Monday, 22 June 2009

Knowledge sharing: How can we encourage people to share knowledge without feeling threatened

Quite for sometime I've been thinking what motivates people to create, share and use knowledge?

I believe creating and using knowledge are part and parcel of our life. It is like breathing, we just do IT without realizing that we are doing it, and if we stop doing it we'll put ourselves at risk.

What will happen if you stop breathing? Well, pretty much the same thing may happen when you enter the 'no knowledge zone' and should that happen you should think: "why in heaven's name am I alive?"

I'll use a mundane example to show how we continuously use and create knowledge.

Every day when I am drive to and from work, depending what time I've left the house or the office, I use my traffic knowledge to choose the fastest possible way to get to my final destination. Almost every day by applying my traffic knowledge I end up creating new knowledge. The new knowledge is created simply by refining and/or fine-tuning my existing traffic knowledge, fine tuning actions such as when to change lanes, which traffic lights are to be avoided, depending on the hour of the day, which lane is the fastest etc.

Some time ago, I noticed that on Wednesdays and Thursdays evenings the traffic was heavier on the way home. It did not take too long to figure out that the heavy traffic was because of football matches on those evening were thousands of people commuted from South, East and West to the North of the city.

To avoid being stuck in the traffic jam for hours on end I acted on the newly acquired piece of information and found alternative itineraries. By proactively seeking to understand the cause of the heavy traffic and subsequently acting on what I learnt, I managed to circumvent getting stuck in the traffic.

My overarching motivation was: "getting to my final destination in good time". I could have left hours earlier to get to final destination in good time, which meant less precious sleep time in the morning and in the evening leaving the office at midnight!

But I chose to be efficient and do things in a smarter manner. I used my existing knowledge and my acquired new information, acted upon the newly acquired information to create new knowledge which led me to circumventing being stuck in traffic jams and helped me to get to my final destination in good time. And believe me it was not hard at all.

I believe motivation comes with sense of purpose and need. I can be motivated to drive an F1 car, but since I do not need to drive one, nor will I have the opportunity to do so ever, I can pretty much downgrade my motivation to a dream and concentrate my energies elsewhere!

But nothing prevents me from expanding both my information and knowledge base about cars, F1 and racing and applying the acquired knowledge to driving my battered city car!

So even if we do not have a specific challenge to overcome or issue to resolve, we can still acquire, apply and adapt knowledge and as a result create new knowledge.

Now let's move to what is considered by many as the most challenging knowledge management dimension: sharing knowledge. Let me stay with the traffic story.

Couple of weeks ago one of my friends had to go to my neck of the woods and asked me how to get there. I was faced with numerous options:
  • Share the longest possible way to get there (we've all done this sort of nasty things with people who we do not particularly like)
  • Find out when and what time they have to go and share the quickest possible way to get to their destination
  • Tell them I no longer live in that neighbourhood (typical knowledge hoarding attitude which in real life would translate to: "I do not know", "I do not have time", "this is not your area of expertise, back-off". Most probably we've both been victim of these attitudes and YES – most probably sometime in our life we too have exercised these attitudes)
I opted for the second option and shared my traffic knowledge. The next day we ran into each other and my friend thanked me profusely and I thought to myself, wow, what a nice feeling.

Sharing is the most rewarding and gratifying act in the world, this is why some call it an act of love simply because when you share someone else receives.

When and why do we share?
We tend to share when we come to know of something, when we read or hear of something interesting, when we have an idea, when we are faced with a challenge, when we experience something, when we have aspirations, when we do not know, when we want to show-off and when we are forced to.

Who do we share with?
We share with people who we trust, we share with our community and our peers, we share with those who love us, we share with those who hate us

So what is preventing us from sharing?
And let's not go down the path: "I do not have time to share", as that is a non-starter!

There have been times when I felt intimidated by certain individuals who were in position of power or considered as an opinion leader. As a result if I had something to share, I thought about it twice and 9 times out of ten shied away from sharing it, because I was afraid that what I had to share would be considered either as stupid or arrogant.

9 times out of ten I would have done myself a favour if I had shared my "stupid" and/or "arrogant" knowledge!

Probably most of us have had similar experiences. So, building on own personal experience I have reached the conclusion that often people do not share because they think – or are led to believe – that what they have to share is not worthwhile or is not of a certain calibre.

Another reason why people may resist sharing knowledge is lack of trust. Typically we share knowledge with those who we trust. This is because we know that they will:
  • not laugh at us even if we have something "stupid" to share
  • give us honest and constructive feedback
  • help us earnestly with our challenge
  • put to good use the imparted knowledge

How can we build a trustworthy environment to help a seamless and systematic knowledge sharing?

What I've observed is that people are more willing to share with their closest peers, colleagues and friends. When they collect their courage and decide to come out of their comfort zone and start sharing little titbits with others, they are pleasantly surprised because 9 times out of ten they get kudos. This in turn results in expanding their network, which often has a snowball effect, because like a cool insightful tweet, the expanded network will retweet the piece of knowledge many many times over!

Web2.0 revolution
The Web2.0 wave has revolutionized the way we share knowledge today. First and foremost, while we may have loyal followers and friends we know that we are also reaching out to many others, whom we may or may not know.

