If you’ve attended a presentation on workplace knowledge sharing, you’ve probably heard the Mitchell Kapor quote “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”
Yes, there is a lot of information available online. Estimates vary on the exact amount, but one researcher concluded it would take 305.5 billion pages of A4 paper (8.27 by 11.69 inches) to print the entire Internet. Yet we all still somehow manage to make effective use of the world’s shared knowledge to solve our problems (while consuming plenty of cat videos). This is possible because some of the best technology ever created sits between us and that seemingly insurmountable pile of human output—namely Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. If we can manage knowledge on such a grand scale in real life, we can certainly do it within the confines of our workplaces, right? Well …
When I discuss shared knowledge with organizations as part of their learning ecosystem, people tend to get antsy about potentially overwhelming their employees. These are the same people who are currently struggling to provide any meaningful access to the information people need on the job. For some reason, they accelerate from “we have nothing” to “we can’t give them too much” in the time it takes a cheetah to go from 0 to 60 mph (three seconds, if you were wondering). Their natural inclination is to base their strategy on the principle that employees should only be provided with access to information essential to their roles. On the surface, this may not sound like such a bad idea. However, I usually disagree.
Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when stakeholders express concern about sharing “too much” knowledge with employees.
Don’t Underestimate Your People
For the most part, our employees are the same people who sift through 305.5 billion pages of shared information when they’re at home. Why do we suddenly believe them incapable of similar behaviors on a considerably smaller scale at work? This makes me wonder: Are we really focused on the employee experience and ensuring optimal performance, or are we worried about the potential questions and autonomous decision-making that may result from greater employee access to information? Experience tells me it’s often a combination of these factors at play.
Knowledge-sharing strategy at an enterprise scale will only be successful if we are willing to trust and enable our employees. After all, it’s not like we’re really in control of organizational knowledge anyway. Employees are already sharing knowledge in their own limited ways via email, Facebook, and break room conversations. If it will help them get the job done, people will find a way to access information—or just put it together themselves. Rather than assuming the capabilities of our employees and subsequently restricting our strategies, we must start by improving our understanding of workplace context and enabling our employees to define and grow our knowledge-sharing practices.
Silence the Echo of Past Failure
Google was founded in 1998. Wikipedia: 2001. Facebook: 2004. Even Snapchat is almost five years old. Employees have years of hands-on experience hunting for information and sharing ideas online. Meanwhile, organizations are playing catch-up due to their inability to leverage these familiar behaviors for their own purposes. Too often, we allow our past inability to foster shared knowledge to influence our new strategies. Because people had a hard time finding information in the past, we assume they’ll experience similar challenges in the future.
To improve knowledge-sharing practices, we must first evolve our mindset. This means both learning from the past and freeing ourselves from its limitations. We must assess the employee experience from the ground up and design a strategy that can grow with the organization. We must also introduce technology that helps employees take advantage of familiar sharing behaviors and overcome past workplace limitations. It’s time for organizations to reflect the cultural and technological advancements that continue to shape the world around us.
Avoid the Problem of Perceived Importance
The people who know the job best are the people who do the job every day. I’ve never heard anyone argue that point. However, when it comes to providing resources to support performance, we often make decisions on behalf of our employees. I find this “perceived importance” contradictory. Would you want someone to tell you what information you can and cannot use to do your job? I know I wouldn’t.
Perceived importance doesn’t just limit employees’ information access. It can also restrict their ability to support customers outside their direct function, potentially forcing the customers into additional touch points to get their issues resolved. This concept can also limit continued development opportunities. Think about how many new and unexpected things you learn just because you have access to information. Rather than just restricting access, we must introduce technology and support practices that help employees easily identify shared knowledge that has been deemed vital to their roles.
Is there such a thing as too much shared knowledge in the workplace? Yes—but only if we fail to build a framework that will help employees overcome information overload without resorting to unnecessary restrictions. Sure, there will be exceptions when we must limit access to maintain compliance standards and whatnot. That said, employees can benefit from the shared knowledge of the entire organization in innumerable, often unpredictable ways. They’re improving their lives every day thanks to unprecedented access to information. Why shouldn’t the same be true at work?
Take a deeper dive with JD on this topic at his pre-conference workshop, Reimagining Your Organization’s Approach to Knowledge Sharing, at DevLearn 2016 Conference & Expo on Tuesday, November 15, in Las Vegas. Click here to learn more!