The knowledge sharing paradox

An effective suite of enterprise social tools can help organizations share knowledge, collaborate, and cooperate – connecting the work being done with the identification of new opportunities and ideas. In an age when everything is getting connected, it only makes sense to have platforms in place that enable faster feedback loops inside the organization in order to deal with connected customers, suppliers, partners, and competitors. It takes a networked organization, staffed by people with networked mindsets, to thrive in a networked economy.

enterprise social toolsGetting work done today means finding a balance between sharing complex knowledge (collaboration) and seeking innovation in internet time (cooperation).

how work gets doneIndividual workers can develop sense-making skills, using frameworks like PKM, to continuously learn and put their learning to work. For example, they can seek new ideas from their social networks; make sense of these ideas by connecting with communities of practice; try new ideas out alone or with their work teams, and then share these ideas and practices.

PKM at workBut there is a major issue that gets ignored, by software vendors, managers, IT departments, and most everyone except the workers themselves. People will freely share their knowledge if they remain in control of it. Knowledge is a very personal thing. Most workers do not care about organizational knowledge bases. They care about what they need to get work done. However, if we are going to build organizational knowledge from individual knowledge-sharing, we have to connect the two.

The knowledge sharing paradox is that enterprise social tools constrain what they are supposed to enhance. Why would someone share everything they know on an enterprise network, knowing that on the inevitable day that they leave, their knowledge artifacts will remain behind? I could not imagine having this blog (AKA my outboard brain) cut off from me. I would not put anywhere near the effort I do now if someone else controlled my access to this blog.

The elephant in the room is human nature. Enterprise knowledge sharing will never be as good as what networked individuals can do. Individuals who own their knowledge networks will invest more in them. I think this means that innovation outside of organizations will continue to evolve faster than inside. It may mean that the half-life of organizations will continue to decrease, as more nimble businesses continuously emerge to compete with incumbents. Whoever creates an organizational structure that bridges the individual-organizational knowledge sharing divide may have significant business advantages.

25 Responses to “The knowledge sharing paradox”

  1. Ara Ohanian

    Harold, you make an important point. Increasingly in the future, I believe that there will be an explicit contract between employees and organizations where the boundaries and the value of shared knowledge and networks are completely clear. They are – as you say – such a crucial part of organizational value that their shared value for employees and employers can’t be ignored. As you say, it’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

  2. Allison Maguire

    I see your point and this really goes back to the mindset of individual knowledge being power. However I would argue that it’s not human nature, I don’t agree that by nature we are anti-collaborative. Collaboration has always been important to human survival. I do agree that there are still behavioral and possibly cultural barriers to break down here. However, already in most corporate environments as an employee you already have given over rights to IP. Basically, anything you create when in the employ of the corporation is owned by them. I am sure there are some exceptions to this but this is a typical enterprise model. So if I create something and save it on my shared drive or my laptop it is still not something I can take with me and reuse at will, so how is it different to share it internally in a reuseable way?

  3. hjarche

    I don’t believe I’ve ever said that we are by nature anti-collaborative, Allison. The nature of our work structures, like corporations, as you show, is the problem. The corporate model, supported by existing employment laws, does not promote cooperation. That means that knowledge will not be shared as freely as it needs to flow to address complexity. The 20th century corporate model is sub-optimal for the network era. Hence the knowledge sharing paradox. We need to share our knowledge, but our work structures constrain sharing. Addressing the paradox by creating new structures may provide significant competitive advantages.

  4. Leif Edvinsson

    Very good observation and point onto the Organizational bridge. With an Asian perspective the KM core is in that in-between space. Very challenging from IP viewpoint as an object in stead of of a
    Relational Capital

  5. Kieran Kelly

    I think this is very insightful. Workers would be far more motivated to create and share new knowledge if they had some permanent stake in it.

    Seeing as sharing is the central requirement, I wonder if a new model would involve shared ownership of knowledge between company and employee, i. e. both are entitled to use/share it in any way they please, even after the employee has moved on.

  6. Allison Maguire

    Thanks for the clarification Harold, I guess I was confused by what room the elephant was lurking in! As someone working within an enterprise structure and responsible for fostering adoption of these new ways of working, I am constantly looking for ways to overcome these barriers. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the tools themselves are constrained by their application and when we compare enterprise use to that in the consumer market we can identify many challenges. We are still figuring out how to maximise the benefit of applying them within organizations. I think (in my lifetime at least) there will always be an internal/external model but we will gradually see a blurring of that line as we are forced to adopt a more open, transparent way of working in order to compete.

