To Share is Human

Solid knowledge management is becoming increasingly important for companies in the age of digitalization. But how do you ensure that employees interconnect with one another, share their knowledge, and benefit from their mutual interaction? A proposal for a solution.

As market and competitive conditions continue to shift and evolve constantly, companies are more than ever dependent on the talent and knowledge of their employees. People who are especially gifted in digital matters, however, are rare, and convincing them to accept a new position in a different corporation is often difficult. Companies are therefore well advised to focus on the potential that lies dormant in the people who are already on their payrolls. It is no surprise that organizational learning processes and the continuous development of critical skills are moving into the strategic spotlight.

A Detecon study conducted in cooperation with the Institute for Employment & Employability (IBE) and the edtech start-up Humovo reveals the areas where companies are still struggling today and what form measures for improvement might take. Along with an inspiring and motivating learning environment, it is particularly important to create an authentic learning culture and to practice this culture across hierarchal boundaries. Highly personalized learning content is just as important as the opportunity to control the learning process independently and being given sufficient time for personal development. But what good is the best learning experience if the knowledge is not subsequently shared with others and the learning effects that have been generated fizzle out over time? How do I, the entrepreneur, ensure that my employees interconnect with one another, share their knowledge, and benefit from their mutual interaction?

Important element of living in a community

Proverbially, happiness is the only thing that doubles when you share it. This old saw pithily represents the driving force behind our desire to share without hesitation the happy moments of our lives – the sun-filled family vacation on the Canary Islands, our son’s first day of school, our daughter’s graduation party, the partner’s promotion, and the salad in the trendy restaurant – with the people around us and beyond. Capturing and sharing moments, even the most intimate, has become an integral part of our social lives. If we look a little more closely, it quickly becomes clear that sharing was a fundamental part of human coexistence long before the social media age. While food and other resources were once shared to secure the tribe’s existence and prosperity, today, in the information age, we share experiences and content of all kinds. The progress of digitalization is simplifying the exchange of information at an accelerating rate and offers a wide range of opportunities for global networking. Social networks are experiencing a real boom. Almost 3.5 billion of the 4.4 billion internet users use social networks.

Sharing is essential – privately and professionally

But do we like to share at work as well? Is sharing knowledge, experience, and resources just as normal here as in our personal everyday lives? The basis for being able to share relevant information and knowledge in the work context is a functioning knowledge management structure. This in turn presupposes a system that, on the one hand, enables the use of existing knowledge and, on the other hand, provides mechanisms to ensure that new knowledge is continuously added (ideally) to the knowledge store. Solid knowledge management and the corresponding willingness to share this knowledge are becoming increasingly relevant.

Knowledge, a (treacherous) super currency

The required expertise and experience are not what is lacking in many companies. The crux of the matter, however, is that knowledge is often insufficiently documented (if at all), difficult to access, or simply not distributed adequately. This seems to be a consequence of information (especially if it bestows an aura of exclusivity on its owners) having turned into a kind of super currency in companies. Many of us still regard ourselves as the kingpins who know more than anyone else, making us indispensable for the success of the team or even of the company. This attitude is based on the assumption that there is always a winner and that where there is a winner, there is also a loser. The concept of the two parties sharing the rewards is not entertained for a second. Existing resources suffice to satisfy solely our needs and must be hoarded at all costs. A similar pattern of behavior can often be observed as well when it comes to sharing knowledge with others.

In and out of the loop

Thought games along these lines frequently give rise to two opposing camps in so many companies: those who are “in the loop” and have a high level of access to information and those who are only partially “in the loop” and receive little information. According to one statistic, knowledge workers spend almost a third of their working time acquiring information or generating knowledge that already exists. The losses in efficiency and productivity are immense, not to mention the negative effects on long-term work motivation.

The phenomenon aptly known as knowledge hoarding reinforces these effects and steadily widens the gap between “in and out of the loop.” An imbalance of this nature in the disbursement of knowledge is particularly damaging to business when employees with a high level of information leave the company. If the generated knowledge (and related experience) has not been adequately shared with others or stored in appropriate systems, it walks out the door with the departing employees, and the organization has to start again from scratch. But what can companies do to promote the exchange of knowledge within the organization? Open-space offices, kitchen talk, areas, and barcamp formats are a laudable and important start, but further steps are mandatory.

Sharing must be rewarding

Companies have no choice but to establish tangible incentives for more cooperation and knowledge exchange. If knowledge equals power and status and sharing is rewarded with no more than a pat on the back, employees cannot be expected to share their knowledge willingly. At the end of the day, they must be rewarded for their willingness to share. Wherever “knowledge hoarding” paves the way for a steady rise within the corporate hierarchy and management nods approvingly, the assiduous care of the knowledge monopoly will remain the dominant career strategy.

If real change is to be initiated, companies must create individual incentives for more cooperation and knowledge exchange, measures that are also reflected in the remuneration structure. In most companies, KPI systems have now reached a level of granularity in which almost every conceivable activity is measured, often by multiple KPIs. If the problem lies less in the quantity of calculated key indicators, companies must ask themselves whether the truly important activities are being measured. Once knowledge management has been declared a strategically important topic, companies should think about introducing sharing KPIs. The collected indicators should be oriented to both input and benefit as well as the willingness to share knowledge, i.e., they should take into account both the quantity and the quality of transferred knowledge and experience. Besides raising the status of company-wide collaboration and knowledge sharing, sharing KPIs would also ensure at an individual level that everyone in the company becomes more aware of his or her own knowledge resources and actively considers the opportunities for sharing them with others.

The power of the many

If the motivational effects of actions aimed at influencing individuals by rewarding certain behaviors are limited, a further step – the creation of immaterial incentives – must be taken. Simply pointing to the immediate superior and his or her role model function does not get the job done. Showing appreciation of colleagues who are especially committed to knowledge sharing and setting a positive example is everyone’s responsibility and just as important as sharing positive success stories.

A vibrant culture of sharing develops solely within the collective and is dependent on common, cross-section initiatives. Only a culture that openly calls for and fosters the sharing of know-how and experience enables companies to handle the high speed of transformation and the constantly rising competitive and innovative pressure.

Common processes for added value are established and continuously improved in co-creation with customers and partners. Value creation in this type of ecosystem is based on the use of network effects and hinges on an intensive exchange of experience and knowledge among all players. Learning to use the power of the many will be crucial for the survival of companies into the future

This article first appeared in the special edition “Weiterbildung” of the German journal Personalwirtschaft in December 2019


Many thanks to Marc Wagner for his contribution to this article.