The knowledge sharing paradox is that while sharing our knowledge is good for the organization, each individual has to see a personal benefit as well. The more the enterprise directs knowledge-sharing, the less likely it will happen. Conversely, the less structured the process, the more difficult it is for the organization to benefit. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, or so it seems. Helen Blunden neatly sums up what can happen to those who freely share their knowledge.
I felt that my network, my trusted network which I worked hard to maintain, cultivate, nurture, trust and grow was going to be exploited by other individuals within the organisation who saw me as their ‘free ride’ to some quick answers.
Aye, there’s the rub; as Helen goes on:
My key learning point always goes back to looking at the culture of the organisation. If there is a genuine, authentic opportunity to share and learn and be respectful of each other’s networks then I have no problem with it at all. If it is mandated, or if my networks are used, misused or discounted, then I’d question why I’m even working there.
Knowledge flows when individuals actively engage in teams, communities, and networks by working and learning out loud. Both cooperative and collaborative behaviours, depending on the situation, are required. However, most organizations only focus on collaboration and fixed goals. Management often views cooperation as an aimless waste of time, which it can be. But collaboration and too much focus on teamwork can be detrimental to the organization as well.
Communities of practice can connect the knowledge flows between those messy social networks and focused work. This is where PKM (personal knowledge management) and PLN (personal learning networks) appear to differ. One aim of PKM is to connect learning and work. Steve Wheeler sees communities of practice as separate from the PLN, which he describes as mostly in the informal and opportunity-driven social network space.
One of the key differences I see between the two is that in PLNs, connections can be fairly random and interactions largely informal. Often there is a common ground such as a mutual interest or shared concern, but generally those who make up my PLN are a fairly ad hoc group of friends, colleagues, family and also those who have casually connected with me either through my instigation or theirs. In CoPs, connections are generally more deliberate, focused upon practice, often of a professional nature, and the interactions are focused largely upon the shared business of that community of practice.
PKM is focused on individuals who must negotiate and transcend the artificial barriers between their teams, communities of practice, and networks. Inside that person’s head, there are no knowledge barriers. However, discerning with whom and when to share, remains a key part of effective PKM. Social learning requires social intelligence, but organizations have to establish ways to support the multifaceted knowledge worker, or continue to face the knowledge sharing paradox. Understanding that people, not management systems, enable knowledge flow would be a good start.
Dr. Robert Sapolski has been studying baboons for thirty years. It seems that many researchers took for granted the hierarchical nature of baboon life, with dominant males attacking those next down the social ladder and then the process repeating itself down to infants and females. Research also showed that the baboons on top were less stressed (lower stress hormones) and had lower blood pressure than those below.
But then a most interesting event occurred with a certain troop that Sapolski was observing. The baboons started feeding from a garbage dump and many became infected with tuberculosis. Nearly half the males in the troop died; mostly the aggressive and non-social ones. Every alpha male was gone! As a result, the atmosphere of the troop changed and became much less aggressive and more social. Not only that, but any new males who joined the troop were discouraged from being aggressive and adopted more pro-social behaviours within six months.
With this more social environment, the troop as a whole became healthier and less stressed. It is currently thriving. The fundamental lesson that Sopolski came back with was that “textbook social systems that are engraved in stone” can be changed in one single generation. There may be hope for the human race, it seems.
Recent research shows that evolution is on the side of those who cooperate.
“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.”
The natural world is composed of complex systems and it makes sense that the best strategies for any population are ones that take complexity into account. This is a limitation of hierarchical organizational models. They cannot address large-scale levels of complexity, as explained in Complexity Rising, a 1997 paper on complexity profiles.
In summary, the complexity of the collective behavior must be smaller than the complexity of the controlling individual. A group of individuals whose collective behavior is controlled by a single individual cannot behave in a more complex way than the individual who is exercising the control. Hierarchical control structures are symptomatic of collective behavior that is no more complex than one individual. Comparing an individual human being with the hierarchy as an entirety, the hierarchy amplifies the scale of the behavior of an individual, but does not increase its complexity.
As Yaneer Bar-Yam explains in his paper, hierarchies have diminishing usefulness as complexity increases.
At the point at which the collective complexity reaches the complexity of an individual, the process of complexity increase encounters the limitations of hierarchical structures. Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity and must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions.
