Forget knowledge sharing, let’s encourage knowledge seeking instead

People often ask us “how do we incentivise  knowledge sharing?” I often answer “don’t bother. Incentivise knowledge seeking and re-use instead”.

I give this answer, because knowledge sharing in itself achieves nothing. Knowledge needs to be sought and re-used before any value has been added, and re-use is often a far bigger barrier than knowledge sharing. The Not Invented Here syndrome is far more prevalent than Knowledge Hoarding.

As an analogue, think of a driver in a car in a strange city, looking for a building which is not on the satnav.  They need knowledge, people on the sidewalk have the knowledge, but why doesn’t the knowledge reach the driver? It’s usually not because people won’t share, but because the driver doesn’t ask.

Knowledge needs supply and demand – sharing is the supply, seeking and re-use is the demand. Supply without demand devalues a commodity. Demand without supply increases a commodities value. Supply and demand need to be in balance, but the best way to kick off a market is to stimulate demand. 

Without an appetite for knowledge re-use, knowledge sharing can actually be counter-productive, resulting in the feeling of the “knowledge firehose”.  Better to incentivise knowledge seeking first then knowledge sharing later, create the appetite for knowledge before you create the access, and create the demand before you create the supply.

There will naturally be SOME supply already, as there are people who naturally like to publish. They like to share, they like to write, they were given two ears, one mouth and ten fingers and use them in that proportion.  If you create the demand and create the channel, the supply will follow. As David Snowden pointed out,

“In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge. A genuine request for help is not often refused unless there is literally no time or a previous history of distrust. On the other hand ask people to codify all that they know in advance of a contextual enquiry and it will be refused (in practice its impossible anyway). Linking and connecting people is more important than storing their artifacts”.

Create the need, connect the people, and the sharing will follow.

And how do you create the need for knowledge?  There are a number of ways;

So don’t incentivise knowledge sharing – incentivise knowledge seeking first. The sharing will follow.

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What it really means when people say "I don’t have time for KM"

Very often people will say to you “we don’t have the time for Knowledge Management”. But what does this really signify?

“We are busy” they might say;  “We have lots of real project tasks to do – we can’t take time off for an After Action Review, or a Retrospect or a Community of Practice meeting. That’s just another thin to do no top of the day job.”

But in fact, it’s not a question of time, it’s a question of priority. They have time to

  • do their timesheets
  • prepare reports for management
  • attend teambuilding events
  • listen to senior management briefings
  • attend appraisal meetings
  • go to risk workshops
  • go to safety workshops

and none of these are any more “real project tasks” than Knowledge Management.

The difference is that these activities are prioritised. They are treated as priority activities; things that it is valid to spend time on. They are seen as part of the day job. Risk, safety, accounting for time, supporting management, building the team, are all priority activities that are part of doing a good job.

So when I hear people say “we don’t have the time for Knowledge Management”, I know that this really means “we don’t prioritise Knowledge Management” and “we haven’t made it part of the day job”.

If you meet this rebuttal, you need to work on making KM a priority. Get clear on the business driver, and the core purpose of KM, figure out what its worth, and use that value figure to make the case to management that KM should be a priority. Ask management to cascade this downwards. Get them to ask the two driving questions. Get KM into the job descriptions and appraisal conversations.

If people say they have no time for KM, then work on making KM an organisational priority.

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3 reasons why people don’t share knowledge

A recent article from HBR identifies three reasons why people don’t share knowledge. 

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Image from meco 6925 on Flickr

There are many reasons why people don’t seek or share knowledge; the 3 most basic being that they don’t think of it, they don’t know how, or they don’t want to (Unaware, Unable, Unwilling).

From an HBR article earlier this month, named Why Employees Don’t Share Knowledge with Each Other, comes another analysis, and the identification of three factors which inhibit knowledge sharing.  These are as follows:

People are more strongly influenced by internal incentives (the authors call these “autonomous motivation”) than external incentives (“controlled motivation”). Examples of both these can be found in my blog post “20 incentives to swing the KM behaviour balance“. We can also see the strength of internal vs external incentives in  Shell’s analysis of incentives, and NASA’s approach to incentives. This particular issue is related to the Willingness to share. As the HBR authors say:

Our results showed that knowledge sharing is more likely when employees are autonomously motivated (for example, they’d agree with the statements “It’s important to share what I know with colleagues” or “It’s fun to talk about things I know”). In contrast, people are more likely to hide their knowledge when their motivation is driven by external pressures (“I don’t want to be criticized” or “I could lose my job”). This means that pressuring people to share knowledge rather than making them see the value of it doesn’t work very well…  Interestingly, in the Chinese sample, controlled motivation was associated with increased frequency of knowledge sharing but not with greater usefulness of what was shared.

