You can’t curate what’s in people’s heads.
This week’s ECOSYSTEM is a bit of a rerun.
I’m in the weeds getting ready for 3 sessions at Learning Solutions this week. Plus, I’m mentally preparing to overcome the Hot Ones gauntlet on ITK this Wednesday …
So I reached deep into the LearnGeek vault to find an oldie but a timely. “5 reasons your employees aren’t sharing their knowledge” was the most popular post from my LearnGeek blog. I wrote it in 2016. Fortunately (or unfortunately), the information is just as relevant today.
Shared knowledge is the foundation of the modern learning ecosystem. When people can quickly and reliably find the information they need to solve problems in the flow of work, the entire complexion of workplace learning changes. Regrettably, this is still a major gap in many employees’ day-to-day experience.
Let’s revisit the challenge of shared knowledge with an updated version of a classic LearnGeek post.
A never-ending dilemma. 🤦♂️
I rarely hear someone say …
WOW! We have so many people sharing on [insert name of enterprise platform]! Everyone’s problems are getting solved so quickly and without the need for formal training!
Instead, I hear plenty of …
We have [insert name of enterprise platform], but no one really uses it …
Sharing is part of life. Every new idea. Every opinion about the latest Star Wars trailer. Every picturesque meal. There’s a place, a motivation and a desire to share.
So why don’t people share at work? It’s not a lack of outlets. Organizations have installed lots of tech over the past 10 years in an attempt to replicate the impact of social media. First came SharePoint. Then Yammer. Facebook eventually entered the Workplace. Now there’s Slack and MS Teams. Plus, every company has some form of intranet or employee hub. Let’s not even get into all of the shared drives, Google Drives, OneDrives …
If there are lots of places to share, why aren’t people contributing their knowledge for the benefit of their peers and the organization? Why does every problem require 4 emails and 15 Slack messages to solve? Why does one person’s departure send an entire department into a tailspin when no one can figure out how they did what they did?
It comes down to one unavoidable truth: work isn’t nearly as interesting as fantasy football. Sharing at work isn’t like sharing in everyday life. The tech may look similar. We may be asking people to apply the same behaviors they use on TikTok and YouTube. But it’s still not the same experience. We’re missing a few essential factors when we ask employees to share what they know. The good news: this is a solvable problem. The bad news: it’s a lot more difficult than it should be.
Here are the 5 reasons your employees aren’t sharing their workplace knowledge plus a few actions you can take to improve related practices within your organization.
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Sharing tools aren’t work tools. 🛠️
When and where do you ask employees to share their knowledge?
By WHEN, I want to know if sharing is actually part of the job - an expectation instead of an extra task. Few organizations hold employees accountable for sharing what they know as part of their responsibilities. If it’s not part of the job, why should people do it? This leaves designated subject matter experts, professional sharers (like comms and L&D pros) and a few select “go-getters” to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, these folks have limited capacity and expertise. If sharing isn’t part of the job description, people won’t do it.
By WHERE, I want to know about the tools you want people to use. This is where we slam into a wall of familiar-but-not technology like Yammer, Salesforce, SharePoint, Google Sites, etc. Of course, a knowledge sharing strategy is about more than tech, but right-fit tech is an essential part of the puzzle, especially if you want to move information at the speed and scale of a complex enterprise.
Which tools are employees required to use while doing their jobs? Is your intranet or enterprise social network on that list? There’s your problem! People are unlikely to step away from their workflow to share important job knowledge. Recent collaboration tools like Slack and MS Teams are better integrated into the workflow for desked employees. However, they facilitate transactional sharing, not codified information that can be easily retrieved for future reference. More on that in a moment.
Networks require scale. 🌊
I was never a Facebook person, but I got SUPER into Twitter in the early 2010s. That’s where I built the first vestiges of my professional network. That’s where the crowd was. Today, the crowd has moved on, and I’m struggling to find the next great place to engage people with shared interests.
