In the professional sense, there are few feelings worse than watching otherwise capable employees beat their heads against the same old intractable problems. It doesn’t help that the primary reason so many employees struggle is because they’re afraid — or simply refuse — to ask for help.
In fact, knowledge sharing and the retention of institutional knowledge comprise one of the more pressing issues facing enterprise businesses, whether they’re aware of it or not.
In some cases, the very success of an organization depends on the extent to which it can foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. In this blog post, we’ll examine the role of knowledge sharing in successful enterprises. We’ll also detail concrete steps that an enterprise can take to build infrastructure that supports a true knowledge-sharing organization.
The State of Organizational Knowledge Sharing Today
Let’s begin with why knowledge sharing is so important. The writers at Slack (a company that knows a thing or two about knowledge sharing) once gave us four good reasons to encourage knowledge sharing:
- Improved organizational transparency
- A people- and collaboration-first culture
- Better connection between people and storage of knowledge
- Better retention of institutional knowledge
We think those are all very strong reasons to encourage organizational knowledge sharing. But even with a powerful tool like Slack at their disposal, many employees still don’t participate in knowledge sharing — at least not at the rate most executives would expect.
What’s contributing to this knowledge loss? We’ve got some ideas.
Sharing Might Degrade Individual Value to the Organization
An experienced employee might invest in knowledge hoarding based on a perception that the more knowledge they acquire and keep, the more irreplaceable they become. In competitive team settings, such as enterprise sales, some reps might successfully climb the leaderboard by keeping their best plays to themselves. Then of course there’s the lone-wolf scenario so common to software development.
Employees Don’t Have Hard-Dollar Incentives
Another reason for poor organizational knowledge sharing is the lack of meaningful incentives. Take professional services, as an example: so much of what professional services teams do is evaluated by billable hours. As Matt Schlessman of Kantata points out in a recent on-demand webinar from TSIA, documenting what worked and what didn’t for a particular project isn’t billable time – and it’s not exactly what professional services teams like to do with their spare time, either.
Tacit Knowledge Is Difficult to Capture
More often than not, tribal or tacit knowledge lives in a person’s head. For instance, a seasoned sales rep might have tacit knowledge that a buyer in the banking industry wants a certain kind of ROI statement. The challenge is not only bringing that tribal knowledge out of different employees, but capturing and making it into explicit knowledge in a way that a less seasoned rep can use it in context. Often, enterprises don’t have the technology and infrastructure for effective knowledge sharing in place to effectively capture this depth of nuance.
Most Executives Aren’t Strategizing Around Knowledge Management
There are company-wide determinants of an enterprise’s knowledge sharing culture, too. Even for enterprises with examples of strong knowledge sharing within certain departments, or among specific employees, many are behind in terms of knowledge management maturity at the organizational level.
According to the Enterprise Knowledge Management Maturity Model, only 7-8% of companies are at the so-called strategic phase – the most mature phase in the TSIA Enterprise Knowledge Management Maturity Model. This means that most executives still don’t prioritize updates about knowledge management initiatives, nor funding in their support.
How to Build Infrastructure that Supports Effective Knowledge Sharing
As to the concrete steps you can take to enhance organizational knowledge sharing, I’ve gathered a few infrastructural considerations, if you will — building blocks that support the growth of knowledge sharing organization.
1. Ask the Right Questions
Wherever your organization falls on the knowledge management maturity model, it helps to ask the right questions. In 3 Simple Questions to Grow a Knowledge Sharing Culture, Valerie Chong outlines three questions that help enterprises find their baselines, both in terms of knowledge sharing and company-wide knowledge management strategy:
Who should be involved in the knowledge transformation process?
By answering this question, you’ll know exactly who has skin in the game, from executive sponsors down to department-specific subject matter experts. You’ll also reveal gaps in your process, both in terms of people and business units.
How do you encourage effective knowledge management participation?
Think back to my earlier mention of incentives as a barrier to fostering the sharing of explicit and tacit knowledge. To find the good stuff – those incentives that actually lead to value creation – start with how you’re incentivizing participation now. Perhaps there are opportunities to tie knowledge sharing activity to incentive compensation or employee performance evals, something 51% of companies don’t currently do (source: TSIA).
What comes first: content or search?
This is an interesting one, because not all organizations are at a stage where they’re generating much knowledge content at all. You can’t share knowledge if you don’t have any to begin with! For enterprises with existing bodies of knowledge, the way forward looks a little different (more on that in a bit). Start by asking yourself what habits you want to encourage and improve first, the creation of the knowledge itself, or how employees find it “in the flow.”
2. Give Structure and Standardization to Company-Wide Knowledge Management
On a number of occasions, John Ragsdale, Distinguished Researcher and VP of Technology Ecosystems at TSIA, has touted the potential of a company-wide knowledge management model. He’s not alone. That model is reflected in the updated TSIA KM maturity model’s focus on the strategic phase.