    I like the idea of mutual ownership of knowledge posed by Kieran, though I continue to struggle to see how we can achieve it. One way that I talk about it within my organization is moving from WIIFM to WIIFU (What’s in it for us) so that we can begin to think in terms of mutual benefit and really alludes to the shared ownership concept as well.

  7. Jon Husband

    Workers would be far more motivated to create and share new knowledge if they had some permanent stake in it.

    This is key .. and it is structural, fundamentally so.

    “First, we shape our structures, etc. ..”

  8. Julien Gobeil Simard

    Really really great post. I disagree with most of it, but I respect that opinion. I think that what you say is absolutely right in businesses where internal politic is more important than delivering great products and services. In those companies, higher-level management tend to be very secretive and this does not set an example. However, I think that even in those companies people are mostly open to sharing. At least I never saw anyone who didn’t want to share that I sensed was reluctant for ownership reasons. In most cases, starting to share knowledge is a big change and resistance to change is always hard to overcome. It requires perseverance, positive leardership, patience but a also a great tool. Give people a 1995 platform that is great to hold outdated knowledge and this is what you’ll get! Anyways, I think Crowdbase blog about resistance to change is a great read. Not exactly tied to sharing knowledge, but definitely two topics that are closely related (

    • Harold

      “Really really great post. I disagree with most of it” – thanks for the compliment. I seriously doubt that it’s all about the tools.

  9. Julien Gobeil Simard

    Don’t get me wrong, not saying it’s all about the tools. Ownership is probably a problem…I’m just saying that I was in many situations where knowledge sharing was lacking/was a problem, but never was in a situation where people were not sharing because they wanted to keep control…doesn’t mean it never happens. What I saw however, was lack of incentives, processes, coordination, empowerment, responsibility, culture, and yes lack of tools. People share when their content is consumed. If the only thing you have is an intranet with thousands of folders and files and you don’t know if what you share is usefull, it will never become a habbit.

  10. Doug Pederson AKA SpectateSwamp

    If the knowledge I’m sharing isn’t available to me after I leave. I won’t do it.
    In the late 90’s as a consultant I updated all my office notes at home and brought them into the office. From that I did my timesheet in detail. My boss loved the sharing. Today if there is something you want for personal just video it in with a camcorder or phone. Knowledge that isn’t shared dies.

    Little of the information that I saved back then have I ever looked at again. But for sure I wouldn’t have contributed like I did if I couldn’t have a copy. Take a copy anyway. If the company has a problem with that. They won’t be around long because people won’t share when the ship is sinking and why.

    See “nobody shares knowledge better than this”
    Random sampling of video audio pics and text is the key to keep it fresh.

    I keep copies of everything I post on the net including this as well as a link to this thread. So I will be back.
    Cheers and the best of the season to you all

  11. mark britz (@britz)

    I know I read this post in the past, but always happy and think it quite curious when my PLN re-surfaces gems like this at the time I too am pondering similar things due to my own work and experiences.

    It is a paradox and one that will limit the ultimate success of ESN technology as it is an artificial structure attempting to mimic the natural activities of the world beyond corporate walls. The structures are wrong for sure but slow to change. I tend to agree with this Tweet I “captured” some time ago:

    “The firm of the future may be ten million people working together for ten minutes” – @EskoKilpi

    I think ESNs will never truly achieve their promise. Nor should we fool ourselves into thinking they will. I do however think a benefit exists that isn’t often considered – that ESNs can serve for many as a gateway drug of sorts to learn and participate in “safer” homogeneous environments until they can see the benefits of even greater connection beyond the walls.

    • Harold

      I think the problem is that organizations try to imitate the internet with their enterprise social networks but they forget the core building block: small pieces, loosely joined.

  12. philip browning


    This paradox also is relevant to the wider domains of healthcare and also education: (in terms of personal electronic healthcare records – who owns, controls, shares, pays etc but also in the wider education domain of elearning with the value of walled garden approaches towards elearning (IE via a LMS) vs a more connectivist and distributed approaches.

    The commonality across these domains is historical silos/hierarchical models are being confronted with an increasingly networked environment or ecosystem – and so often the response from that institution and its management is to revert to type/flip to reinforcing historical power/control mechanisms.

    BYOD and the emerging dynamics of personal clouds/BYOA provide both this opportunity as well as challenges.

    Rather than allowing an organisation to revert to type it is the role of the change agent to see opportunity not threat in such situations and to chart a new more productive way forward.

    Easier said than done.


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