One of the things that has always drawn me to Knowledge Management is that knowledge sharing is essentially an act of giving. And in that sense it brings a bit of humanity and warmth to an organizational setting.
We use the term “share” in two senses, one is to give a part of what I have to you, as in, “let me give you half of my brownie.” The other meaning of share refers not to a possession but to a part of my thinking, as when I share my thoughts, disappointments, or joy. And that too is a gift.
Dave Snowden is fond of saying that “all knowledge sharing is voluntary” and I’m very much in agreement. Even when my organization requires me to share my knowledge by writing it into my performance plan or counting the number of contributions I make to a community, it would be easy for me to run up the count with superficial knowledge. But to take the time to engage with another person in order to understand their need and then respond to it, that is a choice I make - a gift, no matter what the organizational requirement.
I believe we could incrementally increase the amount of knowledge sharing in organizations if we were to be more mindful of saying “thank you” for these gifts. Actually, it would require a bit more than a perfunctory “thank you.” Genuine appreciation would involve letting the person who offered their knowledge know how it had been used and what was achieved because of their insight.
That was brought home to me when I interviewed one of the company commanders for my book, CompanyCommand. I asked Jay Miseli, a tank commander, what caused him to take such an active role in that community. He said that in the past he had used the CompanyCommand website off and on, but did not really consider himself a member of that community. He had, for example, sent in his AAR after being deployed to Iraq and a couple of times had pulled an item off the website that would save him some time. Tony, one of the founders, had been after him to take a more active role in the CompanyCommand community, but Jay had responded to Tony that he was just too busy. He explains,
“Then I got an email from a headquarters Company Commander of a tank battalion in Korea—someone I didn’t know—thanking me. He had downloaded my AAR, and he had used it, not only to influence his organization, but through the chain of command, to influence how the brigade executed their logistics. Then it hit me… “a tank brigade in Korea is going to be better equipped to fight if they’re called—wow!’ I was just floored that a document I wrote had this influence well outside of what I thought of as my relatively small sphere of influence. So, when I got back to the States and Tony hit me again ….I’m like, ‘Yea, I’m on board.”
It has always struck me that what drew Jay in was not the benefit he received from the website, rather it was his realization that what he had contributed made a difference. But how would he have known that without the tank commander in Korea taking the time to let him know?
Often when we have responded to a request in a colleague’s email, we get back a quick, “thanks,” but we seldom learn if it made a difference. Likewise, when we answer a question on a community forum we rarely hear whether the ten minutes we took to write out our response was useful to the question asker.
For most of us our knowledge is an important part of our identity. We highly value the knowledge we have gained through the trial and error of our experience. Too often we treat knowledge sharing as a transaction, when actually it is the much more personal giving of self. A “thanks” is adequate for a transaction, but inadequate for sharing a part of self.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if, rather than encouraging more knowledge sharing, we were deliberate about encouraging more appreciation.