posted 1 Nov 1998 in Volume 2 Issue 3
The Seven Social Challenges of
Developing a Knowledge Sharing Culture over an Intranet
Simply installing an Intranet may
not significantly increase knowledge sharing because social interaction is
driven by desire rather than capability. Here, Mick Cope explores the concept of
personality types and reveals the importance of the internal social
Consider where you live, and think about how often you take the time to
share knowledge with your neighbours. Even worse, how many neighbours do you
actually talk to? Now imagine that the local telephone company has installed a
free intranet for the street. Does this mean that you will talk to Mrs Kite down
the road, or will you ask Mr Downer for advice on how to fix the television?
For a social
organisation that has a highly interactive style, there is a good chance that an
intranet will add value to the sharing process. However, if the organisation has
a passive style where little interaction takes place between the people, then
installing an intranet might not add any value to the sharing process. Hence,
the adoption of intranet technology might not significantly increase knowledge
sharing because social interaction is driven by desire rather than
article offers the view that organizations must map and understand how their
internal social system operates before contemplating an investment in an
intranet. This growth in awareness can be facilitated by using a diagnostic
model which considers the following:-
||The extent to which
people freely interact with each other can be mapped against a five-step
learning ladder |
||The extent to which a
range of social factors amplify or attenuate the interactive
Once these two factors are mapped
against each other, the resulting profile can be used to gauge the extent to
which the intranet will facilitate the sharing of knowledge within the
The Learning Ladder
The first stage is to consider the
organisation's style and understand the different ways that people interact. At
the lowest level on the ladder there is little interaction between people, and
hence there is little learning or knowledge being shared within the business. At
the highest level, people interact in a proactive and open way, and actively
seek to share knowledge with each other. The five levels are:
Inactive - Passive behaviour where little interest is
shown in the idea of connecting with other people.
Where learning occurs as something that is 'done to' rather than 'done by' an
Active - A desire to interact, but within the limited
boundaries set by the individual, team or organisation.
Proactive - A desire
to learn and to achieve this by moving outside of the more traditional
boundaries and relationships.
Individuals that view the social network as part of the knowledge creation
process and not just a medium for its transfer.
The proposition is that organizations
who operate at the lower level of the ladder will gain little from any
investment in an intranet. Those that operate at the upper level of the ladder
will actively use, effectively discover, diffuse and deliver knowledge to the
The seven social challenges
Once the variability of connection is
understood, it can be used to measure how people behave in a range of social
seven social factors used in this model have been selected because they have a
close relationship with the knowledge sharing process. In particular it can be
argued that they play a significant role in the attenuation or amplification of
knowledge as it flows through the business. The seven factors are:
These seven factors are briefly described below, along with an
indication of the type of language or behaviour that might be associated with
each of the levels on the learning ladder.
1. Communities of
People typically form communities of interest to share ideas or learn
from one another. They consist of individuals who carry out similar roles, share
similar competencies, or have a shared goal. Like the sales people that meet
together every morning for coffee, it may be that they have little in common but
for this one key thing they share an interest that they are keen to talk about,
specifically how to identify new sales leads.
However, although communities can
facilitate the free flow of knowledge, in many cases they can act as a barrier.
The close tribalism that emerges from this type of behaviour can in many cases
stovepipe knowledge, such that is cannot be shared beyond the local
people will accept the problem, and might even see it as beneficial, however
interactive people will use the community as a knowledge spring and will take
learning and apply it in the wider domain.
'I take ideas I get
from my group and then try to apply them in other situations within the
'I actively scan the wall boards for groups that
operate in my area of interest.'
'I keep an eye out for groups that
might be of interest.'
'I will go to a group meeting if
'I get more than enough information from managers on
how to do my job.'
2. Skill Searching
Within any organisation, one
commercial differentiator is the synergy that arises as people pool and share
skills, examples being the product manager that needs advice on how to market a
new product, or the line manager that consults a personnel officer about an
impeding industrial tribunal. The question is, how do people undertake the
search process that leads them to the various pools of expertise?
organisation that does not have an intranet, the tendency is to either use the
existing formal relationships or draw upon the shadow network of personal
contacts. The $64,000 question is what happens to people's behaviour when the
intranet is installed? Do they continue to take a passive approach and import
skills from their existing pool of resource, or are they encouraged to use the
increased connectivity to scan and search the business for other people that
might be able to offer new skills to their area of interest?
check to see if this has happened anywhere else.'
