Thursday, 22 October 2015

When rewarding knowledge sharing does not work

Do incentives for knowledge sharing actually make any difference?  Here are some studies from the world of law enforcement that may shed some light on the question.

In law enforcement, the authorities are keen for people to share knowledge of criminal activity, and often offer rewards for information.

But how well do those rewards work?

The BBC Crimewatch program has operated for many years without offering any reward, for example.

Also, according to a letter in the Guardian newapaper (UK),  the charity Crimestoppers provides the most rewards in Britain for people informing on criminals. Even people reporting crimes anonymously can claim, without their identity being revealed. But the charity says that even with its anonymity selling point "there is a notable year-on-year decrease in rewards being paid out". Hannah Daws, for Crimestoppers, said:
"In 2007/08 less than 1% of informants claimed the reward they are entitled to of at least £1,000. The key motivating factor for people to phone our number is that they are vulnerable and feel trapped."

In 1994, the charity paid out a peak of nearly £121,000 in rewards, but the figure now is a tenth of that, with no less information being offered. 
Daws said: "We have downplayed the rewards in our marketing and concentrated our messages on 'the communities doing the right thing'.

An interesting comparison is the US Crimestoppers programme, where the rewards payout is around 70%. So in the UK, its more about "doing the right thing" and less about the money, whereas in the US it's the opposite?  Or are there more complex factors at work?

Internal and external incentives

Here is an interesting study on the effects of incentives on sharing knowledge of illegal activity, which concludes as follows (my emphasis):

 Where levels of moral outrage are expected to be low, financial rewards will likely be a decisive factor, and the inquiry may shift to discovering the true price tag of the reporting behavior. 
For inherently offensive misconduct.....where the informant is expected to have a greater ethical stake in the outcome, regulation must fully appeal to the informant’s sense of duty. This may mean that financial incentives are not only unnecessary but are counterproductive and offset internal motivations to report.

The world of Knowledge Management

How can this translate to the world of KM? I think the answer lies in an extrapolation of the last quote, which we can take to read...

Where sharing knowledge (in this case, knowledge of illgal activity) is seen as the right thing to do (the knowledge provider having an ethical stake in the outcome), then monetary incentives have no effect, and can be counter-productive. 
Where sharing knowledge is seen neither as right nor wrong, then monetary incentives will work.
As this study also says, "To the degree that people are motivated by legitimacy, people cooperate because they feel it is the right thing to do, not because of material gains or loses"

Let us therefore be careful when incentivising knowledge sharing, and look to build a culture where knowledge is shared and reused, because knowledge sharing and reuse is the right thing to do, rather than a way to gain rewards and bounties.

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