Originally published July 21, 2015

When someone needs to find the answer to a question, what do they tend to do?

  1. Try searching their hard drive, an FAQ database, or the Internet
  2. Turn to the person sitting next to them
  3. Call or instant message a trusted colleague
  4. Send an email to a few people or a distribution list
  5. If the first four options don’t work, give up

The one that would likely work the best, but is not used nearly enough, is

  • Ask in the most relevant community of practice discussion board or enterprise social network (ESN) group

It’s a paradox that the one option with the greatest chance of success is the least likely to be tried. Why is this? One common reason is that people are afraid of asking a question in public because it may expose their ignorance, make them appear incompetent, or subject them to embarrassment.

In Does Your Organization Have an Asking Problem?, Nancy Dixon wrote

Knowledge sharing begins with a request, not with a solution. No matter how much knowledge is presented at conferences, held in databases or emailed to colleagues, knowledge won’t be reused unless a team has a need, something they are struggling with.

Managers sometimes tell me that people in their organization have a problem with sharing knowledge; but more often than not, people aren’t “asking.” The organization has an asking problem, not a sharing problem. When people ask, the sharing problem becomes moot.

How organizations talk about “asking” is critical. When company officials say to professionals, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” their words actually work against asking. Asking for “help” denotes helplessness. No competent professional wants that image attached to his or her performance. What professionals do need is to be able to tap into organizational knowledge that is growing and changing — to tap into what others are learning from their ongoing experience. I have labeled this step “scanning,” which connotes an active seeking for something of value.

When I receive a question via email, instant message, private ESN message, phone, or text message, I reply that I will be glad to answer the question if it is posted to a specific community, and I provide a link to that community’s discussion board or ESN group. I give three reasons for making this request:

  1. It will allow additional answers to be posted, which may be better than mine, or provide additional information to what I can offer
  2. It will allow others to benefit from the exchange
  3. It will provide a public record of the exchange, which can later be searched for, linked to, and reused

However, people will often resist this request, and either fail to post their question, or respond with the following reasons why they don’t want to post in public:

  1. These questions are more back-end questions, not front-end questions
  2. I just need a quick answer
  3. I figured you would have the answer
  4. I don’t want to bother with all that
  5. I didn’t know where to post

These are really just different ways of saying

  1. I’m embarrassed
  2. I don’t want to appear ignorant
  3. I should know the answer
  4. No one else needs to know that I had to ask
  5. I don’t want to bother figuring out where to post

Some people will just not ask in public. You can help these people by posting on their behalf, answering their question, and sending them a private message linking to the posted question and answer. You can do this without mentioning them by name, but if you copy them on the reply, but don’t explicitly state that they asked the question, they may be willing to ask directly the next time they have a question.

Here are some additional ways to encourage people to ask in public

  1. Facilitate ways for people to establish trusting relationships in communities or ESN groups so that they will better know those whom they will be asking for help
  2. Make it easy to figure out where to post a question by having a list of communities, easy-to-use search, and a single obvious community or ESN group for each important topic
  3. Provide ways to ask questions on behalf of others, including anonymous ask-the-expert tools
  4. Redirect queries you receive, and ask others who frequently receive queries to do the same
  5. Ask call centers, support hotlines, help desk operators, and contact email boxes to answer in communities, not by email, instant message, or other private channels
  6. Use a combination of ESN groups and FAQ lists to reply to queries, copying Q&A from the ESN group into the FAQ list, and then linking to the FAQ list the next time a similar question is posted
  7. Make sure questions are answered — people who are brave enough to overcome their fear of asking in the open should be rewarded for doing so by receiving useful, timely, and varied answers
  8. Recognize those who ask in public by thanking and praising them for doing so
  9. Provide a points recognition system, and give points to those who post questions and to those who provide answers
  10. Train people on how to find the right place to ask questions, the most effective ways to ask for help, and that they should acknowledge those who provide answers by replying back in the same thread where they initially posted

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