I regularly review the new research on knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer because, although all of us have an opinion about what encourages or impedes workers sharing their knowledge, I recognize that my own and others' opinions are rarely based on research. This 2016 study, conducted across 32 Multinational Corporations (MNCs), provides much needed research on this important topic.
For purposes of this study, the authors define knowledge sharing as “the movement of knowledge between different individuals, departments, divisions, units or branches in MNCs through Knowledge Management Systems (KMSs.)” By design the study is limited to written knowledge and therefore does not address the many ways that tacit knowledge is exchanged, whether through AARs, Peer Assists, Retrospects, Knowledge Cafe's, or in informal settings.
The authors conducted a comprehensive study of this issue using semi-structured interviews with 42 participants across 32 organizations in 12 countries. The basic question the researchers addressed was, “What are the factors that affect knowledge sharing using KMSs in Multinational Corporations?” They examined this question from three sub-themes and associated practices illustrated in this pop up figure.
In this post I review the findings of the study, both in terms of the willingness to put knowledge into a KMS (red font) and for the willingness to access knowledge through a KMS (green font). If the finding relates to both (blue font). I have also selected interviewee quotes that I hope help to bring the voice of the interviewees to the foreground.
Many of the findings affirm what most of us have already learned from experience, sometimes painful experience, but a few of the findings may challenge our thinking.
Technology Acceptance Findings
- The authors found that the acceptance of technology for knowledge sharing is directly related to how employees view the usefulness of the technology in supporting their job performance, without extra effort. Those last three words are key. Interviewees said they are more likely to use their KMS if it is similar to the tools they already use at home, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia.
- Employees are more willing to search for knowledge on the KMS if it has smart search tools that allow them to access knowledge by codes, abbreviations, product, country, branch, and keywords.
- Also if the KMS makes use of artificial intelligence tools that automatically provide them with any knowledge related to their work, based on their search histories.
“No one teaches us how to use Google, Facebook, YouTube, so we want KMS to be easy like these tools”
“If I have to share knowledge by using KMS, I just ask one of my subordinates to do it, because I have forgotten how to use it”.
- Employees are more likely to use the KMS if the applications are on their mobile phone or tablet so they can share knowledge and documents anywhere, any time.
- They are more willing to participate in knowledge sharing if the KMS is unified so they don’t have to go to different places for different types of knowledge, and if it does not have different levels of access that make it confusing about what could be shared where.
- The ability to get feedback on the knowledge they shared increases the willingness of employees to input their knowledge. For example, was it useful to others? How many employees used it and then shared it with others? Where was it being used? They are less willing to spend their time putting knowledge in the KMS if it feels like a “black hole” where they never know if anybody saw it or used it.
- The researchers found that although most interviewees used the company KMS on a daily basis for knowledge sharing, two groups of executives, those over 50 and those from the Middle East preferred more traditional methods to share knowledge, e.g. face-to-face, telephone, fax, etc. When required to use the KMS they typically asked the people that worked for them to access it for them. It should be noted that 22 of the 42 interviewees were from Middle East countries.
“The organization gives us BlackBerry Mobile Phones to be used in our work and facilitating accessing to our email to reply quickly for any enquiry, but I think it will be better if they have apps for knowledge sharing”.
“We want to have one system that can control, manage, review and update the knowledge shared between all departments and branches to avoid any problems.”
Knowledge Sharing Practices Findings
- Interviewees were more likely to use the KMS if the knowledge shared between MNCs was reviewed through a committee or knowledge team that had been set up to check the accuracy of knowledge uploaded.
- Knowing the source of the knowledge increased employees’ confidence in the content and thus their use of KMS.
- Knowing that the knowledge was being regularly updated influenced their willingness both to contribute and use the KMS.
- The quality of the knowledge (e.g. relevance, complete, timely, accurate and easy to understand) was central to their usage.
- Codification that is standardized across all locales increased their willingness to participate in the KMS.
“Occasionally, I have to check the accuracy of knowledge by myself as I don’t trust all knowledge available on KMS”.
“I always assume that all knowledge shared on KMS are reviewed and accepted by the organization”.
Willingness to Share or Access Findings
While the interviewees were generally in agreement about the findings listed above, in this section of the research report, the researchers qualified their findings with the terms “most” and “some.”
- Most of the interviewees said they were willing to share knowledge with someone they know and trust, rather than with someone they did not know.