This enterprise-wide model recommends taking the knowledge management best practices from a handful of departments – support and customer success, for example – and evangelizing those across the company. According to Ragsdale, this model requires some form of “knowledge czar” whose job it is to find these best practices and technologies for KM.
Under this model, governance would likely come from the CIO’s department, in which the best practices for sharing explicit and tacit knowledge trickle down into the rest of the organization. Ideally, every group has its own knowledge management function — as well as identified knowledge workers — that ensure governance is applied, given their particular needs, tools, and personnel.
In other words, a standardized knowledge management system and methodology that people are responsible for enforcing.
3. Sidestep the “Where Best to Store Knowledge Debate”
As to where to best store all of the collective knowledge that an enterprise generates, the question itself is in many ways moot. First of all, it varies, even for the enterprises that do their damndest to unify knowledge flow. Within most enterprises, you’ll still find a conglomeration of Google and SharePoint docs, decks, and PDFs – not to mention all that goes on on Teams and Slack-living in a lot of different places.
The more mature organizations will sidestep the question of where to store their knowledge altogether. Here’s what I mean:
Embed knowledge capture in the workflow
In sales, for example, you can automatically record sales interactions and store those recordings in a place that’s indexable, retrievable, integratable. The same thing goes for creating cases from successfully resolved cases by support agents. The idea is to make this knowledge capture part of each employee’s daily flow, without asking too much of each employee to participate. This is one of the central tenets of Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS)*.
Add intelligent search on top of everything
When an employee has a one-stop search experience to quickly retrieve (and share) the knowledge they need, they don’t really care where the content itself resides. An intelligent search solution can blend content from a lot of different sources into a single experience. What’s more, the more people interact with content, the better machine learning engines learn to serve up the most relevant content the next time something similar comes up.
That said, a proliferation of repositories can increase cost of ownership, so limiting content repositories and maintaining clear governance has its benefits. This might entail assigning knowledge owners across teams who can author, organize, and maintain their own repositories – again tying back to the concept of company-wide KM described above.
4. Layer in Analytics
It’s one thing to bring knowledge transfer out of silos and into a searchable experience of some kind. It’s another to link everything together and enrich the experience with contextual data – to present best-bet content based on deep, contextually-based analysis of many other interactions.
Back to Matt Schlessman of Kantata, who distills this idea well. Schlessman notes the great value of a mechanism for not only capturing best practices from different professional services projects. But also using project data and other analytics to tie everything together and deeply enrich any insights and recommendations that result thereafter.
(It’s what Coveo calls an intelligent search and recommendation platform, coincidentally.)
Why Knowledge Sharing Culture is So Critical
Underlying this infrastructure is the culture of sharing knowledge itself. Often, culture is a huge obstacle to building a healthy culture of organizational knowledge sharing. So, how do you cultivate a willingness to share?
One angle is to incentivize the activity. This is tricky, because offering cash for contributions can quickly pollute a knowledge base with bad content. It can also create a situation in which people just attach the full product manual to every single case without context.
According to Patrick Martin, Coveo’s VP of Technical Support, his organization bakes a KM index (a composite of different knowledge sharing activities) right into its MBOs, rather than incentivizing singular activities alone.
Martin’s organization also conducts behavioral interviews with questions about collaboration. The idea is to capture the applicant’s mindset around knowledge sharing, among other collaborative activities.
This exercise is accompanied by a collaborative technical challenge: candidates are asked to build a search page using documentation and access to a Slack channel where they can ask questions. How do they interact with the team? What questions do they ask? All of these answers factor into Martin’s evaluations of a candidate.
Finally, the candidate will complete a psychometric test against a defined profile for what Martin’s team is looking for, one tailored toward more collaborative people.
It’s a unique way to look for candidates who can collaborate with customers and internal stakeholders, one that – if implemented in some formal way across organizations – can move the organization’s needle toward improved knowledge sharing,
Start Small and Build from the Bottom Up
I wish I could tell you there was a magical platform to download, install, and solve all problems related to organizational knowledge sharing. The issue requires a far more nuanced approach. But it can start with what I’d consider a universal truth: most employees generate and interact with knowledge on a daily basis – sometimes dozens upon dozens of times.
With that in mind, why not start from the bottom up? Make knowledge sharing and collaboration a habit by building those activities into every process and interaction. Launch department-specific pilot projects designed to showcase the power of knowledge sharing, then bring that data up to the execs to secure the required attention, funding, and investments needed for a broader transformation.
It will take time, as most transformations do; but the process will put enterprises in a better position to make the most of the technologies already out there – powerful technologies proven to take organizational knowledge sharing to the next level.
*KCS® is a service mark of the Consortium for Service Innovation™
Growing a knowledge-sharing culture within your organization is the first step toward better knowledge management. But don’t forget about all of the channels where you need to deploy that knowledge in! Get best practices for managing multi-channel knowledge management in our ebook.