The definition of knowledge has been compared to a recipe for a cake.
If knowledge is the recipe, then information would be the ingredients for the cake, and data would be the molecules that make up the cake. The exact type of cake we’re referring to is entirely up to you – whether that’s chocolate cake, ice cream cake, or cheesecake.
With that delicious analogy in mind, meaningful knowledge can also be broken down further into explicit, implicit, and tacit knowledge. The best way to share knowledge depends on the type of knowledge in question, and we’ll deal with these different types of knowledge later.
Effective knowledge sharing has several important advantages for your productivity and bottom line (which we'll get to below).
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to persuade your employees to share their knowledge – especially if you don’t have the right culture in place first. The cost of doing nothing is high, as enterprise businesses are losing $10 billion a year from a failure to share knowledge.
What is a Knowledge Sharing System
“Knowledge Sharing Systems support the process through which explicit or tacit knowledge is communicated to other individuals. These systems are also referred to as knowledge repositories,” says Sirje Virkus, faculty member at the Institute of Information Studies, Tallinn University.
Here’s a table highlighting the different types of knowledge you might be dealing with:
No room for doubt
Practical and task-based
Subjective and comes with experience
An example of a knowledge sharing system could be a knowledge base. You would use a knowledge base to share explicit knowledge such as reference guides and explanatory conceptual articles. You could also use it for sharing practical knowledge, in articles structured as step-by-step tutorials on how to complete a task.
Knowledge sharing concerns knowledge, but it’s also about building relationships and fostering collaboration between people. For example, communities of practice (skill sharing) or communities of excellence (sharing best practices) are a great way to build a culture of knowledge sharing.
This example of knowledge-sharing communities highlights how employees must be incentivized to share their knowledge – more on this later.
Challenges to Sharing Knowledge
Unfortunately, almost a third of companies rate their knowledge sharing culture as below 5 out of 10. This means their employees are failing to share knowledge, and it’s affecting their bottom line.
This problem is not uncommon, and “Often, we are too slow to recognize how much and in what ways we can assist each other through sharing such expertise and knowledge,” says Barbadian politician Owen Arthur.
Here are some of the main reasons that employees fail to share knowledge in your organization.
Lack of employee buy-in
Your people and their relationships are the most important part of your knowledge sharing programs. And yet, getting buy-in from your employees can be the most challenging part of implementing a new knowledge sharing system.
No matter how good your system is, your people may not see the point in using it. This is complicated by the fact that a knowledge sharing program can potentially come across as a sign that your employees are, well, replaceable.
Fear about sharing knowledge
The baby boomer generation is currently in the process of retiring, and they can be reluctant to share their knowledge. Even worse, the average length of employment in one job has plummeted to 3.2 years for millennial employees aged 25–34. People can be sensitive to the fact that if they divulge their knowledge, you may no longer need them.
Failure of systems and methodologies
Knowledge can also quickly become out-of-date if you don’t maintain your system well. A once-useful knowledge sharing system becomes irrelevant. A lack of appropriate technologies also creates barriers for companies which are looking to share knowledge.
What Are the Benefits of Sharing Knowledge
Despite these challenges, the benefits of sharing knowledge can be enormous. We’ll go into just a few of them now.
Improve communication and collaboration
Employees spend 20% of the working week searching for information they need to do their jobs. They waste one fifth of their time looking for knowledge that should be readily available.
“Sharing knowledge is not about giving people something, or getting something from them. That is only valid for information sharing. Sharing knowledge occurs when people are genuinely interested in helping one another develop new capacities for action; it is about creating learning processes,” says Peter Senge, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One study from Warwick University showed how knowledge sharing improved relationships between employees, among many other benefits.
Prevent errors occurring
You can save money by reducing duplicate efforts, time employees spend searching for information, and avoid expensive and embarrassing mistakes. For example, when Intel was trying to improve the performance of one of its products, the company discovered that 60% of problems it was encountering had already been solved by a previous team.
You can complete projects much more quickly if you have a shared repository of knowledge to refer to – this means less time spent searching and waiting for responses from key people.
Boost employee engagement
View your knowledge sharing program as another type of employee engagement program. Employee disengagement loses $7 trillion annually, and causes employees to leave your company. With knowledge sharing, employees get a chance to share their expertise and build their status in the eyes of others – more on this later.
Reduce employee churn by improving engagement with knowledge sharing, and distinguish your organization as an expert in your field. Sharing knowledge also speeds up onboarding if you make your processes more transparent.
How Do You Share Knowledge in the Workplace
“If you build it, they will come,” is not a good philosophy for a knowledge sharing system. But implementing a successful knowledge sharing program can be overwhelming. Where do you start?
As with any kind of large task, break it down. Identify the different types of knowledge that you want to share within your organization. Distinguish between explicit, implicit and tacit knowledge – each type of knowledge can be most effectively shared using a different method.
Way to share
Communities of practice, collaborative workspaces
Knowledge base, communities of excellence
Incentivize your employees to take part in your knowledge sharing program – using either a “carrot” method or “stick” method. The carrot is about positive reinforcement and the stick is about negative reinforcement. Naturally, positive reinforcement is the better choice.
For the carrot method, tap into the intrinsic motivations that people have for sharing in the first place:
- Status – to look good in the eyes of others and proving what you know
- Self-identity – to define oneself, helping you carve out your professional identity
- Interest – having a personal stake in a topic or regarding the topic as important
- Emotion – having an emotional investment in doing something
In short, if sharing knowledge is socially, professionally, or personally desirable, then your employees will be much more likely to participate in a knowledge sharing program. If team members are encouraged to form collaborative relationships rather than compete with each other, knowledge sharing rates will rise.
Negative reinforcement is about de-incentivizing hoarding knowledge. For example, your company may compensate employees in pay bands. Say someone is in Band 5. Band 5 requires publishing 3 articles per quarter in their relevant field to demonstrate their expertise. Failure to hit these targets results in being moved to a lower band, since you are not regarded as an expert in your field.
Even when you manage to motivate your team to share, officially encourage employees to spend time knowledge sharing and relationship building in their work schedule. Persuade your reluctant employees that sharing their expertise actually makes them a more valuable part of the team, by demonstrating their professionalism.
Build Better Relationships
A knowledge sharing system is a tool you use to get the job done, but the best knowledge sharing happens when you build better relationships between people. Knowledge sharing practices must be baked into the company culture and it should be rewarded with positive reinforcement.
“In today's environment, hoarding knowledge ultimately erodes your power. If you know something very important, the way to get power is by actually sharing it,” says Joseph Badaracco, John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School.
Of course, you must also have appropriate systems in place to capture that knowledge once you have persuaded your employees to share what they know. Distinguish between tacit, explicit and implicit knowledge, and devise appropriate methods to capture different types of knowledge.