So there you are, five hours into work on that new project, only to find out that your colleague already did that same work or had information you spent a lot of time trying to collect. Or maybe you were talking with someone about your organization’s or business’ less than satisfactory outcome to a tough problem, only to find out that this person had another piece of the picture or a different approach to the question that you’d never considered … and this person was none to pleased that you never asked them for their input in the first place!
Sound familiar? It’s pretty common in our individualistic, competitive, put-out-the-most-recent-fire world that information critical to achieving our collective objectives isn’t shared … despite lengthy and unproductive meetings, or talk of more and better communication. It’s ironic that as individuals we’re so thirsty to be heard, to have someone value the information or contribution we have to make. And yet, in our organizations we seem to expect that individuals should already know what’s needed, and, if they have to ask (god forbid), they should ask targeted questions of the “expert” to get at the minimum they think they need to respond to the problem of the moment. (And don’t you dare suggest another meeting!)
Call me an idealist, but imagine for a moment that the people you worked with recognized that you and they all had an important piece of a dynamic puzzle, and that continuous sharing of useful information with each other was fundamental to achieving your group’s objectives, improving products or services, and increasing employees’ or members’ sense of buy-in and empowerment. Mmm …
So, what would it take? I’m not an expert on action research, knowledge management or collaborative learning, but I think we have a lot to learn from all these fields to improve the knowledge sharing in our organizations. And, just to get you started, here are a few of the ideas I’ve successfully worked with:
1) Bring in more voices – For example, at your next meeting include a supportive (open, not dismissive or “going through the motions”) go-round with input from every single person in the room about a challenging question. Or ask stakeholders who haven’t previously been involved to come up with three criteria for what would successfully address the question, or at least ten possible (even if crazy) brainstorm ideas related to the issue. Or try a mind map to identify related approaches or concepts that might inform the discussion.
2) Recognize and appreciate learning – Create specific times and spaces for sharing information (for example, include it in job descriptions, schedule specific time or resources available to support learning or knowledge sharing, do lessons-learned exercises, start a listserv, blog or lunchtime discussion group, etc.) and value the learning that is shared (express appreciation for learning and sharing efforts, identify the concrete effects of that knowledge and possible next steps, create rewards, etc.).
3) Be purposeful – Learning is great, no matter what, but with limited time and resources, you can collaborate more effectively by identifying the particular questions or issues that you want to learn more about, and the specific benefits you hope to achieve from that learning .. and then evaluate how you’re doing and consider what will give you a better chance of meeting your goals.
4) Recognize and leave space for resistance – Ours is a culture which values “experts”, and valuing everyone’s knowledge and input can feel like a threat to an “expert’s” status quo, a challenge to those unused to speaking up, and an inefficient way of doing business (“we already tried that”, “everyone knows that doesn’t work because …”, etc.). So acknowledge the resistance, leave time and space for individual reactions, and patiently focus on creating environments where we learn from expertise, and still leave space for new ideas or approaches that may indeed better fit the current context than the old tried-and-true “truth.”
Collaboration requires this collective learning. And in that spirit of collaboration, how would you add to this list of ways to strengthen knowledge sharing in your organization or business?