How to create a culture of knowledge sharing

This blog is part 1 of a 3-part series of posts that are focused on how to create a culture of knowledge sharing at your organization. Sometimes your organization seems to have all of the tools (including software and highly skilled employees), but you simply cannot get knowledge management right. The reason why is because of a lack of ingrained culture related to knowledge sharing. That’s why you can’t just buy a wiki and expect your knowledge management problem to be solved. In this series, we’ll address how to make knowledge sharing a part of your company culture.

Defining the problem

Knowledge sharing is an important component of any organizational strategy. While knowledge sharing is particularly relevant to scaling organizations, because of the requirement for rapid transfer of knowledge to new employees, it is highly beneficial to stable companies that are looking to get the most out of their employees through more autonomous work. Without a culture of knowledge sharing, there is an erosion of time and productivity. In scaling organizations, a lack of fluid knowledge transfer can be particularly painful as new employees try to navigate the onboarding process without reliable documentation.

What is the cost of neglecting a culture of knowledge sharing?

Consider the following statistics, accumulated from a number of relevant studies – they suggest that there are massive tangible and intangible benefits to improving the cultural aspects of a company through knowledge management.

  • 50% of workers feel that the organizations they work for are being held back by a lack of transparency. —Forbes

Companies that have addressed issues around transparency are effectively enabling a culture of knowledge sharing. Much like Gitlab, a famously proud remote-first structured company, embrace transparency as a core tenet. Their handbook-first culture is radically transparent via “over-sharing” of internal information.

  • 45% of employees state that a lack of transparent communication from leadership has driven them to seek a new job. —Forbes

So, not only do employers need to onboard employees with transparency, but they will fail to keep them in the long run without the same degree of transparency from the leadership team.

  • Fortune 500 companies lose $31.5-billion a year by failing to share knowledge. —Society for Human Resource Management

Even with a fairly small universe of companies (like the Fortune 500), the cost of a lack of knowledge sharing is immense and erodes profits by a notable margin. This problem doesn’t just plague the largest companies in the world though, its permeates every growth stage of every company around the world.

  • Organizations with highly engaged employees outperform competitors with less engaged workers by a vast margin of 147%. —Gallup

Not surprisingly, employee engagement starts with communication and knowledge sharing. You may practice this level of engagement with your customers as well so that expectations are more visible to all parties.

What is knowledge sharing?

First, we must understand what the company paradigm is. A paradigm is a way of thinking, perceiving, communicating or viewing the world. This is also sometimes called a worldview or a mindset. What is really most important about it, is that the paradigm is likely a subconscious view, and it’s not necessarily communicated. In the context of knowledge sharing, the paradigm dictates the perception of the value of knowledge in the organization. If knowledge is valued within the organization’s paradigm, then employees will prioritize documentation.

Organizational culture is the ideologies that shape our thinking, behavior, and perception of our business environment. The culture establishes a set of guidelines for how we all work together in a company. Sometimes we resist change rather than embrace it, and that is why cultural shifts are so challenging. When trying to define the culture, it’s best not to try and change to “something that you want to be” and instead, gravitate towards the best characteristics of those that are already in the organization. In the context of knowledge sharing, organizational culture is the engine that propels knowledge through the company.

What is the difference between knowledge and information?

Bear with us here… let’s be metaphorical. Knowledge is like a cake. Have we lost you yet? Stay with us.

Like we were saying, knowledge is like a cake. What is a cake at its most basic level? Well, everything that puts a cake together is like data. For most purposes, it’s not very useful on its own. But a list of ingredients takes that data and creates information – something that has some more value. The data (the ingredients) have been given some context. But a recipe is knowledge. It takes data, converts it into information, and then organizes it into a sequence of executable steps that will result in a cake. The level of expertise of the baker can apply even more tacit knowledge to create a better result than someone with less experience (like a newly onboarded employee). To make knowledge (the cake) valuable, you need information (the recipe) and ultimately the ingredients (the data). An experienced baker (employee) can utilize their expertise to make adjustments to suit the situation and the audience (more/less sugar, add sprinkles, food coloring, etc.) to produce a more desirable cake. Ultimately, knowledge is know-how and information is know-why – and depending on the situation, one might be more important than the other.

What is tacit knowledge?

Tacit knowledge is very important within organizational structures. Tacit knowledge is defined as the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of documenting it or verbalizing it. It’s the things that you don’t know you know.

What is knowledge management?

How most people define knowledge management: “The collection of processes that govern the creation, dissemination and leveraging of knowledge to fulfill organizational objectives.”

How we define knowledge management: “Knowledge management is a business philosophy. It is an emerging set of principles, processes, organizational structures, and technology applications that help people share and leverage their knowledge to meet business objectives.”

The difference between these two definitions is that it limits knowledge management to a set of principles rather than a focus on the individual and the holistic view of knowledge management as a whole. In order to successfully create a culture of knowledge sharing, you need to have known that it’s not just a means to an end, it’s a set of tools that are utilized from the top-down in the organization, and that the proper incentive structures are applied to ensure that it remains a valued part of the culture.

Why is knowledge sharing important?

The creation and application of knowledge is essential to the survival of almost all businesses. There are many reasons including:

  • There are more intangible products in the marketplace.
  • Competitive advantage is often rooted in continuous innovation.
  • Turnover is higher in recent years with more employees getting diverse experience (now more jobs for life and when people leave, they take their knowledge with them).
  • Accelerating change – everything changes faster including products, technology, and people – with it the old knowledge erodes and expires.
  • Organizations do not know what they know – it’s difficult to show people what internal knowledge is without having it accurately documented.
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