People share more readily if they are involved in Knowledge work (what the HBR authors call “cognitively demanding work”). This is probably more related to Awareness of the need to seek and share, rather than Willingness or Ability. As the HBR authors say;

“Because cognitively demanding work can be more interesting and stimulating, and also more difficult and challenging, we expected that people would both enjoy sharing information more and see a greater need to share. Similarly, because having more autonomy in one’s work leads to finding it more meaningful, we’d expect to see the same propensity for sharing”. 

Knowledge work requires knowledge, knowledge becomes a precious commodity, people become aware of its value, and knowledge sharing and seeking emerge as behaviours which drive a knowledge marketplace within the organisation.

Finally, people are less willing to share if others are relying on them. This is counterintuitive. The HBR authors say that;

We expected that if respondents perceived their colleagues to be dependent on them, they would be more willing to share knowledge and less likely to hide it. Much to our surprise, we found the opposite. When people perceived that others depended on them, they felt pressured into sharing knowledge (the controlled type of motivation), and this in turn promoted knowledge hiding. This could be because frequent requests from colleagues created more demands on their time — quite a rare commodity these days. People often chose to prioritize their own tasks over sharing knowledge and even pretended not to have the information being requested.

Notice the assumption in the last paragraph – that “their own tasks” do not include “knowledge sharing”. This is a typical factor where KM is not yet treated as “part of the job” and instead is seen as something separate and different. KM is then seen as competing for your time against the “real job” rather than being part of the real job.  This was the sort of thing that Elon Musk was trying to counter in his email of last year.

So the conclusions from this are, for knowledge work, ensure that knowledge seeking and sharing are seen as part of the job, and incentivise them wherever possible using internal incentives – the desire to be recognised, the desire to help, and the desire to do a Good Job.

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Two simple management questions that drive a KM culture

KM behaviours can be influenced quite easily by two simple questions from line management

Image from wikipedia

I posted on Monday about “What’s in it for me” in KM, and how implementing Knowledge Management relies on identifying the local value. Part of the local value can be driven by the local manager, as “fulfilling managers expectations” is generally a valuable thing for people to do!

It is surprisingly easy for managers to set KM expectations. All they/you have to do is ask two questions.

Who have you learned from?
Who have you shared this with?

Who have you learned from?

If you are a leader, then every time someone comes to you with a proposed solution to a problem, or a proposed course of action, you ask “Who have you learned from”?  Through this question, you are implying that they should have learned from others before proposing a solution – that they should have “learned before doing”.

Who have you shared with?

Also, every time someone comes to you to report a problem solved or a process improved, or a new pitfall or challenged addressed, you ask “Who have you shared this with”? Through this question, you are implying that they should share any new learnings with others.

The great thing about leaders’ questions, is they drive behaviour. People start to anticipate them, and to do the learning before, and the sharing afterwards. People hate to be asked these two questions, and having to answer “umm, well, nobody actually”. They would much rather say “we have learned from X and Y, and have a Peer Assist planned with Z”, “We have shared with the A community, and are holding a Knowledge Handover next week with B project”. And once you drive the behaviours, the transfer of knowledge will happen, the value will be delivered, and the system will reinforce itself.

But the moment you stop asking the questions, people realise that you, as a leader, are no longer interested in KM, so they will stop bothering.

There’s an old saying – “What interests my manager fascinates me”, so managers should make sure they are interested, and ask the questions.

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What would it take, to get you to share more of your knowledge?

“What would it take, to get you to share more of your knowledge

Image from wikimedia commons

This was a question Shell asked in an internal survey, several years ago, in order to understand the incentives and barriers for knowledge sharing. The top 6 answers were as follows

  1. More time 
  2. More feedback on use of the knowledge 
  3. Recognition from peers 
  4. Knowing that it made an impact 
  5. An easier way to do it 
  6. Thank you from colleagues
What was missing from the list of answers were

  • Money 
  • Prizes
  • Badges
  • Hard incentives, and 
  • Directives from management. 
If you want people to share, then make it easy, free up some time from them, and give them feedback on the difference it made (including some “thank-you”s)
That “making a difference” piece is important, and sits behind factors 2,3,4 and 6. Make sure this is built into your Knowledge Management system, so people don’t feel that they are just dropping their knowledge into a black hole, with no idea of where it’s going, or who is benefiting.

