This post explores one of the common issues that face many organizations as they attempt to transfer knowledge across their organizations and explores why it is so vexing. This is inspired by a 22 May, 2011 Vancouver Province Article titled “Holding out on coworkers”, by Jordan Press, page A41. The article reviews some of the findings and thoughts in a research paper done by University of Toronto professor David Zweig.
The article explores why people don’t share knowledge (usually in the form of wisdom, savviness and other “tricks of the trade”) and how to deal with this behaviour.
Why people don’t share?
- They don’t trust their coworker and what they might do with the information (e.g., take undue credit).
- The organizations has done a poor job of promoting inter-office sharing. Actually becomes in people’s best interests to secure their “especially effective” knowledge.
What can we do to improve the situation?
- having more direct communication and less reliance on email
- highlighting examples of trustworthiness
- avoiding “betrayal” incentives such as rewarding those who poach others’ knowledge.
Of the three ideas above, only the third one I find particularly substantial. It is not that the first two can’t have some benefits, I just don’t believe they are powerful enough tactics to make a material difference if the third one is left unaddressed. I will delve into this more below.
The issue of successful knowledge transference is a well recognized one in business and OD. In the early years it was thought we could codify this knowledge using sophisticated software systems and getting people to load in their wisdom. I remember going to thinly veiled vendor presentations and conferences and coming away with a headache over the proposed approaches. They were just too complicated, way to time consuming (when everyone was working flat out – especially those whose knowledge we were desperate to “capture”), and these approaches failed badly on why people were unlikely to embrace this effort. The knowledge that was easiest to codify was the that which was already process and procedurally organized. The knowledge that really mattered was the the “tacit” type.
For me, I see one critical contributor to failure to share: Those that have the knowledge often don’t know how. Time for the mental experiment:
Think of an area you are really good in and ask yourself the question (as if you were uninformed about your field): “How do you know to do that?” Not easy to answer is it. Why? Because you have internalized the expertise and wisdom such that it is no longer a “conscious” thought process. Guess what, your best people operate that way too.
I always want to mention this alternative basis for sharing difficulties as it is a factor and not a blaming one.
Let’ think about the more conscious and deliberate forms of withholding.
Readers of this BLOG know I have a focus on role design and performance as a critical strategy area for successful talent management. I would like to also remind us that roles are designed within a context. The context includes values, macro systems, processes and so on.
My observance is that these context factors are huge in the matter of behaviour. Overt formal – to – covert informal recognition and reward systems I would argue drive most conscious and deliberate knowledge withholding. People learn what is “safe” and “not safe” and act accordingly. Hence, when I work with clients on the knowledge transfer type issues, I always pay particular attention to how the organization explicitly and implicitly reinforces specific sharing/non-sharing behaviours.
Given this perspective, I am not overly convinced that relying on face-to-face communications and sharing success stories are sufficient or even meaningful strategies for getting more useful sharing behaviour habits started and engrained.
When I have found the reinforcing patterns to be a significant contributor to withholding behaviours, I have worked with clients to moderate these role specific contextual factors, rather than, trying to change the organizations’ related systems.