When you take a step back and think about society’s big technological breakthroughs — the printing press, the television, the Internet — they were revolutionary because they completely disrupted the way that the world shares knowledge.
If you haven’t heard of it, knowledge sharing is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: it’s the exchange of information between different people, teams, organizations, or communities.
While that may sound simple (we’re all exchanging information with each other all the time, aren’t we?) the way we share knowledge can have really massive impacts.
The printing press’ invention essentially kicked off the beginning of the Renaissance by making books significantly cheaper and making knowledge and culture more accessible to the everyday man. Scholars widely accept that the spread of television was a large factor in the surge of social activism of the 1960s. Now, with the Internet, people are able to organize global movements through social media, as we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement.
When people are better able to share knowledge with one another, it empowers them to speak up, bond with others, and make change. That’s why freedom of information and freedom of the press is a cornerstone of major democracies across the world. But though the internet has made knowledge sharing more prominent than ever before in the world at large, there’s a few places where the trend hasn’t quite kept up. In most workplaces, for example, information access is still a privilege for those at the top.
You may be able to google how many stars are in the Milky Way (around 100 billion) or who wrote the 1984 hit “Everything She Wants” (Wham!) but it’s probably going to be a lot harder to figure out specialized information relevant to your job like what the results were for that one web experiment or what the marketing team has been working on the last three weeks.
The result is that we’re not seeing as much progress at work as we could be. Case in point, 36 percent of workers responded to a survey from the American Management Association saying that they “hardly ever” know what’s going on at their job.
How can we expect people to contribute ideas, make changes, or work together when they don’t even have a firm grasp on what’s happening around them? It’s just not possible. To have the productive, collaborative workforce that we all say we want, a major shift needs to occur in the way that we think about knowledge sharing.
Why isn’t your workplace already sharing knowledge?
To get down to the facts on why knowledge sharing isn’t more prevalent in the workplace and how to change that, we spoke with Emma Birchall, the head of insight and forecasting at Hot Spots Movement, a research consultancy that helps companies prepare for the future of work.
In her research, she’s found that a lot of organizations say collaboration is one of their core values, but evaluations from employees tell a different story. At the end of the day, the structure of many organizations, including everything from how offices are designed to how company incentives work, are often built around individuals.
“The focus is still on an individual, a leader, a superstar performer,” Birchall said. “We don’t focus as much on teams, or on how individuals work together to get results.”
The focus is still on an individual, a leader, a superstar performer. We don’t focus as much on teams, or on how individuals work together to get results.Click to tweet
The result is that information is often perceived as currency in organizations . People become concerned with being the one person that knows the most or who is the most relied upon, so they end up hoarding information at the expense of their team’s overall success.
Those who are in the loop then have disproportionate influence over the company whereas those who are out of it may feel disempowered to make change in the workplace or just feel generally clueless about their job.
Then, when the people who are hoarding information leave, they end up taking massive amounts of institutional knowledge with them that other employees will need to build up from scratch.
How can you encourage knowledge sharing at work?
Creating a knowledge sharing workplace isn’t something that can happen overnight. There’s an entire cultural shift that has to happen for employees to become comfortable with it. There are, however, a few changes you can make to kick off that culture change.
1. Use collaboration technology meaningfully
Technology can be a way of embedding knowledge sharing into the very fabric of your organization’s culture. At Atlassian, we create pretty much all of our content in Confluence and it’s a key way that we’re able to share knowledge with one another.
Because all our pages and blogs are open by default, Confluence acts as a centralized repository of knowledge for the company, where people can answer questions they might have, find out what their teammates are up to, or learn about the specifics of different projects.
Westpac, a bank in Australia, also uses technology as a means of sparking knowledge sharing at work. They created their own learning platform meant to help workers get educated on new technologies that the organization was considering adopting in the future. Through the platform, Westpac’s staff can both consume knowledge, by taking courses, and share their own knowledge, by creating educational content focused on their own expertise.
Birchall, however, warned that technology alone isn’t enough to create a knowledge sharing culture. It may be able to give workers an infrastructure through which to collaborate, but it’s not enough to completely change the culture of a company on its own –– there have to be other efforts in place.
2. Give employees more flexibility with their time
Much of the way that knowledge sharing naturally takes place is just through socializing: you might find out about a different department’s new initiatives while you’re chatting at the water-cooler or checking in with your friend on the other side of the office.
So, when managers expect people to constantly be “working” (read: sitting at their desk and staring at a computer), they may be preventing knowledge sharing from taking place.
Birchall stressed that one big way to create a knowledge sharing culture is to give employees signals that it’s okay to step away from their desks, to talk to their colleagues, or to not always be working on a concrete task.
To start creating a more flexible culture, Birchall suggested that managers begin to lead by example by taking the time to grab a coffee and catch up with teammates during work.
3. Ask for input
At the end of the day, the best way to figure out what you need to do to make your teammates more comfortable sharing their ideas, is just to ask them.
You can’t expect a top-down approach to culture to be able to accommodate all employees. That’s why Birchall recommended crowdsourcing as a way to get people more involved in contributing to their company culture and sharing ideas in the workplace.
Not only does asking for employee input help workers feel empowered to share their ideas in the moment, it can also help to build a culture over time in which all workers feel included and like they are being listened to.
For more help on sharing knowledge at your organization, check out how you can start using Confluence for knowledge management.