Originally posted 16-Jul-20

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When starting a KM initiative, knowledge management practitioners often fall into traps that may limit the effectiveness of the program. This is the third of a five-part series on pitfalls to recognize and avoid.

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 4
  4. Part 5

The recording of my webinar discussing all 40 KM pitfalls is available here.

Some people don’t want to get their hands dirty by learning by doing. Sometimes, when a new tool comes along, the people who are trying to promote it have to be the first ones to jump in and try it. That can be messy and it may not work right. It might be hard. The point is, if you don’t do that and then you’re turning around and talking about it, that’s not a good thing.

We see this a lot when it comes to getting people to use knowledge management tools by asking them to post in an enterprise social network or contribute documents or anything that requires them to sort of take a risk, but we think someone else will do it. We’re all familiar with the general rule of thumb that says about 90% of any community will tend to read or be more passive in a community and there is about 10% that are more active. If the 90% never post anything at all, if they never contribute anything at all, then obviously, our knowledge sharing programs aren’t going to work.

If we do a search and we don’t find what we’re searching for, we can blame the search engine, but more often than not, it may be that the thing you’re searching for isn’t there. Someone didn’t contribute it. I hope to just search and find it, or someone else will ask the question that I was thinking of asking, but I’m afraid to ask, and then I’ll benefit from that. But if that doesn’t happen, then no one ever learns. We’ve got to be willing to do it ourselves as opposed to expecting someone else to do it.

This keeps coming back to life: the assertion that KM is dead, it’s on life support, or it’s irrelevant. We’ve been hearing this for the last 20 years. Not only was KM sort of born in 1995, but a year later, people were asking if it was dead. Along the way, so was everything else that we used. We hear that email is dead, but it doesn’t seem like it is. We still get lots of it. Some proclaim that social business is dead. Whatever it is, saying that it’s dead just seems like a way to generate interest in a point of view or sell a product or sell a service. You can make a claim like that and it’ll be provocative and people will tend to pay attention to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

It’s not like everything is 100% perfect, but there are more positive indicators than negative indicators. Something is going on that continues to sustain it. It may not be rapidly growing in size, but knowledge management is not dead. The need for knowledge management will endure, whether we continue to call it knowledge management or start calling it something else. We will continue to need to share and innovate and reuse and collaborate and learn.

As long as I have been in the field of KM, I have heard that incentives don’t work. I developed incentive systems that worked quite well and have been adopted by other companies. But there is a belief that people will game the system.

I developed a system when I was at Hewlett-Packard that awarded points for knowledge-sharing behaviors and, theoretically, it could have been gamed. It would have been easy to do so because you got a point for every time you posted in the threaded discussion board. We had one person who would tend to post in the discussion board with some trivial comment like “great, thanks,” just to run up the score, and eventually, I approached that person about it. After that, he was never seen in the forums again. It’s self-correcting. If people do this in the open, in enterprise social networks, everyone else is going to see that and they’re not going to appreciate it and you’ll hear back. In my experience, people gaming the system hasn’t been a problem.

Another part of the incentive issue is that people aren’t really motivated. Intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation; rewards wear out. There is some truth to that. But there was actually great response when we added an incentive component to our point system. It’s not only because participants could earn some money, which everyone likes to do, but it also signaled the importance of the effort. When people saw that the senior executive was backing up the program financially they said, “This must be important. Therefore, I probably should be doing it.”

We’ve all heard the claim that social media is frivolous, social is not serious, or it’s a waste of time. You shouldn’t call your enterprise social network “Facebook for the enterprise,” because a lot of people will conjure up something different from work if you talk about social in that sense. Some people even say to avoid the word “social” altogether, giving the example, “I don’t care what you ate for breakfast.”

I don’t actually see a lot of posts about what people ate for breakfast. I don’t think that’s the primary use of social media, but that’s a common lament. You have to cite your use cases and say, “No, we’re not really talking about sharing what you ate for breakfast. We’re really talking about these other uses that are valid and which social tools do better than other previous tools.”

