Knowledge Sharing – The “New” Power in the Enterprise

April 6, 2011

I grew up with the concept that knowledge is power and that hoarding knowledge could lead to a strong power base in an organization. That’s not an unusual view from the recent past and fits a hierarchical structure inside a pre-information age company. In the old structure information generally flowed in one direction and had to pass many choke points.

I grew up with the concept that knowledge is power and that hoarding knowledge could lead to a strong power base in an organization. That’s not an unusual view from the recent past and fits a hierarchical structure inside a pre-information age company. In the old structure information generally flowed in one direction and had to pass many choke points. In the days of interoffice mail, bulletin boards, and face to face meetings it’s easy to see how information could pool at certain points. All a manager had to do was not pass it along and that effectively created his information hoard. Hoarded information could then be used when and where it was most beneficial for the individual who controlled it. Often your unique knowledge was closely lined to your personal value proposition, something you fought to protect. Knowledge is equated with competitive advantage, either personal or corporate. Look at the words I just used, controlled, hoarded, choke points, individual benefit, hierarchy, structure; words focused on the individual.

As computers invaded the workplace and we started to connect computers, first internally and then eventually through the Internet externally as well, companies tried to implement “collaboration” solutions. The problem though was that the systems of that era tried to mimic the existing culture and communication vehicles. Control was a key design attribute and control isn’t synonymous with collaboration. What evolved were file-centric collaboration tools and a host of “management” tools (content management, project management, knowledge management, etc.) that were all about control, not about connecting people.

Today we talk about the information age brought about as a result of the Internet and the new communication and business models that it opened up. In the simplest terms, in companies today, information flows freely, almost uncontrollably through many different channels. The old problem of lack of information has turned into the opposite, yet just as critical a problem, having access to the information but not being able to find what’s relevant to you. The ability to hoard information and use it for personal gain / power is predicated on controlling the communication channels but with the Internet and all of the social tools available, control just isn’t possible, thus removing that version of “power” from the enterprise.

Knowledge is somewhat more complicated than information though as it includes an additional component beyond information, an individuals added understanding of information based on their experience and skills; “why” and “how” applied to information. The distinction between data, information and knowledge is not just an academic discussion but is, I think, important to understand if we are to address the issue of knowledge sharing. Think of the difference and relationship of the three as it relates to cooking soup. The molecular make up of the soup is the data, which by itself isn’t particularly useful. The list of ingredients would be the information and the recipe would be the knowledge. In this case information could be useful but only if you had enough experience and skill to make the soup without the knowledge imparted by the recipe. Knowledge without information though, isn’t that useful, knowing how without knowing what leaves you short of soup. That’s the “what” of knowledge. the why is also important, let’s say you don’t have an ingredient on the list, understanding why would allow you to find a substitute ingredient. 

Information will flow in our hyper-connected business world but knowledge, which could be infinitely more important to a business, is inherently individually focused. To get that knowledge out and shared we have to overcome several obstacles. As with many enterprise problems we address today this issue has two basic components, culture and technology. By culture I mean creating an environment where sharing individual knowledge to a broader group is the accepted standard of behavior. Once that’s done then the second component kicks in, what technology can facilitate effective knowledge sharing?

How do you create a knowledge sharing culture? Looking at the reasons individuals don’t choose to share knowledge yields some ideas. Employees protect their knowledge when they believe that it’s in their best interest to do so. This could be based on the concept that knowledge is property and must be protected or that employees are valued for what they know, which leads to protecting that knowledge, or maybe even that incentives are structured so that hoarding knowledge is rewarded. Building a knowledge sharing culture requires trust, but it also must become the accepted norm. This means that the organization establishes that sharing knowledge helps you do your job better, it gets rewarded both in incentives and in career development and growth for getting things done, and it garners personal recognition. If knowledge sharing behavior is a key component to why you keep your job then culture will change. I should note however that having a knowledge sharing culture doesn’t mean that individuals should be completely open and politically naive, sharing ideas with competitors (internal or external) for example, isn’t what’s desired. Sharing your knowledge and working collaboratively to get more done in an effective and efficient way is the goal.

The second issue for enabling a knowledge sharing organization is getting the correct tools in place to facilitate collaborative work. There are several ways to approach this part of the equation, but as always start by defining the desired end state. Moving beyond file-centric collaboration and into a system that connects individuals is a good start. Connecting people across the enterprise (and perhaps including partners, suppliers and even customers) in a way that enables knowledge sharing in real time and in context to relevant information will increase productivity. So a social collaboration tool, one that provides peer to peer connectivity in real time with work context can help facilitate this new culture. I haven’t mentioned knowledge management systems (KM or KMS) much. I think that a lot of the traditional KM systems have some inherent flaws that can be challenging. I already mentioned that overly focusing on control of information and knowledge can be counter productive when the desired outcome is increased sharing (maybe we should build knowledge liberation systems instead). Also many traditional approaches to KM often put the system in the hands of a few KM specialists, which is not conductive to a broad knowledge sharing culture. The real system goal should be a combination of social collaboration with built in knowledge and information sharing in real time and in the work context.

So knowledge sharing is the new power play in the enterprise. Getting to a knowledge sharing culture and implementing systems that will help facilitate this approach to business isn’t easy but the rewards can be very high. In a recent survey we did at IDC companies reported 11-30% productivity gains from using social collaboration tools, results that should get the attention of even the most conservative executive. What do