5 reasons your employees aren’t sharing their knowledge

In Featured, Knowledge Sharing by JD Dillon

I wrote this article in 2016, and it quickly became one of the most-read posts on the LearnGeek Blog. While I enjoy looking back and reviewing my past content to see how my perspective has changed, I also take the opportunity to improve on my past material so – if you happen across this on a Google search expedition – you’re getting the best of what I have. So, here’s my updated take on why your employees aren’t sharing their knowledge.

I rarely hear someone say …

WOW! We have so many people sharing on [insert name of enterprise platform]! Everyone’s problems are getting solved so quickly nowadays!

Instead, I hear plenty of …

We have [insert name of enterprise platform] at work, but no one really uses it …

What’s the deal? Sharing is part of everyday life nowadays, right? Every thought. Every opinion. Every vacation. There’s an easy-to-reach outlet for all forms of sharing. Just Google “internet minute” to see how much user-generated content is flying around the internet at all times.

But this still isn’t the case at work. It’s not for lack of trying. Organizations have installed plenty of technology to help people share what they know. Yammer. SharePoint. Facebook at Work. Every company has their own version of an intranet/knowledge hub. So why aren’t people contributing? Why can’t people find the answers to simple questions? Why are employees so reliant on training and managers for knowledge?

It comes down to one simple truth: sharing at work is not like sharing in everyday life. The technology may look familiar, and the desired behaviors may appear similar. But there are a few key factors most organizations miss when attempting to generate shared organizational knowledge. It’s not an impossible thing to do. It’s just a lot more difficult than most people think.

Here are 5 reasons your employees aren’t sharing their workplace knowledge … and a few actions you can take to improve sharing in your organization.

Sharing tools aren’t work tools

When and where are you asking employees to share their knowledge?

By WHEN, I’m referring to the expectation that sharing is actually part of the job – not an extra task. Few organizations hold employees accountable for sharing their knowledge as a core responsibility and are therefore left with only the information from designated subject matter experts, communications teams and a few “go-getters” who already derive personal value from such sharing. If sharing isn’t part of the work, people just won’t do it.

By WHERE, I’m referring to the tools or channels used to share, which often include an intranet or enterprise social network (ESN). Yes, knowledge sharing is more about organizational culture than it is about technology, but right-fit technology must be applied to enable sharing at the speed and scale needed in today’s workplace.

What tools do your employees use to do their jobs? Email? Point of sale (POS)? Customer relationship management (CRM)? Are your intranet or ESN ever part of that list? Employees may go to your SharePoint or Google Drive now and then to download a file, but these tools typically aren’t getting their eyes every day like email. Therefore, employees will be less inclined to contribute given minimal value-add as part of their regular tasks.

Networks require scale

I’m not a Facebook fan. I’m more of a Twitter person. So why do I still have a Facebook account? That’s where the crowd is. I get the sense that there are plenty of Facebook users in this same predicament. I’ve tried plenty of other social networks, but I keep getting stuck with Facebook because that’s where the people with whom I want to engage are sharing.

The same is true at work. ESNs and intranets require a flow of consistent activity to deliver value to an employee. Would you stay on Facebook if your newsfeed was empty for a month? A week? A day? People share and consume content where they can engage with the desired audience at the moment of need. To solve problems quickly by leveraging the community, the community has to be consistently and reliably THERE. Enterprise knowledge sharing rarely hits this required level of scale and utility and therefore cannot sustain value.

Most sharing tech is transient

What was that thing that person said on Facebook the other day? What group did they upload that file to? If you can’t remember who said it or when they shared it, good luck finding it on a traditional social network. Feed-oriented tools aren’t built for long-term knowledge reference. They’re inherently transient, showing users what’s going on NOW within the network to bring them back over and over.

This translates into the workplace with tools like Yammer and Facebook at Work. Organizations then add separate tools like SharePoint for long-term reference documentation. This creates a disconnected knowledge experience for employees. They can share what they know over HERE, but the info they need on the job is over THERE.

This model puts employees at a sharing disadvantage, as they are usually required to pass new knowledge through hierarchical channels to get it added to a formal document repository for long-term use. Too often, this privilege is limited to designated SMEs – who are several steps removed from the employee/customer experience. Shared knowledge can’t attain the scale and longevity necessary to become valuable to the community, and formal documentation processes cannot keep up with the pace of the modern workplace.

Knowledge sharing requires just enough structure

Have you tried to search your intranet recently? Can you actually find what you need without repeated attempts? Or does it only seem to display PowerPoint presentations from 7 years ago?

The internet doesn’t just organize itself. We have Google, YouTube and Wikipedia to thank for making the world’s shared knowledge more accessible. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t design a similar, right-fit user experience design to internal knowledge sharing. Either people have no ability to share, or the gates are flung open and everyone can pile on however they’d like. This is why your SharePoint has become a jumbled mess of locked-down team sites and overlapping file directories.

Regardless of title or intent, most people just don’t know how to best structure knowledge sharing at an enterprise scale to meet the needs of individual employees. Therefore, they do what they know and install hierarchical folders and departmental websites supported by rigid process with a heavy dose of ownership mentality.

Why should they?

In the end, it all comes down to two factors: motivation and culture. Frankly, if they aren’t held accountable to it as part of their roles, why should employees share their knowledge? If sharing isn’t easy – like it is in everyday life – why should they dedicate the time? If they aren’t likely to get any value back from other employees’ sharing, why should they make the effort? If no one is going to recognize their contribution, why contribute? And if they aren’t TRUSTED to do the right thing, why would they broadcast their work for everyone to pick apart?

Difficult – but not impossible. Over the past few years, I’ve seen organizations overcome these challenges and realize real value from shared knowledge. And it’s not just business value thanks to the improved ability to solve problems via the community. There’s also the impact to the workplace culture that comes from increased employee engagement.

Remember – SMEs and formal documentation are a great start, but most of your organization’s HOWs – the way the work really gets done every day – are locked in the minds of your employees. You NEED them to share so you can remain agile and maximize your company’s long-term potential.

Here are a few proven practices.

  • Start with trust. Knowledge sharing is more about culture than technology. Before devising a strategy, assess the trust levels in your organization and take steps to address related issues.
  • Move knowledge sharing closer to the workflow. Help employees talk about the work ON the work. Select technology and enable processes that merge user-generated content with job reference information in a single integrated experience.
  • Select right-fit technology. Search is the killer app when it comes to shared knowledge. Leverage technology that looks and feels like Wikipedia, YouTube and other prevalent everyday sharing tools.
  • Provide just enough support. Don’t just install technology and expect people to use it. Find the people who understand knowledge sharing – regardless of formal role – and give them the keys (and the accountability).
  • Make it about their peers. Employees are always more willing to share when it is positioned as a way to help their coworkers, not just the company who will also benefit anyway.
  • Recognize contribution. Not only should sharing be part of the work, but employees should also be consistently recognized for their contributions. This could be as simple as mentioning key contributors during group meetings. It could also take on a more strategic form with the use of meaningful game mechanics.
  • Get the managers to do it too. This isn’t just about frontline employees sharing what they know. Managers, including the executive team, must leverage the same behaviors for consuming and sharing knowledge for their own benefit and to reinforce the behaviors desired within their teams.

Have you found ways to motivate your employees to share their knowledge? Which technology have you found most helpful when trying to generate and organize user-generated content? What role does shared knowledge play in your approach to workplace learning?