Gathering knowledge is easy, but sharing it is harder. More than a few firms are starting to realize that knowledge shared is knowledge smartly deployed and leveraged.
Knowledge sharing has become a legitimate and important organizational activity, and over the last five years companies have been inventing many ways to make knowledge sharing happen, e.g., collecting lessons learned, building yellow pages to help employees find colleagues who might have answers, conducting site visits. These many practices allow teams and individuals to more quickly develop solutions to difficult problems, reduce costly duplication of effort, and create new, innovative solutions through collaboration.
Most of these practices focus on the person or group who holds the knowledge to be shared. However, the other side of the knowledge equation, the receiver of knowledge, has been largely neglected. So, while many organizations find that they have collected a great deal of knowledge, they also find that they have used only a very small amount of it. The practice of knowledge sharing has been virtually non-existent.
To create successful knowledge sharing, organizations first need to understand what the individual who receives the knowledge, essentially the knowledge receiver, experiences. Based on that understanding, these same organizations then need to develop thoughtful ways to support the receiver. This article takes an in-depth look at what a knowledge receiver goes through to make effective use of another’s knowledge. It begins with the most fundamental issue that receivers have, comprehending the knowledge being offered, and then discusses how receivers decide whether or not to use that knowledge. The third part of the article summarizes what management can do to support the receivers, so that their understanding is facilitated and the right decisions are made about when and how to use knowledge.
Imagine that you have walked into a colleague’s office to hear her ideas about which contracting strategy would be right for a new project for which you have just assumed responsibility. Your colleague didn’t force her ideas on you; in fact, you initiated the discussion. Having never dealt with contracting in the particular country, Venezuela, you were looking for some help. You searched your company’s yellow pages for someone who both knew about contracting and had experience in Venezuela. Your colleague Estella’s profile came up. During your conversation with her, you are engaging in the first of many steps a receiver must take to make use of another’s knowledge: You are attempting to assimilate her ideas.
So Estella articulates her ideas in response to your request. But that does not yet provide you with the knowledge you are looking for, which is something that you must now create for yourself from her response. You construct knowledge when you combine her ideas with what you already know, expanding and revising your own web of relationships. Knowing is an action that you take; it is the act of “making sense” of input.
CONNECTING NEW IDEAS TO EXISTING KNOWLEDGE
The process by which individuals create these webs of relationships has three implications for the success of knowledge sharing in an organization.
1. The importance of related knowledge
One important implication is the receiver’s need for related knowledge to which he or she can connect the new ideas. People who are particularly skilled in knowledge sharing often spend considerable time at the beginning of a conversation trying to establish what the potential receiver already knows in order to help him or her find the connections between what they are offering and the receiver’s existing knowledge. If Estella is skilled in sharing her knowledge, she might ask, “For Venezuelan contracts, we have often used a General Automation Contractor. Have you been involved in a project where a GAC was employed?” At the same time, the receiver must be actively attempting to connect what the individual is talking about to his or her own existing knowledge. As a skilled receiver of knowledge you might ask Estella, “Is the TPS system you are describing what I would think of as Front End Loading?” You are, through this question, seeking to understand how the concept she is describing is similar to, or different from, something you already know about, so that you can connect it in your web of relationships.
All of us have experienced the discomfort of having inadequate knowledge to comprehend the new ideas that come at us. It may have happened when we were shopping for a new sound system and were overwhelmed by the technical language of the salesperson; when we were getting directions from someone who was more familiar with the local landmarks than we were; when we were trying to comprehend a statistical concept but realized we had forgotten most of the mathematical language we once knew. Organizational theorists see the lack of existing related knowledge, sometimes referred to as absorptive capacity, as the most significant barrier to knowledge transfer in organizations. Nor is a lack of absorptive capacity a major barrier only in individual exchanges. It can also prevent knowledge from being transferred between different divisions of a company, such as marketing and operations. And the lack of absorptive capacity is a recognizable obstacle in the struggle to move knowledge from country to country across a global organization. Issues of culture, language, technology, discipline and level of experience all have an impact on absorptive capacity. More often than not, the sparse knowledge transfer within an organization, which is often ascribed to a lack of motivation or incentives, could be more accurately attributed to the absence of related knowledge that would allow the receiving unit to absorb the new ideas being urged upon it.
