posted 26 May 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 8
Christian Young pens a letter to the everyman, who considers defiance when sharing is enough…
Once upon a time, I used to tell the tale of ‘Stan, the go-to man’ as a witty, too-simple example of the applications and benefits of knowledge management (KM). Stan is an everyman, who I’d describe as having been with his company for many years and who is regularly sought out when people needed answers or help with some critical project, even though he has responsibilities which have nothing to do with being a human wiki.
One day, Stan has an epiphany that leads him to create an FAQ document, which he places on his desk so that people can get answers to their questions without disturbing his work. Unfortunately, this approach is only slightly effective for any number of reasons – because old habits die hard; because Stan’s FAQ can’t possibly cover every question people might ask; because some people rather enjoy his perfect Irish lilt… take your pick. Stan then posts his FAQ on the company intranet. Not only does this not stop the flow of traffic to his desk, it also creates a need for someone to maintain the document online. Eventually, a process is instituted for updating the digital FAQ (by a combination of people) and Stan is placed into knowledge asset protection. By the end of my tale, Stan’s valuable knowledge is shared, he’s finally able to focus on getting his work done without distraction, and his peace of mind is assured (at least until Sanka is replaced by Starbucks in the employee lounge).
Since practically every organisation has at least one Stan (some of you might actually be Stan) the story struck a familiar chord with people and created a foundation for understanding KM without the usual awkwardness of traditional definitions. From the boardroom to the mailroom, I would serenade organisational stakeholders with this story. Then, a few years ago, I came to the (not so sudden) realisation of how very one-sided, arrogant and (quite possibly) unprincipled a lot of organisations often are with regards to their KM needs – and subsequently their KM strategies.
While there is much KM literature focusing on the dual questions of ‘How do you get KM to work?’ and ‘How do you get people to share?’ little, if any, consideration seems to be afforded to the knowledge bearers. That is, the people who organisations, practitioners, and theoreticians hope and need to get information from, in order for KM efforts to be successful. These are real people with a range of interests and objectives that, very likely, do not include proving the validity of a KM strategy. Even my Stan tale paints an idealised picture, which caters to an organisation’s concept and perspective on knowledge stewardship. Stan may be real, but his motivations for sharing and participating in KM efforts aren’t quite so simplistic or altruistic.
Furthermore, the volatile and uncertain economy of late has done nothing to evolve attitudes about how we are valued at work from old school (what I know determines my value) to new school (my ability to quickly learn, grow, and adapt determines my value). On the contrary, it has reinforced the old school attitude. Outsourcing, downsizing, mergers and acquisitions may be driving organisations to seek innovative solutions to managing knowledge, but they also reduce employees’ willingness to participate in KM activities. And, if an organisation regularly utilises downsizing and outsourcing as part of its overall strategy, why should employees care about its need to prevent valuable knowledge from walking out the very doors that might be held open for them one day? Short answer: they shouldn’t. And, by and large, they won’t. What they will care about is their own self-interest and self-preservation. That is where knowledge managers must appeal in order to secure employee buy-in of KM strategies and it’s for this reason that I’ve penned the following letter:
Don’t take this the wrong way, but most KM strategies aren’t really meant to directly benefit you. Sure, organisations want you and your co-workers to have ready access to information so that you can be more efficient and productive, but they’d just as soon have you check that knowledge at the door when you leave and re-acquire it when you return to work. Fortunately, for you, it doesn’t work that way.
Flip the script
KM is only partly about sharing information; its greatest advantage is in leveraging that information for increased revenue-generating opportunities and greater market share. By ‘flipping the script’, you are making KM work for you to a similar effect – increasing your revenue-generating opportunities and market value. Ask yourself ‘What does Stan want?’ and ‘What does Stan need?’. No matter how sceptical you might be about KM all of us have wants and needs, the key is to have a plan outlining where you want to go; what skills, tools, knowledge, and experience you’ll need to get there; and, determining how you can utilise organisational resources to this end. Once you have a plan in place, make sure that for every contribution you make to the knowledge base, you take something for yourself that brings you closer to your personal goals. Call it a ‘user fee’.
And no, it’s not stealing, it’s sharing. You are acquiring the skills you need to be a better worker, there’s just no guarantee you’ll be a better worker for that particular employer forever.
Sharing is sensible, not stupid
I know it’s a royal pain to let go of old habits and notions, particularly when it comes to our perceived value. Even though they shouldn’t, companies today really do pay you for what you know. However, that value is established (monetarily) when you’re hired. If you want to receive an increased valuation, you have to increase your knowledge. And, if the price of new information is stuff you already know, share it already! During my time at Ernst & Young, Denise Rowe, one of my earliest mentors, taught me that unless you are doing something no one else can do (and very, very few fall into that category) you are replaceable. They may like you and it may suck to see you go, but if they can find someone else to do your job better, cheaper or both, they will.
People who don’t share don’t learn as much as people who do. Sharing makes you shine!
Now, you might think that I’m about to stab you in the back and give some sell-out speech on the joys of KM but trust me on this. Just like companies who inform their industry are perceived as industry leaders, people who share most frequently are considered experts and go-to people. Do you want a quick assessment of your value to the organisation? Take a look at who is coming to you for information and how often; you don’t get that by passing the buck or playing stupid. In fact, you could be a solid performer, but when people can’t or don’t come to you for answers and solutions, it’s easy for you to become one of those people whose actual role everyone questions. Of course, you don’t want to fall into the trap of being overloaded by requests for your insights; you have to manage people to prevent them from interfering with you doing your job. Share what you know, but share wisely. Besides, isn’t that what the company’s KM system is for?
Stan, I’m sure you’re scandalised by how opportunistic this all sounds, but better to be ambitious and opportunistic than complacent and bitter – and bitter is what you will be either watching other people assertively pursue (and get) opportunities you believed (the urban myth of) corporate loyalty would reward you with or standing in the unemployment line looking dazed and confused.
Christian Young is an independent KM strategist and blogger based in