We are built to share knowledge within our tribes. To improve knowledge sharing, build bigger tribes.
As humans, we have always had the ability, through language to share what we know. It’s just that, very often, we don’t want to. share with everyone. Sometimes we would rather keep knowledge “within the tribe.”
In New Scientist December 2012, Mark Pagel, the author of “Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind” wrote an article called “The War of Words” in which he argued that languages evolved in order to keep different tribes separate, just as much as to allow communication within the tribes.
He points out that that the greatest diversity of human societies and languages (and there are over 7000 languages on the planet) arises not where people are most spread out, but where they are most closely packed together. Papua New Guinea is a classic case. That relatively small land mass – only slightly larger than California – is home to between 800 and 1000 distinct languages, or around 15 per cent of all languages spoken on the planet. A different language is spoken every few kilometres, and Pagel suggests that these have evolved to keep the different tribes distinct, separate and competing. He says
“In support of this idea, I have found anthropological accounts of tribes deciding to change their language, with immediate effect, for no other reason than to distinguish themselves from neighbouring groups. For example, a group of Selepet speakers in Papua New Guinea changed its word for “no” from bia to bune to be distinct from other Selepet speakers in a nearby village. Another group reversed all its masculine and feminine nouns – the word for he became she, man became woman, mother became father, and so on. One can only sympathise with anyone who had been away hunting for a few days when the changes occurred”.
The two features that drive this are, according to Pagel “groupishness” – affiliating with people with whom you share a distinct identity – and xenophobia, demonising those outside your group and holding parochial views towards them.
So language and knowledge sharing are linked, and both language and knowledge sharing are very much kept “within the tribe”. Sharing knowledge with other tribes is an unnatural act; something languages have evolved to deter.
We can recognise the same effects of groupishness and xenophobia at work. Organisational boundaries create teams and silos, they create groupishness, and they create “us and them” feelings, which may be reinforced by internal competition. Knowledge sharing happens within the silos, but seldom between them.
So what can we, as KMers, do about this?
We need to create new tribes.
This is the idea behind Communities of practice – that we can build a new organisational structure along knowledge lines, that cross-cuts the existing silos. By creating these new tribes, we create a feeling of groupishness and a sense of identity which align with the needs for knowledge sharing. One community leader I know calls this “dual identification” – identification with the business silo, but also identification with the community of practice.
We need to create new vocabulary.
This is particularly important after a merger, when terminologies between the merged organisations will be different. Without finding a common terminology, the old divisions remain, reinforcing old groupings. I have argued before that a Community of Practice is united by a common jargon and where multiple jargons exist, you need to lead the attempt to merge them.
I read an article recently about how a national rugby team can be created from individuals from different and rival clubs – a process of creating groupishness from a selection of xenophobic competitors – and the first step was to create a common vocabulary for the patterns and techniques they would encounter on the field of play. To create a common group, they needed a common vocabulary.
We need to remove the influences that keep us most separate.
The most pernicious of these influences is institutionalised internal competition; reinforced by awards like “factory of the month”, “salesman of the year” and so on. Anything that separates and divides, creating us (winners) and them (losers) will kill Knowledge Management stone dead and must be removed and replaced with awards that unite. “Us” needs to be the company (plus key allies, stakeholders and supply chain) and “them” needs to be the competition – and then only where you are in a competitive context.
Create new tribes, create shared language, create shared groupishness, keep the xenophobia for the competition, and then Knowledge sharing will follow.