posted 1 Feb 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 5
The missing ingredient
For an organisation to successfully maintain a knowledge sharing culture the right working environment first has to be established. Geoff Smith discusses how knowledge communities can be encouraged to form the organisational backbone of your company's KM initiative.
It is now pretty well understood by everyone with even a passing interest in KM that the crucial element that must be in place is to have the correct 'knowledge sharing culture'. This usually prompts nods of agreement followed by scratching of heads in response to the question "So how do we do that?". This article sets out a view of what an organisational culture actually is and the basics of a successful approach to making it more sympathetic to knowledge-sharing.Changing culture means changing the environment
It was once said by one of history's less savoury characters: "When I hear people speak of culture I reach for my gun!" While this is probably a bit of an over-reaction it is not a bad idea to debunk the notion that culture is something very abstract that can only be changed by moral exhortation or similar unpredictable approaches. I take the view that culture is the general pattern of thousands of daily actions (or non-actions!) and responses largely forced on people by the realities of what is easy versus hard safe versus risky difficult versus straightforward or rewarding versus demotivating.
It becomes easier to see that the environment forms the context and driver for the pattern of actions and if we change that environment then we can change the pattern of behaviour. So what are the areas we need to address in order to create changes in the environment that will lead to knowledge sharing?
- Create incentives for sharing - We have all heard the cliché that 'knowledge is power' and how people won't give up their prize assets if they feel it will weaken their position. Should we create incentives that share and reward individuals for their contributions (rather like the old-style suggestion box)? What form should these incentives or disincentives take financial or otherwise? Do we measure contribution by the number of words or by some other measure of quality and added value?
- Remove disincentives to sharing - There are many subtle disincentives to sharing. People may not be aware that they have valuable insights or may lack confidence to share them. They may not be aware of others with similar interests. The strongest disincentive is probably the threat to status or in extremis to one's job. In such cases non-sharing behaviour is perfectly rational. If an experienced employee feels threatened by downsizing it is unrealistic to suggest that we can change this situation unless managers deal honestly with this perception. No amount of 'cultural engineering' will counteract basic survival instincts.
- Create the opportunity to share - My experience is that many people are only too keen to share their knowledge. What prevents sharing is not an unwillingness to talk but the pressures of getting onto the next assignment i.e. lack of time and place to share plus a process to do the sharing. We can build processes and policies to create the opportunity to share and put in place technology to help make it happen but is that enough?
- Define what should we share - We still have to consider the issue of the quality and value of what is being shared. We do not want to capture every document e-mail or conversation that takes place: Value lies in what is new unique and relevant to current business issues. There is also the question of security and confidentiality: Are we able to use this client's name? Can we discuss this technology? Can we share this with our partners? How do we make such decisions? Who makes them?
These are well-established responses to the issues yet few organisations seem to be able to implement them effectively. I believe the missing ingredient is the concept of community which brings all of the above together and adds some subtle yet powerful additional factors that help to differentiate effective knowledge management.
In introducing communities to help deal with the issues of a knowledge culture it might seem we are substituting the problems of one abstract concept for another. In fact it is possible to describe the attributes of good communities and how to build them fairly easily.
We all have experience of communities they are all around us and we are part of them whether they are task-oriented (as in project teams or business units) knowledge-oriented (as for a particular technology area) or socially oriented (as for example a group participating in charity work). The communities we interact with may be formally recognised or they may be informal and almost invisible to management.
The community provides the context for knowledge sharing in many different ways: Any community is by its very nature a 'knowledge sharing' community. This is the means by which the right environment (and hence culture) can be created maintained and optimised and the patterns of action and behaviour modified to become more knowledge-friendly:
- Setting the standard - A community defined in terms of a knowledge area becomes the arbiter of what is current relevant and important to that knowledge area. It is where experts who can judge the quality of contributions reside and can provide a place to get answers to questions. The community is also a repository for preserving 'tacit' knowledge on the principle that others can cover the loss of any one individual. Interactions within the community also serve to improve and advance that knowledge area and to reinforce a sense of trust both in the advice and knowledge shared and in the behaviours expected.
- Providing incentive and motivation - For most people the mechanism that works to incentivise knowledge sharing is not financial (this having many issues of its own) but the respect and acknowledgement of one's peers. It is also the expectation that having helped others to save time and effort by sharing one's knowledge they will do the same in return. This reciprocity can happen more easily in a community environment because there is a convergence of interests. There is therefore a far greater chance of a positive response than if one submits a request to an undifferentiated audience. Again the abstract notion of 'trust' translates into a pattern of behaviour.
- Creating the focus for sharing - Both of the above considerations complement the notion of the community as the focal point for sharing. In other words that the mechanisms must be intimately woven into the community set up. If the community is the place to find experts and also the source of motivation it is obvious that it should operate the process by which knowledge is shared both in cyberspace and face-to-face. In addition the community can also define and enforce the rules necessary to maintain the right levels of contribution and interaction.
