- Help people build relationships with each other
- Build knowledge sharing processes into the workflow
- Design physical space that encourages conversation
- Deliver an actionable leadership message about knowledge sharing
- Develop and then practice conversation skills
1. Help People Build Relationships with Each Other
In the last post I talked about why relationships are so necessary for knowledge sharing. Here I want to suggest how organizations can go about building relationships. The organizational task is to bring people together in a way that they learn something about each other’s knowledge and experience. That coming together can be face-to-face or virtual, but if virtual the relationship building has to be planned, not left to chance. Here are a few of the many ways organizations do this:
• Communities of Practice
Since Wenger introduced the idea of Communities of Practice (COP) in early 2000, communities have been the number one way to build relationships across hierarchical boundaries. Nearly every Fortune 500 Company has built COP. Although there are a number of terms people use to differentiate levels of relationship in these communities, for simplification I will just reference the polar ends of the continuum, labeling them “COP” and “Networks”. COP are groups that intentionally build relationship among members. Facilitators actively connect members and concern themselves with the tone of the on-line conversations, setting a welcoming and appreciative climate. At the other end of the continuum, networks are transactional by design. Members exchange documents, PowerPoint presentations, and provide technical answers to questions others ask. These transactional exchanges serve a very useful purpose, but they are not places where members build the relationships that allow them to share insights learned from experience.
• Social Events
Social events build relationship. In every culture breaking bread together is used to connect people. I worked with Tandem Computers in the 1990’s and every Friday afternoon at Tandem everyone gathered in the cafeteria, the president, senior managers, assembly line workers, shipping clerks, loaders, engineers…. And for a couple of hours every Friday there were no speeches or presentations just beer and popcorn. The talk was about sports, families, and inevitably about work.
Meetings are great opportunities to build relationships – IF at least a third of every meeting puts members in small groups of three or four to work on issues that matter to them. Typical meetings, where each individual directs comments to the leader at the front of the table, don’t build relationship, at least not positive ones.
Facebook (and similar social media brought in-house) does not build relationships but it does give people more information about others than they would find in the company directory and that’s a great help in finding people they might want to have a conversation with. Seeing another person’s picture rather than a dry resume makes a huge difference in feeling connected. At IBM, which has made great use of Facebook, when participants are on one of those dreadful teleconferences, they look up others who are on the call to see who they’re talking to and what they might have in common.
2. Build Knowledge Sharing Processes into the Workflow
People will share informally if they are in relationship with each other. But it greatly increases the flow of knowledge if there are knowledge sharing process that become a part of the way the organization gets its work done. Communities of Practice should be included in process here as well as in relationship building. Here are a couple more:
• After Action Review (AAR)
AARs are a process started in the Army, but now used by hundreds of organizations. An AAR requires bringing together everyone that was involved in the event or project to have a structure, in-depth discussion. It is built into the workflow after defined phases and at project end. It’s a time of reflection to share individual knowledge with the group as well as to create new knowledge through group sensemaking. As with COP there are lots of names for this kind of group reflection process, for example, NASA labels theirs PAL, Pause And Learn.
• Peer Assist
Peer Assist is a knowledge sharing process started at British Petroleum. I wrote about it at some length in Common Knowledge after talking with the King of Peer Assist, Kent Greenes. With Peer Assist a team that is beginning a new effort, invites others (who have experience with the task) to meet with them. No presentations are made; this is the give and take of the “asking team” drawing out the tacit knowledge of those who have come to help. Peer Assists are a great relationship building process as well as being one of the most effective knowledge sharing process. At BP Peer Assist is used routinely at the start of a project.
I’ve described only three of the many knowledge sharing processes organizations have invented, some very specific to their own context. Patrick Lambe has a clever deck of cards that identifies 80 processes. Having knowledge sharing processes built into the workflow greatly increases the amount and quality of knowledge in an organization.
3. Design Physical Space that Encourages Conversation
I know it may seem odd to be talking about physical space in a time when we are increasingly virtual, but despite our virtual work we do work in the physical space of offices and how those spaces are designed impacts who and how much we share knowledge with each other.
• Providing space for informal conversations.
One of the great examples of informal space is the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve. Here the hallway spaces are intentional designed to encourage colleagues, who meet in the hall by chance, to sit for a moment to catch up. In many British Petroleum offices every floor has several coffee areas with enough space for three or four café tables to encourage casual conversations. The Nokia building in Copenhagen is built around an atrium with trees and lovely expanses of green with coffee and snacks read to hand. There is always a space in the atrium to hold a quick meeting.
• Meeting Space.
It would be wonderful if our conference rooms did not come equipped with large tables that define how we will interact with each other. What if some of them had informally arranged chairs or chairs on rollers so we could configure ourselves according to our need. Space matters because it impacts the tone and even the content of conversations. Several years ago I worked with the VHA to help implement a number of Learning XChanges, spaces that leaders could use to have a different kind of conversation with their staff or council – it was remarkable to see the difference in interaction patterns and tone when the space itself was less formal.
• Traffic flow.
Some years ago a group of MIT workplace researchers came up with the 30-Meter Rule. This rule says that the frequency of interaction with anyone sitting more than 30 meters (99 feet) from you is going to be roughly zero (Fisher, 2001). Organizations would have more knowledge sharing if they co-located teams and projects, and if they put groups that need to interact, like marketing and sales, on the same floor.
4. Deliver an Actionable Leadership Message About Knowledge Sharing
It is very helpful for the leadership of an organization to verbalize the organization’s need and intent to share knowledge.
• The message from John Brown, former President of British Petroleum was: “Most activities or tasks are not onetime events. Our philosophy is fairly simple: every time we do something again, we should do it better than the last time.”
• The McKinsey message from the top has been that, “If anyone makes a call to a colleague, anywhere around the world, that call will be returned within 24 hours.” These are actionable ways to express leadership’s intent to have knowledge sharing happen.
This kind of statement sends a signal to employees that leadership supports employees taking time to share or seek knowledge. Although such statements don’t actually motivate employees to share, they do remove a significant barrier to knowledge sharing – employees’ concern that they will be penalized for taking time away from the organization’s mission to share their knowledge.
5. Develop and Then Practice Conversation Skills
For most conversations our skills are “good enough” but when people are trying to draw out tacit knowledge, more sophisticated skills produce deeper insights. They are particularly necessary when conversations cross disciplines where the same words mean something quite different to each person; when they cross levels of authority where the challenges each level faces may be so dissimilar that the “why” behind each person’s concerns seem inexplicable; or when the conversations are between differing levels of expertise, where leaps of thought are difficult to follow.
There are many books and programs that develop the skills of conversation. The skill set I personally have found most effective, because they were specifically designed to promote organizational learning, are those originated by Chris Argyris, e.g. advocacy, inquire and the ability to identify and probe inferences. The inquiry skills are particularly important for drawing out tacit knowledge, because they provide a way to ask difficult questions without offending. But what ever system is employed there is a need to be thoughtful about how we talk to each other, the words we choose, the metaphors we employ, as well as what we withhold from the conversation. All impact how effectively knowledge gets shared within our organizations.
Five actions are a lot to do yet I think each is necessary. Taken together they cover most aspects of our organizational life, the culture we design for ourselves, how we get our work done, how we relate to our colleagues, and how we talk to each other.