The Power of Knowledge Sharing

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?

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  • Mike and Alison, many thanks for your input and the subject matter definitely gives plenty of food for thought. For me the whole topic raised also another set of questions: what if the company has no real leaders to act as role models ( just the title, but no real content) and HR's hands are tied since it is just allowed to operate at administrative level? Seems pretty doomed, and unfortunately not a fictional case. My most vivid example dates back to the beginning of my career (2 weeks into my job) when I stepped in my role as the Head of HR and Admin and it became apparent that there had been one lady who had been the Company's "HR database system" for a decade or so: she had built her own Excel database for holiday recording which only she could manage and administer (special symbols known only to her etc). She also absolutely refused to explain or share any of it with anyone until she called in one morning and said she will be on sick leave for at least 3 weeks but may be also 2 months. I raised the alarm bells at once since in essence it meant nobody could get their holiday money (this can bring along legal penalties if not paid on time),change holiday days, etc. The Management shrugged their shoulders and said: "It has always been like that-terrible, isn't it?". Anyways- in order to "put the fire out ASAP", I started "cracking the code" and all worked out in the end, but with what stress and sleepless nights. I wrote a business case at once to have a proper HR system implemented that could be used by any specialist of the field in order to mitigate any risks or similar situations occurring ever again. The lady returned after a few weeks and said: "You can have the system, but I still know the best!" I let her have that peace of mind, but I believe it illustrates the topic pretty well!
  • It is about creating the trusting environment

    This one sentence can convey the very essence of knowledge sharing and collaboration as without trust why will people share what they know? This is explicitly linked to the culture of an organisation and is linked to every part of this culture from induction, performance management, reward, recognition, leadership, internal communications and available technology to name just a few. Whilst human beings are social animals and share quite happily outside of work powered more so my the explosion in social networking tools as soon as you are in a corporate environment or in an organisational context this changes. Why?

    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. 

    Whole heartedly agree with this and have seen it first hand on far too many occasions. However human beings react, adapt and change to their surroundings, it's what has made us so successful as a species. There is a downside to this evolution of course in that as a species we have evolved due to 'survival of the fittest' and unfortunately this is a built in belief / behaviour and our default fall back mechanism when we feel threatened.

    So what does all this have to do with collaboration and knowledge sharing? It's back to the being irreplaceable and guarding your well being, your experiences and ultimate your job. It really is a cultural and behavioural issue and is also down to what the role models in the organisation i.e ANY leader in that business, how they acts and behave, how they coach, share and work with others. It's a deep and complicated issue that has thwarted many organisations and continues to be an issue as they have deep rooted cultural belief systems that are from a time before the more open, social and collaborative 21st century. It's why so many start ups and organisations have been successful and become household names in such a short time because they could create the culture and working environments from scratch.

    So what's the answer? 

    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?

    Yes but it's easier to say than do. My belief if that you need key people in the organisation to DO this and to role mode what this behaviour looks like. This takes guts and might be at odds with current practice but without this nothing will change. I wrote a blog a little while ago called You Can't Force Social ....Can You? which builds on this.

    I would also highly recommend tapping in to John Stepper's work and the concept of Working Out Loud to open up conversations, sharing and helping people share that they do and how they do it. 

    Finally in my opinion HR and L&D have a great opportunity to create the spark, be the catalyst and be the change that we want to see. After all we are about PEOPLE and can influence how we connect, share and learn. We have direct infuence over what it FEELS like to work in the organisation and we need to be role models ourselves.

    Reminds me of this video around culture called 'The Smell of the Place' I've included it below. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  • Well done putting that together Katri.

    Funnily enough I was only looking at Knowledge and Knowledge Management at the weekend. I found that Nonaka 1991 described knowledge as the fuel for innovation, but that managers at that time did not understand how to leverage knowledge. Sanchez R. 1996 said knowledge management is an enabler of organisational learning and discussed strategic management of knowledge necessary to protect companies and their products in a dynamic and competitive business environment. It is a subject I was going to look at further as it is so interesting and of course important.

    I really enjoyed your post above. Thank you very much :)


    • Hi Alison,

      Many thanks for the positive feedback and I am very pleased to hear that you enjoyed it!:)

      I could not agree more- knowledge sharing and preserving is essential for any company to succeed in the long run. From my personal experience, then fear (for future and becoming replaceable) plays such a huge factor in preventing any knowledge sharing to happen, hence the company may have all the technological means to make it happen, but you need to win people over in order for any learning and knowledge sharing to occur.

      All the best,


      • Yes, there always seems to be at least one person who doesn't want to share their knowledge - even if you need to know and you ask them, they make it as difficult as possible for you to learn what you need by giving you scant information, or describing it in vague or obscure ways!

        In my experience, leaders, the ones who should be leading by example and sharing the most as they have so much experience and knowledge to share, are often the ones who share the least. Perhaps they haven't the time or the opportunity doesn't arise or perhaps they feel the most threatened by the idea of sharing their knowledge.

        You were right in your original post saying that a trusting environment is needed to encourage a knowledge sharing culture.

        I love sharing knowledge and information with my team and they seem to like it. I hope it will help them to develop as that is what I want for them. I do sometimes feel frustrated as there are things I want to share but I really don't have the time and neither do they! Still, we do our best. When I first joined they seemed reluctant to share their knowledge with me, but we have all come to trust each other over time and they realise I only want to support them as much as possible, so they are much happier to share now. I think the degree of trust we have makes for a content team.

        Problems with knowledge sharing can arise where staff are insecure in their role or where reorganisation is threatened or ongoing, as in our culture, "knowledge is power" according to the old saying; Thomas Jefferson apparently added to this "important truth", that  ".... knowledge is safety, knowledge is happiness".

        There are lots of quotes made over the years about sharing knowledge and its importance. (some better than others.) 

          Plenty to choose from here.

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