Analysis: when employees are reluctant to share knowledge, this can be disheartening for fellow workers and damaging for organisations

Knowledge is considered to be one of the key sources of success in contemporary world for both individual careers and organisational performance. However, employees are often reluctant to share their knowledge with colleagues. Many of us have been in the situation when we learned about something too late and wondered why our colleagues didn't offer advice earlier. We may have asked for advice and did not receive it, though we thought a colleague had the expertise we needed.

Such stories are both disheartening for us as individuals and damaging for our organisations or clients. Now, when we are coping with so many ambiguities at work, advice from colleagues becomes ever more valuable.

What can we do about it? Firstly, it is important to understand why people may not always share their knowledge at work. Some employees may think that their unique expertise is what secures their employment or gives them influence in their company, and therefore they prefer to keep it to themselves.

"As an individual, share virtual coffees or lunches with colleagues and put in the effort to know different people in your organisation"

While this is a potentially valid explanation, there are many more reasons behind not sharing. The most frequent ones are not having time or space to share, or not being aware that your knowledge might be useful for a colleague. Other reasons include fear that the knowledge shared will be judged as not good enough, or misinterpreted and misused.

So what we can do to enhance knowledge sharing among colleagues?

Create opportunities

You need to create opportunities for yourself and your colleagues to share knowledge with each other. As an individual, share virtual coffees or lunches with colleagues and put in the effort to know different people in your organisation. Build your network so that the colleagues know who you are and trust you. This will alleviate many of the fears that may block knowledge sharing.

As a manager, create more opportunities for your employees to get to know each other and to meet regularly. It could be regular meetings to discuss ongoing work projects and challenges that colleagues face. It is crucial that such meetings are safe spaces where one can share successes, problems and mistakes, as such experience is particularly useful for others.

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Pharma company Eli Lilly used to hold annual "failure parties" to encourage their scientists to share the stories of promising ideas that failed in trials. More recently the company shifted its' discourse from "failures" to "learning from experiments" to further encourage positive thinking about sharing such experiences.

The opportunities to meet do not have to be formal and filled with work-focused agenda. For example, some companies organise Friday workshops run by employees themselves, with topics ranging from professional ones to hobbies, like sharing tips on travelling to Asia or choosing wines. Such workshops help to develop informal networks among employees that are natural conduits for knowledge sharing.

Other companies re-designed their office space in order to stimulate interactions between employees from different departments, with water coolers, printing rooms or common kitchens serving as meeting hubs. There are ways to stimulate informal interactions even if your employees work remotely - for example, randomly pair employees and encourage them to meet for a quick video chat. This post from ScrapingHub's Shane Evans explains what they are doing to keep the informal interactions going while working remotely. 

Develop knowledge sharing skills

Even knowledgeable experts often find it challenging to explain to someone how they solved a complex problem or why they selected one solution over another. Indeed, expertise does not automatically go hand in hand with the ability to share one’s knowledge.

When a manager openly shares their knowledge, they signal that this behaviour is expected and encouraged

To address this, we need to develop special skills, both for "sending" and "receiving" roles of knowledge sharing. To improve your "sending" capacity, develop your self-reflection skills and dedicate time to reflect upon your own work. The "recipient" side of interaction may benefit from knowledge of various knowledge elicitation techniques such as interviewing, role reversal or think aloud. These techniques enable the recipient to assist the expert in sharing knowledge by asking good questions.

Role models

You can enhance motivation to share by being a role model in knowledge sharing. When you generously share yourself, you demonstrate goodwill and make it easier for the colleagues to reciprocate. Similar advice applies if you are a manager: being a role model in sharing and developing a culture of mutual help in your organisation works wonders to motivate your employees to share.

When a manager openly shares their knowledge, both within the team and across the wider organisation, they signal to employees that this behaviour is expected and encouraged. If your subordinates respect you and like being a member of the group that works for you, they are likely to pick this behaviour as well.

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Interestingly, research suggests that monetary bonuses for knowledge sharing have limited effect. The reason is that such extrinsic incentives erode intrinsic motivation that has been found to be the key driver of knowledge sharing. Providing opportunities to share, on the other hand, switches the intrinsic motivation to share "on", which brings us back to the first advice on our list, create opportunities to share.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