CXO

Talking Shop: The importance of sharing institutional knowledge

Get Bob Artners viewpoint about sharing information in your organization.


Many new management books talk about the need to flatten the organization. Indeed, some people advocate getting rid of formal organization charts altogether, allowing people to move in and out of ad hoc teams created to deal with specific projects. (In my experience, those kinds of teams are what you get assigned to on top of your regular work, but that’s another column.)

No matter what your organization structure looks like, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about the need to empower your employees, to give them the information they need to make their own decisions whenever possible.

While empowerment sounds great in theory, it runs into some problems in the real world. One of them is that company executives often talk about the need to give their employees the necessary information, but they don’t actually deliver the information. TechRepublic members talk about that kind of problem quite frequently in the Discussion Center.

In this column, however, I want to talk about another problem: employees who don’t want to share their particular job knowledge with either managers or other line employees. For many IT managers, this is a more immediate problem than getting information from senior management. Let’s see why it happens and what you can do about it.
In our Discussion Center, we're talking about how to encourage employees to share corporate knowledge. To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner's Law column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.
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Message in a coffee cup
To show you what a problem this can be, let me tell you about something that happened to me 15 years ago. One of my first management jobs was at a long distance carrier. My promotion created some awkwardness, since I was now supervising a roomful of folks who had been at the company much longer than I had. In fact, several of the people on my staff had applied for my job.

That’s why I was so touched when one of my employees presented me with a gift my first day on the job. It was a coffee mug. On the mug was the organizational chart of some mythical company, with a bunch of sarcastic job titles: VP in charge of stuff, Owner’s Nephew, Old-What’s-His-Name. You get the idea.

Anyway, the woman who gave me the gift pointed to one of the titles and said, “That’s me.” The job title was Assistant Who Secretly Knows How Everything Works. Then she gave me a tight smile and said, “And don’t you forget it!”

It didn’t take me long to find out that she was right. Having been with the company almost from its beginning, she had all the institutional knowledge you’d expect someone in her position to have.

She knew how to interpret the huge greenbar reports we’d get from the local telephone companies. Having dealt with many of our vendors, she knew the people to talk to in order to get an order processed in a hurry. She even knew ways to access information in our mainframe that no one else knew how to do.

All of this made her a godsend to a new manager like me.

The problem: she didn’t want to share any of that information. When I walked into the job, nothing was documented, and for any situation out of the ordinary, we’d have to “ask Louise” because she was the only one who knew how to solve the problem.

She loved being treated as indispensable. Despite what were, at first, my pleadings, which later became my commands, she would never train any of her co-workers on her “special tasks.”

“What if you got hit by a bus?” I’d ask her, frustrated by her unwillingness to document even the tiniest procedure.

“That’d be a problem, wouldn’t it?” She agreed, laughing.

Breaking down personal knowledge fiefdoms
As I said, that happened a long time ago, when I wasn’t nearly as experienced in managing people. If that same situation happened today, I wouldn’t hesitate nearly as long in confronting the employee and forcing him or her to either document all of those procedures or find another place to work.

That sounds harsh, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather have an inexperienced person who’s willing to both learn from and teach his or her peers than an experienced person who won’t let others benefit from that experience.

Since no one wants to get rid of such employees, how can you make them share their knowledge with you and their coworkers? Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic bullet that you can use to solve this problem.

In my experience, employees who hoard their job knowledge believe in the old adage that knowledge is power, and therefore, sharing that knowledge will somehow make them less powerful and more vulnerable.

In other words, it’s a question of trust. You somehow must not only convince the person they have nothing to fear by sharing job knowledge, but that, in fact, they can benefit from doing so.

If everyone in a group shares their knowledge, they all become more valuable employees. I believe that, because I’ve seen it happen many times. However, I also know it can be a tough message to deliver.



How do you start this knowledge sharing?
Fortunately, you don’t have to rely entirely on persuading your employees to share their institutional job knowledge. There are some steps you can take yourself. They may seem obvious, but they’re effective:
  • Insist on documentation.
  • Have your staff cross-train each other (for vacation coverage, if for no other reason).
  • Institute mentoring programs, where experienced employees are teamed with new hires.
  • If appropriate, implement a job rotation schedule.

This isn’t an exhaustive list—I’m sure that there are other actions you can take. The important thing is not to give up—sharing job knowledge among your staff is critical to your organization’s success.
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