10. 07. 2015

The Power of Knowledge Sharing

Knowledge hoarding is one of the principle issues of many modern day companies’ employees and such behavior is “backed up” by endless excuses from lack of time to the mentality of “what shall I get for it in return?”. The notion of not sharing knowledge in order to keep a valuable trump card in one’s back-pocket to secure the so-called status of being irreplaceable is humanly more common than one could initially imagine. In reality, sharing knowledge plays a crucial role in ensuring the organization’s sustainability as well as maintaining its competitive edge. Therefore – how to encourage us, humans, to be more open to share our knowledge and what could be done to break down such restrictions?

Knowledge – definition, classification and conceptualization

The Estonian dictionary of orthography defines knowledge as “knowledge about something (as a set); a set of facts, events and beliefs organized for systematic use”. In parallel, the Merriam-Webster dictionary explains knowledge as “information, understanding or skill that you get from experience or education”. Although knowledge contains a variety of categories, then the most common classification divides it into two: explicit and tacit knowledge. Professor and Researcher of knowledge management Donald Hislop (2005) has characterized these two types as well as their differences as follows:

  • explicit knowledge is expressed in codification, it is objective, impersonal, not dependent on the context and easy to share. Such knowledge appears in many versions, e.g. books, manuals, reports and presentations;
  • tacit knowledge is hidden in the heads of people and often referred to as the know-how. As such knowledge is generally acquired via experiences, learnt behavior and individual creativity (e.g. innovation, leadership skills, emotional intelligence etc.), then it is subjective, person as well as context dependent, and hence difficult to share.

When the explicit knowledge is all about capturing what the Employees have previously learnt and allowing the company to maintain it until the end of time (of course, provided that a relevant systematic approach as well as technological means exist), then tacit knowledge is a real challenge.

The recently two most cited ways to conceptualize knowledge are Hislop’s (2007) objectivist and practice-based perspectives. The objectivist perspective sees knowledge as an entity: hard facts, where objective knowledge is superior to tacit knowledge. The practice-based approach, however, sees knowledge as a social and cultural construct that is embedded in what people do, i.e. knowing and doing are inseparable.

Email „The mistakes I have made this week“

This is the exact headline of the email sent out by Bill Gates, the establisher of Microsoft, to his Employees on weekly basis. The aim of it is to encourage people to learn from their mistakes as making mistakes is an inseparable part of every learning and acquiring new knowledge process. And of course, knowledge sharing and learning go hand in hand, but let’s focus now on how to encourage and support the sharing of (tacit) knowledge in an organization.

Connecting people to people allows putting people in touch with each other in order to share experiences and knowledge. This way tacit knowledge can be transferred to another individual or group via a variety of ways (e.g. brainstorming sessions, action learning, via phone, email, e-forums, and video conferences). Another and by no means of less importance is connecting people to expertise which puts the main emphasis on technology where knowledge is codified and stored in databases. Such approach requires very strong IT support, but makes information accessible by anyone at any point of time.

Yet, in order to make any knowledge sharing a reality and a common practice of the organization, it is essential to analyze the role of knowledge sharing in this very specific organization as well as identify what kind of knowledge will be important for the company then and in the future. In order for the knowledge sharing culture to flourish and succeed, the Senior Management as well as all other Managers must together lead the sample as role models who promote its importance and power. Managers must support the organization of relevant events, conduction of projects and encourage use of equipment that support effective knowledge sharing. It is also essential to recognize Employees who practice it and, most of all, establish an environment of trust where people feel safe for sharing their knowledge.

Methods for sharing knowledge

There are a variety of mechanisms for effective knowledge sharing out of which have been highlighted the following options:

1) Communication systems: e-communication, e.g. the company’s own internal website or Intranet, email, video-and teleconferencing;

2) Action Learning Sets (Revans, 1954) whereby effective learning takes place when people are faced with a real issue to solve. It is also an excellent method of collaborative learning;

3) On the job learning which is an informal way of learning that occurs through experience and by doing the job;

4) Mentoring and coaching whereby internal as well as external Experts support the development of people within the organization;

5) Communities of Practice or CoPs (Wenger and Lave, 2002) enable groups of professionals to get together and share experiences as well as issues in order to share knowledge, develop tools and methods, be updated of the latest ideas and technology developments, identify good practices, coach and support each other. This method can be applied either in person or via IT systems.

Knowledge – the treasure of gold

The Italian astronomer, philosopher and physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) stated already several centuries back that: „ I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.“ It is clear that every organization’s treasure box should include a great portion of knowledge sharing. There are plenty of ways how people’ s learning can be supported and good leaders can make knowledge sharing a rewarding and valued practice, so that tacit knowledge could be effectively made tangible. It is about creating the trusting environment, giving Employees the supportive tools, and allowing everyone to see the fruits of success derived from it. It is about building a team and embracing collaboration where people of a successful organization could finish every day by asking themselves: what did I learn and what did I teach today?

Original posted by Katri Delimoge on August 31, 2014