Wednesday 20 October 2010

Knowledge Sharing is an unnatural act

One of the most senior guys at BP always used to say "Knowledge Sharing is an unnatural act". By this, he meant that it is counter-cultural for a staff member to voluntarily take time out of his or her busy life, to potentially help someone else whom they have never met.

Hubert St Onge has said the same thing, as did Andrew L. Michuda Jr., CEO, Teltech Resource Network, and Lee and Al-Hawamdeh (2002), Al-Hawamdeh (2003), and many others.

The degree of unnaturality varies from culture to culture, but its always unnatural, requiring a level of out-group altruism that you seldom see elsewhere in human behaviour.

That's why the promise of technology - "provide it, and they will use it" - has seldom been delivered in KM. "Provide it and they will use it" will work for natural acts, such as friendship, socialising, gossip etc. But not for unnatural acts. Just giving them smart shiny new technology (even web 2.0 technology) will not convince them to do something unnatural.

That's why we see such a polarisation in responses to KM - the 20% who say "its a little bit unnatural, but I fully see the value", the 60% who say "it's unnatural, give me a good reason to do it" and the 20% who say "It's too unnatural, I won't do it".

The good news, is that in business we have already got people to do things that are unnatural - things like budgeting, like timewriting, like risk management. These are things that few or none of us does well at home, yet business have found a way to make them happen at work.

KM can learn from how other management disciplines such as financial management, risk management and safety management have been applied and embedded. If you want to understand how KM can be sustained, look at how safety management and financial management are sustained (and the answer to sustaining, is often governance).

So if you are at the early stages of KM implementation, and are seduced by the promises of software vendors who say "buy this, and people will naturally start to share knowledge", then challenge that word "naturally".

Knowledge sharing is unnatural behaviour, and you need to treat it as such.

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