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How to foster knowledge sharing part 3: don't reward, but recognize

In this series of posts, we look at how to create successful knowledge management systems by motivating users to share knowledge. The first post discussed users’ intrinsic motivations for knowledge sharing, as demonstrated by the voluntary sharing of information on social media. The second looked at the roles of job design and workplace culture in motivating knowledge sharing.

One other form of motivation might seem obvious. The carrot. Or, for those who don’t eat their vegetables, chocolate. Performance-related bonuses, stock options, gift certificates. In other words, material rewards for contributing to knowledge.

Don’t give them.

Yes, it’s cruel not to get chocolate for writing articles no one might read. (I know.) But various studies indicate that reward systems don’t encourage knowledge sharing as much as intrinsic motivations do (Bock and Kim 2001; American Productivity & Quality Center 2002; Bock, Zmud, Kim and Lee 2005; Dean 2009). In fact, material rewards can even discourage knowledge sharing.

Why rewards discourage knowledge sharing

  • Rewards are a form of external motivation: a bribe to get us to do something. As such, they can conflict with our intrinsic motivations. If we do something to get an external reward, we’re not doing it for reasons that have deeper meaning, such as the desire for competence and self-worth.
  • For the same reason, rewards can make employees feel manipulated and reduce their sense of autonomy. People who feel they have creative autonomy are more likely to share knowledge than those who don’t.
  • The criteria by which the reward system measures contributions might not be the best. For example:
    • Does the system assess quality or just quantity?
    • Does it recognize long-term projects as well as tasks that show immediate results?
    • Does it reward the research and thinking phases of knowledge management as well as output?
    • Does it recognize informal knowledge sharing between coworkers, which is harder to measure than contributions to a database?
    • Does it reward people who use the knowledge management system to solve problems, as well as those who contribute articles?

People will be demotivated if the criteria for rewards don’t match how they work.

  • Rewards denote knowledge sharing as a special activity, rather than a normal part of someone’s job. This conflicts with the need to make knowledge sharing integral to company culture.
  • Rewards can become a substitute for allocating proper time and resources to knowledge management.
  • Rewards can make employees feel their performance is being judged by quotas rather than by competence.
  • Competition for a finite supply of rewards puts pressure on employees.
  • If rewards appear to be distributed unfairly, employees lose trust.
  • Rewards can encourage people to do enough to meet the criteria of the system, but no more. Intrinsic motivations, by contrast, don’t come with a minimum standard to be met.

Be cautious about attaching extrinsic rewards to behavior you want to persist over time.

- Carla O'Dell

Rewards offer most motivation at the start of a project, before contributing becomes a normal work habit. As time goes on, however, rewards provide less return on investment, while continuing to incur costs. And once rewards are established, it’s hard to pull the plug without upsetting the very people the system was meant to motivate.

Making the best of rewards

If you’re obliged to use a reward system, try the following tips to minimize its drawbacks.

  • Don’t use a reward system specifically for knowledge management. Include knowledge sharing in rewards for overall performance.
  • Design rewards to encourage collaboration rather than competition. One way is to reward group, rather than individual, performance. Another is to pay rewards in stock options, which foster a shared interest in the fortunes of the organization. A third is to reward knowledge sharing with opportunities for further learning, such as tickets to a conference (Bartol and Srivastava 2002).

The best rewards management can give, though, are feedback, trust and creative autonomy. All of these support employees’ intrinsic motivations, unlike material rewards which can create a competing scale of value.

The final post in this series will look at removing practical and psychological barriers that can inhibit knowledge sharing, thus allowing employees’ intrinsic motivations full play.

  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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American Productivity & Quality Center. 2002. "Rewards and Recognition in Knowledge Management". Teleconference proceedings.

Bartol, Kathryn M. and Abhishek Srivastava. 2002. "Encouraging Knowledge Sharing: The Role of Organizational Reward Systems", Journal of Leadership and Organization Studies 9 (1): 64-76.

Bock, Gee-Woo and Young-Gul Kim. 2001. "Breaking the Myth of Rewards: An Exploratory Study of Attitudes about Knowledge Sharing", PACIS 2001 Proceedings.

Bock, Gee-Woo, Robert W. Zmud, Young-Gul Kim and Jae-Nam Lee. 2005. "Behavioral Intention Formation in Knowledge Sharing: Examining the Roles of Extrinsic Motivators, Social-Psychological Forces, and Organizational Climate", MIS Quarterly 29 (1): 87-111.

Dean, Jeremy. 2009. "How Rewards Can Backfire and Reduce Motivation", PsyBlog, 12 October 2009.