Sharing with yourself [1].

Sharing with yourself.

Once again, there is debate and discussion going on about how to promote knowledge sharing in organizations. Jon Udell points to some recent remarks by Esther Dyson on the topic and speculates that weblogs may become a required way to operate inside organizations. Dorothea over on Caveat Lector counters with the “management as control freak, why would you ever risk exposing yourself” meme as proof that groupware and knowledge management will never work.

Telling people to “share more” is as effective with knowledge workers as it is with my two young boys; i.e. not very.

There are two underlying intuitions that fuel efforts to promote knowledge management. First, is the classic Lew Platt remark when he was CEO at HP; “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” We’ve all run into problems where we just know that the answer already exists somewhere in our organization, if we could only find it in time. The second intuition is that there are problems that require the collective insight of a group to solve. They are beyond the capacity of the individual. It’s one of the fundamental reasons that organizations exist at all.

In small, healthy, organizations these problems take care of themselves. Everyone has a good idea of who knows what and it’s easy to bring them together to tackle problems as they arise (take a look at The Magic Number 300: Knowledge and Community for some earlier thoughts on this line of thought). As organizations grow, so do the challenges of tackling knowledge problems. We lose some of the strength of community and have to substitute strong culture and more formalized practices.

We also have to deal with longer connections in time, space, and process between actions and outcomes. “Knowledge sharing” is like “profit” in the sense that both are the outcomes of other activities. You can’t simply order them up by themselves. Asking for more knowledge sharing is equivalent to asking for more profit. Both are nice sentiments but neither contains any useful guidance about what to do.

Choosing to avoid responsibility by simply rewarding some metric for knowledge sharing will lead to the functional, if not moral, equivalent of rewarding reported profits at Enron. You will get the illusion without the reality.

The management responsiblity here is first to understand what activities and behaviors lead to real knowledge sharing. With that knowledge in hand, the next step is to design an environment where those behaviors are the path of least resistance and in the self-interest of individual knowledge workers.

In a follow-up elaboration of his thoughts, Jon identifies the essential point:

The open source mantra, “many eyeballs make all bugs shallow,” cannot apply when there is nothing to see. Narration of work will increasingly become an imperative. Management can and should try to make sure that this happens. The most clueful knowledge workers will simply choose to narrate their work, because it makes the work more interesting and rewarding. The most clueful management will encourage and reward this behavior. [emphasis added]

Here is the leverage point that will make knowledge management work and it depends on the existence of weblogs. The place where sharing matters most is not with the rest of the organization; it is with your future self.

Try the following experiment. Find and open a presentation that you gave at least six months ago. How much of the debate and discussion that went into the final product can you reconstruct from memory? How confident are you in that reconstruction? Bonus question: how many of you named the file “finalprensentationxx” where xx is some number between 2 and 20?

If you have a weblog, you also have a contemporaneous account of your thinking that you can examine.The primary beneficiary of this account is you as the knowledge worker who created it. You have preserved the raw material for reflection, out of which you will craft more capacity for better knowledge work.

The management challenge here is a coaching challenge, not a control one. Management needs to encourage you to continue the experiment long enough for you to perceive its value. After a few instances of dumb mistakes avoided by looking back on earlier dumb mistakes and effort saved by referring questioners back to the answer that already exists in the archives, the value ought to be clear. The sharing with others will evolve naturally from better sharing with yourself.

[McGee’s Musings]