Knowledge Sharing: The Facts and the Myths, Part 2

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (22-Feb-2005)

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In the first part of this series I discussed the theory behind knowledge sharing and introduced the three main hurdles that must be overcome to implement a successful knowledge sharing initiative: technology, process, and culture.

I mentioned that technology, while a possible impediment to knowledge sharing, is the easiest of the three to overcome. If technology-based tools—such as traditional parent-child intranets or peer-to-peer wikis, blogs, and klogs—are properly used, they can be a huge asset to an organization's knowledge sharing initiative.

But this initiative needs to occur on two levels: technology and human interaction. It's the commingling of these two elements that creates a complete knowledge sharing system—and people tend to forget that. They forget that knowledge sharing goes much deeper than technology. And while technology can greatly improve a cooperative knowledge community, it can't solve the problems of an uncooperative one. If employees are unable or unwilling to share knowledge at the basic human level, all the technology in the world won't convince them to do otherwise.

What everyone needs to understand is that technology is merely an enhancement to human-based knowledge sharing—it's meant to compliment social interaction, not replace it. In order for a technology-based knowledge sharing system to succeed, there must already exist an underlying sense of community and cooperation within the organization. Without it, you're merely building a solid structure on top of a swamp.

In this second and final part on my look at the facts and the myths of knowledge sharing, I shift the emphasis away from the technology behind knowledge sharing systems to the employees who contribute to an organization's overall knowledge assets.

Process: Define a Business Process-Oriented Goal

Knowledge management can be implemented within an organization to serve a general purpose (such as corporate e-mail does) or it can be implemented to solve a specific problem. Both mandates may result in the same end-product—a corporate knowledge sharing system—being implemented, but its acceptance within the user community may be very different.

It's the users' perception of the system that may ultimately determine whether it succeeds, and in certain situations, whether it even gets done. Many promising knowledge sharing systems, and intranets in general, end up failing because they were created without an explicit, business-process-targeted goal. It's difficult for employees to get excited about contributing to a system when wishy-washy and overly generic mandates such as "to improve corporate collaboration" or "to share information among departmental workgroups" are given.

In order to grab the interest of those who will be participating in the development of a knowledge sharing system, the mandate must target a specific, real-world problem that employees can relate to. By doing so, you're providing employees with direct context—a practical application for the knowledge sharing system.

This mentality is very similar to our motivation to learn something new when we were studying our trades in school. For example, it was often difficult to learn a new programming language simply for the sake of meeting the requirements of the curriculum. Cracking open that back-breaking textbook and reading chapter after chapter was an exercise in tedium. But when asked to write a program with a clearly defined goal, many students picked up the new language out of a practical need. We had a problem to solve and we were motivated to build something to solve that problem.

Culture: Understanding the Mindset of the Organization

There's probably no greater influencing factor to the success or failure of an organization's knowledge sharing initiative than that of the collective culture and mindset of the members who comprise the knowledge community. Unfortunately, corporate culture is the least predictable element of a knowledge sharing initiative.

It may seem—especially to those who have ever struggled to implement an IT system in an environment unwilling to accept it—that a degree in behavioral science or industrial and organizational psychology is required to figure out the dynamics of corporate culture. Why would identical systems flourish in one company and flounder in an other? Why would they bear such different results? It's because the wrong measuring stick is being used to gauge success. The true measuring stick in system acceptance lies not with the system itself, but rather in those who use it. While the systems may be identical, the users and the culture of the organization are not.

Before you even begin to consider the knowledge sharing medium, you need to have a firm understanding of the collective mindset of your workers and the organization's fundamental culture. A corporate culture that's not conducive to knowledge sharing at the basic interpersonal level won't be changed by covering up the problem with a layer of technology. In fact, this extra layer of technology on top of a non-communicative corporative environment may complicate matters and even make things worse.

Knowledge sharing goes much deeper than technology and must be built on top of a solid foundation of internal cooperation. The use of technology should be viewed as the highest point in any knowledge sharing initiative. Before we can reach that point we need to ensure everything leading up to it is in place.

So what are these negative psychological and behavioral factors in organizational cultures that can jeopardize your knowledge sharing initiative?

It's important you don't allow whatever negative cultural influences that exist within your organization to paint an overly grim and cynical picture of corporate life. In most cases these counterproductive behaviors are the exception, not the norm. While these behaviors are extremely difficult to predict, there are ways to minimize their impact on your knowledge sharing initiative and even to effect a real positive change within your organization.

How to Encourage Knowledge Sharing

There's no silver bullet to solving behavioral and cultural woes. You can't debug social, human behavior like you would a program. In order to get to the root of the problem, you need to know why certain individuals or groups are not willing to share knowledge. And it's important to differentiate between infrastructure causes—not having enough time, inadequate or overly complicated tools, lack of proper content taxonomies—and the psychological and behavioral causes mentioned earlier.

There are many things you can do within your organization to foster a spirit of cooperation and make it more conducive to knowledge sharing:

You may even consider it a worthwhile endeavor to seek the aid and advice of professional industrial psychologists who are experts in the field of behavioral science as it relates to worker-organization relationships.

But don't expect change to happen overnight; it takes time for cultural behaviors to evolve. And this evolution must occur on more than one level. A true change in attitudes must occur within the organization as a whole; within each department, workgroup, or project team; and within each individual knowledge bearer.

A Marriage of New and Old

A well-rounded knowledge sharing system is a marriage of modern technology-based tools and good old-fashioned people skills—and the two should complement each other. But for all the advantages technology has given us, knowledge sharing will still survive without it. However, the same can't be said for a lack of a cooperative knowledge community.

We can't allow technology to become a knowledge sharing crutch—to use technology-based tools as an excuse not to talk to anyone. This can best be illustrated by my own personal experiences: Years ago, as a systems administrator, I would occasionally have to deal with problems with the corporate e-mail server. These problems would cause service interruptions ranging from several minutes to several hours. During these incidents, I would walk around personally and try to inform as many of my users of the e-mail server downtime as possible. On more than one occasion, a user would suggest, "Why don't you just send out an e-mail letting everyone know? It'll save you the time of having to walk around." It would take them a few seconds of afterthought to recognize the folly of their advice.

Technology is so ingrained in users' mindsets that they sometimes forget it's not the be-all and end-all of knowledge sharing and communication. Technology is only a tool used to support and enhance an organization's social-based knowledge sharing, not a replacement. Remember: technology is the icing, not the cake.

Final Thoughts

The true quality of a knowledge sharing initiative lies not so much with the tools, but with those who nourish it; and a cooperative knowledge community can form the backbone of many successful IT systems. British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell once said, "The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation." If it has the power to effect such a change in something as grand as all of humankind, imagine what it can do for something as mundane as corporate life.

Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.