Creating a knowledge sharing
It is often said that it is essential to create
a 'Knowledge Sharing Culture'as part of a knowledge management initiative. An Isolated
knowledge management program looked after by a privileged few is a paradox
in itself and will not survive for long. Only effective collaboration and
communication which spans across the whole company structure will give
knowledge management the boost it really needs. In order to enrich a
company's current culture, David Gurteen
believes that change must start with the individual. Every employee has a
sphere of influence along with their own individual knowledge, and this is
where he believes a knowledge sharing culture can begin.
Culture, according to Vijay Sathe is 'the set of important understandings (often
unstated) that members of a community share in common.'1 These shared
understandings consist of our norms, values, attitudes, beliefs and 'paradigms'.
is given in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary: 'Culture is the
integrated pattern of human behaviour that includes thought, speech,
action and artifacts and depends on man's capacity for learning and
transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.' This second definition
is an exciting one, as increasing our capacity for learning and
transmitting knowledge is one of the prime aims of knowledge
The concept of the paradigm
is an extremely important one in understanding culture. A paradigm is a
way of thinking, perceiving, communicating or viewing the world. It is
often called a worldview or a mindset. The important point about a paradigm
is that it is subconscious. We are not aware of our own paradigms. It is
a rather like thinking the world is coloured red - unaware that we
are wearing rose tinted contact lenses. It is a frequently misunderstood
and misused word. When someone says, 'we need a new paradigm for this' it is a
misuse of the word. All they are saying is 'we need a new approach or we
need a new way of looking at things'.
Organisational culture can be thought of as a relatively rigid
tacit infrastructure of ideas that shape not only our thinking but also
our behaviour and perception of our business environment. It effectively
establishes a set of guidelines by which members of an organisation work
and how those organisations are structured. It is rigid mainly due to our
paradigms - we don't recognise why we do so much of what we do. Also we
tend to resist change rather than embrace it.
Knowledge is often seen as a
rich form of information. This differentiation however is not terribly
helpful. A more useful definition of knowledge is that it is about
know-how and know-why. A metaphor we can use is that of a cake. An
analysis of its molecular constituents is data - for most purposes not
very useful. You may not even be able to tell it were a cake. A list of
is information. This is more useful, and an experienced cook could
probably make the cake. Here, the data has been given context. The recipe
though would be knowledge- explicit knowledge. It tells you how to make
the cake. An inexperienced cook however, even with the recipe might not
make a good cake. A person though, with relevant knowledge, experience,
and skills in their heads (i.e. not easily written down tacit knowledge)
would almost certainly make an excellent cake from the recipe.
It is important to
note that to make knowledge productive you need information. Knowing how
to make a cake is not sufficient. You need the list of ingredients. To
decide what cake to make you need information, i.e. the tastes of the
consumers of the cake.
Know-why is also important. If
an ingredient of the cake was unavailable, knowing the purpose of that
ingredient might help a knowledgeable cook substitute an alternative. In
fact know-why is often more important than know-how as it allows you to be
creative; to fall back on principles and re-invent your know-how.
There are many definitions of knowledge management. A common
'The collection of processes that govern the creation,
dissemination, and leveraging of knowledge to fulfil organisational
I feel this definition is inadequate as it limits knowledge
management to a set of processes. I prefer what I feel is a more useful
'Knowledge Management is a business philosophy. It is an emerging
set of principles, processes, organisational structures, and technology
applications that help people share and leverage their knowledge to meet
their business objectives.'
This puts focus and
responsibility on the individual i.e. the knowledge worker - and on the
holistic nature of knowledge management. Also, critically it is about
meeting business objectives. Knowledge management is not an end in itself.
It is also fundamentally about sharing knowledge and putting that
knowledge to use.
Why sharing knowledge is important
creation and application of new knowledge is essential to the survival of
almost all businesses. There are many reasons. They include:
products - ideas, processes, information are taking a growing share of
global trade from the traditional, tangible goods of the manufacturing
ii. Increasingly the only sustainable competitive advantage is
continuous innovation. In other words the application of new knowledge.
Increasing turn over of staff. People don't take a job for life any more.
When someone leaves an organisation their knowledge
walks out of the door with them.
iv. 'Our problem as an
organisation is that we don't know what we know'. Large global or even
small geographically dispersed organisations do not know what they know.
Expertise learnt and applied in one part of the organisation is not
leveraged in another.
v. Accelerating change -
technology, business and social. As things change, so does our knowledge
base erode. In some businesses, as much of 50% of what you knew five years
ago is probably obsolete today.
Creating a knowledge
What then does it mean to create
a Knowledge Sharing Culture? 'Well it's about making knowledge sharing the
norm. To create a knowledge sharing culture you need to encourage people
to work together more effectively, to collaborate and to share -
ultimately to make organisational knowledge more productive. But we need
to remember a few things:
i. We are talking about sharing
knowledge and information - not just information.
ii. The purpose of knowledge
sharing is to help an organisation as a whole to meet its business
objectives. We are not doing it for its own sake.
iii. Learning to make
knowledge productive is as important if not more important than sharing
knowledge. Michael Schrage in a recent interview said that he thinks 'knowledge
management is a bullshit issue' as 'most people in most organisations do
not have the ability to act on the knowledge they possess'.2
a culture is tough. Not only does it mean change, which has always
been tough; it means seeing the world in a different way. It means
revealing our hidden paradigms like the tacit acceptance that 'knowledge is
Rewarding Knowledge Sharing
We are told by many of the gurus
that rewards must be put in place to encourage knowledge sharing. I've
even heard it suggested that to encourage knowledge sharing, an ideas
database should be created and that people should be paid for their
contributions - presumably regardless of quality or whether the ideas are
brought to fruition! I think this is plain crazy. I don't believe you can
make people share by overtly rewarding them. We are not laboratory
pigeons. Stimulus-response does not work in complex systems. Human beings
are motivated by more than just money. Yes, ensure appropriate rewards are
in place if you must but I feel its better to ensure that disincentives to
sharing are removed.
