I get asked the incentive question a lot. How do we incentivise people to share their knowledge? The question is asked because when managers look around their organizations they don’t see much knowledge sharing going on. This is a serious concern, but I think it is the wrong question. The question is based on the assumption that people don’t want to share what they know and therefore require an incentive to get them to do it. And that assumption is inaccurate.*
A much more useful question is, “What causes people to be willing to share their knowledge with others?” I want to answer that question in this article, but first I want to tackle the assumption that people don’t want to share what they know.
People Willingly Share Their Knowledge
There is both anecdotal and research data to support that, as human beings, we willingly share what we know. To give a personal example, I lived in Washington DC for many years and daily I walked from home to my university office. It was a rare day when a visitor did not stop me to ask for directions; “Do you know where the Kennedy Center is? Where’s the Metro stop? Far from being annoyed, I was actually pleased to be asked. DC is a difficult city to find your way around in and my own extensive knowledge of the city was hard won. I was proud of my ability to navigate the city. In fact, my pride was such that sometimes if I saw a couple standing on a street comer with a map spread out between them, I would even offer, “May I help you find some place?” My guess is that everyone has a similar experience with a subject they know very well.
Eric Erickson,* the great development psychologists, claims that we are, by nature, a teaching species. He says, “parenthood is, for most, the first, and for many, the prime generative encounter; yet the continuation of mankind challenges the generative ingenuity of workers and thinkers of many kinds.” We would not have survived as a species if knowledge sharing were not basic to our nature.
One of the most interesting studies on knowledge sharing was conducted by Constant, Kiesler and Sproull.* One of their findings was that employees differentiated two kinds of knowledge sharing. One type was sharing products, for example, computer programs, or reports they had written. The second type of knowledge was what employees had learned from their own experience, for example, how to get around a certain bottle-neck in the system, or how to deal with a particularly tricky bug in a program. This second type of knowledge they regard as part of their identity – part of who they were as professionals.
They were willing to share both kinds of knowledge, but the motivation for sharing each differed greatly. The documents and programs they shared because they considered them the property of the company. But the second kind, their experiential knowledge, they shared because they gained some personal benefit from doing so. The personal benefit, however, was not money or the promise of a promotion. According to the study, “Experts will want to contribute to coworkers who need them, who will hear them, who will respect them and who may even thank them.”
As this study shows, the primary driver for sharing experiential knowledge is the respect and recognition of peers. It is hard to overestimate the psychic value peer recognition. In a previous post I told the story of a company commander who was moved to become a very activity contributor to a US Army community because he heard from a peer that an AAR he had posted “made a difference.”
There’s a great story about Eureka, the website where Xerox copy repair technicians share “fixes” they’ve developed while repairing the copy machines. The story is about one of the technicians who had sent in some fantastic “fixes” – he was everyone’s hero. When he walked into the auditorium at an annual meeting of technicians, his peers jumped up and started clapping and whistling – celebrating both his knowledge and his willingness to share – that’s peer recognition!
Recognition means the most to us when it comes from those who really know the subject – who know what they’re talking about. It’s great to have your boss think you’re a top performer, but chances are your boss doesn’t know enough about the technical part of your work to know how good you really are – but your peers do. For a peer to say, “The person that really understands that problem is Pete,” that comment Pete would regard as a sign of respect and one he would highly value.
Who I am as a professional is, in a very real sense, what I know - about leading a team, being an aeronautical engineer, an HR director, etc. We do not give that knowledge away lightly. Before we take the time and trouble to share that knowledge, we need some assurance that our knowledge will be treated with the respect it deserves, given thoughtful consideration, and that the recipient actually knows enough to make use of it. And that leads to the second reason people share their knowledge - relationship.
The way a professional can know how someone will treat the precious commodity of her knowledge is to know that person well enough to make that judgment call. Relationships can be built through informal conversations, reading what another has written, working together on a team, or seeing the comments made in an on-line community. If a senior leader is committed to increasing knowledge sharing in her organization, then focusing on building relationships is the most important thing she can do.
Give yourself this test. Can you think of a time when someone you’ve worked with on a team asked you for advice and you turned a cold shoulder? Can you even think of a time when someone, with whom you enjoyed a brief conversation at a recent meeting, called to ask a question and you said, “Sorry I don’t have the time.” Fortunately, most of us cannot. If we have built a relationship with a peer, even a brief one, we will help if we can.
An organization can foster relationships many ways, but nearly all of them involve people being in conversation with each other. It is through conversation that we learn enough about the other to know the depth of their knowledge, where their strengths lie, what interests they have, and what they are passionate about.
Because our knowledge is so closely tied to our identity, it’s very important to each of us that our peers view us as knowledgeable and skillful. One of the major ways we demonstrate that to our peers is by sharing our knowledge with them. But sharing knowledge is risky, the other person may make a cutting remark about it or indicate that it’s not worth listening to. And sharing knowledge is time consuming, because to really respond to another’s question or problem takes the time to understand the issue and to explain in sufficient depth. So we rightly place conditions around sharing our in-depth knowledge. The relationships we build with others provide a needed level of confidence that our knowledge will be treated with respect. Knowledge sharing and relationship are coupled.
Rather than management asking, How do we incentivise people to share their knowledge? It would be more useful for management to ask, How do we develop relationships across the organization that will set in motion more knowledge sharing?
Erikson, E. (1961). The roots of virtue. in Julian Huxley, ed., The humanist frame. New
Constant, D., Kiesler, S., Sproull, L. (1994) What’s Mine Is Ours, or Is It? A study of attitudes about information sharing. Information Systems Research 5:4 400-421.
*Caveat: It is altogether possible to defeat the human tendency to share knowledge. One sure way is to create a situation where in order for one person to succeed the other has to lose. Too many organizations create those conditions with performance management systems that rank order or pit one person against another.