Knowledge Sharing: The Facts and the Myths, Part 1

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (08-Feb-2005)

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"Share everything." So says Robert Fulghum in his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Sadly, for many, it's a concept that hasn't translated well into adulthood.

Parents have always tried to teach their children to share things with siblings and schoolyard chums. They try to remain patient when their kids pull a tantrum, declaring with all the determination of a hungry bear that their toys are, "Mine! Mine! MINE!!!" But despite all that preaching, once the kids are sent to school, the gloves come off and it's their turn to cry, "Mine! Mine! MINE!!!" At the office, large amounts of professional knowledge are squirreled away even though this information will be beneficial to a wider audience—perhaps on the corporate intranet. However, it stays in workers' heads, on their computers, or in their desk drawers.

While the possibilities for intranet applications have grown innumerably with the advances in technology, it's still most often used as the backbone for knowledge sharing. The systems that succeed are reflections of the cooperation and willingness of an organization's staff to share their knowledge. Similarly, those that fail may reflect a shortcoming in those respects. The deathblow of many knowledge sharing intranets is not the tool itself, because that's merely a vehicle to transport and carry the knowledge and information to the masses. Rather, the coup de grâce is a lack of community, the lack of a cooperative knowledge network.

So why keep knowledge to yourself when it can benefit the organization as a whole? Is it for job security? Is it to maintain power? Is it to gain personal advantage over those not in the know?

Children may not have a natural tendency to share and may hoard things they perceive as their rightful property. But they don't do this with any malicious intent or egotistic self-promotion. They're far too young to even comprehend such motives; and this lack of sharing is something they will most likely grow out of. So why do they do it? Simple, they do it—and here's the big point—because they're children. What's your excuse?

Knowledge Sharing: In Theory

Every company has somewhat isolated "pockets" of knowledge that are represented by employees throughout the organization's various departments and workgroups. These pockets usually don't stray too far beyond their own small circles. But there may very well be a large portion of the corporate population who will also benefit from this expertise and knowledge—unfortunately, they may never know it exists.

Employees from other departments or remote offices, could be climbing the walls trying to figure out a problem when the answers already exist from within the organization. And as employees of the same company, you would think that there should be a mechanism for the dissemination of this information. This is where knowledge sharing systems come into play.

Traditionally, knowledge sharing has always taken place informally and manifests itself in many forms—whether you're aware of it or not. It happens when you pass a colleague in the hallway and ask them their opinion on a problem; when you solicit user feedback on a project or topic; when you're in roundtable meetings with colleagues; even when you're at the local pub on a Friday night sharing the week's office war stories.

There's little permanence in this type of knowledge sharing, however. Knowledge is passed from mouth to mouth with little permanent record. And when knowledge bearers leave an organization, they take all their expertise with them. The only hope is that they imparted enough of their knowledge onto the remaining staff so that they can continue to carry on this information life cycle.

Intranet technology sought to change this—to give this valuable, albeit ethereal, mass of knowledge a permanent place to reside within the organization. Knowledge sharing intranets tear down the figurative walls that confine information within small corporate cliques and makes it much more widely available to large audiences.

The idea is sound: A knowledge network with multiple points of content entry maintained in a centralized location. Based on intranet architecture, the information would be made widely available to all employees, thus substantiating an organization's knowledge and giving it some sense of longevity.

Knowledge sharing systems don't have to start from scratch either; the knowledge already exists in the form of the knowledge pockets I mentioned earlier. Developers only need to develop a framework in which to consolidate, manage, and publish all this information. The goal here is to allow an organization to tap into the collective knowledge of its employees in a centralized environment with a distributed model of knowledge management.

On paper, all this looks great. But the fact of the matter is, reality paints a less than Utopian picture.

Knowledge Sharing: In Practice

Knowledge sharing comes intuitively as a social aspect of our professional lives. When we need to know something we naturally gravitate toward those with whom we feel most comfortable in order to get the answers to our question. And we gain knowledge because of this informal knowledge network—comprised of those willing to impart and share their knowledge—and then pass on what we know to others.

