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How to foster knowledge sharing part 1: use intrinsic motivations (or cats)

In this series of posts, we look at how to share more knowledge within your organization – without launching elaborate reward schemes or chaining people to their computers.

When creating a knowledge management strategy, it’s important to recognize that people already want to share knowledge. We all have a drive to pass on what we know, whether it’s to impress others, to express our interests, or to share what rouses our emotions. Research has identified these intrinsic motivations as the key factors in knowledge sharing (Bock and Kim 2011; Foss, Minbaeva, Pedersen and Reinholt 2009). The rise of social media bears abundant witness to the appeal of sharing.

Got a cat? Got a social media account? Chances are, you’ve shared with the Internet a picture of your cat doing something cute. Chances also are, no one ordered you to do this. You posted those adorable pictures entirely of your own free will. And why? Because your cat inspired feelings that you wanted to share with the people around you.

How do we support self-motivated knowledge sharing in the workplace, so people contribute to corporate knowledgebases with the same spontaneity they show on social media? Corporate knowledge has fewer cats and more boring documents, but some of the impulses behind sharing are the same. Let’s look at the reasons people are intrinsically motivated to share information.

Status

Sharing knowledge is a way of demonstrating knowledge, which makes us look good in the eyes of others. What we share, in the workplace or on social media, bears witness to our character. We’d all rather appear smart and funny than the reverse. Sharing quality information demonstrates our intelligence, expertise and judgement.

In the workplace, harness the desire for status by making knowledge sharing a criterion of excellence. Honor the people who contribute to common knowledge. Acknowledge them by attaching their names to their contributions and by giving feedback on those contributions in performance reviews.

Don’t force people to choose between status and sharing knowledge. This can happen if:

  • Knowledge management isn’t properly resourced, and thus costs time and effort that could be spent on more gainful activities.
  • Knowledge is regarded as an individual asset, and therefore experts hoard it for their own prestige.

Emphasize that knowledge is a collective asset and make the act of sharing confer prestige.

Self-identity

Passing on what we know is proof of our worth. Once we’ve learned enough to teach, we’re not just students but masters as well. In the workplace, being able to answer questions is a sign of competence. It increases confidence and reinforces that we deserve our professional position (Constant, Kiesler and Sproull 1994).

[E]xperts will want to contribute to coworkers who need them, who will hear them, who will respect them, and who may even thank them.

Self-worth can be encouraged in ways similar to the desire for status. A workplace culture in which knowledge sharing is valued and visible helps employees stay motivated. Publishing success stories involving the practical application of knowledge enables people to see the results of their contributions. Conversely, people will think their work lacks value if no one appears to read what they write.

It’s also important to acknowledge expertise. Subject matter experts don’t always realize that what they know is valuable in the first place. If they don’t know what they can uniquely contribute, they won’t see the purpose of doing it. So publicly recognize your experts and identify the knowledge gaps only they can fill.

Interest

On social media, we share content we find interesting with others who share our interests. Whether it’s politics, quilting or Star Wars, if it hits our buttons we’ll not only read it but pass it on to spread the excitement. While in the workplace, there’s less scope for personal interest and choice in the selection of material, employees are still more likely to share knowledge if they feel engaged by it.

Encourage knowledge sharing by bringing together people who work on similar projects. Not only does this enable people to exchange information about areas of mutual interest, it helps discover who in the group knows what and whose knowledge would be useful to others. Give employees time for research and reflection, so they can pursue avenues of interest and uncover knowledge gaps along the way. Employees permitted autonomy in organizing their workload are more likely to share knowledge than those who are not (Foss, Minbaeva, Pedersen and Reinholt 2009).

Emotion

We’re more likely to share content if it arouses strong feelings like joy, fear or anger (Berger 2011). Of all intrinsic motivations to share knowledge, this is the most difficult to harness in the workplace. Corporate data just doesn’t generate the emotional response of kitten photos or ethical causes. However, if employees feel they have a personal stake in the organization and its success, they can still be emotionally invested in the quality of corporate knowledge, if not in its content.

Summing Up

Because people already want to share knowledge, part of your knowledge management strategy should be to create a culture in which intrinsic motivations can be pursued. Employees who feel engaged, whose expertise and contributions are recognized, and who are given creative autonomy are more likely to share knowledge than those who see knowledge sharing as a chore slapped atop their normal work.

To give full play to employees’ drive for status, self-validation and engagement, knowledge sharing should be an integral part of their jobs. We’ll look at this in the next post in this series: Part 2: How to foster knowledge sharing: build it into jobs.

Interested in learning more about how to foster knowledge in your organization? Read our four-part blog series on Knowledge Sharing:

  1. Part 1: How to foster knowledge sharing: use intrinsic motivations (or cats).
  2. Part 2: How to foster knowledge sharing: build it into jobs.
  3. Part 3: How to foster knowledge sharing: don't reward, but recognize.
  4. Part 4: How to foster knowledge sharing: remove barriers.

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References

Berger, Jonah. 2011. "Arousal Increases Social Transmission of Information", Association for Psychological Science 22 (7): 891-893. http://jonahberger.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Arousal2.pdf

Bock, Gee-Woo and Young-Gul Kim. 2001. "Breaking the Myth of Rewards: An Exploratory Study of Attitudes about Knowledge Sharing", PACIS 2001 Proceedings. http://aisel.aisnet.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1161&context=pacis2001

Constant, David, Sara Kiesler and Lee Sproull. 1994. "What's Mine Is Ours, or Is It? A Study of Attitudes about Information Sharing", Information Systems Research 5 (4): 400-421. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~kiesler/publications/1994pdfs/1994Constant-WhatsMine.pdf

Foss, Nicolai J., Dana B. Minbaeva, Torben Pedersen and Mia Reinholt. 2009. "Encouraging Knowledge Sharing among Employees: Why Job Design Matters", Human Resource Management 48 (6): 871-893. http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2009_Fossetal_HRM.pdf

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