Monday, December 22, 2008

Knowledge is volunteered

And now you know why the words “a culture of trust” always comes up when you start discussing knowledge sharing, communities of practice and innovation.

This kitty won’t be back in your lap for a couple of days.

"Knowledge can only be volunteered, not conscripted". (David Snowden)

This is is one of David Snowden's heuristics, rules of thumb, for knowledge management. David Snowden is one of the gurus of knowledge management and worth paying attention to.

Building relationships, a culture of acknowledgement (giving credit where credit is due) are essential to building trust.

So if you talk about knowledge sharing in an organization long enough, the discussion will inevitably arrive at a statement like "Knowledge sharing is part of our organization's culture" or just as likely "is not".

Follow the conversation further down the lines of why the organizational culture around information sharing works or doesn't and "trust" pops up.

"Culture, trust and communications" all start to appear in the conversation. Why they interplay well in successful organizations and badly in dysfunctional organizations is a function of how well internal communications people and managers understand:

Sharing really good information and know-how requires trust. If the recipient has a history of behaving badly (especially a recent history), trust is low and the expert holding the really good information or know-how does just that. They hold onto the really good information. They will appear to conform if pressured to deliver good information. They can, with justification, deliver the conventional wisdom of the day. They can tell you enough about their work for you to write a detailed job description. In Larry Prusak's words, they "are canny, they will appear to conform".

Meanwhile the organization suffers because really good information does not emerge nor does a real understanding of the expert's know-how reside in the organization. The classic Joni Mitchell truism: "
Don't it always seem to go. That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone". And when the expert leaves, you arrive at the succession planning crisis.

So it is about trust. Trust is not given. Trust is earned. And being trust-worthy is where knowledge sharing begins and ends. Internal communications are most often focused on avoiding generating fear. What the focus has to be is what generates trust.

So where there is information sharing issues in an organization, "we don't do a good job of sharing information necessary for our work", is usually a sign that there is also a trust issue to be dealt with as well as information sharing processes and tools. Don't assume that a knowledge management initiative will solve trust issues. That requires an astute facilitator to have a careful conversation with staff and managers about what more trustworthy communications would look like.

At the core of many trust issues around information sharing are recognition issues.

For that reason, a good knowledge management initiative starts by working with human resources to improve employee recognition processes. I spent my first three years in KM on a employee recognition team. It still is one of the most important staff voluntary teams in our organization. The fact that it thrives by recruiting volunteers and not by staff assignment is a vivid illustration of this truism.

So David Snowden's truism explains why the mind dump collected from the departing expert does not work. It explains why reward based contributions to a knowledge library don't work. It explains why some communities of practice work and others are still born.

If you have problems with information sharing and a "culture of trust", start examining what the organization does for recognition and trustworthy communications.

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