But knowledge sharing has always been largely a loose and subjective matter. Trying to formalize and layer with technology what had previously been maintained (and I use the term "maintained" very loosely) only informally by way of our interpersonal relationships with colleagues and clients is no easy task.

There are three main hurdles that must be overcome in order to successfully implement a knowledge sharing initiative:

Technology as a Medium for Knowledge Sharing

I've chosen to discuss technology first because it's the easiest hurdle to overcome (process and culture will be discussed in the second part of this series). Unlike the other two, technology is more of a physical impediment than a cognitive one. It can be controlled and, to a certain extent, is predictable.

It may seem to some that technology and humanity have always been at odds with one another, that the former is a ghastly byproduct of the latter's attempt to make lives less stressful. Ironically—based on the amount of people who solve computer-related problems with the primordial fist to the screen—it has accomplished the exact opposite and, in fact, made many lives even more stressful.

Technology-based knowledge sharing will fail if there's no easy way to translate this highly social element of corporate life and culture into bits and bytes. And as such, the technology used to facilitate knowledge sharing must be intuitive and end-user friendly. Content owners and knowledge bearers tasked with the responsibility of populating the system must have a quick and simple way to input information because the easier it is for them to manage their content, the more likely they will be to do so.

You should take steps to "hide" as much of the technological aspects of the knowledge sharing system as possible. This can include:

(See my previous articles "Creating a Controlled Management Environment" and "Keeping Your Content Owners... Content" for much more on this subject.)

Of course, adequate training must also be provided to support content owners in this knowledge sharing initiative.

With these components in place, their focus will be on the content rather than the technology used to maintain that content. Over time, after the initial learning curve or adjustment period, the process of converting their personal knowledge and inputting it into a knowledge sharing system will become second nature to them—like an instructor teaching a classroom full of students.

The New Face of Online Knowledge Sharing?

Many of us are already familiar with traditional "parent-child" knowledge sharing intranets where information is managed and processed by a core group of content owners (the parents) and then published for the user community (the children). But recently, a newer, albeit controversial, technology has come into the limelight with a "peer-to-peer" knowledge sharing approach: wikis, blogs, and klogs. I refer to these as peer-to-peer systems because, unlike a parent-child approach, it's the end-user community itself that's providing and managing the content.

Wikis, such as the famous Wikipedia, are unique server-based collaborative knowledge management systems that allow any reader to add and edit content. Wikis are basically open door systems where all readers can be contributors as well; they have the ability to update the site's content whether it's theirs or not.

Blogs (also known as Web logs) and klogs ("knowledge Web logs" aimed at knowledge management initiatives) allow individual users or groups to maintain ongoing (usually daily) diary-like postings that can be read and commented on by all employees. These tools do a great job of "humanizing" the technology used for knowledge sharing because they represent the voice and personality of the author. But unlike wikis, blog, and klog entries can only be edited by the author.

Wikis, blogs, and klogs are heralded as productive, community-based brain-dumps by their proponents and cursed as unmanageable and unorganized by their detractors. While these tools have gained a lot of momentum on the Internet, the jury is still out on whether they should be used within the enterprise.

Parent-child systems are very structured; they take a top-down approach so that the accuracy of the content being posted has passed through a "filtering" process. But with wikis, blogs, and klogs—unless a proper usage policy and framework is explicitly defined—there may be no formal content quality assurance short of the integrity of the person doing the posting.

To Be Continued...

Users' perception of a formalized, technology-based knowledge sharing system may seem counterintuitive—especially to those who don't work with computers on a regular basis. But technology is merely a tool to support something we've done for years. We share our knowledge by working closely with those around us and they, in turn, impart that knowledge onto others. If an intuitive knowledge sharing system is implemented, this person-to-person cooperation will be enhanced, not substituted, with technology.

In the second part of this series on the facts and myths of knowledge sharing, I'll be discussing a more difficult hurdle to overcome: the cognitive and cultural impediments that prevent successful knowledge sharing.

Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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