Secondly, we seem to be more relaxed vis-à-vis the reaction of people towards what we have to share. For example, for sure there will be some who may find this very blogpost absolutely stupid, but is it preventing me from posting it? NO!! It is not. Would I have shared these very thoughts and ideas in the old way? Probably yes, but only with those who I knew were interested in this topic.

What is different? If you come across this blogpost and after reading the first couple of paragraphs you find it utterly boring, you do not necessarily need to sit politely in a room being subjected to a boring dissertation, but you can simply leave the page and go off to another site. You may go through the hassle of leaving a comment expressing your view about the blogpost – which may be the same as laughing or deriding.

On the other hand, if you find it interesting, you may read it to the very end and who knows you may leave an insightful comment and share your knowledge about this challenge. You may also twit it and/or share the link and lastly you may add yourself as a new follower.

Why is it that I do not think twice about writing and actually posting this long blogpost – which by the way did not quite turn out the way I had originally intended (it does not have the depth I wanted it to have) - but I am willing to share the same thing only with people who are interested in this subject matter?

Is it because there are greater chances that someone who cares about the subject matter may find this useful and provide constructive comment or is it because I feel protected by relative anonymity or is it because I do not care if someone who I do not know nor care about leaves a deriding comment?

Maybe the answer to all the above questions is "Yes". What I've learnt over the years is that as a knowledge practitioner and facilitators we should continuously and relentlessly foster and facilitate knowledge sharing. We can do so by creating a safe and conducive knowledge sharing environment and championing knowledge sharing.

My own knowledge sharing journey was far from an easy ride. Having learnt it the hard way I do not wish it on my worse enemy, so here are three very easy tips which you may wish to take into consideration:
  • do not be put off by "opinionated and influential people"
  • dare to share. Yes sometimes you may be laughed at and criticized. But believe me 9 times out of 10 you will feel highly gratified by sharing your knowledge
  • sharing knowledge – especially sharing development related knowledge - inevitably spearheads something bigger and can contribute to a noble cause.
I now firmly believe in the African proverb: "knowledge is the only form of wealth that grows by sharing". This wonderful proverb has now become my mantra!


Michael J said...

Nice. Just to consider, sharing is often seen as "What you should do is..." One problem is that with the best intentions the sharer is judged "arrogant," "know it all".

It is often the case, that the safest thing to do is to say "OK" or "I don't know." Consider the high school kid. The risk is being seen as "stupid" if they have an "inappropriate question" or "an arrogant know it all".

With anyone who has power it's even worse. It's the source of "groupthink" either in the government or business or Universities.

The cool thing about blogs and twitter is that the rules of the game are "read it or don't". That means the sharer does not have to impose or expect a response.

The paradox is the sharing is often full of risk. If done insensitively, it's an imposition. It takes brain band width of the listener to even focus on the new information.

Often not asking someone to take in new information is a kindness.

Anonymous said...

Roxy, I'm really glad to be part of the people that, finding your ideas interesting, spent time on the post and will share it with others in the future.
I'm convinced that trust is one of the main point which make the difference between sharing and not sharing. Trust is hard to create and to maintain. I think the point is there: in everyone's ability, and maybe desire, to create trust.

Ashok Shukla said...

I like you !

I come from a country, India, where average land aailable per capita is only about 3600 square meter (devide total area of India with its population and you know what I mean).

But my subject of bother is not my own possessions - I am reasonably rich enough !

What I really worry about is that what will happen to Indians in next 60 years, and what will happen to the world in about that time !

a kg of coal, burnt for power, produces about 3.67 kg of carbon di oxide, and that means consumption of fresh air in which a person can breathe for about 2.4 days !


My ID :

Michael J said...


I live in New York City. In the City Limits, just a small part of our region, we have over 8 million people living on 789 sq km. That's over 10,000 people per kilometer.

Too many people is never the real problem. The real problem is exactly what was said in the post, how to share knowledge?

As long as there is peace, it will all be fine. Consider that 15 years ago there was no internet. 10 years people couldn't send text messages.
3 years ago there was no twitter.

And today, I can sit in NYC and share thoughts with you in India.

How is it possible that we, the people, will not figure out the best ways to get from here to wherever we have to go. As long as there is peace and way to keep talking.

Trust comes from exchange. Each successful exchange - whether of money or thoughts or words or pictures - increases trust. The more exchanges the greater the resevoir of trust.

Anonymous said...

Great entry. Anticipating the next one.

Anonymous said...

So cool! Thanks.

Nick Milton said...

Roxana, in answer to "When do we share" you say "We tend to share when we come to know of something, when we read or hear of something interesting, when we have an idea, when we are faced with a challenge, when we experience something, when we have aspirations, when we do not know, when we want to show-off and when we are forced to"

However in the example you describe, there was another stimulus. You shared, because you were asked.

There is a huge difference between "sharing when asked" and "sharing without being asked"

"When do we share"
Most often, when we are asked

"Who do we share with?"
People who ask us

"So what is preventing us from sharing?"
Ofen, nobody is asking.

Nancy Dixon said that many companies that think they have a sharing problem, actually have an asking problem.

Don't neglect the role of Asking as part of Sharing - it's probably the biggest factor

Roxanna Samii said...

Nick, you are absolutely right. Asking is an essential part of knowledge sharing!!! :)

Naomi Gichungu said...

This is awesome. It gives me a reason and the drive to share more.

Naomi Gichungu said...

That was very inspiring. It gives me a reason to share more.

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