The real answer is to help people see for themselves that
knowledge sharing is in their personal interest. The old paradigm was
'knowledge is power'. Today it needs to be explicitly understood that
'sharing knowledge is power'.
If people understand that
sharing their knowledge helps them do their jobs more effectively; helps
them retain their jobs; helps them in their personal development and
career progression; rewards them for getting things done (not for blind
sharing) and brings more personal recognition, then knowledge sharing will
become a reality.
So what are the reasons to share that should motivate people? Here
are a few:
i. Knowledge is perishable and is increasingly short-lived. If you
do not make use of your knowledge then it rapidly loses its value.
with the low level of knowledge sharing that goes on today, if you do not
make your knowledge productive than someone else with that same knowledge
will. You can almost guarantee that whatever bright idea you have, someone
else somewhere in the organisation will be thinking along the same
By sharing your knowledge, you gain more then you lose. Sharing knowledge
is a synergistic process - you get more out than you put in. If I share a
product idea or a way of doing things with another person, then just the
act of putting my idea into words or writing will help me shape and
improve that idea. If I get into dialogue with the other person then I'll
benefit from their knowledge, from their unique insights and I will
improve my ideas further.
iv. To get most things done in
an organisation today requires a collaborative effort. If you try to work
alone you are likely to fail. You don't only need input from other people.
You also need their support and buy-in. Being open with them; sharing with
them helps you achieve your objectives.
Some people object to sharing as they feel that others will steal
their ideas and reap the rewards that are rightly theirs. This is a
fallacy. Knowledge sharing isn't about blindly sharing everything; giving
away your ideas; being politically naive or being open about absolutely
everything. You still need to exercise judgement. If you have a great idea
don't share it with a competitor (external or internal) but on the other
hand don't try to develop it on your own and don't sit on it for fear of
it being stolen from you. Figure out how you can bring it to fruition by
collaborating with other people.
There is also another fallacy
embedded in this thinking. Knowledge sharing is not just about sharing
great ideas. It's about improving the way that things get done by sharing
the little things. You have lots of knowledge of little use to you - share
it with others who can make use of it and in return they will share
relevant knowledge with you.
My personal view is that knowledge sharing starts with the
individual. After all, if you are a CEO, a mid-level manager, a
receptionist or a graduate trainee you are still an individual. Each one
of us has his or her job, set of objectives and sphere of
If you believe that knowledge sharing is the way to help you,
your department, team or organisation meet its objectives then start
to practice it within your sphere of influence and encourage others to do
the same - 'lead by example'. The higher up the organisation the more
influence you have. And remember sharing is not just about giving. It is
b. Asking questions
c. Telling people what you plan
to do before doing it
d. Asking other people for
Asking someone to work with you in some way - however small
f. Telling people
what you are doing and more importantly why you are doing it
g. Asking people
what they think Asking them for advice
h. Asking people what they would
i. Not just sharing information but know-how and know-why
sharing is about being more open in your way of work and in your
relationships with other people.
The role of
Some people will argue that you do not need technology to
implement a Knowledge Management programme. To some extent they are right.
Knowledge management is fundamentally about people, not technology. But to
my mind there is absolutely no way that you can share knowledge
effectively within an organisation - even a small one, never mind a large
geographically dispersed one without using technology.
plays a crucial transformational role and is a key part of changing the
corporate culture to a knowledge sharing one. In many ways it is
technology that has made knowledge sharing a reality. In the past it was
impossible to share knowledge or work collaboratively with co-workers
around the globe. Today it is a reality.
Technology is not all good
however. There are many pitfalls to its effective use. Information
overload is one that comes readily to mind. Flaming wars (destructive
heated electronic arguments) is another. Time wasting - browsing
irrelevant stuff is yet another.
If implemented well and if
people are trained and educated in its use, knowledge sharing technology
is good. Not only can you find the information and knowledge you need
quickly and effectively but you can post your knowledge on the system for
others to access in the organisation, be they at the next desk or on the
other side of the world. But more than just this, groupware technology
such as Lotus Notes/Domino working over the Internet, your organisational
intranet or extranet allows you to work collaboratively with anyone
anywhere in the world to achieve your objectives.
The most effective
way to create a knowledge sharing culture is first to start to practice it
at your level. The higher up the organisation the more effective you will
be in changing the culture, but even if you are low down the hierarchy you
have an influence. Secondly, put in place the knowledge sharing technology
and train and educate people in its effective use. The two together -
people with the appropriate knowledge sharing mindset and the appropriate
knowledge sharing technology to support them will rapidly bring about a
knowledge sharing culture that helps you better meet your business
1. Vijay Sathe, "Implications of
Corporate Culture: A manager's Guide to Action",Organisational Dynamics
12, no 2 (Autumn 1983):5-23.
2. Michael Schrage is currently
a research associate with the MIT Sloan School's Centre for Coordination
Science and MIT Media Lab, and is author of 'No More Teams!'
David Gurteen is a
Director and Principal Consultant with Knowledge Associates. He
specialises in the use of information technology to help people transform
the way they work.