Having recognised the value of communities in supporting knowledge-sharing we need to reflect on the correct way to create and nurture them. Communities are highly organic things - they will spring up as a natural response to shared difficulties but can equally easily be destroyed by neglect or over-zealous management.
- The right level of management support - In some cases the right level is zero; particularly in new emerging areas where the community itself is uncertain of its scope and goals. At the very least management needs to be tolerant and patient. If the community needs a degree of legitimisation this can be provided in the form of financial or other resources perhaps to enable an effective knowledge-filtering process or to fund face-to-face meetings. The quid pro quo for this support should be a degree of regular reporting from the community on what it has achieved â€“ as much to help the members reflect on what they are doing as to justify any investment.
- Defined roles and responsibilities - Effective knowledge-sharing communities have several common features that are worth replicating. One such feature is defined roles for example sponsors leaders subject matter experts process administrators or knowledge stewards and also basic membership. In many cases this will happen spontaneously but a helping hand may accelerate the process of developing these roles.
- A definition of knowledge scope - Such communities also have a notion of the scope of the area they wish to cover. Too wide and the real experts lose interest too narrow and there is no critical mass. As noted earlier the closer the members' interest areas are aligned the higher the chance of effective responses to requests for help or information and the more this will itself reinforce knowledge sharing behaviour. It is important not to equate organisational entities with knowledge sharing communities. The boundaries may sometimes coincide - for example a sales team focused on a particular market sector. And where knowledge sharing relates to a common process there is a natural requirement for horizontal connections to be made across a number of business areas.
- Some basic ground rules - Allied to the definition of scope there is also in some cases a need to define rules for membership and continued participation. There may be for example a minimum level of experience needed before an individual is admitted or a special structure for pairing mentors and new members. Other rules may be applied on the level of contributions made to ensure that this is equitable and that the knowledge base associated with the community continues to evolve. Knowledge sharing communities may also define rules around confidentiality to ensure that members feel free to contribute 'off the wall' ideas that could turn into new innovations but could equally fail. Confidentiality will also encourage people to contribute that most valuable resource - lessons learned from mistakes. In a community the sense that 'we've all been there' encourages and legitimises these types of contributions.
- Linking communities together - While it is important to define the scope of a community's knowledge interests it also sets limits that could discourage new ideas and connections. In the same way that in researching one idea we may well come across other perspectives that are unfamiliar yet valuable it is important to provide a mechanism for communities to access each other's knowledge. At the very least this might be a common search engine able to direct requests across other communities' knowledge bases. In other cases it might be necessary to have more formal links as for example between the community responsible for researching a new product area and those who will manufacture it.
- Direct human interaction - Providing a technical infrastructure for a community to share such as a 'home space' on an intranet. However experience suggests this is insufficient on its own to encourage sharing. Occasional face-to-face meetings are desirable in establishing trust and relationships particularly in setting up a global community where subsequent interactions are likely to be 'virtual'.
For most of us full desktop video conferencing is not yet a reality but regular telephone conferencing - say a weekly hour-long dial-in session - gives a sense of the personalities involved and acts as a powerful glue to hold the community together. If this can be supplemented by some other multimedia support so much the better.In conclusion
In my view a 'culture' is a response to an environment not the other way round. To create a 'knowledge sharing culture' we must create an environment where knowledge sharing is easy. This means not just technology (such as intranets chat rooms discussion forums or conferencing tools) but also a number of other considerations that answer the questions: 'Why should I share?'; 'how do I go about sharing'; and 'what is useful to share?' - in other words a response to the human issues. For this we need a structure that holds roles rules and processes together in a defined scope. This structure is the most basic of human inventions - the community - and with the addition of a few common-sense guidelines this provides the answer to the issue of knowledge sharing.
With this recognition the knowledge sharing community can further refine its technical needs for example in defining a publishing life cycle that tells people where when and how to contribute. The community can work towards the ideal of a process that is fast pain-free preferably automatic and requiring zero effort on the part of contributors.
The community not only sets the parameters for what is valuable knowledge and owns the process of quality assurance but can also define the needs for meta-knowledge we all use to assess how useful something is. This can range from assignment of keywords to development of synopses or rating criteria assigned by those who have used a knowledge asset (What do others think about this? Is it tried and trusted?).
The community also provides the context for other more subtle clues we use to assess information starting with: 'Who contributed this?'; 'Do I know and respect them?' Other clues such as 'what else is this associated with?' leads to the notion of the community owning an area of a taxonomy - in effect this also defines the community's scope.
Although we cannot see and touch a 'culture' we certainly can make a community real - we can say who the members are what they are interested in how they interact and where. We can (hopefully) point to the end products of those interactions both in terms of knowledge objects and business success stories. And if people have the answers to these questions plus the all-important 'what's in it for me?' then I believe we have all the elements needed to make knowledge sharing happen. When you hear the word 'culture' don't reach for your gun - reach out to your community!
Geoff Smith is European head of Knowledge and Content Management at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. He is also an advisor to the group's internal knowledge management programme. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.