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Break Down the Walls: Sharing Knowledge is Power

Break Down the Walls: Sharing Knowledge is Power

One of the most delightful things about growing up in the 90s was being around for the first wave of personal computing. I was one of the lucky ones, who got a PC in her room during high school, pinging back and forth endlessly with my peers on AOL Instant Messenger.

Times were changing, and we understood the connected nature of the world through emoji sharing and silly jokes. I remember a time before Google. Our family owned a printed encyclopedia. Wild stuff!

I think growing up as the internet was also coming of age (has it reached its adolescence already?) impacted the way I look at the world, and the way I interact in/with organizations today. My viewpoint, as it is for all of us, has been shaped by my experiences.

People were open with me, sharing their knowledge about how PCs worked and even helping me build my own! Eventually I learned how to search for knowledge on the internet on my own, and I never looked back all the way to graduate school.

I cannot begin to quantify this knowledge or appreciate in any certain terms what value it produced; but all I can say is that I am glad I had access to it and hope one day to share in equal measure of personal contribution.

In the meantime, I would invite you to consider with me the topic of sharing knowledge in the workplace, specifically with others in your own organization. In particular, I would like to highlight how in times gone by, people perceived holding onto their knowledge as power, whereas in today’s day and age, it’s just the opposite, and maybe paradoxically – sharing knowledge is what creates its value.

The end of strategy as we know it.

In 2012, Nilofer Merchant called it in her #SocialEra e-book and associated article in HBR, citing a satirical clip from the NYT Obituaries “Traditional Strategy Dies,” and I hope that (in the midst of the humor) you too, my friend, have also gotten this memo.

Whether you are part of a larger organization or a nimble startup, we live in a changed world where we are connected with each other in unprecedented ways. The humor pokes at these management practices that had their heyday and are now hanging on in "out-of-date" textbooks that just don't fit for the way we do business today.

Merchant sums it up:

While the industrial era was about making a lot of stuff and convincing enough buyers to consume it, the Social Era is about the power of communities, of collaboration and co-creation. In the industrial era, power was from holding what we valued closed and separate; in the Social Era, there is another framework for how we engage one another — an open one.

Co-creation, or the remixing of ideas through collaboration and shared sources of knowledge, is the key thing here. In the past, we deemed keeping our knowledge to ourselves as a way to secure our power, but today we are working in a more open environment and we have an opportunity to make the best of this.

[Related: Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Book]

When contributors hold on to knowledge, everybody loses.

Ineffective knowledge management in organizations comes at a cost. Panopto estimates that insufficient knowledge sharing costs large businesses $47 million per year (keep in mind this is a scalable library solution provider, but you get the point).

We are left in a situation where employees are finding it more difficult to do their jobs because they are spending time looking for information, or more likely hunting down the person who “has” the information.

This situation is borne out of a combination of things, including company culture and more likely some version of entropy – where if you don’t take steps to mitigate the situation, not much will change.

This is unfortunate, because the assumptions we have around knowledge are incorrect and misguided. It is not the case in our rapidly-changing world that our knowledge is and will remain useful for very long, and certainly its value does not increase if we don’t share it. Perhaps we fear being replaced, or worse, a robot will come to take our job!

Implications for knowledge workers.

The World Bank's 2019 report, “The Changing Nature of Work,” touches upon the topic of technical progress, and how despite fears that jobs will disappear (to robots), in fact firms evolve to new ways of production and evolving society and markets. My takeaway here is, "Let them take my job so that I can focus on creating even more value somewhere new."

This situation is accompanied by changing skills knowledge workers need, including complex problem-solving, teamwork, and adaptability, as well as digital. The subtext I read here is, "Let’s spend less time discussing fears about someone learning what we know and taking our job away, and instead focus on expansion."

Let’s focus on how we can remix our knowledge together by making it more readily available in our organizations to facilitate collaboration and create new streams of value. (If you're interested, this longer PDF from Open Knowledge at the World Bank is rather comprehensive.)

[Related: The Skills You Need to Succeed in 2020]

But what about the golden rule?

Yes, okay, I’ll admit that I’ve just used more than five buzzwords in one sentence, but let me sum it up for you: Hoarding knowledge erodes one’s power rather than enhancing it.

This seems counterintuitive to most of us. Bruce Boyes elaborates on this idea in a 2018 post on RealKM about a GrowingScience literature review on hoarding. The key thing is that since knowledge is perceived as power, mitigating the risk of hoarding involves convincing employees that "the benefits of sharing outweigh the cost of losing this perceived power," which, if you ask me, is a mighty tall order given our habits and beliefs.

It is deeply culturally engrained in us to feel like having more of anything puts us in a position of power. You may remember that saying, "He who has the gold makes the rules."

Economicsociology.org tells me the phrase originated in the 1960s to satirize modern American culture, and this easily comes to mind in our discussion here. The subjects are even referred to as "idiots," which could also imply a lack of knowledge. So it's not too much of a stretch to assume more knowledge equals more power, right?

Well, only if you want to stand in the way of progress.

The literature review brings up an interesting point about how in the developed world, knowledge is shared more freely and openly because of the feeling that sharing builds a person’s reputation as a specialist.

I guess that’s part of what I am attempting to do with this article – I mentioned earlier that I hope to one day share in proportion to what people have shared with me.

Recommendations.

I want to leave you with some practical thoughts about what you can do in your organization (gleaned from the literature review, Forbes.com, and EconomicTimes.IndiaTimes.com), and also some perspective on your own approach to knowledge-sharing in your individual career.

There are all kinds of perspectives you can take on this and tools/systems you can champion.

  1. Leverage social. There are plenty of social tools and software options out there to encourage people in the organization to share information with each other. People love to create and share within a social context. And for yourself as an individual, I encourage you to share your expertise on these platforms, because it is an effective way of increasing the value of the knowledge you are sharing.
  2. Knowledge base information systems. These are systems that facilitate collaboration and the sharing of knowledge. One I can think of off the top of my head is the Wiki, where team members can drop useful information and others can search and find later when they need it. Good information architecture practices can help here. For yourself as an individual, I encourage you to keep information organized and accessible on your personal devices.
  3. Management rewards. Management can dole out rewards for sharing to encourage this kind of behavior, recognize employees for demonstrating sharing behaviors, as well as rewarding employees for teaching others how to share knowledge effectively. For yourself as an individual, if acknowledgement and recognition as an expert is what you aim to achieve, then sharing (not hoarding) your knowledge is the way to get there. Revise your mindset.
  4. Culture change. One key aspect of this is management leading by example. One must feel that all people in the organization are sharing their "gold" to feel good about sharing theirs. Professional development can help with this, too. For yourself as an individual, try to associate yourself with people who are open and communicative. We take on the traits of the five people closest to us, so find inspiring people to work with!

More than anything, what I want you to take away from this is how you look at knowledge sharing. If you are like most people, you hold an unconscious bias toward keeping your cards close to the chest. I urge you to share, share, share, as we live in a time where sharing equals power (for you and others!).

Besides that, thinking back to my teenage room in the 90s/00s, how boring would it have been to be there by myself with only that encyclopedia? Instead, there was an entire social context in that box on my desk that was just opening up.

Any gains that you get from guarding your territory of knowledge quickly disintegrates, and it’s just not worth it. It’s a practice certainly worth revising. Sharing knowledge is power.

[Related: Culture Matters: How Great Startups Will Thrive in 2020]

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Vera Lentini is the Website Content Manager at Metlife. Her specialty is applying common sense to complex user experiences, specifically in finance, delivering the human aspect of targeted content.


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