Knowledge sharing paradox revisited

The knowledge sharing paradox is that enterprise social tools can constrain what they are supposed to enhance. People will freely share their knowledge if they remain in control of it because knowledge is a very personal thing. Knowledge workers care about what they need to get work done, but do they care about the organizational knowledge base?

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. —Dave Pollard (2005)

I have shared my knowledge here for ten years, and a primary driver is that I have been in control. Stephen Downes is an excellent example of personal knowledge-sharing, as well as Rob Paterson and Luis Suarez. I discussed open knowledge-sharing with Beth Kanter a couple of weeks ago. She is a prolific knowledge sharer with her blog, wikis, and other social media. One thing that keeps Beth going is staying in control and not being in an employee/employer relationship. My experience inside organizations is that it is more difficult to share knowledge because of various internal constraints. Perhaps what you share is not perceived as being part of your job. My personal experience and observations show that the more you control knowledge-sharing, the less it is done.

The only way to build useful organizational knowledge is by connecting it to individual knowledge-sharing.

The challenge is to enable “small pieces” (individual knowledge-sharing) but keep them “loosely joined” (minimal control) – to seek, make-sense of, and share knowledge. For example, I use a combination of my blog, bookmarks, and tweets to inform my outboard brain so I can retrieve contextual knowledge as I interact with my clients and colleagues. This works for me, but it cannot be copied as a standardized process. Each person must find a process that works on an individual basis and this in turn can support the organization in leveraging collective knowledge. I don’t see the reverse working.

A challenge for knowledge-sharing in the organization is how internal software platforms are used. These may be more secure, but workers may not post as much to them because they know they will lose their knowledge artifacts when they leave the organization. It’s not necessary to build a central knowledge silo if all the little ones can share. I am not advocating a return to everyone keeping their data only on their local hard drive, but distributed knowledge-sharing may keep the IT department from constraining  knowledge work. The organization could still harvest these distributed sources and keep a central resource, much as Google does with the web.

“Corporate IT guys: keeping you from doing your job since 1969. #CultureOfNo” – Jeff White

The responsibility for knowledge-sharing must remain with the individual, but the organization can collect, collate and redistribute what is shared. The organization can also help by providing tools and coaching on PKM. The organization’s role in knowledge-sharing then moves from being directive to facilitative.


Pair o’ docks

4 Responses to “Knowledge sharing paradox revisited”

  1. Nick Shackleton-Jones

    There’s something odd about this post, Harold: I think it is that the frame of reference has become so familiar that it is invisible. Employees who chat at the water-cooler, or during tea breaks are not ‘knowledge-sharing’. They may share knowledge along the way, but what they are doing is first and foremost very social, very complex. When as organisations we say ‘come hither and share knowledge (but do not chat)’ we should hardly be surprised if that fails. We’ve seen some very successful knowledge sharing at BP; but we work hard to keep the ratio of lolcats just right.


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