Knowledge Sharing: Jack Bauer & Pushing String

Sharing Knowledge - © Cedefop, 1996-2010

Does your organization spend a lot of time trying to “push string” rather than nurture an environment that supports social interaction? Does “Jack Bauer” roam your hallways, eager to “interrogate” an employee rather than encourage spontaneous knowledge sharing?

The idea for this blog came to me after reading a comment left on my own blog by David Griffiths which lead me to his own blog post on forced knowledge sharing (How to ‘make people share knowledge!”) in which he discusses a “Jack Bauer approach to HR policy.”

Jack Bauer is the protagonist of the TV series “24″ in which he has resorted to various aspects of torture to obtain information from suspects. Jack Bauer and his role in “24″ certainly make for interesting television….but I suspect that you wouldn’t want to share a cubicle with him. Unfortunately, some of you already do.

What I’m referring to is the way in which organizations fail to understand what encourages knowledge sharing and so they seem to spend a lot of time trying to “make” folks share knowledge. It seems that in many organizations employees are told that they must use corporate knowledge repositories, social networking tools, and online communities. I can understand why management has an interest in having employees use those tools to connect and share knowledge — we’ve long since accepted that knowledge sharing leads to innovation. But the fact of the matter is that some employees simply are not all that interested in sharing their knowledge, and so they disregard any managerial attempts to get them to use those knowledge sharing tools.

The simple fact of the matter is that social interaction can be seen as a predictor of knowledge sharing. If management hasn’t already established and nurtured an organizational climate which supports social interaction then attempting to force or coerce employees to share knowledge is a bit like pushing on a string (“a metaphor for influence that is more effective in moving things in one direction than another – you can pull, but not push”).

So I’d like to address a handful of things that an organization does to negatively impact real knowledge sharing.

Some signs are easier to read than others.

Poisonous Climate – When there is no apparent management commitment to knowledge management (although there may well be some “tool” commitment demonstrated) and little effort to encourage rather than coerce knowledge sharing, employees will react accordingly. If management and employees seldom actively interact, or if there is a general sense of distrust or even fear of management, there will be no real knowledge sharing. And in organizations where management doesn’t see the value in simple and inexpensive “investments” in social interactions – such as breakrooms with free coffee and snacks – it is readily apparent that managers do not “get” the value of creating an informal atmosphere that encourages conversations that serve to increase levels of trust that invariably lead to work related discussions. Studies confirm the obvious – that we are more likely to share knowledge with those in our organizations that we trust as friends.

Sharing knowledge.

Lack of Spontaneous Knowledge Sharing – Forcing employees to sit through “exit interviews” which often feel much more like (Jack Bauer) “interrogations” runs counter to the very nature of knowledge sharing, which tends to be more spontaneous and voluntary. Supposedly, during an exit interview the organization would hope to review the key tasks of the person leaving…and then somehow capture all the knowledge needed or related to performing those tasks. Exit interviews are particularly ineffective when it has been apparent to the employee that their knowledge hasn’t really been valued up to that point and so there is little real incentive to share any valuable knowledge as a “parting gift.” These type of knowledge capture initiatives is a form of managerial control that negatively impacts trust and actually results in a decrease in actual shared knowledge. As David Skyrme once said, “the less you capture knowledge on a regular basis, the more you need to capture it at exit, yet the less likely you are to have the mechanisms in place to do so or the leaver’s willingness to cooperate!” The point is that if you work to create an organizational culture that supports the sharing of knowledge on a daily basis, then an exit interview can be an opportunity to bring together loose ends instead of a desperate (and somewhat painful) attempt to interrogate an employee.

Reward employees for knowledge sharing.

“Pushing String” – Rewarding employees for knowledge sharing increases the sharing of knowledge. Yet many organizations seem to miss that simple connection. And even though some organizations openly talk about knowledge sharing the very nature of their compensation systems and promotions are more often seen as incentive for fierce competition amongst employees who then believe that “knowledge is power” when it leads to personal rewards. Understanding the dilemma is to recognize the key differences, for example, in an organization that places high emphasis upon individual achievements rather than upon the collective achievement of the entire organization. Studies indicate that employees are much more likely to share knowledge when there are rewards that are based on recognition of knowledge sharing that improves the performance of the organization – that is, group rewards for knowledge sharing resulted in greater impact than individual rewards.

Collaboration is easier when it's not "forced fun."

“Forced Fun” – When management creates Communities of Practice (CoPs) or online communities without first determining whether or not there is a genuine interest, participation will be less than ideal. Effective communities are grown from passionate interest on behalf of those who establish and join them. When employee participation is mandated, and when management establishes goals or milestones or demands demonstration of a “payback” for supporting a community it feels all to much like the “day job” that employees already have. And trust me, few employees want a “second day job.”

Technology - an enabler addressing the big picture, or just a new thing for the "cows at the gate?"

“Technological Myopia” – Most employees are quite familiar with texting, chats, discussion threads, Twitter, Facebook, video conferencing and such. Each and all of these technologies are more likely to be familiar to those in the organization today and so there is an assumption that there is an understanding of how all these available tools fit in with and support knowledge sharing. That is a myth – both on the part of the employees who don’t necessarily see the “connection” and amongst management that (as Davenport has said) “believe that once the right technology is in place, the appropriate information-sharing behavior will inevitably follow.” It is common that organizations seek to address knowledge gaps by introducing the next new technology because it is easy for an organization to accomplish that. Technological myopia sets in when the organization fails to understand the strategic application of technology (as an enabler of achieving strategic goals). The end result is what might be referred to as a “cows at the gate” response by employees – where the cows lacking any real understanding of the purpose of what goes on beyond the gate stand eagerly at the gate waiting for the next new thing to arrive. Failure to address the need for knowledge sharing, along with discussion of the gap and how you will measure success in closing the gap, will lead to superficial use that results in no real knowledge transfer.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Knowledge sharing happens when there is a high degree of social interaction within the organization. But that social interaction has to be spontaneous and supported by a climate that doesn’t seem to be coercive and where technology enables and employees understand why it is available and what to do with it. Reward needs to be focused on the behaviors that actually support knowledge sharing throughout the organization rather than appearing to be a “get rich” plan focused on a few individuals.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch