Tuesday 19 April 2016

Which is the most unnatural behaviour - sharing knowledge, or seeking knowledge?

Any knowledge transaction requires a seeker and a sharer.  But which of these two behavioural stances is more challenging?

I am talking here about public sharing and public seeking, rather than people depositing files in a certain place and others privately searching for them. I am talking here about public behaviour, social behaviour, the sort of behaviour that is culturally influenced, and is a cultural influencer; the sort of behaviour you would like to see demonstrated, and role-modelled, as part of your KM culture change.  

Both seeking and sharing have their barriers. 

The main barriers to seeking are Not Invented Here, and no wanting to look like someone who "doesn't know". Refusal to seek for knowledge is true "Knower" behaviour. The main barriers to sharing are fear of losing power, and fear of treating knowledge insecurely. (Barriers such as lack of time, and lack of tools, are generic to both behaviours).

But which of those barriers are strongest?

Image Wikimedia Commons
Imagine, if you will, a car driving through a strange city, obviously lost (despite the satnav and road atlas). There are people on the sidewalk with local knowledge, who would be able to help the driver. There are therefore the ideal conditions for knowledge transfer - a clear need for knowledge, and a clear supply. Why then does the knowledge not reach the driver? Is it because

a) He doesn't ask (and for the purposes of this blog post, let's assume its a He)
b) The people on the sidewalk won't tell him (and for the purposes of this blog post, let's assume it's a safe part of the city, and they won't mug the driver).

I am sure you will agree with me that it's usually for reason a).

That's true in organisations as well. We did a survey in one organisation, and asked people 
  • Would you be willing to share knowledge with someone, if asked? 70% said Yes.
  • Would you be willing to ask for knowledge form someone else? 30% said Yes.

"In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge. A genuine request for help is not often refused unless there is literally no time or a previous history of distrust". 
Public and social knowledge seeking is a bigger challenge than public and social knowledge sharing. Seeking stimulates sharing ("few people will withhold their knowledge"); sharing does not stimulate seeking.   As the authors of this Mckinsey article on the "Giver" culture" say,

"Giver cultures depend on employees making requests; otherwise, it’s difficult to figure out who needs help and what to give. In fact, studies reviewed by psychologists Stella Anderson and Larry Williams show that direct requests for help between colleagues drive 75 to 90 percent of all the help exchanged within organizations".

If direct requests for help drive 75% to 90% of exchanged assistance, and asking for help is a far tougher barrier than reponding, then that tells us where to focus our culture change efforts; not on sharing, but on asking.

The McKinsey term "giver culture" is wrong - they are describing an "asker and responder culture". That is why, in our advice to clients, we always always recommend

Perversely, non-social seeking and sharing may well work the other way round. If knowledge is codified, people are happy to use a search engine to find it, and the more (and better) the knowledge available, the more people will search.  Our car driver will be happy to use satnav, happy to use a road atlas, and happy to read road signs. These behaviours are all socially acceptable. The knowledge which is codified is the generic knowledge - the main roads, the turns and roundabouts, and (in the case of the road signs) the directions to the major landmarks.

However there always comes a time when close navigation is needed, where local knowledge is important, or where you are "off the map".

It is at times like this that you need to develop the cultural habit of Asking. 

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