'I wonder what
would happen if I spoke to...'
'Where can I get someone to help me
'OK-let me know where he is and I'll see if he can
'I'll call my friend up to see if he can help.'
Imagine a busy office at a photocopier repair centre. As the engineering
field supervisor walks out of her office, she notices a few people hanging
around the canteen talking. Often the reaction to this might be to tell them to
get along and do their work, or in some cases to take disciplinary action.
Although it might well be that these people were wasting time, it might also be
that they were sharing valuable knowledge among themselves - discussing some of
the irritating problems that seem to be cropping up but they have been unable to
resolve individually. In this case knowledge is being shared but in a way that
the senior managers do not get sight of and have little control over.
The possible downside is
that it is highly linked to the personality of the individuals and the way in
which they choose to connect with other people. So whilst the inactive person
will happily confine their circle of conversation to those people that they know
well and feel comfortable with, the interactive person will actively use social
interaction as a tool to disseminate and gather new knowledge.
allocate time in my diary to meet new people. I do web searches to find new
'I make a point of saying hello to new people that I see
in the office.'
'I always keep an eye out for new people in the
building and find out where they are from.'
'If someone talks to
me I will always share ideas with them.'
'I just stick to talking
with people I know regarding any office issues.'
The extent to which
knowledge can flow through an organisation is likely to be dependent on the role
and strength of the internal political system.
Politics are a natural part of
life, and seeking to eliminate them would be as practical as trying to eliminate
world poverty. However, what is important is the way that people tackle and manage
the political process. The passive or inactive person will simply tolerate
and accept that it is a way of life and might let it dominate the knowledge
sharing process. However, the interactive person will actively seek to use the
political process, but in a positive way. Although this might be viewed as
machiavellian in nature, this is not so. It just requires a positive and open reframing of
the understanding of politics; to consciously reframe the action and think
of 'Positics', the 'positive application of politics.'
'Power comes from my
personal capability- not the knowledge that I hold.'
'Iíll make use of the old
'If you scratch my back I'll scratch
'OK, I'll send the report over if you arrange for my post
to be covered next week.'
'I own- therefore I do what I want with
organizations reduce in size and grow in complexity, so the dependency on social
interaction between the players becomes increasingly significant. Knowledge will
only be transported across an organisation if people have the necessary level of
trust within and across the various teams.
The difficulty surfaces in trying
determine what criteria might be used to measure the degree of trust that exists
because of the subjective nature of the topic area. However, certain core
factors might be used, and this is shown in the TRUST model:
||Truthful - extent to
which integrity, honesty and truthfulness is maintained
||Responsive - openness,
mental accessibility, or the willingness to share ideas and information
||Uniform - degree of
consistency, reliability and predictability that is contained within the
||Safe - loyalty,
benevolence, or the willingness to protect, support and encourage each
||Trained - competence,
technical knowledge and interpersonal skills
The proposition is that trust based relationships are not built upon
chance or happenstance. They are built upon desire, intent and action. Trust
must be viewed as a verb not a noun, and as such people must be encouraged to
work at developing open, honest relationships in the same way that they develop
other operational capabilities. Whilst the inactive person will view trust as
something that just happens, the interactive person will understand the
important role that trust plays, and will actively ensure that they build trust
based relationship across the organisation.
'I make the assumption
that everyone can be trusted and wait to be proved wrong.'
try to make a habit of giving people space to take risks.'
people when I see evidence that they can be trustworthy.'
should I trust you if you won't trust me.'
'I'm here to do my job - not to trust people.'
It is the unexpected
surprises that emerge as people interact and share ideas that really delivers
the benefit of a knowledge sharing culture. This is the idea of serendipity or
the gift for making a fortunate discovery accidentally.
Stories abound of the various
inventions that have emerged from the process of serendipity; Goodyear's
accidental discovery of the vulcanisation process for rubber; or Fleming's
accidental discovery of penicillin. All of these originated because someone
(apparently) happened to be in the right place at the right time, and was
observant enough to notice something out of the ordinary.