2. The assumptions behind the question
In many knowledge-sharing conversations, the presenting question is not the one the knowledge provider ends up answering. For example, Estella might say, “I understand what you are asking, but that is difficult for me to answer because I think about contracting a little differently. So let me start by talking about how I think about contracting and then come back to the question you asked.” As in this example, the assumptions behind a question often need to be explored before the knowledge sharer can address the question itself. It is, of course, “What we don’t know that we don’t know,” that we are most in need of. To be effective, a knowledge conversation has to address the unasked, as well as the asked, question. To engage in that depth of exchange, the knowledge provider will need to know more from the potential receiver than the question alone is likely to provide. The knowledge sharer will need to know why the question is being asked as well as the context in which the question is embedded, in other words, the web of relationships in the mind of the person asking the question. This implies a need for the give and take of a conversation rather than a question asked and answer given.
3. Relationship between knowing and identity
There is little question that what a person knows becomes a part of his or her identity. In a very real sense, “I am what I know.” Whereas the documents, plans and products an employee has developed belong to the organization the employee works for, employees feel a greater sense of personal ownership about the knowledge they construct for themselves. Such knowledge is often “hard won,” sometimes through failure and frustration, sometimes with a great sense of pride, and in either case, what has been learned is integrated with the sense of self. So, although work products are shared as part of a contractual obligation, what an employee “knows” is shared more as an act of generosity. Employees are often willing, maybe even eager, to share what they know, but it is shared as a gift. So personal is this knowledge that I have even heard retiring employees, when referring to the demand that they write down what they know before they leave, describe their company as “trying to rape my knowledge.”
An organization cannot “be the owner of” an employee’s knowledge, which exists as an ever-changing web of relationships in that employee’s head. Any time that knowledge is shared, it is done so voluntarily because it is not there for the taking; it is created in the moment. The willingness to take that voluntary action of creating knowledge to answer a question is based on the relationship the knowledge provider has with the person who is asking for their ideas. Knowledge sharing is a voluntary act, and appreciation is the reciprocal act. When we share a part of ourselves, we would like to think that the other individual values what we have offered. It is not so much profuse thanks or monetary incentive, as it is the recognition that the value or worth of what is being offered is honoured. Worth is easily conveyed by the receiver in a face-to-face situation, through facial expression, nodding, or a handshake and smile at the end of the conversation. Worth is more difficult to express virtually. One of the things that makes it difficult to get knowledgeable people to write out what they know so that it can go into a knowledge repository is that databases don’t provide a way for the individual to feel a sense of appreciation. It can, in fact, make the individual feel that his or her knowledge has gone into a black hole.
If this description of how human beings create knowledge and its implications for knowledge sharing seems complicated, that is because it is complicated. The sharing of ideas with others is one of the most profound and difficult things we do. We have only to look at our own missed understanding and the misunderstandings that result from attempts to share our ideas. The naive notion that people in organizations could put the complex knowledge they have in their heads into a few written paragraphs for others to make use of takes into account neither how our minds work to create knowledge, nor the complexity of the exchange.
CONFIDENCE AND FIT
Once you have made sense of the knowledge that Estella offered, you must now decide whether what she is suggesting will work for you. In the age of the knowledge worker, your company is paying you as much for your judgment as for your expertise. There are two issues you will have to consider in making your decision. One is your confidence in the source of the knowledge, while the other is whether that knowledge is a fit for your project.
Whether the receiver of another’s ideas will act based on what he or she has heard depends, in part, on the level of confidence the receiver has in the judgment of the provider. The receiver might rely on one of several indicators to make that judgment call; for example, the kind of projects the provider has worked on in the past, or the endorsement of a colleague. In our example, you obtained Estella’s resumé from the company’s yellow pages, but your real assessment of her knowledge comes from the conversation you hold with her. The whole while you are talking with her you are assessing: What level of experience does she have relative to the contracting issue? Is she speaking from her own experience or what she has observed others doing? Does she have a broader base of experience against which to assess her Venezuela experience? How sound is the reasoning behind her conclusions? What biases may be influencing her thinking? Your willingness to “borrow” her experience will rest in part on your confidence in her and her thinking.
Knowledge providers are more inclined to offer their conclusions or advice than they are to offer their reasoning, or even the data on which they base their conclusions. Reasoning and data are not withheld out of perversity, but rather out of habit and convention. So, it is up to the receiver to ask the questions that reach behind the conclusions. However, in many organizations, in-depth questioning can appear disrespectful and invasive. In this case, the receiver needs a certain level of skill in order to ask the kinds of questions that will identify assumptions, seek data lower down on the ladder of inference, and probe for reasoning, all without creating defensiveness in the provider. To make such questioning possible, receivers may need 1) training in the skills of inquiry, 2) to observe their own managers exhibiting inquiry, and 3) cultural norms that encourage questioning and probing. Organizations cannot expect responsible individuals to base their actions on the input of colleagues without this depth of inquiry. The receiver can only take effective action on what he or she can make sense of.