If you want people to share more knowledge, show them that it makes a difference when they do.

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Expectation, metrics, rewards, support – the KM Governance quartet

Four elements make up Knowledge Management Governance. Expectations, metrics, rewards and support.

Governance is often the missing element in Knowledge Management, and although it is one of the four legs on the KM table, it is the one that gets least attention.  This is partly because governance is not easy, and partly because there is no clear published model for KM governance.

Governance represents the things that the organisation does, and the management of the organisation does, that drive the KM behaviours and adoption of the KM Framework. We see four elements to governance – expectations, metrics, rewards and support.

Knowledge Management Expectations.

The first thing management needs to do in terms of governance is to set the expectations for KM. This requires a set of clear corporate expectations for how knowledge will be managed in the organization, including accountabilities for the ownership of key knowledge areas, and the definition of corporate KM standards, KM principles and KM policies. These documents should tell everyone what is expected of them in Knowledge Management terms.

Different departments can then add to these expectations, and individuals with KM roles will have KM expectations written into their job description (see examples here).  Within a project, the expectations are set by the Knowledge Management Plan.  Expectations may also be set using the competency framework.

If there are no clear expectations, nobody will know what they should be doing in KM terms.

Knowledge Management Metrics.

If standards and expectations have been set, then the organisation needs to measure against these expectations. For example, if the corporate expectation is that every project will conduct a lesson learned session, and every knowledge topic has an owner, then you should measure whether this is happening.
There are other types of KM metric as well – see these blog posts for more discussion.

If there are no metrics, then nobody will know what people are actually doing in KM.

KM rewards and recognition.

If you are measuring people’s performance against the expectations, then this needs to be linked to rewards and recognition. If people do what they are expected to, this should be reflected in their rewards. If they don’t do what is expected, then there should be a sanction. See these blog posts for a wider discussion of incentives.

If there are no links between metrics and reward/recognition, then nobody will care about the metrics. Particularly important are the sanctions for not doing KM. If people can dodge their expectations and get away with it, then this sends a strong message that the expectations are actually options, and not expectations at all.

Knowledge Management support

It is unfair to set expectations, measure people against them, and then reward people based on these measures, unless you make the expectations achievable in the first place. Therefore you need to set up the systems, the training, the coaching, reference materials and so on, that make it possible for people to meet their expectations.

If there is no support, then you have set up an unfair system which people will resent.

Together, the quartet of Expectations, Metrics, Reward/recognition and Support form the basis of an effective Knowledge Management governance system.

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Pride as a KM disincentive/incentive

Pride is an interesting motivator in Knowledge Management. In some cases it acts as a real dis-incentive, but if harnessed well it can be a powerful driver for KM behaviours.

Proud Lion from Public Domain Pictures

I was reflecting on this recently while running one of our powerful Bird Island exercises.

People start this exercise by building a structure from bricks and sticks and rubber bands. They work in isolated teams, and have no knowledge of the task before they start. They create relatively small structures, but are inordinately proud of them.

After a while, we get the teams to share knowledge with one another. They send one member out of the door to go and interact with another team, and very often they have a little discussion about how open the team member should be with the others. Last week, one team actually suggested to their envoy that if the other team’s structure was smaller, they should give misinformation, rather than share knowledge with them. They were proud of their success, and did not want to share it.

This is the negative side of pride. If people are proud of their work they may be unlikely to want to change it, to learn from others, or even to share with others that they see as competitors. Pride is part of what drives “not invented here” and knowledge hoarding.

Wounded pride.

What happened to many of the teams was that they found that the other teams’ structure was much taller, and that theirs looked like a midget in comparison. Now their pride was dented, they realised that their performance was mediocre, and that they had a lot to learn.

When we got the team together in a group and showed them current best practice, their pride was dented even more. Even the best of their structures was less than half the height of the current world record. And sure enough, when we built the structures again, everyone was liberally copying from the “best practice”. There as no evidence of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome.

That’s because wounded pride kills “not invented here”. You cannot proudly continue to reject knowledge from other people who are performing far better than you are.

People want to do a good job, they want to be among the leaders, and if they find that their current approach gives results that are bottom quartile they will not defend their approach, they will not display NiH, but will look for knowledge from any source they can, to restore Great Performance. I remember one drilling crew on the Gulf of Mexico, whose motivation to learn was to be “the best darned drill crew in the Gulf” and who approached KM with great enthusiasm.

You need to remove the false pride in local (substandard) performance and harness the motivation of “proud to be the best” in driving people towards learning and sharing.

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