Effective knowledge sharing

The mainstream application of knowledge management, and I would include learning management, over the past few decades has got it all wrong. We have over-managed information because it’s easy and we’re still enamoured with information technology. However, the ubiquitous information surround may put a stop to this. As enterprises become more closely tied to the Web, the principle of “small pieces loosely joined” is permeating our industrial walls. More and more workers have their own sources of information and knowledge.

Following on from yesterday’s post, connecting and communicating through effective conversations, I’d like to quote again from Dave Pollard’s experience with knowledge management:

So my conclusion this time around was that the centralized stuff we spent so much time and money maintaining was simply not very useful to most practitioners. The practitioners I talked to about PPI [Personal Productivity Improvement] said they would love to participate in PPI coaching, provided it was focused on the content on their own desktops and hard drives, and not the stuff in the central repositories.

We can add to Dave’s anecdotal evidence the research from  Wharton’s Haas & Hansen in Does Knowledge Sharing Deliver?, via Tony Karrer. The researchers found that the two types of organizational knowledge – codified in a knowledge base and interpersonal sharing – are appropriate to different tasks. Generally speaking, codified knowledge does not help teams to produce any better unless the team is rather inexperienced. Interpersonal sharing can be more effective for some teams but it is time-consuming. According to Haas:

“We find that using codified knowledge in the form of electronic documents saved time during the task, but did not improve work quality or signal competence to clients, whereas in contrast, sharing personal advice improved work quality and signaled competence, but did not save time,” Haas says. “This is interesting because managers often believe that capturing and sharing knowledge via document databases can substitute for getting personal advice, and that sharing advice through personal networks can save time. But our findings dispute the claim that different types of knowledge are substitutes for each other. Instead, we show that appropriately matching the type of knowledge used to the requirements of the task at hand — quality, signaling or speed — is critical if a firm’s knowledge capabilities are to translate into improved performance of its projects.”

The inability of expensive enterprise knowledge management systems to deliver broad results is similar to the 80-20 funding ratio between formal and informal learning. We’ve been putting too much money in the wrong place.

A way forward for KM and Informal Learning 2.0

We should move away from central digital information repositories (KM, Doc Mgt, LCMS, etc.). I’m not advocating tearing down any existing IT infrastructure; just enabling a parallel system, which may exist already, to grow. Some suggestions:

  • Develop measures that can help experienced knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge.
  • Support the sharing of information and expertise between knowledge workers, on their terms, using personalized knowledge management methods & tools.
  • Keep only essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers, in the organizational knowledge base – keep it simple.

19 Responses to “Effective knowledge sharing”

  1. Will Thalheimer

    Thanks, good post.

    One digression:

    You mention a 80-20 funding differential between formal and informal learning.

    FIRST, is there really good evidence for this? And note: Isn’t management training (a large expense) really encouraging somewhat informal learning (if not, it should be).

    SECOND, even if this 80-20 is accurate, IS THIS BAD? Maybe the informal happens just fine without intervention and money. MAYBE we’d make it worse by putting more money into it.

    People have jumped too quickly (with too much missing info) onto this informal-learning shtick. I’m a supporter of it in my own work, but I really don’t think the theorists are being very helpful with their fuzzy thinking and dark-abyssmalations.

    Reply
  2. Will Thalheimer

    One intriguing thought your post did trigger.

    People do things that are easy, that are human, that are attractive. That’s why people will much more often ask somebody for help than look up the information in a document.

    SO, I’m imagining a visual metaphor where some paths (asking gal in next cubicle) are short and smooth, AND other paths (digging into a cumbersome KM system) are bumpy and difficult, and others (spending time in an SM system) have longer paths but perhaps more scenic, enjoyable.

    Yeah, I like this. Wish I could draw…

    Reply
  3. Harold Jarche

    Hi Will:

    We have pretty good data that ~80% of learning in organizations is informal (Jay Cross, Informal Learning, Appendix B). I’ll have to dig a bit to find expenditures but my experience is that most training budgets fund the formal stuff, especially courses. As for management training, I would think some/most of it is courses. Do you have experience otherwise?

    Personally, I didn’t jump on the informal schtick, I just found that so much formal training was ineffective. I come from a HPT background, so I’m very focused on performance. Supporting informal learning is like reducing barriers to performance, in HPT speak. Your metaphor about paths is good, as workplace re-design is one way to get better informal learning. Mapping out the paths is kind of like social network analysis (maybe some potential consulting work there).

    Thanks for your comments.

    Reply
  4. Jon Husband

    The researchers found that the two types of organizational knowledge – codified in a knowledge base and interpersonal sharing – are appropriate to different tasks.

    Helping all of us understand that this distinction is ever-present … and that the two types exist side-by-side on an ongoing basis, and that workers shuttle back and forth between the two in the course of their daily activities … is crucial.

    Reply
  5. Ryan Lanham

    If I read you right, institutions ought to pay smart people just to wander around and “advise” based on what is happening elsewhere. These internal consultants would be without portfolio except to sharpen processes by being informed at some sort of high productive level.

    Reply
  6. Harold Jarche

    They’re already engaging internal consultants, Ryan, it’s just that most folks in support departments aren’t getting out of their offices.

    I once did a project on the learning needs of staff nurses and asked to spend a few days on the wards. The senior nurse clinician accompanied me and it was her first time on the wards since she had started her job 2 years earlier.

    These internal consultants are some of the folks currently in IT, HR, OD, T&D or their more capable replacements. I also think that much of the process-sharpening can be done by the workers/contributors and fewer support staff or managers will be needed.