Once he or she has established confidence, the receiver must consider how the borrowed idea fits into his or her own context. In large part, that means examining how the situation the knowledge provider is describing fits the application that the receiver has in mind. After all, the knowledge borrowed from another part of the organization is not generalized knowledge; rather, it is developed locally, out of someone’s experience. Thus it is, by definition, specific to their situation. What worked in one situation may not, in fact, work in another; the person who is best positioned to make that decision is the person who functions day in and day out in the new environment. There may be political, technological or cultural issues that make the idea less feasible in the new situation. There may also be cost, time and energy issues that may make the potential gain not worth the effort of adaptation.
One of the knowledge-sharing processes that effectively takes context into account is Peer Assist, pioneered by British Petroleum and now used by many other organizations. In a Peer Assist, the team asking for the assist invites others from around the company to look at a specific problem or issue the inviting team is facing. This gives the inviting team the opportunity to fully describe their unique situation and to ask for the knowledge of others that is specific to the context they have described. Others are not asked to come to lecture on what they have learned from their projects. Rather, they are asked to understand the problem or issue in enough depth that they can draw on their tacit knowledge (that web of relationships) as it fits the problem at hand. In this way, it is the visitors who adapt and translate rather than the receiver.
The initial attempt to implement any complex new practice may be less than stellar. When that happens, it is tempting for the receiver to simply revert to the tried and true rather than stay with the new until the kinks are worked out. We all experience that when we do even a simple task, like switching to a new piece of software. We make more mistakes, and it certainly takes more time with the new than it would have with the known. It is infinitely truer when receivers attempt to use the complex knowledge they have gained. If they are afforded the support necessary to carry them past the first weeks or months, adaptation will have a higher probability of success.
IMPLICATIONS FOR MANAGEMENT
Much of the hard work of knowledge transfer has to be done by the knowledge receiver, whose job may actually be harder than the knowledge provider’s. Management must therefore understand the complexity involved in receiving knowledge, so that its expectations match the reality of the task.
In some organizations, there is an expectation that knowledge transfer will occur primarily through technology. But the reality is that transferring complex knowledge requires face-to-face conversations rather than just reading an e-mail or examining an item in a database. Granted, skills registries can help locate people, and e-mail and phone calls can confirm whether the identified person might be useful. But these tools are ineffective for helping the receiver build the internal web of relationships between ideas that incorporate what others know.
Managers can facilitate the building of relationships that will lead to more, and more effective, knowledge sharing. The better that a group of people knows each other, the more that people in the group will call on each other’s knowledge. But the coming together cannot occur only on social occasions, because the “knowing” needs to be related to work issues. Supporting activities such as Peer Assist, internal benchmarking, site visits, technology fairs and problem-solving meetings all help people become aware of what others know.
In some organizations, there is an expectation that the knowledge that is transferred be carefully screened first so that only the “right answers” move across the organization. The reality would suggest that the “rightness” of an idea may have more to do with the context than the answer. Managers need to abandon the “search for the right answer” and trust the receivers, who have the best information on what will fit their situation, to make that determination. When absorptive capacity is lacking in an individual or a unit, knowledge receivers may need management’s support to obtain the background experience or training that will make it possible to use the knowledge.
The expectation that receivers would accept new ideas without probing the reasoning and data behind them denies the reality that people cannot implement what they do not thoroughly understand. And they cannot understand what others know without considerable inquiry into their reasoning, assumptions and data. Managers can facilitate that inquiry by modelling openness to inquiry into their own ideas and by practising high-quality inquiry in their conversations with each other and subordinates. However, the patterns of withholding reasoning and little inquiry are too embedded in most organizational cultures to change them through good intentions alone. In the end, managers need to know that using the skills that allow employees to share knowledge fully requires extended training and coaching.
Managers also need to provide the time, and often the support, for employees to translate and adapt borrowed ideas. That support may involve the time and costs for things like site visits, two groups working together for a period, and personnel exchanges between the knowledge-receiving and knowledge-originating groups.
Finally, there is sometimes an expectation that management can provide incentives to share knowledge. While it is certainly necessary to remove disincentives and demonstrate that the organization values knowledge sharing, it is also necessary to recognize that knowledge is personal, and no incentive, however great, can encourage people to share it. Sharing is a voluntary activity that increases where it is modelled, appreciated and valued. Management has a very critical role in creating that norm. Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Memorial, is quoted as saying, “I create places in which to think, without trying to dictate what to think.” That saying may well be a useful maxim for management in regard to knowledge sharing.