posted 1 Jun 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 8
When voluntary becomes optional
Nick Milton advocates the ‘pull’ approach to knowledge sharing
One of David Snowden’s dictums is that knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted. This is a good reminder of the fact that knowledge is personal. It resides in people’s heads, from which it cannot be forced.
However, there can be a middle way between voluntary and conscripted. Knowledge cannot be conscripted, but it can be requested, and sharing knowledge can even become expected.
Ask and ye shall receive
Very few people will refuse to share knowledge when they are asked, so long as they realise there is a real need for that knowledge. I have only once seen someone say ‘I am not going to tell you’ when they were asked to share knowledge and that was because they were about to leave to become a consultant (although who would hire a consultant who would not share what they know?). In her 2004 article ‘Does your organization have an asking problem?’1, Nancy Dixon says that many companies which think they have a knowledge-sharing problem, actually have an asking problem. I am talking here about genuine asking (for example, ?I have a problem, can you help me’) rather than generic asking (such as, ‘please contribute to this knowledge base’). Asking for information represents a pull for knowledge, and it has long been my belief that pull (stimulating the flow of knowledge by stimulating the demand) is a more effective driver than push (stimulating the flow of knowledge by stimulating the supply). You can introduce asking processes such as peer assist, community question and answer forums, or community meetings to solve urgent problems.
Also, volunteering your knowledge can become expected behaviour in a company. It can become expected by management, and it can become expected by peers. The management expectation can be expressed verbally, and management can set that expectation relatively easily by habitually asking ‘who have you learned from? Who will you share with?’.
Or, that expectation can be set into company process, perhaps stating that every project will hold a peer assist (and will not get approval unless a peer assist has been held), and that every project will contribute lessons to the lessons system (and will not be granted closure until this has been delivered). The expectation from peers is more subtle, and is shown by example and by attitude. It’s also demonstrated by the way people react when you say ‘I haven’t got time to hold an after action review’. They should react the same way as if you said ‘I don’t have time to enter this expenditure into the budget’.
In fact, knowledge seeking and sharing needs to be an expectation from both management and peers. Expectation from one and not the other sets up an unhealthy tension, becoming either ‘more talk from management, which we can safely ignore’ or an underground resistance movement.
Yes, knowledge can only be volunteered, but volunteering knowledge can become the expected or default behaviour. And in some companies, the expectation is so strong that you won't last long, if you don't volunteer your knowledge. Think about Buckman labs, and the way Bob Buckman sends out the message: ‘If you are unwilling to contribute (your knowledge), the many opportunities open to you in the past will no longer be available’. That’s not the same as conscripting knowledge; it’s setting a corporate culture where not volunteering is unacceptable. Bob sees knowledge sharing and reuse as the key to organisational success. The people who hoard, and don’t voluntarily share, are not the sort of people he wants to encourage.
The trouble with keeping KM too voluntary, without asking and without expecting, is that people equate voluntary with optional. Knowledge sharing is seen as ‘entirely up to me. I can share if I want to, but I am awfully busy right now, so I will put the sharing aside until I have time’. And of course you never have the time.
So let’s recognise the voluntary nature of knowledge, and let’s set up the organisational culture so that knowledge is requested, knowledge sharing is driven by pull and by real demand, and knowledge sharing is expected by management, expected by peers, and is seen as an integral part of the job.
Let’s avoid the trap where knowledge sharing is seen as optional, because in today’s world we are all too busy to bother with optional activity.
Nick Milton is director at strategic and tactical KM advisors Knoco Ltd. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org