This is what happens in the workplace. ESNs and intranets require a constant flow of high-value information to add value. Would you stick around on TikTok if 9 out of every 10 recommended videos was about nose hair trimming? People engage where they get consistent, reliable value. This means workplace knowledge tools must deliver EVERY TIME, not just if you happen to enter the right search prompt. Otherwise, people won’t change their behaviors, contribute their insights and generate the scale needed to make the network work.
Most sharing is transactional. 🤝
What did that person say on Teams the other day that was really helpful but now I can’t remember? Good luck finding that info! Feed-based tools like Slack, Facebook and Yammer aren’t designed to transform tacit knowledge into explicit information. They’re inherently transactional, showing people what’s going on RIGHT NOW within the network to keep them swiping/scrolling longer and longer. We don’t want employees staring at feeds all day. We need them to get in/out as fast as possible with the right information.
Things get even more complicated when organizations add multiple tools for sharing different types of information. Employees can ask questions of their peers on Slack, but they must refer to SharePoint for officially approved, stamped, vetted, validated, legally-smiled-upon information. This further discourages people from sharing, as they’re unsure where information is supposed to live and who is approved to say what.
Sharing requires structure. 🏛️
There’s a reason I’m not particularly excited about the potential for AI-enabled knowledge curation right now. AI is only as good as the data, and most company knowledge vaults are filled with junk. Imagine letting AI loose in your company Google Drive. Would your employees be able to trust in the information it brings back?
The internet doesn’t organize itself. We have services like Google, YouTube and Wikipedia to thank for making the world’s shared knowledge easier to access and apply. Most companies don’t have structure and process in place to foster a similarly user-friend experience. Either people can’t share, or the gates are flung open and every team tries to build their own department website. This is why SharePoint becomes a problem. It’s not the tech itself. It’s the lack of a consistent vision for organizational knowledge sharing.
Why should they? 🤷♂️
Honestly - why should people share what they know? That knowledge may be a big part of their personal value. If they’re not expected to share as part of their jobs or held accountable for contributing to the institution’s knowledge base, why should they make the extra effort? WIIFT?
If you want there to be stuff worth curating, you must give people a reason to open their vaults. It’s gotta be easy. It’s gotta add value. It’s gotta start with trust. It’s gotta result in recognition.
Difficult. Not impossible. 👍
I’ve been talking about knowledge sharing practices for 14 years. The same problems still come up within organizations across industries and geographies. I even had someone from Google attend one of my workshops on the topic, and they manage knowledge for Earth!
While I continue to see companies struggle with this foundational layer of their learning ecosystems, I’ve also seen plenty overcome this obstacle. Not only have they realized business value, but they’ve also increased employee engagement and improved their workplace cultures.
Designated SMEs, formal documentation and rigid approval processes are still important, but they’re just a starting point - not a knowledge sharing strategy. Most of your organization's HOWs are locked in the minds of the people who do the work every day. Here’s a shortlist of proven practices for transforming that tacit knowledge into explicit resources.
Start with trust. Knowledge sharing is more about culture than technology. Before devising a strategy, assess the trust levels within your organization and take steps to address related issues.
Move closer to the workflow. Help employees talk about the work ON the work. Implement technology and processes that merge user-generated content with job reference information in an integrated experience.
Select right-fit technology. Search (not recommendation) is the killer app when it comes to shared knowledge. Leverage technology that looks and feels like Wikipedia, YouTube and other prevalent everyday sharing tools but fits your people’s workflows.
Enable champions. Don’t just install technology and expect people to use it. Find the people who already understand the value of sharing – regardless of role – and give them the keys.
Make it about peers. Employees are typically more willing to share when it’s about helping their coworkers instead of the company or L&D.
Recognize contribution. Sharing should come with benefits. Recognize people for their efforts in ways that align with your company culture. This could be as simple as mentioning key contributors during group meetings or instituting a full motivation strategy with well-thought-out game mechanics.
Get managers involved. This isn’t just about frontline employees sharing what they know. Managers, including the executive team, must leverage the same behaviors for consuming and sharing knowledge to reinforce the behaviors desired within their teams.
Until next week, be well. JD