How to build a culture for knowledge sharing at work

by Jane Hart

For the last 5 years I have been running a Learning in the Workplace survey which asks respondents to rate the following 10 ways of learning in the workplace  – as “Not important (NI)”, “Quite important (QI)”, “Very Important (VI)” or “Essential (Es)”.

  • Company training/e-learning
  • Self-directed study of external courses
  • Internal company documents
  • Job aids
  • Knowledge sharing within your team
  • General conversation and meetings with people
  • Personal and professional networks and communities
  • External blogs and news feeds
  • Content curated from external sources
  • Web search for resources (e.g. using Google)

Here are the latest results from over 5,000 responses from 63 countries worldwide, ranked by their combined Very Important + Essential percentage scores

  1. Knowledge sharing with your team – 88%
  2. Web search for resources (e.g. using Google) – 80%
  3. General conversation and meetings with people – 79%
  4. Personal and professional networks and communities – 74%
  5. External blogs and news feeds - 57%
  6. Content curated from external sources – 56%
  7. Self-directed study of external courses – 52%
  8. Internal company documents – 49%
  9. Job aids – 45%
  10. Company training/e-learning - 40%

As you can see, Company training is the least valued way of learning in the workplace, whilst at the top is Knowledge sharing with a team. So how might you support knowledge sharing and social learning - particularly in a workplace where social technologies are now being encouraged?

First of all, it is important to remember that the purpose of social technology is to extend interaction and communication between members of a work team or group – rather than replace face-to-face conversations and discussions – so that the members can work together more easily, share reflections and resources, and in doing so learn from each other on a daily basis..

You might therefore start by helping a manager (and his/her group) determine what technology might work best for them - if there isn’t already an enterprise social platform in place - and if the team is unfamiliar with the technology, you might also help them come to grips with it, but rather than providing traditional software training sessions, it will be better to introduce them to the functionality as you help them use it as part of their daily work.

 But of course, successful team sharing won’t happen simply by putting the technology in place, and certainly not if the team is compelled to start being social, so here are 6 tips to build a successful sharing culture.

  1. Help the team see the value of sharing – and what it will bring to each one of them individually (the “What’s In it For Me”), as well as what it will bring to the group as a whole (e.g. the ability to capture team knowledge, improve communications, productivity, team work and ultimately business performance).
  2. Help the team establish sharing as part of their daily routine – if it is seen as an extra to the daily work it won’t become a habit, so taking the time daily to share will need to be become ingrained into everyday work. This might mean, at first, setting some time aside each day to establish the practice.
  3. Help to encourage those who feel concerned about sharing for whatever reasons they might have - This might be due to  a lack of confidence or competence, or fear that it will mean loss of power. In some cases you may need to work one-to-one with an individual to address their personal concerns.
  4. Help the team to “add value” to what they share  - one of the easiest ways for individuals to start sharing is to provide links to resources they have come across. However, they need to be aware that they also need to provide some additional context or commentary too, so that others can decide whether it is worth their while clicking through the links.
  5. Help the team to “work out loud” – another key way to help a team share is to encourage them to “work out loud” and talk about their work openly, the experiences they are having, as well as their successes and failures. This is part of the collective reflection process discussed in the previous section. The advantage of doing this is that others in the team have full visibility on what is happening in the team, and can easily spot others with expertise or experience in areas of work they might be about to embark on.
  6. Help the team to avoid “over-sharing” – this is sharing for the sake of it, and can often happen if too much pressure is put on a team to prove they are “social”. In which case it may be useful to re-assure the group that: (a) they are not being forced to be social and share everything, and (b) they will not be penalized if they don’t contribute all the time.

Finally, when it comes to measuring the success of social sharing, it is all too easy to think that measuring social activity is the way to do this  - that is by counting the number of posts, or comments, or likes, and so on – and then reward those who talk the most!  But it will be much more important to measure how sharing has brought about improvements in job or team productivity or performance. This means focusing on the value that has been generated rather than the activity itself. Your role will be to help managers identify how they can measure these performance improvements – rather than try to manage the whole process for them!

In fact, when it comes to “managing” informal knowledge sharing and social learning, Pamela Hogle, in a Learning Solutions Magazine article, Informal Learning calls for Hands-Off management

“Create the spaces, enable the opportunities—then step back. Don’t micromanage; it might be OK to eavesdrop occasionally, though.” 

That summarises it well.