Wednesday 16 September 2015

A story of how reciprocity sparked knowledge sharing

Reciprocity is often cited as a driver for knowledge sharing behaviours, but sometimes people have to experience the benefit for themselves first. before they are willing to share with others.  This is a story about one such example.

Originally uploaded to Flickr by andrew_mc_d
Back in the days of the BP Knowledge Management program, in the late 1990s, we were travelling the world, spreading the news about Knowledge management and engaging different BP business units in conversation about the value KM could bring.

One of our tours took us to South America, where we visited several business units in various countries. One of these had been doing some great work locally on the use of LiveLink to exchange and build knowledge, and we asked whether they would be prepared to share this work with the rest of the company.

They said No.

Not because of any secrecy issues, but because they were very busy, and this was very low on their list of priority actions. Effectively it would cost them time and resource, with no payback for them, as the benefit would be for the rest of the organisation). In terms of "What's In It For Us", the answer (at the time) was "Nothing".

About a year later, the South American business unit went through a massive business restructuring, which would cause disruption to most of their activities. Their aspiration was to do this transparently and openly, with complete consultation, so that everyone in the exercise felt they had been treated well. And that is very difficult to do. So they looked around for help, and they remembered the Knowledge management program.

They called us in, we conducted a whole series of knowledge-capture interviews from past restructuring programs, and drew together the best of the lessons from the past. The South American business unit  used these lessons to inform and tailor their own program, and their restructuring went as well and as openly as they had hoped. Everyone felt they had been given choices, everyone felt they had been treated well, there were no incidents of people feeling aggrieved or upset or outraged, there were no safety incidents or production incidents caused by people getting worried or distracted.

And afterwards, the gates were open in terms of the business unit sharing knowledge with the rest of the world. It was like a switch had been thrown. Having felt the benefits of knowledge from others, they were delighted to share their own knowledge, starting with their own experiences from their own restructuring.

So what had changed?

What was now "in it for them"?

The answer is, reciprocity. They had received, and now they gave. They had felt the benefit, and so were willing to share the benefit. Instead of sharing "in case it helps someone", they would share "because it will help someone".  They were "passing the benefit forward".

So if you find a part of the business which is unwilling to share knowledge, then start by giving them  some knowledge that will make a real difference to them. Allow them to Pull before requiring them to Push. Let them feel the benefit of knowledge transfer before asking them to share the burden.

Let them receive, before asking them to give.

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