Q&A: What are the benefits of a knowledge sharing culture?

The following is an interview with David, a manager of over 100 professional services staff.


Q: What's your experience with knowledge sharing cultures?


A: As a manager who had the option of using Hugh to help our knowledge flow better, I've watched a knowledge sharing culture emerge from scratch in 18 months with him working about two days per month.

Q: What are the stand out benefits of a knowledge sharing culture to you in dot point form?

  • Alignment. Making knowledge visible 'routinely' means minds are aligned - priceless.
  • Blank sheet. We know where to start when we don't know where to start. This was a Eureka moment for us.
  • Confidence. Good team knowledge = good decision-making.
  • Conflict resolution. Ever noticed what happens when someone tries to make visible something contentious? Sometimes it's attacked with ferocity. Good. Sooner that happens the better.
  • Discipline. A well-functioning knowledge sharing culture can't happen without discipline – it's one of the main ingredients in my experience. Practicing discipline is a huge benefit for other activities outside knowledge sharing.
  • Easier leadership. People share without being 'clubbed'. People are clear on what role they play & what's expected of them.
  • Gap spotting. Once knowledge sharing culture really kicks in, it's easy to spot the gaps in your team knowledge. This is the fastest way I've experienced to build capability that actually lasts.
  • Less scrambling to find decision helpers. Teams have primary launching points to access the resulting team knowledge to help make good decisions. It's been agreed and the system is used which means I don't have to club people into compliance.
  • Lessons learned are Guidelines instead. Because we have a well functioning knowledge sharing system, instead of labouring over capturing lessons we 'should have' learned, we jump straight to 'this is how we're going to do it next time (or else)' documents we call Guidelines. Small word but big impact when coupled with discipline to create & comply as they actually forge the attitudes and behaviors we want for the standard of work we want to become commonplace.
  • More creative thinking.
  • Newcomers are productive quicker because we can confidently say 'this is the way we share knowledge around here'. Their questions also trigger new knowledge that our senior people love to answer via Hugh so it's visible to everyone and adds to our growing team knowledge. Win win win.
  • Outgoing people leave legacy knowledge. Because we have a usable system to build team knowledge.
  • Respected 'go to' places. Given the broad team buying we have, gathering spots for team knowledge, once dusty and rarely used, now provide a reliable source for team knowledge. People know 'if it's not there and it's important' we work as a team to get it there.
  • Speed. Because we have well-functioning systems and practices that work for our people, we can plug many knowledge gaps the same day. We do it increasingly frequently with increasing confidence.
  • Tacit capture. Because we have agreed launching points for team knowledge, when it comes to the 'hard to communicate' knowledge, and because people have bought in to the whole knowledge sharing thing, we routinely create video's, stories and picture books of team knowledge 'for next time' consideration.

Q: What are the stand out benefits of a knowledge sharing culture to you in more detail?

A: We get a steady flow of tangibles for one.

Team knowledge, I always 'thought' was there (it must have been because the roads some how got built) is now becoming clearly visible and is reliably at our fingertips. And these are not just documents. They are 'the' way we do things around here. They make clear how people are expected to think and behave on anything and everything the team think useful and usable worth having almost immediate and reliable access to.

It might be little tangible things like one of our great minds having a handful of photos of what he thinks important 'not' to do buried away on his personal computer that he now offers for sharing with his colleagues 'without being asked'. In fact, I agree that another way of saying knowledge sharing culture is 'the way we do things around here' but …

… equally important, and even harder to make visible, is 'the way we 'don't' want to do things around here'.

So that example of a team member who made photo's of 'how not to do it' available to his work mates is very significant as it saves a whole lot of explaining – we almost get away without writing anything down. In my observation, people don't naturally share what they know, or would like to know. They need an OK from management above them - the more senior the better – the more encouragement to share (from everyone) the better.

We also get a steady flow of intangibles.

Intangibles like people, who previously didn't communicate well, now communicate well and can really think as combined minds not silos. People are trusting their co-workers more which brings more 'forgiveness and flexibility' when things don't go quite right. There's much less friction within the team.

New team members feel valued quickly because we want to know every question they have. Senior team members, accustomed to not sharing (often because they've never really been asked (or expected to) ), are coming around more and more to realising that they are our knowledge sharing role models (that one took time but is happening). Even when we asked, our senior people were reluctant to work with Hugh to make visible what they thought was important. But when Hugh went to them with a long list of questions, they loved answering them in fine detail – often with accompanying examples and photos. Without consciously developing knowledge sharing culture we wouldn't have learned these things or be putting these things in place at the highest corporate levels.

What can I say – these things combined make it a great place to work. Everyone feels valued and can see tangibles quickly when they share what they know, or would like to know.

Intangibles are far more valuable but, in the eye's of the less informed about knowledge sharing culture, intangibles alone are harder to justify the investment of people's time to make a well-functioning knowledge sharing culture happen so a balance of tangibles and intangibles is really important – it's one of the keys to success.

Q: Any actual experiences to highlight the value of knowledge sharing intangibles?

A: Yes – plenty but one stands out. When I told the team we now had a dedicated resource to help make sharing our knowledge happen in Hugh, one of our senior people, Frank – who was about to retire - got quickly excited and worked enthusiastically with Hugh to make visible a series of team knowledge guidelines.

Nick, who was also senior, in my group but in another team, saw what Frank had produced and came to my office and said "This is crap." Being shocked (at how condemning he was) and delighted (that he'd noticed Frank's effort to share what he (thought) he knew), I asked (after fumbling in my head for what felt like forever)

"Is there anyway you could work with Frank so it's not crap?"

Which is what happened when emotions settled down. The tangible of Frank making visible what he thought important, triggered an intangible which was of much higher value. That was of Frank and Nick finding a way, with my active encouragement, to overcome the friction between them so they could work together.

On reflection, that conflict must have existed for most of their many years working together and I, and I suspect other leaders before me, never realised it. If we hadn't been making an effort to consciously build a knowledge sharing culture I believe this communication breakthrough would never have happened. This would have directly compromised our capacity to deliver outstanding outcomes.

Q: Any actual experiences to highlight the value of knowledge sharing tangibles?

A: Too many to mention. Because we're engineers and are slow to get this 'intangibles from sharing knowledge thing' there's lots more examples of tangibles. I can simplify my response to this question by saying that, now that we're all getting accustomed to travelling meaningfully towards a well-functioning knowledge sharing culture, team knowledge that's emerging is getting better and better.

The sense of ownership is higher, respect for it is higher, people are starting to ask 'Do we have any team knowledge on this?' before they start work. People are fussing less about documenting lessons learned (which somehow seemed to 'always get lost' or 'not looked at' when they need to be) and more interested in documenting 'How we do things around here'.

It does mean we now have a higher standard to uphold when it comes to the quality of team knowledge we make visible but, having seen both sides of the fence – we now welcome that. We're also working actively with our corporate people to ensure the knowledge we do make visible complies with our corporate templates, numbering systems and preferred terminology so it doesn't have any impediments moving from 'at the coal face', where Hugh works most of the time, to 'globally respected and used' knowledge.

One of the essential ingredients is people knowing what their role is. Hugh has suggested three main roles which works for us.

  1. Thought Leader and/or Gatherer – most often a thought leader / team leader type person – who helps with knowledge sharing speed and direction and / or to make gatherings happen where knowledge can be shared, either one on one or as groups.
  2. Participant – people actually doing the work – who are now 'expected' (important emphasis) to share what they know, or would like to know, quickly and to feedback (important emphasis) until knowledge outputs are used and useful.
  3. Enabler – someone who does virtually all else to make it all actually happen. This is the work that Hugh does.