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The virtue of sharing your ideas

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The virtue of sharing your ideas

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For a writer on subjects such as collaboration and innovation you can perhaps guess that I’m a big supporter of openness, and the immense value that can come from sharing our ideas.  Except of course, much of the commercial and academic world isn’t really designed to encourage that.

I wrote last week about a couple of studies highlighting the value that organizations can derive from opening up their intellectual property.  When they do so, and their peers likewise, innovation becomes noticeably cheaper, and therefore more evident.  This in turn tends to make markets larger, therefore earning participants more in the process.

A recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal highlights how a similar affect can be seen when we share ideas on a personal level, within our organizations.  It suggests that there are similar processes at play on an individual level as there are at an organizational level.

“More specifically, employees who intentionally hide more knowledge seem bound to receive such selfish behavior in return from their co-workers, which will ultimately hurt them and decrease their creativity,” the researchers wrote in the study.

So in other words, just as shielding intellectual property behind patents encourages other organizations to do the same, so does shielding knowledge from your colleagues.  The research went on to reveal some of the systemic factors that tend to produce such an environment.  Highly competitive environments for instance not surprisingly do little to promote sharing.

The researchers revealed the importance of management, even in cultures where sharing and cooperation were actively promoted.  They revealed that in many such environments, the rewards and measurement parts of the system were seldom aligned, therefore employees were not rated any higher by their bosses when they shared knowledge than if they kept it to themselves.

What’s more, as my article yesterday showed, selfish behaviour, as evidenced by hoarding knowledge, was found to be viral in nature.  As employees suffered from knowledge hoarding when they themselves required help, that encouraged them to hoard knowledge themselves, and so the vicious circle began, with all employees losing out.

The moral of the story seems to be a simple one.  If you want to encourage knowledge sharing and mutual support amongst employees, then you need to ensure that all of your systems are aligned to achieve that.  I posted yesterday some organizational levers you can use to promote workplace behaviour, and they bare repeating here too.

7 ways to encourage a giving culture

  1. Focus on the task – the last 20/30 years have seen big changes in how tasks are designed.  Various process improvement methodologies have evolved to ensure that tasks are performed in an optimum way.  If your organisation makes use of such methodologies, make sure you include giving, knowledge sharing and collaboration in them.  Ask yourself how the work flow would need to change to encourage more giving behaviour.
  2. Focus on the people – it is very easy to place undue emphasis on the people element of change, with the false assumption that if you could only change your team, everything would magically fall into place.  Whilst getting the right people on board is important, there is a great deal of psychological research showing that our behaviour is influenced as much by the situations we find ourselves in as the kind of people we are.  Think about the kind of skills required of your team in order to encourage knowledge sharing.
  3. Focus on the rewards – whilst rewards sound like a purely positive thing, they can also include punishments.  What happens to people in your organisation when they behave the way you want, and of course what happens when they don’t?  Remember that rewards don’t have to be monetary.  Gamification has shown that it too has a role in reinforcing the right kind of behaviours.  You will need to align your monetary and non-monetary rewards however to truly encourage a sharing culture.
  4. Focus on measurement – measurement is rightly important, and the saying goes that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.  What you choose to measure also sends a strong message to employees about what you regard as important.  This, coupled with the rewards you offer for good result, send frequent signals to employees about what matters.  Use it wisely.
  5. Focus on information – think also about the kind of information people need in order to share wisely.  In this instance employees will need to know both the problems their peers are having, and also the right people to ask if they themselves have a problem.  You will also need to install strong and frequent feedback so that employees know how well they’re performing.
  6. Focus on organisation – most organisations have an org chart that outlines how the company is structured.  If you’re trying to encourage people to share knowledge, then it’s very likely that this will mean knowledge flowing across organisational lines.  How will this impact upon the make-up of teams within your organisation?  Do you have the kind of flexibility that promotes this behaviour?
  7. Focus on decision making – if that knowledge is flowing, what impact will it have on who and when decisions are made?  How will this impact upon the traditional leader/follower make up of teams?
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