So a discovery based on serendipity
might be seen as the fruit of a seed sown by chance in fertile ground. So how
can an organisation create the fertile ground to allow for surprises that are
based on serendipity? The list is probably endless but the importance rests in
helping individuals to use their network of relationships thereby increasing the
possibility of random serendipitous opportunities.
The inactive person will be blinkered
and unable to see the potential possibilities that can arise from accidental
interaction with other people. The interactive person sees the rich source of
knowledge that exists in the random interaction that occurs within a social
'I've got an idea for a wind up radio- all I need is
someone to help me raise some capital.'
'I'll put a note on the
office board to see if anyone else has a use for this idea.'
make sure that I read the journals every month to keep in touch with the
'So, tell me again- what can I do with this steam as
soon as it comes out of the kettle.'
'I see no icebergs.' (Capt.
Smith - The Titanic).
7. Noise Overload
One danger with the introduction of
a technology based messaging system is that the level of knowledge can
remain constant, but the flow of data can increase. The easy access to the 'reply all'
button on the e-mail system means that spurious, messages get sent across the
network that have little or no value for the recipient.
This tends to happen less with a paper
based system - for the simple fact that increased distribution means that people
have to photocopy more paper, walk to the post room or lick more envelopes.
traditional team based structure which has a hierarchical framework.
As information flows
through the system it is gated, since much of the information will go via the
line manager. In an intranet based system, everyone has instant access to
everyone else, and within a small network the level of connectivity between the
knowledge nodes can double overnight.
Hence, in considering how an intranet
will impact upon knowledge sharing within the business, the organisation must
understand the extent to which increased connectivity might actually attenuate
the flow of knowledge.
'I actively use a message classification system to manage
who should receive information from me.'
'I indicate the
priority of the content within the title of the message.'
out most papers but hold the ones that might not be of interest to
'I copy important papers to people that ask for
'I copy all my papers to everyone just in case.'
In an organisation where
people will happily send out masses of data to all and sundry, there is a real
chance that noise overload will emerge. However, in an interactive organisation,
people will take personal responsibility for data transmission and will always
ask three questions:
||Does the recipient
want this information ? |
||How can I flag up the
purpose, content and importance of the message in the title?
||Can I reduce the
amount of data being sent without corrupting the core message?
Taking such an approach will both reduce the risk of noise overload and
dramatically reduce the system costs associated with data transmission and
storage within the intranet.
Taking both the levels on the learning ladder and the behaviour maps for
each social factor, it becomes possible to build a soft correlation between the
two areas. For each of the seven social factors, the degree of positive
interaction can be charted on a matrix.
Consider the organisation that maps
itself on the upper rungs of the learning ladder seen in figure 3.
In this company there is every possibility that the introduction of
intranet technology will enhance the flow of knowledge. However, for the
organisation that is mapped against the lower rungs, then there is a real chance
that the adoption of the intranet will flounder, and what might be a significant
capital investment will deliver little pay back.
The diagnostic model should be used in
two ways. Firstly to map the status of the social behaviour within the
organisation, and so understand the potential impact that an intranet will have
on its capability to share knowledge.
Secondly, it can be used as a tool to
facilitate dialogue and create discussion. Helping people to talk about things
that are not normally considered to be discussible can start the journey to
fixing the problem. By simply making it OK to talk about the level of trust,
closed communities and biased political systems will in all likelihood take the
organisation up a notch on the learning ladder.
As a platform
for sharing knowledge, the intranet can be a powerful tool. However, it can
be dangerous to believe that technology alone 'will' deliver increased knowledge
flow. It can never do this in isolation because ultimately learning is a human
activity, and so will always need human involvement and ownership.
The creation of
organisational knowledge is about people, connectivity and the interaction and
synthesis that arises from the sharing process. As such, knowledge sharing must
be understood from a social perspective as well as a technological one.
Mick Cope is a BT
Masters Degree programme manager. The article is based on a number of ideas
offered in his latest book - 'Leading the Organisation to Learn, the ten levers
for putting Knowledge and Learning to work'. Mick Cope can be contacted at:
receive a 10% discount off the full price, £19.99. To order a copy, please phone
01704 508 080, or if you would like to order bulk copies, phone Kate Jenkins on
0171 447 2235