’t gravitate toward the shiny new tool just for the sake of it. A new technology may attract a small subset of early adopters or may generate an initial burst of interest, but without a focus on instilling and maintaining a culture of knowledge sharing in your organization, these tools can only do so much.

In my experience, there are three primary reasons people don’t share their knowledge, especially in the context of tacit knowledge capture in online KM Systems like communities of practice, micro-blogs, and threaded discussions.

  • Lack of Priority – When we speak with knowledge holders we often hear phrases that include, “I don’t have time,” or “I’m too busy.” This often gets diagnosed as a lack of interest in sharing one’s knowledge, but at EK we often find the root cause to be a lack of priority stemming from management. If an organization doesn’t stress the value and importance of sharing knowledge, enterprise knowledge sharing can’t be woven into the fabric of the institution.
  • Worry About Being Replaced – Everyone has heard the phrase, “Knowledge is Power.” Unfortunately, many people tend to consider this as job security. We often encounter individuals uninterested in knowledge sharing because they want to be the person with the answers. For them, empowering others with that knowledge means they’re less essential to the organization. We commonly see this in highly competitive organizations or functions and industries already experiencing high turnover.
  • Fear of Getting in Trouble – In more heavily regulated organizations, individuals often have it drilled into them that anything digital is discoverable in court. This can sometimes lead to a negative loop, where individuals avoid documenting their knowledge. Even in less heavily regulated organizations, certain organizational cultures punish the squeaky wheel and instead encourage their employees to keep their heads down and get the job done the way it has always been done.

Though developing and sustaining a culture of knowledge sharing in your organization requires a broad array of techniques and tools, there are several keys that I find to be critical to overall success.

  • Start at the Top – Knowledge sharing culture, like most organizational culture change, starts at the top. The leaders of an organization can invigorate or kill a knowledge sharing initiative based on the support they give it and whether they themselves use it. If an organization’s management sets knowledge sharing as a priority, it will be so. I recently had a CEO tell me he would write the first micro-blog for the company’s new wall and commit to visiting the space at least once a week. That type of leadership doesn’t always exist, but where it does, you’re likely to see a much easier transition to effective knowledge sharing at all levels.
  • Reward and Honor Knowledge Sharing – Organizations that are the most effective at knowledge sharing are those that treat their experts like rock stars. The holders of knowledge should be rewarded not just for having it, but for sharing it. Effectively rewarding and honoring knowledge sharing can take many different forms. It can include tying knowledge sharing metrics to real incentives (bonuses, positive reviews, etc.), but certainly doesn’t have to. Simply recognizing individuals as experts and broadly thanking them is oftentimes enough. One organization with whom we’ve worked has begun providing unique online badges and titles to those who have shared their knowledge energetically and effectively, and the results have been excellent, with more in the organization seeking the same recognition and wanting to participate.
  • Protect Your Knowledge Sharers – Ensure you’ve established appropriate governance, workflows, and training for knowledge sharing. This goes beyond saying “No, Stan, this is not the place for you to share pictures of your eight cats wearing matching bow ties.” Depending on the industry and framework of your organization, you need to protect your employees by putting the appropriate controls in place so they leverage their knowledge sharing tools in the ways for which they’re intended. Mistakes will happen, so having the right level of reviews and shepherding of content is also a critical investment to ensure these systems trend towards “better” instead of “worse.”
  • Think About Email – People use email because it is easy, familiar, and fast. As you’re designing your future knowledge sharing systems and processes, recognize that it takes no more than 45 seconds to send an email with an attachment. Design your knowledge sharing system to allow someone to share in 45 seconds or less. That means sacrificing some level of granularity for the overall usability, but the level of participation will increase as the barrier to entry decreases. 
  • Provide Context – Knowledge sharing systems without context quickly stagnate. If you’ve defined a broad and shallow community of practice for “Innovation” around your organization, don’t expect a lot of conversation. Knowledge sharing formats, especially at first, work best with more specific topics and context from day one. The fastest buy-in for knowledge sharing tools happen when the conversation has already begun. To that end, in advance of deploying a tool…
  • …Seed Your Content – A critical step in the design and deployment of a knowledge sharing system is mapping what I call the “Eaters” and “Feeders” in the organization (those who will primarily consume content, and those who will primarily supply content). Recognize, too, that a Feeder on one topic is a potential Eater on another. Prior to rolling out a new tool, make sure you’ve enlisted a key number of your Feeders to begin conversations and use these tools in order that, by the time the Eaters get to see it, there’s something for them to consume.
  • Communication Goes Both Ways – As with any KM initiative, two-way communications are critical for success. Help your users understand the importance and value of knowledge sharing, but also continuously seek their guidance and feedback on how to make it easier and better for them. If you’ve got a knowledge sharing tool or are planning on rolling one out, I strongly recommend you create a specific forum for ideas on how to improve the tool!

If you’re struggling with instilling a culture of knowledge sharing and setting up the right processes and technologies to leverage and help sustain it, let us know. We would love to share more of our own knowledge with you.

Zach Wahl Zach Wahl

Expert in knowledge and information management strategy, content strategy, and taxonomy design. Zach is passionate about forming and supporting high-functioning teams and facilitating results-focused outcomes with his clients.


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