August 2, 2006

Flip The Script: An Employee's Incentive To Share?

Writing this post has taken much more time than I thought it would. My thoughts have been all over the place with this topic and I'm sure it could easily be spread out over multiple posts (which I just might do), but since I have a tendency to go off on tangents, I wanted to be sure that I hit the most salient point first.

This post is written primarily for employees trying to understand how KM can benefit them, and less for practitioners looking for tips on achieving employee buy-in, but hopefully everyone can learn something valuable.

As any good professional must do, I was reading various KM-related articles and blogs last week when it occurred to me (not quite so suddenly; I've had this thought before, but now that I'm pounding the pavement I'm, perhaps, a little more sensitive to it) how very one-sided, arrogant, and quite possibly, unprincipled most, if not all, organizations are about their KM needs, and, subsequently, their KM strategies.

In so many of the articles/blogs/studies I've been reading, the focus (today, just as it was when I was studying KM 7 years ago as an undergrad) is on (1) how KM can benefit the organization and (2) implementing effective KM strategies that inevitably ask, "How do you get KM to work?" and "How do you get people to share knowledge/information?" All with very little, if any, consideration for the knowledge bearers in these organizations - the people they hope to get information from (and need to get information from in order for these efforts to be successful).

Anyone who works in this field should be acutely aware of the socio-economic and cultural landscape that has and continues to shape our attitudes about work and how we are valued at work (what I know = my value to the organization). The volatile and uncertain economy of recent years hasn't done much to change this attitude, on the contrary, it has reinforced it. While outsourcing, mergers, acquisitions and layoffs have driven organizations to seek out innovative and sustainable KM solutions, they have reduced employees' incentive to participate in them. And, quite honestly, why should they? What's in it for them?

I mean, if my company lays-off and/or outsources a section of its employees every couple of years then why should I care about their need to prevent valuable knowledge from walking out the very door they are holding open and possibly escorting me through? As long as I have the tools and resources to do my job, I'm good. And if I do find a pink e-slip in my Inbox, well then, at least I'll leave knowing those bastards don't have the benefit of my expertise and know-how - which I'll take to my next job.

And don't even think about asking me to train a replacement.

Harsh, I know, but this is the reality of today's workplace. Corporate loyalty died along with Customer Service. Unlike my parents' and grandparents' generations, people in my generation (That would be 'X') seldom stay in one place for the duration of their careers - both out of necessity (career and financial growth) and as a result of that volatile market I mentioned before. You're also competing - all of the time! Within your company you're competing for promotions and raises and exciting opportunities to demonstrate your value; outside of the company you're competing against people with either similar or more experience/education as well as folks with less experience/education than you who are willing to work for less! Reducing your personal competitive advantage isn't going to help you pay your bills or make it up the corporate ladder. Yet, in a roundabout way, that's exactly what most organizations are asking employees to do - give up some (or all) of your personal competitive advantage for the benefit of the organization.

And again, I ask, "Why? What's in it for them?" Organizations are fond of talking about corporate citizenship and employee responsibilities and quick to point out how knowledge sharing benefits the company "as a whole" (read: the people who realize the most financial benefit from the organization's success and prosperity), but the inability to answer the questions I posed previously, ultimately becomes the monkey wrench in the KM machine. That's certainly the case with the organizations I've spoken to.

My solution: self-interest and self-preservation.

Flip The Script
First off, most KM strategies I've come across aren't meant to directly benefit the employee. Oh sure, organizations want employees to have ready access to information so that they can be more efficient and productive employees, but they'd just as soon have you check that information at the door when you leave and re-acquire it again when you return to work. Fortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Knowledge managment is only partially about organizing information, the remainder of any good strategy is about leveraging that information - taking what you know and making it useful, beneficial, valuable. To "flip the script" and make KM work for you involves having a plan around where you want to go professionally and what you'll need to get there. Once you've got that in place make sure that for every contribution you make to the Knowledge Base, you take something for your self that takes you closer to your personal goals; call it a "user fee".

And don't think of it as stealing, because it's not, it's sharing. (This ain't like that Coca-Cola scam last month.) You are acquiring the skills you need to be a better worker, there's just no guarantee you'll be "a better worker" for that particular employer forever and ever.

Sharing Is Sensible, Not Stupid
It's a pain in the ass to let go of old habits and notions, particularly when it comes to our perceived value in an organization. After all, companies do pay you for what you know. However, that value is established (monetarily) when you're hired - the only (reasonable) way to receive a new and improved valuation is to increase what you know. (Certainly, you'll want to make more in your next job.) And, if the price of the new information is stuff you already knew, then share it already! Denise Rowe, one of my earliest mentors during my time with Ernst & Young, taught me that unless you are doing something no one else can do (and very, very few fall into that category) you are replaceable. It may suck to see you go, but if they can find someone else to do your job better or cheaper or both, they will. People who don't share, don't learn as much or as quickly as folks who do, so don't fixate on where you're at, focus on where you want to go.

Make A Plan and Follow It
My philosophy of KM is that the strategy should reflect the actual needs of the organization, rather than any industry standards or imagined needs. I know this seems pretty simple, but you'd be amazed how many organizations adopt strategies that don't follow this logic. When it comes to making KM work for you as an individual, I stress the same approach. In fact, that's how I achieve employee buy-in with even the most ornery folks, by asking, "What do you want?" and "What do you need?" (Every person, no matter how skeptical, has wants and needs, discovering them and putting a plan together around meeting them is the key to making a critic an ally). The central element of your plan needs to be understanding your career/professional goals. From there, identify the skills, tools, knowledge, experience needed to help you achieve your goals and determine how you can utilize organizational resources to this end.

Opportunistic much?!?! Hell yeah; better to be ambitious and opportunistic than complacent and bitter - and bitter is what you will be either watching other people assertively pursue (and get) opportunities you believed (the urban myth of) corporate loyalty would reward you with or standing in the unemployment line looking dazed and confused.

Sharing Makes You Shine
Now, with a sub-heading like that, you might be inclined to think I'm about to stab you in the back and give some sell-out speech on the Joy of Knowledge Management, but trust me on this. Just like companies who inform their industry are perceived as industry leaders, people who share most frequently are considered experts and "go-to" people. You want a quck assessment of your value to the organization? Take a look at who is coming to you for information and how often. You don't get that by passing the buck or playing stupid - in fact, you could be a solid performer, but when people can't or don't come to you with questions or for solutions, it's easy for you to become one of those people whose actual role everyone questions, "What exactly does so-and-so do?" Now, of course, you don't want to be a Stan (that's my imaginary know-it-all who is incapable of getting his own job done because everybody comes to him with their neverending questions).

And you don't have to be.

Stan's biggest problem is not that people come to him for everything, it's that he doesn't know how to manage people to prevent them from interfering with him doing his job. Share what you know, but share wisely. Besides, isn't that what the company's new KM system is for?

The implementation of a new KM system/strategy doesn't have to be a blight on the workplace. It also doesn't have to be just about what the organization hopes to achieve towards its bottom line. Developing your personal competitive advantage is an excellent individual benefit of KM for the ambitious, motivated employee dedicated to furthering the goals of their own bottom line.


Arjun Thomas said...

Very nice article... agree with you completely.... Let's hope more people realize the benefits of sharing knowledge..


Ash said...

Nice read. Am into this field since abt an year after having worked on a thesis in KM. I must say its the MOST Challenging and Interesting ..
Am looking for some 'good read' on Reward & Recognition. Any inputs?