There is also the assumption that using social media means wasting time. People have told me, “I was chastised for using the social network to post something and was told to stop doing that and go back to work.” You can turn that around and say, “What were you supposed to do instead?” The time that people spend on social networks, if it is for sharing useful information for the rest of the organization, or asking and answering questions, should be celebrated. We should not make people think that it is a waste of time.

In the community realm, we often get into a debate about whether we should try to control the creation of communities. There is value in trying to limit the number of communities that any organization has. There are a lot of reasons to do this, but the counterargument is that we should let a thousand flowers bloom and use survival of the fittest. Let there be 100 different communities all focused on social media. One of them will emerge and that’s the way it should be.

If you have 100 communities for social media, there won’t be the survival of the fittest. They will all die. It’s because when someone tries to go and learn about social media, they look at the available communities and see a bewildering list of communities to choose from. They just give up, or if they do pick one, they will miss lots of other people who would have benefited from sharing information or who could have answered questions. None of the communities ever achieves critical mass, and as result, none thrive.

Allowing an infinite number of these things doesn’t work well. In this instance, limited control has value. Get groups to combine. Make your communities so that it’s easy for the user to figure out which one to join, and to have critical mass where all people interested in the same topic can be together. You should try to prevent redundant communities, but it’s not because you’re trying to exert some kind of top-down authoritarian control. Rather, it’s to respect your users — to give them an easy-to-understand environment where they know which community to join, and all the people can reliably be expected to be in that community.

Some companies are very sensitive to risks. I worked at one of them, and there are plenty of other ones. They are concerned that we might somehow share information that we shouldn’t share, or that information would be leaked somehow. In some cases, they try to control all access to the outside world.

If you have a social network and it is open, then you will be aware if such a thing happens, because you will see it. If you don’t allow that, what happens? People do it some other way that you don’t see. You can’t prevent somebody from handing a piece of paper or sending an email or having a phone call or some other means. You can’t necessarily control that. Yet you’re saying, “If we block social media, that will be the answer.” It’s actually better to encourage things to be shared where you can see them, and if somebody does something inappropriate, you could then talk to them and make an intervention. Whereas if you drive it underground, it doesn’t work.

Trust people to do no harm. It doesn’t mean that people won’t do harm. They may do it intentionally or unintentionally, but if they do it in such a way that you can see it, then you can counsel them and you can intervene. If you don’t trust people, why did you hire them? People are working for a company. You hire them and you entrust them with the work you assign. You should trust them to use good sense also when it comes to sharing information.

Have you ever been asked why your search isn’t more like Google? We all know the reasons why people ask that. The reason it isn’t has to do with scale and the difference between the millions of people on the Internet and the thousands or hundreds of people in your company. But they still ask the question. You may even have leaders who say, “Let’s make our search just like Google.”

The other one that arises is, “Let’s have content ratings like Amazon.” That also will not work well when not at scale. The number of people who actually rate things on Amazon isn’t a very large number, but because there are so many people, it’s large enough to matter.

Inside of a company, the percentage of people who might actually rate a document is tiny. Typically, we see are only two types of people who actually give a one-to-five-star rating on a document. The person who wrote it will give themselves five stars, and someone else who had some axe to grind with them will give them one star. You won’t get a useful rating.

If I’m asked to come up with a five-star rating, it’s hard. I have to struggle with, “Is this three or four or five?” so I won’t do it. That’s the wrong approach. It’s better to ask simple questions such as, “Were you able to reuse this document?” That’s a yes or no question, and an easier one to answer. It’s like the Like button. If you click the Like button, you don’t have to think too hard about it. You either like it or you don’t. If you like it, you click Like. If you have to rate something one, two, three, four or five, you have to think about it. That’s a different dynamic.

I like this approach better: “Click here if you were able to reuse this document.” That’s a very objective statement. You either were able to reuse it or you weren’t. If one is clicked a lot like that, then you can say that’s probably a document that you want to promote or have it appear higher in search results. Think about how these things actually work behind firewalls inside of companies — and treat them differently than saying “this should be just like Google or just like Amazon”.

Written by

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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