It should come as no surprise that learning is largely a social experience. From language acquisition to behavior to a variety of skills like learning how to drive—we gain most of our knowledge from other people. The same is true in the workplace. In Knowledge Management in Theory and Practice, Kimiz Dalkir writes that, according to an IBM Institute survey, “people first turn to other people in order to find information, solve problems, and make decisions” while the company knowledge base was “ranked fourth among the top five choices for preferred sources of information.” Dalkir also writes, though, that many companies struggle to provide opportunities for this kind of social interaction. The question becomes, then, how do you promote an effective knowledge network, and then how do you motivate people to participate in and contribute to that network?
To begin, knowledge networks must share a common goal or purpose, but they must also have a shared understanding of the social and operational norms for the knowledge network, as well. In other words, in order for a knowledge sharing network to function effectively, there must be an agreed upon structure and procedures governing interactions within the network. A knowledge network without an established goal/purpose/outcome will quickly become ineffective and even unused. In addition, leaders and facilitators, which can emerge naturally or be appointed, help to ensure that all participants adhere to the network’s guidelines and policies.
It’s not enough to have an existing knowledge network, though. In order for the network to be successful, members have to be contributing valuable knowledge and reusing and building onto that contributed knowledge.An article from PHPKB, a knowledge base software company, suggests that motivation can and should come in a variety of forms. Take a look at the following recommendations:
1. Show people how knowledge sharing can benefit them personally.
Provide examples of how access to others’ knowledge can enhance their own performance and how sharing what they know can make their own knowledge more valuable. For instance, in the act of sharing an idea, you naturally refine it to make it more digestible—that act alone improves the knowledge. But, too, others can now access it and add to it, further improving the idea.
2. Create a reward/incentive program.
Rewarding people for contributing valuable knowledge to the knowledge sharing network has been shown to significantly increase employee participation. PHPKB even suggests allowing users decide the value of the knowledge shared—the number of users to access and apply your knowledge contribution would determine the level of compensation you would receive. In addition to rewarding contributors, companies should reward users. Incentivizing re-use of knowledge and the building on existing knowledge will encourage both activities to take place.
3. Model what knowledge sharing looks like.
Walk the walk—model this behavior for employees. And highlight employees who are naturals at knowledge sharing and encourage others to adopt their behaviors.
4. Embrace and celebrate sharing failures.
Sharing best practices is certainly a crucial part of success, but it’s also important to make room for sharing worst-practices and lessons learned. Ever hear someone say that one of the most important things they’ve learned is what NOT to do? That’s because it’s true! Mistakes help us to improve and refine our craft, and creating a culture that celebrates mistake-making actually increases knowledge, opening the door to generate new ideas, and builds a sense of trust and community among knowledge sharers. PHPKB proposes that organizations can even make sharing mistakes fun by giving awards for best mistakes made.
5. Build time into the daily workflow for knowledge sharing.
One of the most common reasons people don’t share knowledge in the workplace is time. There simply isn’t room in the schedule for it, and oftentimes asking people to contribute to the knowledge network is perceived as an additional item being tacked on to an already busy work schedule. So, if knowledge sharing is an activity truly valued by the organization, then they should make knowledge sharing a formal part of job responsibilities and build time into the daily schedule to allow for this task to be carried out.
6. Teach people what valuable knowledge looks like.
Another common reason people don’t tend to share knowledge is that they aren’t aware that they have anything to share. It’s crucial to educate employees as to what knowledge is considered valuable.
7. Ensure the technology you use works effectively and efficiently for people.
Technology should be something that facilitates work and alleviates unnecessary burdens; however, technology can also be an obstacle that impedes productivity and keeps people from engaging in the knowledge-sharing process. If the technology is too complex to learn or requires too much time and effort to complete a task, it will obstruct rather than enable work; moreover, employees will likely avoid using this technology when they can.
There is no silver bullet in fostering an effective knowledge network. Once again, the answer lies in the culture of the workplace—it’s all about company values and what measures they put in place to ensure those values are upheld and carried out.