Originally published on October 20, 2015

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A knowledge management paradox is the existence of private communities and enterprise social network (ESN) groups. Knowledge sharing is best done in the open, allowing anyone and everyone in the organization to participate and benefit, but some argue that this is not always desirable.

I have heard the following reasons for preferring to share or ask in closed, private groups:

  1. Comfort: People are more comfortable sharing or asking in a small group of known colleagues.
  2. Trust: People don’t want to share with anyone unless they have an existing, trusting relationship with them.
  3. Fear: People are reluctant to expose their ignorance broadly.
  4. Theft: Others will steal our valuable intellectual property and benefit from it unfairly.
  5. Abuse: Others will misuse our materials and cause harm, or require us to have to clean up their mess.
  6. Need to know: Only those with a need to know should have access.
  7. Secrecy: We need to hold confidential discussions and keep others out. We can’t allow others outside of our team to see what we are doing and discussing.
  8. Soft launch: We’ll start out as a small private community, and then we’ll open it up later after we are ready to do so.

Here are counter arguments for each of these:

  1. Comfort: Discussing in a closed group is like talking in an echo chamber. The same ideas are repeated and agreed upon, but fresh insights from a more diverse set of people are missed.
  2. Trust: Ask people if there would be any harm if people they don’t know join the group and are able to benefit from what is being shared, or if they are able to answer a question. The answer will likely be a reluctant “no,” which should help them realize the benefits of being more inclusive. And once outsiders join and contribute, they become trusted, and the original concern is reduced or eliminated.
  3. Fear: This is natural, so take steps to praise, thank, and recognize those who share and ask in the open.
  4. Theft: Remind people that everyone works for the same organization, with the same overall success goals. Thus, “stealing” is not the best way to perceive cross-organizational reuse.
  5. Abuse: Most presentations and documents are of limited value without the context for using them. If you share them, it’s more likely that you will be asked to deliver your presentations or implement projects using your documents than that others will try to use them without your knowledge.
  6. Need to know: The problem with the term “need to know” is: how do you know who needs to know? It’s impossible to know in advance all of the people in your organization who could contribute or benefit, so posting in private risks missing many of these people. It’s better to change from a mindset of “need to know” to “need to share.”
  7. Secrecy: This goes against the whole idea of knowledge sharing. Challenge those with this view to define the actual dangers posed by operating transparently. Chances are, the threats are more imagined than real.
  8. Soft launch: This is just an excuse for not doing it right the first time. Small private groups are unlikely to grow and become active, and as a result may fail. The people who will help the group grow and thrive may not be known to you, so being open enables them to join and help lead the way.

Here are three additional arguments in favor of public, open sharing and collaboration:

  1. Reach the right people: Posts made in small private groups are likely to miss those who could benefit, and many questions may go unanswered or receive inadequate responses.
  2. Get your ideas out there: Sharing broadly allows your team’s thoughts, plans, and actions to be tested, challenged, and adopted. This enables growth, innovation, and proof of value.
  3. Create demand for your team’s skills and expertise: For authors, publishing books leads to more consulting and speaking opportunities, not fewer. In theory, others can read your ideas and use them without your involvement, but in reality, they are more likely to invite you to come meet with them, present during a meeting, or deliver an engagement.

Here are three stories of how sharing openly yields positive results:

  1. Even competitors share with one another. For example, companies in the same industry (e.g., energy, automotive, professional services) realize that they can all benefit by sharing, vetting, and validating proven practices. They are not divulging trade secrets, but sharing principles which they can all use by customizing them to their individual needs.
  2. Knowledge managers benefit from practicing what they preach. When I was at HP, my team developed a recognition system called KM Stars. We shared it with other companies, and Accenture and IBM adapted it to their needs. This helped to prove that gamification works, and led to improvements which can be used by all.
  3. My organization had a private ESN group. After it had been in existence for over a year, I asked if there would be any harm if outsiders joined the group. The answer was no, so we opened it up. As a result, others are now able to benefit from what is being shared. In the seven months since it was made open, it has grown from 400 members to 1,250 members. No attempt was made to grow or promote the group, but there is obviously a lot of interest in what we are doing and sharing. The open group benefits 850 more people, with no additional effort.

I have written about openness and transparency previously in the following posts and presentations:

  1. How to govern enterprise social network groups: If a group will include confidential or sensitive discussions, it should be private. Otherwise, it should be open.
  2. Be agile, not fragile: Secrecy — Don’t give lip service to transparency while continuing to operate in a closed manner. Communicate frequently, truthfully, and openly.
  3. Why won’t people ask questions in the open? Some people will just not ask in public. You can help these people by posting on their behalf.
  4. Enterprise Social Network Tradeoffs: Some discussions and content need to occur in a private setting with a limited audience, but there should be a clearly stated preference for open groups.
  5. Social Media Archetypes: Bashful — Those who post only in private groups
  6. The Sound of Silence: Do it in private — Some people will type questions into a private chat, rather than ask them in public.
  7. To control or not to: only you can prevent redundant communities: One argument is that people are more willing to hold discussions in small groups with people they know and trust, and are afraid of posting in larger groups with members they don’t know. In my experience, most small groups struggle to become active, or to remain active.
  8. 8 reasons for working out loud and narrating your work: Multiple people may need to know what is going on, and you don’t know who all of them are; Provide transparency in thinking, decisions, and processes; Model the open way of working; Demonstrate trust.
  9. What are you supposed to do in a community? People post in public groups whenever possible, and only use private groups for truly private interactions.
  10. 10 Sets of Knowledge Nuggets: Do good fences make good neighbors? Community tradeoffs — Open/Closed, Global/Local, Unlimited/Limited; Nugget: Would there be any harm if more people interested in the topic were allowed to join the community?
  11. Why share your knowledge? If I share, then others will apply the knowledge to their business, and we will lose our competitive edge. Actually, sharing encourages people to request that you apply the information you shared; knowledge is information in action, and this is what people actually want, not just written documents.
  12. Does Size Matter in Communities? Group size is almost always the key determining factor of activity. Even a small, energetic team with high trust will not necessarily post to a group. They can benefit from having a closed team site to share information, but they will likely either talk to each other or email each other when they wish to interact.
  13. 16 Reasons Why People Don’t Share Their Knowledge — and what to do about it: They are afraid that if they share knowledge, people they don’t trust will misuse it or use it without attribution. They are afraid of asking or answering a question in public because it may expose their ignorance, make them appear incompetent, or subject them to criticism, blame, or embarrassment for sharing something improper or incorrect. Facilitate ways for people to establish trusting relationships through enterprise social networks and face-to-face meetings. Recognize those who ask, answer, and share in public, and provide ways to ask questions on behalf of others.

What has been your experience on open vs. private collaboration?

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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