“Showing work [provides] increased efficiencies, the possibility of innovation, and increased ability to improvise, and it promises correction of long-standing deficits in organizational communication.” That’s the opening quote from Jane Bozarth’s September Learning Solutions Magazine column on the value of working out loud for organizations, and I couldn’t agree more (LSMag solidarity)!
Not only have I witnessed the power of workplace knowledge sharing as part of L&D, I have been living the cause for my entire professional life. I’m not 100 percent sure about where my sharing tendencies originated. Maybe it was my stint as the editor of my high school newspaper or my talk radio days in college? Regardless, since I wrote my first memo as a new AMC Theatres manager at the age of 19, I have been on a mission to make the knowledge I use on the job—every decision, idea, and outcome—accessible to anyone who may need it. But I’m not your typical employee (humble brag)…
The long, long road
In an ideal world, the best of all workplace information and experience would flow together continuously to form a powerful collection of shared knowledge. Employees would know what to share and how best to share it. Support departments would focus on tools and enablement rather than content and control. Teams would support one another continuously and thereby reduce the need for formal interventions. Sorry to disappoint, but we don’t live (or work) in that world. While pretty much everyone (safe assumption) agrees with the potential value of shared knowledge, we remain burdened by the weight of the modern enterprise. Hierarchy. Silos. Compliance. Ownership. Lackluster technology. Failures in trust. The list goes on and on. The concept of shared workplace knowledge is AMAZING! In real life, we have mountains to climb.
Starting the revolution
Now that I’ve doomed and gloomed you enough, let’s talk about a glimmer of hope that already exists within your organization when it comes to shared knowledge. Remember 19-year-old AMC manager JD? The guy who really liked to write memos and tell everyone about his ideas and experiences? Well, he may not be the typical employee, but he also isn’t the only one who does stuff like that. Even if your organization has yet to evolve and recognize the value of shared knowledge, you already have people within the company who exhibit similar behaviors. And they often aren’t the subject matter experts you typically lean on for information. I’m looking at you, the guy who makes the really ugly, unapproved-but-useful PowerPoint presentations and emails them to his team all the time!
To start a knowledge revolution within our organizations, we have to find and enable the people who already recognize the value of sharing.
Even organizations that are making strides toward improved knowledge sharing still tend to rely on a limited set of subject matter experts. After all, they are the standard go-to people who have the recognized authority and automatic approvability. It’s the simple, safe play. However, there are only so many formal SMEs in your company, and they’re usually pretty busy people. They go on vacation sometimes, too. The only way to truly scale knowledge is to leverage the strength of your crowd, and that starts with finding your existing—albeit unofficial—advocates.
These people aren’t hiding. Quite the opposite. They’re the ones always having their hands slapped for sharing “unapproved materials.” They’re also the ones who point out issues with approved content and constantly forward you emails from unconventional sources. These employees were quite easy to find during my time at Kaplan. All I had to do was walk around the office and look at cubicle walls. Rarely did I find formal training and marketing materials, but not for lack of supply. Instead, homegrown job aids and ugly PowerPoint slides were the decor of choice. This led me to the people who took the time and made the effort to share their knowledge in the best ways they knew how. These were the people I needed—plus a few standard SMEs—to kick-start a knowledge revolution.
Advocacy is not just about willingness and output. After all, plenty of employees are sharing inaccurate and/or useless information. Credibility is a huge factor. You are looking for the people who play the go-to role that often fills the void when formal resources aren’t available.
How many advocates should you look for? That depends entirely on what you’re trying to accomplish when it comes to shared knowledge. Start small and leverage the most dedicated, credible advocates on specific content topics to provide value to your audience. Then, you can identify new advocates along the way as your efforts grow organically across the organization.
You have people with desire and credibility, but they lack purpose. They understand only the needs of their individual teams and cannot align their sharing with the greater organizational context. To strengthen your learning ecosystem, you must enable these advocates and align them with the larger vision for shared knowledge. Build a strategic framework that can drive overall usability but also flex and grow with the needs of your people.
Start by establishing simple, transparent guidelines. For example:
- How will shared knowledge improve the employee and/or customer experience?
- Which topics require formal approval, and why?
- What are your basic content-quality standards or formatting requirements?
- Who has the final say with regard to content approval?
Don’t go rule crazy, but make sure everyone understands how their work can support the needs of the organization. Publish these guidelines for all employees to set the tone for your ongoing knowledge-sharing efforts.
Technology is a required ingredient of a knowledge-sharing recipe for any scalable enterprise. Your advocates have likely been doing their best with what they have because no one gave them an official organizational “save” button. Combining their willingness with the right tools will not only improve the usability of their content but also act as an initial motivator for engagement. No, not every advocate should be an admin with full control of your sharing platforms. However, they should be activated as super-users so they can play key roles in building and curating knowledge as quickly as possible.
You’ve identified your advocates and established a basic knowledge framework. Now how do you get them to share?
Model behavior. You must take the lead and demonstrate what quality knowledge sharing looks like. Seed your employee knowledge platform with example content that your advocates can follow and contribute toward. Find simple ways to integrate curation into your daily work routine and socialize your best practices.
Recognize early and often. Knowledge sharing is about value, not output. Recognize contributors who share great content. Establish a credibility-based rewards system using simple game elements to connect contribution to future opportunities. Socialize the impact their sharing has on their peers’ ability to do their jobs.
Upskill. To date, your advocates may have been limited to emails and PowerPoints. Show how much you value their insight by providing basic training on your knowledge platform as well as content creation and curation. Help your early adopters up their game, and your users will ultimately benefit.
Make it about people. I had a hard time finding credible volunteers to share their knowledge for a series of short videos a few years ago. However, when I changed the messaging to reinforce how much these videos would help their fellow employees, people were much quicker to step up. Shared knowledge doesn’t just help the company reach its goals. It improves the employee and customer experiences.
Your early advocates will be critical to get you started and establish a knowledge base. However, if you are going to recognize the potential of shared knowledge across your organization, you’ll have to find ways to scale your efforts. After all, if you’re effective, people are going to want to play. Gathering too much demand for knowledge-sharing strategy is a GREAT problem to have!
Scalability should be on your mind from day one when it comes to shared knowledge. While with Kaplan, I established my “10,000-user principle.” I made every decision based on the applicability to 10,000 people. If I could handle 10,000, I knew I could also handle any number the organization could throw my way. For this reason, I rejected several ideas during our first few years that made sense for smaller audiences but would ultimately have set us back later once our strategy went enterprise-wide.
Never stop looking for and enabling advocates. In an organization with 75,000 employees, you will probably never get to a point where all 75,000 are sharing their work. You also likely don’t want to. What are the odds that everyone has something unique and valuable to share? Rather, you should continuously evolve your advocate criteria to meet the current needs of your audience. Limit centralized control in favor of delegation. Let your super-users find your future advocates and make workplace knowledge sharing a viral effort.
Unleash the knowledge advocates!
Evolving your organization’s approach to knowledge sharing is a HUGE task. You can’t do it alone, and you can’t sustain it with a single initiative or a short list of SMEs. There is a tremendous amount of desire, talent, and experience at play within your organization. It’s just waiting for the opportunity to break out of the silos and make an impact. It’s time we brought together the ugly-PowerPoint creators, unapproved-job-aid builders, and 19-year-old memo writers within our companies. As L&D, we can enable these knowledge advocates and help them leverage their natural knowledge-sharing behaviors for the greater benefit of our workplaces.