    BTW, love your Facebook links :-)

    Reply
  7. Jon Husband

    These internal consultants are some of the folks currently in IT, HR, OD, T&D or their more capable replacements. I also think that much of the process-sharpening can be done by the workers/contributors and fewer support staff or managers will be needed.

    There’s an awful lot of good practical “stuff” around, mostly from the 80’s, on the whys, hows and wherefores of self-directed work teams. Much of it is pertinent to the opportunities in today’s environment for IT, HR, OD, T&D and line management (and the knowledge workers themselves) to work together towards effective adaptation.

    Reply
  8. Tony Karrer

    Harold – great post. One thing that’s missing in your picture is how PKM’s are tied back together to form the organizational knowledge base. I think that there is electronic as well as personal access to PKMs.

    Smart organizations will aggregate PKMs.

    Reply
  9. Harold Jarche

    There’s lots missing from my diagram, Tony ;-)

    It’s still a work in progress and doesn’t show how resources, such as social bookmarks, can be shared amongst PKM systems. The basic concept is that each person has a PLE/PKM that is unique, and that there is sharing & collaboration, but it’s mostly person to person.

    I like Dave Pollard’s second diagram here:

    http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2009/04/10.html#a2362

    Reply
  10. Will Thalheimer

    The research that has been cited for the 80-20 informal-formal is NOT, in my quick reading, very compelling. I say this despite finding that lots of what I’ve seen in organizations shows lots of informal-learning.

    BUT here is the key thing which the 80-20 rule leaves out–EVEN if it is true–THE QUESTION IS: Not whether this large swath of informal learning is there, BUT (1) whether it is modifiable, (2) whether WE can actually modify it, (3) whether it is cost-effective to modify it, (4) AND whether modifying it produces benefits that outweigh the costs.

    Reply
  11. Jon Husband

    BUT here is the key thing which the 80-20 rule leaves out–EVEN if it is true–THE QUESTION IS: Not whether this large swath of informal learning is there, BUT (1) whether it is modifiable, (2) whether WE can actually modify it, (3) whether it is cost-effective to modify it, (4) AND whether modifying it produces benefits that outweigh the costs.

    For me, in the workplace informal learning will almost always be guided (essentially by definition) by the mission and objectives people are working on (on Project X and Project Y and Project Z, or in the course of meeting daily accountabilities). People wonder about things relevant to what they are working on, they search for info and knowledge about what they are working on, they stumble upon and exchange useful info / knowledge, in the course of browsing, reading, thinking, chatting, exchanging.

    I think (essentially, again by definition) that what people ‘upload’ informally then must be modified and modifiable as it comes into use. As to cost-effectiveness, it seems impossible to force people to focus all 480 minutes of an 8 hour day on defined tasks or problems, and it seems to me that what hey acquire / learn informally can’t easily be related to costs as it (the informal learning) is just a natural part of what people do when they are ingesting, processing (sometimes) outputting information and knowledge relevant to issues and problems set out in their work agenda.

    As an example, I’m thinking that the development of the “rules of thumb” in many areas of work activity is usually arrived at through ‘informal’ learning, about works best … no ? Benefit, or burden ?

    Reply
  12. Harold Jarche

    The 80/20 research seems OK to me, but I’m not a professional researcher. For example, an OISE study of 1,500 adults found: “Approximately 70 percent of Canadians say that their most important job-related knowledge comes from other workers or learning on their own rather than employment-related courses.”

    Will, I don’t quite follow your questions about modification. My approach to informal learning is 1) that it happens, 2) that most experienced workers know what’s best for their job context if they have been provided with correct and current information, and 3) that supporting informal learning so that some of it can be captured and shared is usually beneficial to individuals and the organization.

    An HPT approach would be that formal training addresses a lack of skills & knowledge but there are other barriers to performance that training can’t help. Two of these are lack of information and lack of sufficient resources. I include job aids, communities of practice, journals, blogs and wikis in the possible suite of informal learning tools:

    http://www.jarche.com/2006/09/analysis-for-informal-learning/

    http://www.jarche.com/2006/07/informal-learning-and-performance-technology/

    Reply
  13. Doug Symington

    Too many organizations are currently arranged to dissuade and prevent the sharing of information. Silos of practice–sometimes within units and departments themselves–too often prevent sharing of information, resources, and approaches that could otherwise be brought to bear on performance improvement pursuits.

    Would love to see workers “challenged” to attack problems with a bounty/bonus system that would identify “problems” and “reward” for solution; however, be non-prescriptive in terms of resolving a particular “issue.” Also think that a “journeyperson/apprentice” dynamic an important aspect of informal learning opportunities. Mentor relationships–formal and informal by degrees–might be a way to promote and incorporate these learning opportunities into the culture of the organization.

    Reply
  14. Jon Husband

    Would love to see workers “challenged” to attack problems with a bounty/bonus system that would identify “problems” and “reward” for solution; however, be non-prescriptive in terms of resolving a particular “issue.”

    The knowledge of how to go about it, with or without technology, has been around for a while.

    Example: William Halal, a professor of management (with a technology slant) at George Washington University, wrote a book in 1993 titled “Internal Markets – Bringing the Power of Free Enterprise Inside Your Organization”.

    Of course, the Web as we know it today didn’t really exist back then .. the browser format we know and love had not yet arrived, and uploading anything to share required understanding FTP, etc. I only got my first email account in 1994.

    Some day, no doubt, the walls of silos will crumble and dissolve (eroded by the link driven bits of electronic sand ?). But if you’re holding your breath, best to bring along a recently filled scuba tank or some other way of lasting for a while, ‘cuz a range of people like OD professionals, management theorists, and learning professionals have been hammering on the issue for quite some time.

    Reply

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