Some of these lateral interactions are what we would call social relationships. They are outside the official hierarchy. As Verna Allee has noted, for complex environments, or “un order”, we need stronger networks and looser hierarchies. Or you could say that we need more lateral interactions.
Better social relationships (non-hierarchical and not based on dominance of others) can make for healthier populations. In addition, they are the only way our collective intelligence can adapt to increasing complexity. Becoming more social is not just a new business driver but also a societal imperative.
It was reported that only 2% of social sharing happens on Google Plus (G+). I too, do not share much on G+. I recently posted on G+ that it did not fit in with my professional use of social media, even though discussions are often fun, interesting, and informative. That G+ post I made now has 52 comments, more than any post on this blog has had.
In that post, Jeff Roach described G+ as “a network that looks like Facebook (media rich) but functions more like twitter (streams etc) but is more friendly to conversations and sharing than both of them.” Joachim Stroh suggested that I create a community on G+ but I countered that I preferred to cooperate in the open, not in another social media walled garden:
I think one of the problems today is that many online social networks are trying to be communities of practice. But to be a community of practice, there has to be something to practice. One social network, mine, is enough for me. How I manage the connections is also up to me. In some cases I will follow a blogger, in others I will connect via Google Plus or Twitter, but from my perspective it is one network, with varying types of connections. Jumping into someone else’s bounded social network/community only makes sense if I have an objective. If not, I’ll keep cooperating out in the open.
Nollind Whachel then weighed-in with several thoughtful comments and Joachim Stroh continued to engage. I stood on the sidelines, and a few others added comments, including one commentator unknown to me who felt I was being unprofessional because I did not understand G+. By the way, all of my G+ posts have been public, so anyone can jump in.
Nollind provided a good way to describe the sense-making process in these online social networks:
Connect = producing content
Empower = making sense of content patterns
Inspire = leap of logic, the patterns form a story, you see the bigger picture
Joachim made an interesting subsequent comment:
So, I’m still looking for the connection to go from unstructured to structured content, without doing a lot of curation. It’s not easy if you are doing this on your own (as you describe), it’s almost impossible to do this collectively (without a CM role).
Nollind added an emergent thought, that I think is important, and is partially what this blog post is all about:
Hmm, just had an interesting thought. It actually may be easier to do the writing and sense making within one community and then do the outlining and structuring in another community.
My interest in all of this comes down to PKM, and so far, G+ is a mere extension of my PKM processes. Perhaps it could be more, but I strongly believe in the centrality of my blog, which I own and control. I am not ready to give that to Google or any other third party. Nollind also made an excellent comparison of my PKM framework with his own methodology,
Seek = Connect = Play
Sense = Empower = Learn
Share = Inspire = Work
At this time, G+ provides a nice place for deep discussions with people who probably would not post as much on my blog and would be throttled by Twitter’s 140 character limit. I know that others use it much more, adding tags to make search and retrieval easier, and engaging with communities. G+ does add to my weak & diverse ties and even enables the sharing of complex knowledge. Perhaps G+ is trying to be all things to all people, and for those of us with existing PKM processes, that’s just too much.
Institutional memory, which I wrote about recently, is a mixture of explicit and implicit knowledge sharing. It can be as explicit as Harvard Business School’s Institutional Memory site, or as implicit as the feeling one gets from a well-known local legend. A lot depends on what the organization wants to preserve. Is it how-to knowledge, like a trade secret formula, or is it certain practices and norms that define the culture? Or is it both? Each institution has to define this for itself.
Implicit knowledge is difficult to share and is usually complex. We know that this type of knowledge cannot easily be codified. However, it’s often what gives institutions sustainability and even competitive advantage. Finding ways to collect and share both types of knowledge is important for institutional memory. Stories can be an effective medium for these exchanges. The Ritz-Carlton provides an excellent example with Stories that Stay with You. Stories do not have to be exceptional to be effective, and simple anecdotes may be better on a large scale, rather than sweeping epics, or one can wind up in the uncanny valley of business storytelling.
Institutional memory is a close cousin of knowledge management. Both can be strengthened with a firm foundation of personal knowledge management (Seek-Sense-Share). While seeking and sense-making are mostly individual activities and people should be allowed to use what’s best for them, the organization can overtly support knowledge sharing. One suggestion is to create more opportunities for “people to have coffee together”. Though it’s not the coffee that’s important, the act of gathering, combined with an environment that encourages capturing and sharing knowledge artifacts, serves to build institutional memory.