In Knowledge Management Part 1 – How Good is Your Corporate Memory, we defined knowledge management as the ability of an organization to store useful information for later retrieval in such a way that the information can be utilized to make better decisions. To aide in the subjective assessment of Corporate Memory, we also asked two related fundamental questions:
- If staff member A is facing a challenging problem, has that problem already been experienced and solved by someone else in the organization? If a solution exists, how likely is it that staff member A will get the pertinent information on the solution in a timely fashion?
- If you are still reading along, my assumption is you have some interest in learning more about how organizations can improve their practice of knowledge management. As you may have already noticed, knowledge management is a rather large topic area, with dozens and dozens of rabbit holes we could fall into.
To maximize the value for you, I want to give you a few best practices that aren’t always considered. These practices can make your life much simpler if you take them into account when implementing or recommending an approach to knowledge management.
Before continuing, I do feel compelled to state a few assumptions to frame these best practices appropriately. First of all, I assume that whatever your involvement is or will be with a knowledge management initiative, you are interested in an effective model for knowledge management. What else would you be looking for? If you are reading this blog, I am confident that is exactly what you are looking for. But, in case you report to a professional bureaucrat, these practices don’t necessarily fall into the realm of political correctness. Also, these practices may be a little to straight forward to sufficiently impress your management. Before I head down this particular rabbit hole any further, the point I want to convey is that what I am about to tell you is focused on what works to promote effective knowledge sharing in real world situations, which doesn’t always jive with popular management theory.
Now let’s take a look at one of the most important knowledge management best practices:
Knowledge and Knowledge Sharers Require an Engaged Audience
At the core of any knowledge management system is of course knowledge. Much of the knowledge you want to capture, organize and share within an organization originates from people. The problem with people in the workplace is that they are busy with their current responsibilities associated with their job. In most cases, taking the time to capture, organize, and share knowledge represents extra work above and beyond the endless meetings and deadlines most of us are preoccupied with. So why would someone take extra time to share their knowledge with others?
That is a great question and I have seen companies try a variety of schemes to incentivize employees to share their great insights for the greater good of the organization. I am not against incentives, but I believe it is usually not obvious how any particular incentives will actually work in practice. From my experience, people who share their valuable knowledge do so because of their own internal motivations, not because of external incentives. People have a natural tendency to want to share their knowledge with others. In my opinion, getting people to share knowledge has more to do with removing barriers than creating incentives. The biggest barrier is the fear of criticism. There has to be a foundation of trust that knowledge shared will be well received or debated in a professional manner. The first time someone shares their ideas and gets feedback on how that won’t work, can’t work, or is used against them in some fashion, the first time will also be their the last time.
So let’s say you have an environment where people don’t throw rocks as the first step in the feedback process. What else needs to exist to encourage the self-motivated knowledge sharers to share more? Another critical ingredient is for the knowledge sharer to have a qualified and interested audience. I remember many years ago, speaking to a group of about 300 high school students on the topic of goal setting. You can probably see where this is going. Of the 300 kids in attendance, there were maybe five who were paying any sort of attention to what I was saying. From that pool of five, there may have been two who had any notion of a goal past go to college. After the fact I found out a couple of facts that made me feel slightly better. I was under the impression that I was going to be talking to a group of young business leaders. What I discovered was I was speaking at an event sponsored by the young business leaders group at the school. The other bit of comedy-in-retrospect was that the majority of the 300 were most likely in attendance because they had the option of skipping one of their classes to attend my talk. For the record, I do enjoy sharing knowledge with young people who have an interest, but that is beside the point.
A knowledge sharer needs to have people who are interested in his or her knowledge and who have a level of understanding to meaningfully engage in the knowledge being shared. Most knowledge sharers are happy to answer some newbie questions, but if those are the only types of questions they are answering, the information flow will quickly dry up.
Stay tune for Knowledge Management Part 3, when we will look at another best practice I call the Knowledge Yellow Pages…