E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Being Human – What Are You Afraid Of?

Gran Canaria - Veril Playa / Veril BeachLast week Friday, my good friend, the always enlightening Euan Semple, posted one of those very thought provoking blog posts that one cannot ignore, just like that. Under the title Being Human he shared a few insights around the abstract that he submitted for the wonderful Social Business Edge conference event that will be taking place in New York in a couple of weeks and where he will be one of the many talented speakers. In that article he comes to reflect some more on why knowledge workers, in general, face some tough issues at work, while they keep pushing the limits on their wider adoption of social software within the enterprise. Mainly:

"The biggest challenge to getting people to share isn’t to do with technology it is to do with very personal challenges and issues that relate to their sense of self and their relationship with their employers"

The conversations that have sparked as a result of that blog entry by Euan have been amazingly inspiring (Go and read through the comments as well!) and surely are worth while reading through to get a glimpse of the potential solutions that the corporate world could well start exploring. The sooner, the better. KM extraordinaire Jack Vinson also picked up this topic under the post "What is it about humans?" and he actually finishes off that relevant article with some very thought provoking and controversial questions whose answers could perhaps address most of the key points that Euan discusses on his post.

So what is it? Why are knowledge workers so afraid of sharing what they know (Their ideas, experiences, know-how, skills, lessons learned, etc. etc. you name it!)? Is it because they don’t want to disrupt the current enterprise status quo? Is it because they want to please their boss and don’t go beyond the line? Is it because they don’t want to stand out and just basically keep doing their jobs, so that they can get their paychecks by the end of the month? Specially, given the current financial crisis most countries are still recovering from? Is it because knowledge workers have never been told, nor taught, why sharing is a good thing? Or perhaps is it due to the fact that the corporate world keeps rewarding individual performance which lives on knowledge is power and therefore people have a tendency to hide away their knowledge and not share it widely?

Or is it perhaps something larger? Something much more profound and deep within every single business out there? A matter of trust? Trust that walks both ways, by the way, from the employee to the employer and vice versa? Or, better said, a lack of trust from either party that prohibits knowledge workers from excelling at what they are good by nature, social sharing, and which most businesses today would consider that a threat to their own status quo?

Who knows… The key thing, and that’s something that I, too, agree with Euan big time, is that it is just such a missed opportunity! Businesses should not only encourage their knowledge workers to constantly share what they know, but they should go the extra mile. They should make an effort to help facilitate their knowledge workforce to challenge the business itself. Constantly. Day in, day out. To keep them real with feedback on what works, and what doesn’t. To collectively improve the overall business processes in place, specially those that everyone knows need improvements, yet no-one speaks up about them! To, finally, open and speed up the innovation process where those knowledge workers would be much more in control, but without ignoring, nor neglecting, the structures already in place.

Businesses that don’t have that kind of attitude or mentality are surely declaring, out loud, clear statements that, overtime, are going to harm the business even more; not encouraging your knowledge workforce to share and participate from open, unrestricted, provocative conversations to help generate more business value is basically telling them up front they are not to be trusted and their work as good, hard working professionals can’t be trusted either!

And that’s probably the worst thing you can do as a business: start undermining, right from the start, from the moment they join the company, the great talent of your workforce by not encouraging them to openly share what they, as working professionals, know they could go and deliver: their best of breed thinking.

I keep seeing such attitude time and time again all over place, specially when management is involved. I am sure you can hint why this is happening, right? But let me tell you this. There is *nothing* out there in the corporate world that could be more rewarding, for both the company and the employee workforce, than constructively challenging management decisions. It’s a healthy behaviour. It keeps management real, down to earth, connected with their workforce, alert on what potential issues may be coming from their knowledge workers and already hint what could be done to address them. It keeps the business on guard by providing an opportunity to break hierarchical structures, to make them more dynamic, more agile, more proactive in helping tackle actual business problems. And find solutions…

It helps employees as well feel connected with their management line; it helps them understand that they, too, are humans, with a need to be social, to share, to collaborate, to work together (After all, they are on the same boat, aren’t they not?!?!); in short, to partner together into making good companies great companies to work for. That is, challenging management decisions will help your business grow further much faster,  much more intelligent and smart, much more involved with your employees, as well as customers and business partners, to the point where it would continue to deliver the business value of your company into a higher level of interactions.

Why? Because it makes you human and, like we all know, humans like to converse with other humans; they like to share what they know, they like to socialise, they want to co-create your next generation of great products, they want to take an active part in shaping up not only the relationships between customers and your company, but also within your own company. It’s the age of the knowledge economy, where knowledge sharing, collaboration and rampant innovation walk hand in hand no longer in the shape of a nice thing to have, but more as an essential, critical and integral part of every business. And your knowledge worker is the gatekeeper. So the sooner you release that power, the better for you, as a business and, of course, for your customers, which is what matters at the end of the day, don’t you think?

That’s exactly why social software tools are so powerful in this scenario I have tried to describe over the last few paragraphs from this post. Why they keep breaking the traditional model of engagement behind the firewall, where only a few had got an opportunity to share their ideas. Now, everyone can! With social tools like blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, tagging, podcasting, vodcasting, etc. etc. everyone has got an opportunity to have a voice and an opinion inside the company; and value it for what it is: an indispensable, inexhaustible resource every single business out there just can’t ignore any longer.

