Will KM be hit by a "Trust recession"?

 It is generally acknowledged that KM requires a culture of trust. But is remote working eroding trust, and what might this do to KM?

Trust by Vic on Flickr

There are many studies of the links between Knowledge Management and trust (see here, here, and here for example). Without a culture of trust within an organisation, it is generally acknowledged that KM will struggle.

However has the increase in remote working created a Trust Recession? Yes it has, according to an article in Atlantic Magazine entitled “The End of Trust”. The author of this article, Jerry Useem, cites other studies conducted during the pandemic as follows:

“The longer employees were apart from one another during the pandemic, a recent study of more than 5,400 Finnish workers found, the more their faith in colleagues fell… In March 2020, trust levels were fairly high. By May, they had slipped. By October—about seven months into the pandemic—the employees’ degree of confidence in one another was down substantially. Another survey, by the Centre for Transformative Work Design in Australia, found bosses having trust issues too….  Each of these data points could, of course, have multiple causes. But together they point in a worrisome direction: We may be in the midst of a trust recession”.

Now this would surely be bad news for KM. As a culture of trust erodes, so does people’s willingness to offer, share, ask for and re-use knowledge. One of the possible reasons for the erosion of trust may be the the loss of Weak Ties. As the Atlantic article says (with my emphasis in bold)
“What has suffered most are “weak ties”—relationships with acquaintances who fall somewhere between stranger and friend, which sociologists find are particularly valuable for the dissemination of knowledge. A closed inner circle tends to recycle knowledge it already has. New information is more likely to come from the serendipitous encounter with Alan, the guy with the fern in his office who reports to Phoebe and who remembers the last time someone suggested splitting the marketing division into three teams, and how that went”.

We already saw the loss of weak ties in the Microsoft study quoted here,(which called them “bridging ties”) and which included the following paragraph (my emphasis in bold).

Our results suggest that shifting to firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network to become more heavily siloed—with fewer ties that cut across formal business units or bridge structural holes in Microsoft’s informal collaboration network—and that those silos became more densely connected. Furthermore, the network became more static, with fewer ties added and deleted per month. Previous research suggests that these changes in collaboration patterns may impede the transfer of knowledge and reduce the quality of workers’ output. 

So there may well be an issue here.  Remote working may lead to a general erosion in trust within an organisation, which is linked with an erosion in weak ties, and links with a workers “outer circle”. 

The inner circle  – the immediate work team – may stay connected, but the silos become strengthened, and the knowledge gets recycled locally and becomes stale. Knowledge management suffers, innovation suffers, and the organisation gets stuck in knowledge ruts.

What can we do about this?

I think there are a few things we can do about this. Let’s look at some of the elements of trust, and what sort of trust a person needs to feel in order to take part in KM.  Here are some of the potential areas of trust needed for KM:
  1. “I trust that if I expose my ignorance and ask for knowledge, I will get a positive outcome (finding a helpful answer) rather than a negative one (being ridiculed)”.
  2. “I trust that I can talk about failure without being punished”
  3. “I trust that if I risk expressing my knowledge, it will be valued and not ignored or stolen or seen as “showing off””
  4. “I trust that if I risk share my knowledge with other teams, this will not be seen as a security breach or as being disloyal to my team or my manager”
  5. “I trust that spending time on KM will be valued by my management and not seen in a negative light (eg as a waste of time)”
  6. “I trust that if I search for documented knowledge, I will find it, and it will be up to date and useful to me”
  7. “I trust that if I find good knowledge, I will be allowed to use it, and I wont be second-guessed by my manager”
Number 1 can be tackled by creating safe processes for knowledge seeking and asking (the Peer Assist is a good one), and by setting the expectation in the organisation that people will seek for knowledge as part of due diligence and work preparation. Also communities of practice, if well facilitated, with a good charter and ground rules, can work wonders in strengthening weak ties and engendering trust (see my article on trust in large communities). So ensure, as part of your remote working KM framework, that teams hold their Peer Assists, and that you have active facilitated communities of practice for each of the high level knowledge domains. 
Number 2 can be tacked by creating safe no-blame processes (the Retrospect is a good one) where people can share what they have learned, both from success and from failure. Maybe also leaders can take the lead in demonstrating that the real crime is hiding failure rather than learning from it. So ensure, as part of your remote working KM framework, that teams hold their Retrospects. 
Numbers 3 and 4 can be tackled my ensuring that shared knowledge is acted upon, and that the act of sharing is publicly recognised as part of “doing a good job” (see example from NASA). This expectation needs to be set by managers and leaders, and should clearly apply to remote workers. If you have a recognition program for KM, then recognise those remote workers who went the extra mile and shared knowledge with others. 
Number 5 I think is best tacked by building KM processes into the work program, so that they are seen as real work and expected activity. So, as above, even remote teams need to make time and space for KM.
Number 6 requires that your knowledge bases are complete, well managed, well presented, synthesised, and up to date. This is a lot of work if you are starting from scratch, but once you have knowledge domain owners identified, supported by communities of practice, then your knowledge bases should build up rapidly. 
Number 7 is a difficult one. Managers also feel their trust eroding. They may be tempted to micromanage more when their teams are remote. But hopefully, if you have a good KM framework in place, you should be able to reassure your manager that the knowledge you present is based on the best knowledge of the organisation, rather than just personal opinion. 

So beware the Trust recession as you move to remote or hybrid working, recognise the effect this may have on KM, and tune your KM framework accordingly.

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