Organizational knowledge is a treasure which too often stays hidden in the brains of our employees or is "buried" somewhere in a repository of a local computer or in the cloud. Only when such knowledge comes to light, and it is shared and enriched, can the organization thrive and achieve its full potential, resulting in business success.
There is an additional aspect of sharing organizational knowledge: With all the changes the employment market is facing recently, the organizations that offer great learning opportunities experience better retention. The opportunity to learn, share knowledge, and earn respect for what you do is one of the key expectations of employees who want to find purpose in their jobs.
Why do so many organizations fail to gain benefits from the enormous amount of concrete and tacit knowledge they possess? Isn’t curiosity and enthusiasm to share interesting "stories" inherent in human nature? And when we take into account the 70-20-10 learning framework (70% of knowledge gained in the context of work, 20% through co-workers, 10% in formal training), we wonder: "Where is the missing link?"
To achieve a constant flow of information, continuous transfer of knowledge, and effective sharing of experience, an organization has to focus on four pillars: people, platforms, processes, and culture.
Although these pillars seem like a cliché, there exist certain actions which lead to a learning organization. People, platforms, and processes, if tackled properly, result in a great learning culture. And once the proper culture is present, people, platforms, and processes are the elements that run like a well-oiled machine. With learning and development (L&D) focusing on formal training, as well as all other forms of knowledge transfer, an organization can rest assured that all the "hidden" knowledge will be identified, shared, and also enriched.
People in the organization are the source of all "wisdom." They possess knowledge, skills, and experience; they create the content, and through collaboration they build the company culture—the culture of a learning organization. There are multiple reasons for people to engage in knowledge sharing. Some of them are intrinsic, and for some you need to encourage employees over and over again.
- When people document knowledge and skills, they make the information available to themselves when they need it next time (important when the information is used infrequently).
- By means of sharing the knowledge, employees ensure someone else can do their job while they are away. More importantly, if they want a promotion, it is going to be easier if they make their knowledge and experience available to their successor.
- People feel good when their colleagues consider them smart, when they are respected for their "wisdom." By sharing their expertise, they become visible and are appreciated for helping their colleagues. Simply, they are valued for their contributions.
- Sometimes you need to put some "pressure" on employees. You can make knowledge sharing a part of their yearly goals. For example, ask them to create a certain number of presentations or documents for their area of expertise. Such an approach ensures the constant growth of the knowledge library in the organization.
When dealing with people, who are the most precious (and the only) source of knowledge, several basic questions have to be answered and communicated clearly to employees.
- Who? Every single employee, including new hires, has something valuable to share. So, you have to encourage people to participate in knowledge sharing, even if their only activity is asking good questions.
- When? The answer is obvious. As soon as some valuable information is "created." If you do not document it right away, it will be forgotten.
- Where? The employees have to be very clear about which information goes where, and they must know how to store knowledge so that it will be easy to find.
From all these questions, it is clear that an organization, normally the L&D team, has to create simple guidelines to help employees in the processes. That is why you need dedicated people—at minimum a "librarian" and a content curator. But knowledge sharing will not happen if it is not included in the onboarding of new hires or in integration processes for mergers and acquisitions.
Effective knowledge management requires tools for storing and exchanging the captured knowledge. Many organizations struggle with too many platforms (applications), or the lack of them. A single platform may not do everything you need, but you should minimize the number and ensure that the tools are interconnected. Commonly, there are two main types of platforms, namely:
- Chat-like tools for quick and effective exchange of information that has a short lifespan
- Repositories or digital libraries for long-term storage of information
Yet, even when the tools are available and the guidelines for using them are clear, adoption can still be low. If the users of the platforms do not find value in the content, every effort is in vain.
Therefore, effective knowledge management requires that the tools support enrichment of the content via components such as commenting, discussing, or adding extra content (social components).
The tools for knowledge sharing also have to provide learning leaders with some fundamental metrics, which you can use in measuring the impact of knowledge transfer. Ideally you can integrate the tools with other business platforms in the organization, perhaps via interfaces like xAPI or using some other standard option. However, do not fall into the trap of chasing pure numbers such as views, number of posts, etc. Try to measure the real value of the knowledge that is shared. One way to do this is to survey the users and ask them for qualitative assessments of the content they exchange on the platforms.