Thus what are you, as a business, going to do? Are you going to release, and make the best out of, all of that unused brain power? Or are you going to continue muting your own knowledge workforce, because whatever they may have to say may hurt your feelings and status quo? Are you going to show the way and lead them by example on how they, too, can be as human social beings as they would want to and therefore help re-humanise your company once again? Will you finally unleash the power and allow them to have the control for what they were hired to do in the first place? Being a hard working professional doing the right job?

It’s up to you. Really. But hurry up, because there is a great chance they themselves won’t wait for you much longer, if you don’t start Being Human yourself …

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7 comments

  1. I haven’t read those articles, will do, thanks. But as to people sharing or not, I think it’s no different in the workplace than in personal life. It depends on not only trust levels but context, then you add on personal history, the ability people have (or not) to communicate (and in different forms), and it’s complex.

    Trust levels I think are immediately self-explanatory so I won’t explain that comment further.

    Context matters in that first of all, we learn (both for better and worse) not to share what someone else isn’t “interested” in, so immediately we begin ascertaining, and too little stop to ask in that process, “does this person care to know this?” Of course we need to exercise a filter for context and we need to do it without asking each person what they want to know. Simple example, at work, certainly a person knows not to say every single thing of personal interest that pops into their head, as some of it is unduly personal, some of it wildly inappropriate to work, and some of it just fleeting and of no value even to the one thinking it. Now those are fine examples, I think, but the difficulty comes into the more fine-grained process evidenced by talking to a manager and being told (perhaps even by that manager) not to overload that person with information. So what is appropriate? It’s not so easy a question, especially in an age of information overload and the “5 minute manager”.

    Then add in personal history. What I mean by this is how one has learned to react to others, both generally and per individual encountered. If I talk to a manager, for example, who cuts me off and goes so far as to say, “I don’t care what you have to say” (I do not work with anyone like this, I’m taking a fairly extreme example for sake of demonstration) then at the least I learn not to share with that person, if only out of ego preservation. And imagine the unfortunate person who grows up abused or otherwise socially circumscribed…that person learns models for sharing that were essential to personal survival in an earlier phase but are generally counter-productive at work.

    Ability is also key. A person who is not a good communicator may learn not to communicate much, or may simply “teach” others not to pay as much attention. Factor in how others react and a person’s feelings about how others react, and sharing may be a major challenge.

    And of course I haven’t even touched corporate environments. Apple is a good example of a culture which has created disincentives for sharing (e.g., the company steadfastly refuses to share product roadmaps with enterprises, a major barrier to enterprise adoption, let alone the barriers they put up between engineers and the rest of the company to protect IP), and they are generally seen as successful (rightly or wrongly) for this culture of secrecy. I do think that their success is over-stated in that it is not clear that Jobs has instituted a sustainable diva culture to succeed him, though we won’t know that until after he departs Apple. Anyway, my point here is that corporations are often built on successes of NOT sharing. It’s a tangent to “being human” but related in that we most often react to what we perceive as success by mimicking it.

  2. Luis, I think you right here. ” Or perhaps is it due to the fact that the corporate world keeps rewarding individual performance which lives on knowledge is power and therefore people have a tendency to hide away their knowledge and not share it widely”

    I think the corporate culture of the industrial era dictated individualism over ‘community’ism. Social Business will only succeed when people genuinely feel compelled to share and discuss things that they consider of ‘power’ or an edge for themselves.

    Maybe, that’s why the true non-enterprise social communities have a common goal that the whole community feels passionately about and no one gains/looses from it from financial perspective.

    For instance, tech user groups, hot deals forums, facebook etc.

  3. Luis, my recent presentation on “Participation in CoPs” cover some of these points.

    If you are engaged you will share. Technology now enables this but it has to be facilitated.

    If people have an audience, get comments, build a reputation…sharing becomes a need to them.

    But first we need to have trust, feel comfortable and confident, build rapport.

    And then there are harder obstacles because they are top-down like: middle managers still wanting to control the flow of information. And rewarding individual action rather than collaboration.

    Here’s a link to my presentation:
    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2010/03/25/presentation-participation-in-communities-of-practice/

  4. “Or perhaps is it due to the fact that the corporate world keeps rewarding individual performance which lives on knowledge is power and therefore people have a tendency to hide away their knowledge and not share it widely?”

    I think that the above sums most of the problem up neatly. It is very unusual to see an organization actually reward employees for real knowledge sharing. I’m talking about going way beyond rewards for making posts in discussion groups or CoP listservs. Real rewards for those employees who go out of their way to find someone else in their organization that needs the knowledge that they hold in their hands.

    As long as employees are either rewarded for doing the wrong things (e.g., sending yet another document without any meta tags off to the repository) or they see more personal benefit in hoarding the knowledge, the tendency will be to not share. Sad, but that’s the way that it is in most organizations.

  5. So true Dan, I mentioned about the issue of rewarding individual action in my comment.

    Here’s a long blog post of mine on this deep rooted problem

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2009/11/12/i-dont-want-to-share-thats-counter-to-meeting-my-objectivesand-reward/

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2009/12/17/the-roi-of-time-spent-helping-others-and-performance-reviews/

    We need some structural shifts for all this to happen…bottom-up is not enough

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