We live in an age of unprecedented access to information. People regularly share and obtain knowledge through how-to and wiki sites or Social Media. If we have a problem, we can be pretty sure that someone somewhere has posted a solution.
Knowledge shared is a burden at least halved. Yet, why is it that so many organisations don’t have a strategy for sharing knowledge at work? And, how do you build a knowledge-sharing culture?
What does a knowledge-sharing culture offer?
The common practice of online file sharing and collaboration is evidence that knowledge can be widely distributed and of the benefits that arise when it’s pooled.
Increasingly, modern learners expect the ability to look online for answers and expect the information they seek to be presented by experts, or at least by those who consider themselves experts.
The benefit of having guidance, assistance and experience on your side are evident. The pooling and dissemination of knowledge can bring gains to any organisation. Knowledge sharing can result in greater efficiency and better performance. It can support performance, bridge gaps, raise standards, and increase standardisation.
But if the benefits are so obvious, why isn’t knowledge sharing more widely practised? One reason is that the culture that allows knowledge to flow isn’t there. There may be structural impediments to establishing a knowledge-sharing culture. These include a pre-existing culture of knowledge hoarding by individuals who want to retain control. Management attitudes, company policies, and fixed hierarchies can impede the sharing of knowledge. An absence of reward or recognition may deter people from sharing what they know. Also, a lack of technological infrastructure may make sharing knowledge difficult or inconsistent.
The challenge is to promote a culture that minimises or removes those impediments, so that you can reap the benefits a knowledge-sharing culture can bring.
Help is at hand
It’s been persuasively argued that learning by doing, learning on the job, and informal ways of learning make up 90% of how we learn. There’s the famous 70/20/10 learning model that leaves formal training contributing a mere 10% of what we learn. Technology, specifically elearning with its increased accessibility and flexibility, may be shifting those ratios, but there’s little doubt that a lot of learning goes on under the training radar.
One might argue that it matters little how people learn so long as they learn. But the trouble with informal learning for an organisation is just that: it’s informal, difficult to gauge and monitor, hard to control and validate. It’s not that informal learning isn’t powerful, valuable or effective, it’s that you can’t be sure that it’s always so. It makes sense then to recognise informal learning and channel it.
And remember the cost of not sharing knowledge. When a person leaves an organisation, a part of that organisation’s knowledge and expertise walks out the door too.
So, we’re increasingly seeing technology employed both to prevent loss of knowledge and, more actively, to capture what’s there and share it more widely and in a more structured, targeted and efficient way. We see that in the use of project management and workflow apps like Trello and Slack. These apps follow on from knowledge-sharing microsites like SharePoint but offer easier access, alerts and the immediacy of instant messaging bolstered by mobile connectivity.
But, sophisticated those these technological developments are, without a knowledge-sharing structure in place they may just add to the noise, making it hard to distinguish what’s valuable from what’s ephemeral.
How do you establish a knowledge sharing environment?
To share knowledge effectively requires an environment where knowledge is identified, valued and distributed. This is as much about how you work as how you deliver learning. You want to maximise what your people can offer and move away from a model of working that prizes heroic intervention to one that supports and rewards people who give the benefit of their experience and expertise.
The first step in establishing this new, open, distributive knowledge culture involves encouraging and enabling people to participate actively in building a repository of knowledge. Setting up communities and forums where knowledge is traded helps facilitate collaboration. Programmes or strategies such as peer-to-peer coaching or mentoring schemes not only provide help for new employees, but also recognise the role that more experienced employees have. Such schemes explicitly recognise the knowledge that’s there. They formally acknowledge existing skills and recognise the contribution people make to an organisation. This sends out that message that not only is knowledge valued, but that it’s more valuable when it’s shared.
In relying on expertise gained in work you’re also tacitly acknowledging that training becomes more effective when it’s within the work flow. This assumption needs to be made explicit with L&D becoming more aligned with and situated within the working environment.
How technology can assist
Even when you’ve established mentoring programmes and communities or forums to share knowledge, you still need to make sure that knowledge is captured so that it doesn’t evaporate as circumstances change. Technology can play a pivotal important role in the capture, storage and access to knowledge.
Digital technology and elearning allow you to build a library of assets. These can be made accessible on mobile devices so that people have these learning resources with them wherever they are. It means they can learn on the go, in their own time and space.
Technology also allows the easy creation of knowledge assets. This can be something as simple as a blog, a tweet, a piece of text or video, or a voice recording offering some advice, a how-to tip or explaining best practice. These assets can then be catalogued and tagged so that they can be retrieved when needed. In this way knowledge is taken out of the heads of experts and placed in the hands of learners.
There’s an important coordinating role here for L&D. Even if they’re not directly creating these training assets they need to validate and catalogue them. The management of knowledge assets is a critical step in building the knowledge base. In a sense it’s the formalisation of informal learning.
Oversight and reporting are critical. You need to be able to analyse what’s being produced and quantify it. The sharing of knowledge is a weapon in closing performance gaps. For that to happen you need to know what people know and, equally and perhaps more instructively, what they don’t.
Rather than just be passive recipients of knowledge that exists within an organisation, you can actively seek out knowledge or create and share new knowledge. In a time of change, knowledge like a business can’t stand still. Knowledge sharing also requires knowledge building.
Once you have your knowledge repository, technology in the form of AI can help you make better use of it. AI chatbots can act as mentors too to employees, not only making the searching and retrieval of information easier but going further and actively recommending or adapting knowledge assets based on the needs of the learner. AI can also be used for adaptive learning, assembling knowledge assets on the fly to deliver a more targeted and personalised information based on learners’ needs.
Sustaining what you’ve created
If you manage to build an environment in which knowledge is shared you need to be able to maintain it. This starts with incentivising people to share the knowledge they have. It makes sense to put in place reward and recognition structures to motivate people to be involved and share what they know. This can be an internal scheme or external, like CPD.
Knowledge sharing needs to be considered part of working. It may be formalised and tracked within mentoring programmes. It can be an obligation placed on more senior personnel.
Distributing knowledge more widely makes it easier to assess the health of that knowledge and meet any gaps. It protects against common problems that undermine formal training, such as information overload and plain and simple forgetting. It provides security against knowledge loss when people move on. Indeed, an environment that prizes and rewards knowledge helps make the organisation a more attractive place to work – a place where people want to stay. Retaining staff is a key feature of building and sustaining organisational knowledge.
The power of knowledge sharing
Modern technology has enabled a greater democratisation of knowledge. Knowledge may be power, but that power is better distributed and as a result provides real benefit for organisations.
Informed workers who understand what they’re doing and why are doing it are likely to perform better. Creating a knowledge-sharing culture leads to a more open environment where resources are pooled to overcome gaps and enhance performance. The power of knowledge is then released from the confines of the classroom or the expert and fully realised across the organisation and within the workflow.
Find out more
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Rob is Learning Pool’s Head of Marketing, providing marketing leadership across all facets of Learning Pool’s brand, products and technologies.
He started his marketing career in the late ’90s, with significant time spent working in the media sector and is particularly skilled in Marketing Management, Digital Strategy, Research and Market Planning.
Rob holds a Master’s Degree (MSc) in Marketing Management from Manchester Metropolitan University. He now spends most of his time working out how to clearly communicate our ever-growing range of learning technology solutions to interested audiences in Europe and across the US.
Away from the office, Rob tries to balance family life with a passion for cycling, hiking, travelling and all things outdoors.