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How to foster knowledge sharing part 4: remove barriers

In this series of posts, we look at how employees are motivated to share knowledge in the workplace. The first post described people’s intrinsic motivations for sharing. The second discussed how job design and management culture can encourage sharing. The third challenged the idea that rewards are a key factor in successful knowledge management. This final post looks at factors that inhibit sharing and how to overcome them.

As we’ve seen, people have a natural drive to share knowledge. Therefore, they probably will share knowledge unless there’s a specific barrier in the way. Barriers can be practical (e.g. lack of time) or psychological (e.g. lack of confidence).

Loss of Status

Status in the workplace is an important motive for sharing knowledge. Employees want to feel competent and to have others recognize their competence. However, if sharing knowledge actually conflicts with status, people become demotivated. This can happen if:

  • The employee fears losing standing as a subject matter expert by making her knowledge common.
  • Knowledge sharing takes time and effort away from other activities that enhance status more.

In other words, if the perceived loss to status outweighs the gain, employees won’t be motivated to share knowledge.

To avoid this problem:

  • Make sure knowledge management is allocated sufficient time and resources, so it doesn’t require contributors to sacrifice their time.
  • If contributors do give extra time, make sure this is acknowledged. People are more willing to incur costs to share knowledge if their sacrifice is visible to others (Bol and Leiby 2015).
  • Attach value to the act of sharing, rather than simply to possessing knowledge. Make sure knowledge sharing receives feedback and public recognition.
  • Emphasize that knowledge is the collective property of the organization, rather than individual property.

Unknown Unknowns

People won’t share knowledge if they don’t realize what they know is unique. Knowledge sharing requires three conditions: knowledge on one side, need for that knowledge on the other, and awareness of the need by the knowledge possessor. If the person who possesses the knowledge isn’t aware of the need, there’s no motivation to share.

It’s hard for people to know what knowledge they uniquely possess. Partly, this is because competent people tend to be modest about their abilities. (If I know something, it can’t be that special.) Another reason is that knowledge gaps often aren’t revealed in group discussion. When people gather to discuss a project, the conversation tends to focus on facts everyone knows (Dean 2009).

To counter this tendency, bring together people with diverse backgrounds and experience. This helps prevent project discussions from following preset lines. Make sure subject matter experts are publicly recognized, so both knowledge possessors and knowledge seekers are aware of their status.

Lack of Confidence

Fear of making mistakes can make employees reluctant to contribute. Once an article is posted, it’s out there for everyone to read. Typos are immortalized. Any errors in the content can mislead others. Knowledge management confers responsibilities for accuracy and clarity that can be daunting.

Ways to encourage contributions from less confident users include:

  • Tiered levels of participation. For example, novice users could submit suggestions for new knowledge articles rather than being expected to write them. Later, they can graduate to more substantial contributions.
  • Tolerating mistakes (within reason!) and giving contributors the chance to learn from and correct their own errors.
  • A workplace culture that encourages trust and support, and that recognizes participation as well as perfection.

Difficult Technology

The higher the technological barriers to knowledge sharing, the more effort is needed for a return.

If knowledge management software isn’t user friendly, participation in knowledge sharing will be narrower. Maybe the software has a bunch of features that are superfluous to your project and serve only to confuse people. Maybe it’s designed for “knowledge engineers” and requires programming skills few employees have. The higher the technological barriers to knowledge sharing, the more effort is needed for a return.

Keep software as simple as possible. Make sure contributors have only to write, not to program. Limit the feature set to what’s necessary to accomplish your aims. The BBC once facilitated knowledge sharing among its internal staff using just bulletin boards and a wiki; the simple and familiar nature of these technologies helped ensure success (Mackenzie 2006).

Summing Up

Successful knowledge management requires knowledge to be part of your whole organizational culture. We know our knowledge content shouldn’t be stuck in a silo, allowing executives to tick the “Yes, we have a knowledgebase!” box but be rarely read or updated again. It should be a living, changing thing that’s available to all and that underpins processes across the organization.

Similarly, sharing knowledge shouldn’t be seen as an ancillary task, shoehorned into leftover time or motivated by rewards. It should be integral to jobs. It should be part of a culture of support and learning in which employees’ intrinsic motivations are aligned with the organization’s goals.

By working with employees’ intrinsic motivations, building knowledge sharing into job design, and removing barriers that inhibit sharing, you can create knowledge management that will sustain itself without rewards and punishment. At the very least, your employees will share plenty of pictures of cats.

  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

Bol, Jasmijn C. and Justin Leiby. 2015. "Status Motives and Agent-to-Agent Information Sharing: How Evolutionary Psychology Shapes Agents' Responses to Control System Design". AAA 2016 Management Accounting Section Meeting Paper, 17 August 2015. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2645804

Dean, Jeremy. 2009. "Why Groups Fail to Share Information Effectively", PsyBlog, 10 August 2009. http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/08/why-groups-fail-to-share-information-effectively.php

Mackenzie, Kate. 2006. "Encouraging Information Sharing", Financial Times, 24 January 2006. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/2fa2eaf0-8ce9-11da-9daf-0000779e2340.html

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