Sharing What You Know

I once hit a problem whilst developing that meant I could do no productive work for five days. Five days may not seem like a long time but when you only have 13 days to complete an iteration it feels like a lifetime. I was working with a new product and no one on my team had encountered the problem before and I found it very difficult to get support from the vendor who also hadn’t encountered the problem. I don’t remember how I fixed this but I remember how annoyed I was a few weeks later when I discovered that someone else in the company had previously solved the same problem. It turned out that there were three different teams all learning to use the same technology at the same time!

When I spoke to my boss about this communication problem he told me that although the company talked about knowledge sharing from time to time they had never been able to come up with a way to make this work.

I contacted the leaders of the other teams and pointed out that we were all busy struggling with the same things. We were all in agreement that we could benefit from each others mistakes and successes. However, no one could think of a sensible way to pass on the knowledge. All the suggestions we had involved writing documentation and no one had any time in their budget to write these documents. From past experience they also knew that the team members would resent having to write them and that no one would bother to read them.

I left the company not long after this and went away with the impression that knowledge sharing, whilst being a nice idea, didn’t really work in practice.

Tonight I was reading Nancy M. Dixon’s book Common Knowledge in which she discusses the pleasure we feel when we pass useful knowledge to other people.

The truth is that if we know something that we think someone else needs to know, it is difficult for us to refrain from telling them. It is almost a natural impulse to tell others what we know.

So why couldn’t we get people to share knowledge? Well it appears that one reason for this was that we tried to get people to write about their experiences instead of talking face to face. It seems that part of our willingness to share information is to do with the personal benefit we will receive from doing so – even if the benefit is nothing more than a smile or a thank you.

If we want people in our organisations to share what they have learned, we would be wise to create the conditions in which sharing results is of personal benefit

Instead of dreaming up document sharing systems to solve the problem we probably should all have met for pizza once a week and the knowledge would have flowed naturally.

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