- Some interviewees said they did not trust their own knowledge and were thus unwilling to offer it to others. The study does not explain the reasoning behind this lack of trust, that is, whether these interviewees were newer employees or were employees who felt sharing should be left to experts, or who were concerned about managers viewing their contribution.
- Some participants said others were willing to share knowledge only if they were recognized for it because being recognized for their knowledge would lead to their promotion and to powerful positions in their organization.
“I prefer to share knowledge with someone I know rather than with someone I do not know, even if she or he is in another branch or country, as I need to be sure who I am sharing with and trust what we share together. I believe that conference meetings, face to face communication and telephone calls break the ice between people and create trust between us”.
“In my organization, some of my colleagues who are knowledgeable and have knowledge tend to be secretive and keep their knowledge to have more power and to be promoted faster than others in the organization”.
External Factors Findings
The findings about external factors referenced interviewees in the Middle East and in Africa. Below I quote the authors' language directly.
- “Interviewees believed that their organization has hidden agendas which are influenced by politics.
- Interviewees also claimed that sometimes their organizations control the decision-making process through KMSs by providing or precluding specific knowledge to avoid or support specific decisions.
- They also noted that some branches cannot always access all knowledge in specific countries like Syria, for political reasons.
- Some participants said that MNC units operating in some African and Middle East countries are involved in fabrications and falsification practices, in corruption, and in bribery. All of these practices are known to employees and accepted by their headquarters and managers, as they believe that this is how work is done in these countries. However, they cannot share this type of knowledge on KMSs.”
“We can share knowledge with all branches all over the world, but I can’t share it with Syria and Sudan, as they are excluded because they are sanctioned countries, so employees in Syria and Sudan are blocked from using KMS”.
“Personally, I prefer to use KMS, but the problem is I am traveling a lot from one country to another. Some countries in Africa don’t have internet connection and if they have the speed is too slow, and I can’t access KMS easily as it takes a long time to download, and sometimes downloads failed to complete”.
- In this study there were a larger number of findings focused on making use of knowledge in the KMS than there were on putting knowledge into the KMS.
- In general the concerns about making use of knowledge in the KMS were related to the quality of the knowledge and to how easy the KMS was to use.
- The concerns about sharing one's own knowledge on the KMS were related to trust and to obtaining feedback that demonstrated the provider's efforts were worthwhile.
The incentives mentioned by interviewees were recognition and feedback. It is interesting that none of the findings referred to financial incentives either to encourage knowledge sharing or to encourage accessing knowledge. The findings imply that the ability to have access to the knowledge of others is an adequate incentive to participate in the KMS, providing there are not strong disincentives.
Disincentives included lack of trust in the knowledge of others, concerns about the quality of the content, and about the difficulty of using the technology. Although the issue of people not sharing their knowledge in order to maintain power was referenced in the interviews, it was stated as an attribution of others. None of the interviewees spoke of maintaining power as a disincentive for themselves. Political issues were acknowledged as a strong disincentive in some Middle East and African countries as well as the lack of internet access or limits in bandwidth.
Implications for KM Practitioners:
Given that "ease of use" is a critical factor in employees' willingness to share and access knowledge, KM practitioners may be caught between making a system easy to use and thereby increasing its acceptance, or providing a more sophisticated system with greater capability, but then needing the personnel and funds to give employees adequate help through power users, training, help desks, etc. so that they will use the system.
Trust is a critical factor in knowledge sharing. That means KM practitioners need to create opportunities for employees to build relationships with each other. Building relationships happens during conversational events such as peer assists, knowledge cafe's, knowledge exchanges, knowledge fairs, etc.
The willingness to input knowledge is tied to "feedback" about whether the document/lesson was useful. Badges and "likes" are useful but they don't provide the kind of feedback the interviewees' found motivating. At its best feedback to be motivational requires a conversation between the giver and receiver as in a peer assist. At a minimum it requires establishing a culture of appreciation, where employees feel an obligation to acknowledge the person from whom they benefited. One factor in building that culture is retaining authorship and contact information on knowledge objects in a KMS. Another factor is KM professionals modeling appreciation.
The need for verified, updated, non-redundant knowledge in the KMS requires a team or an expert to take on the role of content manager for each topic.
*Abdelrahman, M., Papamichail, K. N., & Wood-Harper, T. (2016). To Share Or Not To Share: An Exploratory Review Of Knowledge Management Systems And Knowledge Sharing in Multinational Corporations. In: UK Academy for information systems (UKAIS) 21st Annual Conference - 2016, 11-13 April 2016, Oxford.