Beyond the Team

Building a culture of knowledge sharing

Organizations, like people, are often at their best when facing an urgent challenge: grasping a new business opportunity before others can, defending against a threat, or reacting to a surprise external event. People work together, build on each other’s special expertise, and find a solution – in fact, they become very effective knowledge managers.

After it’s over, people often ask: “why can’t we collaborate like this all the time?” Why can’t this free flow of knowledge between individuals and groups be a permanent part of the organization’s culture? Unfortunately, given the chance, people often lapse into hoarding behavior, intentionally or unintentionally, and the old siloes re-establish themselves. What can be done to avoid this?

One idea is to look at what effective crisis management project teams do well and then aim to replicate those behaviors and systems at enterprise level. Members of effective teams perform their individual roles at a high level but they also work together to solve problems and generate solutions – by contributing their individual insights and experience and by asking the right questions of each other.

The most effective organizations are able to replicate successful project team practices at the level of the whole enterprise, by encouraging people to ask the right questions of each other, as well as contributing their individual insights and experience.

At an organization-wide scale, leaders can drive the same type of behavior by continually reinforcing three key themes:

  • It’s OK to ask someone. Junior staff members often see it as a sign of weakness if they build on someone else’s approach to a problem - they feel they have to invent it themselves. Managers need to fight against this tendency, encourage people to ask: “hasn’t someone done this before” and give explicit credit to people for finding experts and “borrowing with pride”. This behavior creates the “pull” dynamic across organization siloes, which is a key motor for successful knowledge sharing.
  • It’s good to share. If there’s pull, there needs to be response: managers should insist that when new ideas and approaches are developed, they are shared broadly – both for the benefit of others and to stimulate comments and improvement to the ideas themselves. This can be through knowledge management systems, or - even better - through live presentation and discussion. Think about communication channels and events that don’t require extensive preparation and are easy for others to access.
  • You can measure how well this works. Performance management systems and rewards, for both individuals and teams, can easily be adapted to encourage these knowledge flows. Imagine a performance review based on questions like “how often did you present your ideas to people outside your team”, “which ideas from other teams did you use on this project”, or “which new KM documents did you write or help write?” Technologies like social networking and expertise-finders can stimulate and facilitate this behavior, while KM contribution and usage metrics provide additional tracking data.

“Asking and sharing” are key success factors for teams – effective collaboration makes everyone productive. They also improve motivation, because people like having their ideas listened to and validated. The same practices, extrapolated across the whole enterprise, are key building blocks for an effective and lasting knowledge sharing culture. The target is for the whole organization to behave like a highly collaborative expert team.

In the end, this is all about leadership. Leaders need to drive the right “asking and sharing” behaviors and continue doing so until it becomes second nature. It shouldn’t need a crisis to break down your organizational silos and create a free flow of ideas that becomes a permanent part of your culture.


Learn more. Reach out to Simon Trussler.

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