Without simple and well-defined processes, there is no effective knowledge sharing in the organization. First, you need certain roles, some of which can be shared.
- The content curator helps employees to identify, share, and find the content, categorize it, and maintain it. Essentially, the content curator is a librarian maintaining the digital library of organizational knowledge. And the organizational knowledge is very broad, so the content curator’s role is to help employees to consider everything—even the content of their mails or social media posts—as "interesting" for the organization (within the privacy rules).
- The producer is a person who helps employees convert rough information into more structured and better-looking content. The organization cannot expect that all its employees will master the design and production of presentations or videos, so the producer has to help with simple guidelines as well as with concrete work when needed. However, it must be emphasized—the value of the content, its relevance, and its immediate availability are much more important for the organization than its look and feel.
- It is not only digital libraries that comprise the organizational knowledge. Often the transfer of such knowledge happens via various mentored (semi-formal) programs that someone has to structure, organize, and implement. So, a program manager is needed in such cases, and for larger programs or events, some project management has to be involved, too.
It is worth mentioning that for long-term content use, you need to identify a content owner to ensure regular maintenance (updating, archiving, deleting). The content curator, working with the owner, improves the value and relevancy of the content by categorizing and labeling it.
All the mentioned roles and associated processes have to be documented in a simple and easy-to-understand way. Remember—every employee can contribute to organizational knowledge. But first they have to know their role in these processes.
Probably some simple infographics and checklists will do the job, though sometimes you will need to record short videos or even deliver webinars for your employees, especially when you onboard new hires or newly acquired companies.
Once people, platforms, and processes are in place, we arrive at the fourth pillar: Culture. Maybe we can simply refer to the learning culture as the learning attitude, curiosity, life-long learning desire, or growth mindset. And a great learning culture means that every employee is open to learning, open to sharing what they know, and enthusiastic about it, and that every employee feels that he or she can always rely on colleagues who will help.
The three pillars of organizational knowledge we described earlier—people, platforms, and processes—form the foundation for the culture. Yet, there is one additional element: Leadership. Without strong involvement of leaders (on all organizational levels), it is impossible to build a learning organization. The leaders not only inspire the culture, they internalize it and model it; they feel it and reflect it. The leadership is at the crossroads of the learning culture, and demonstrate it in a multitude of ways:
- Curiosity: Leaders have to clearly show they want to learn, they need to learn, and they enjoy learning.
- Recognition: Leaders have to recognize people who make an impact in knowledge sharing. Sometimes it is just the presence of the leadership or their interest that means a lot to people.
- Inclusion: The leadership has to work with all the stakeholders involved in knowledge management in the organization. They have to show there is always a seat at the table for these stakeholders.
The best learning culture does not only use the accumulated knowledge to support the organizational strategy, it enables new ideas and directions for the strategy—sometimes it even creates the strategy. Such an environment leads to an organization where employees find their purpose and stay, and where knowledge sharing is a brand that attracts the best talent. Consequently, business success in such an organization is guaranteed.
Knowledge as a key asset of an organization
"Knowledge is a new fuel." While you may hear this, knowledge has always been an asset that benefited individuals, groups, and entire societies. In the digital age we have better means to share and distribute our knowledge. However, without properly managing the organizational knowledge, the distribution channels do not help much. The knowledge has to be managed in an organized way with dedicated resources. It all starts with motivating people to share their knowledge, providing them with the right platforms, and guiding them through respective processes. When these three pillars align, the fourth pillar—the learning culture—adds the missing support for the "house of knowledge" to stand firmly, creating the learning organization. And true learning organizations usually thrive.
Dive into learning culture
Join us at Learning 2022 where you can explore leadership strategies, skills, and best practices to boost the learning culture at your organization and further your own learning leadership career. Marjan Bradeško will present "Grow Learning Culture with Your Learners Through These 5 Opportunities,” one of over 100 opportunities to learn, network, and share knowledge with fellow learning leaders and L&D professionals in Orlando, November 6–9, 2022.