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Knowledge Transfer as Wisdom Sharing

Legacy expertise is in danger of disappearing. By recasting the problem as wisdom sharing instead of knowledge transfer, energy and support can go to the people who will ensure an organization thrives in the future.

February 27, 2011
Related Topics: Strategy and Management
KEYWORDS outsourcing
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Why haven’t two decades of sustained knowledge-sharing efforts been more successful? Databases, wikis, knowledge nodes, expert resource centers, task forces and communities of practice abound. Yet there is still hand-wringing. There is something unsatisfying about the progress — or lack of it — in knowledge sharing.

Organizations have ignored the human elements that prevent people from approaching wisdom sharing from an abundance model. All too often an organization’s experts are pushed into scarcity mode. Some are blocked from wisdom sharing by a lack of time or priorities. Others fear losing their status as the in-the-know, go-to guy or gal. In this economic environment, a reluctance to share may be rooted in a fear of redundancy: “If I tell them what I know, they won’t need me.”

Edna Pasher, a consultant in the field of knowledge management for 30 years, said she believes organizations need to cope with the fear of sharing directly, study barriers and address them openly to create a culture that drives knowledge sharing.

This scarcity mindset, no matter the reason, blocks the sharing of information. Even the term “knowledge transfer” clouds the issue because it sounds and feels transactional — as if knowledge is a commodity instead of the foundation of human wisdom when wrapped with experience. Sharing experience and wisdom is a completely voluntary activity, yet it’s one of the most neglected aspects of organizational initiatives around knowledge transfer.

“The fundamental thing to remember about knowledge is that it is shared freely,” said Tony Driscoll, professor of the practice of business administration at Duke University. “Knowledge management is an oxymoron; it cannot be managed.” Keeping the voluntary aspect of sharing top of mind will serve organizations well in reducing fear and launching successful initiatives.

The world’s economic woes have provided organizations with another shot at knowledge sharing, as people who are eligible for retirement continue to work. This second chance will pay off only if managers create high-engagement work environments and their departments become incubators for storytelling, informal insight sharing and tribal wisdom. Rightly so, an increasing number of at-risk industries, such as manufacturing, education, space and defense, and utilities, are putting knowledge sharing front and center in their talent management agendas. Further, leaders everywhere need to support the tenet that wisdom should be shared more fluidly at work. Organizations hungry for cost-effective, practical solutions can select those that work best and deliver the most value and wisdom in their cultures.

Why use the term wisdom when knowledge management is more common? Wisdom is knowledge combined with enough experience to yield a new outcome for the listener or learner. It comes from perspective and insight — the “aha” moment. Further, wisdom is listener determined. Organizations have worked hard to extract knowledge, to manage it like a commodity to be exchanged between person and organization. But this artificial, forced transaction often stumbles when it encounters the human element.

The Human Element
From March through November 2010, Career Systems International, Meskin Consulting and The Learning Cafe conducted qualitative research on three fronts. One included focus groups to learn about the experience of those asked to share their wisdom and those asked to learn from them. This was particularly insightful because wisdom is listener/learner determined, not speaker/teacher determined. This stage gathered groups of professionals across the generational spectrum and found there are many commonalities that close them off from being good conveyors and receivers of wisdom.

Front two interviewed HR leaders and knowledge management experts. Those conversations recognized a lack of data about why knowledge sharing doesn’t happen more regularly and spontaneously. Third, internal expert interviews produced data about people’s experiences when they are frequently called upon to transfer their knowledge. Global and domestic experts believed there simply were not enough forums for exchange.

10 Tactics for Sharing Wisdom
Here are 10 wisdom-sharing tactics to try in an organization, department or team. Each piece of advice is reinforced with quotes directly from the aforementioned research interviews with knowledge experts and focus groups of learners and teachers.

People want real contact. Leverage technology, but keep it human. Nothing beats face-to-face access. Be passionate and excited about sharing. Think like a mentor. In the early knowledge management world of Lotus Notes, the most common occurrence in using the database was for someone to contact the author of an entry to ask a question. Web 2.0’s social networking capabilities have expanded our definition of “face to face,” but the relationship and contact is what matters; technology is the enabler.

“When I really pay close attention to someone’s advice, it’s because they are mentor-like; they really want to share their wisdom. They are looking at me. They’re passionate. They’re credible.”

No one’s perfect, so why pretend? A good leader shares mishaps as well as mastery. Don’t pretend to be perfect. When a leader shares the bumps and scrapes, he or she gives others an opening to discuss their vulnerabilities, which opens up another teaching avenue.

“You’ve got to meet people where they are; your own experience can bridge the gap between where they are and where they could be.”

Don’t force it, value it. Knowledge sharing is a completely voluntary activity. Organizations can’t make people share “the good stuff.” Hook into the voluntary nature of wisdom sharing by learning what motivates and demotivates.

“I’m most juiced to convey to others what I’ve learned when I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished [and] know I have something of value to convey.”

“When I choose not to share my wisdom with someone, it’s because I don’t feel they would value my experience or I feel threatened or intimidated.”


Been there, done that. Use examples and take the attitude of “I’ll tell you how it actually happened.”

“I speak matter-of-factly and to the point. I try to directly to answer their question to the best of my ability even if it means pointing out my own warts and the company’s problems.”

Don’t provide too much information. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t overwhelm or bore — engage. Create relevance. Extend words of wisdom about what the person needs to know and do right now.

“When I’m supposed to be learning something, I tend to shut down if there’s an overload of information without examples to apply and there’s too much information that doesn’t seem relevant.”

Do you connect with me? Wisdom sharing is a contact sport. Learning can’t be forced on unenthusiastic partners, nor can reluctant experts be compelled to share. For both parties, respect is a key ingredient. When both parties care and are authentic about their desire to truly know the other person, they develop the trust required for wisdom creation and sharing.

“I lose interest in someone imparting their wisdom when they don’t look me in the eye, [when they] look down on me or [when they] preach to me — [when] they don’t seem genuine and ‘tell’ me instead of engaging me in dialogue.”

“When I struggle to internalize the wisdom that someone is trying to convey to me, it’s because it’s robotic, mechanical or disingenuous. Or it’s because they talked down to me and don’t explain things in a way that seems relevant to me.”

What’s the big idea? As digital production and storage grow cheaper, a critical task will be to stop the volume of information available from overwhelming its value and relevance.

“My No. 1 priority as an expert is to move people from thinking only about what applies to them in their job right now. In other words, I’ve got to help them see why the information is critical and what it means to our organization now and in five years.”

Encourage and reward sharing. People are not typically given recognition for sharing. Demonstrate to the workforce that sharing is highly valued. Create champions and publicly recognize contributions. Knowledge management pioneer Edna Pasher said companies would do well to look at the academic environment, where clear rules apply to providing credit where credit is due, and create incentives to collaborate or basic rules of engagement for sharing. She also said that an essential element of a win-win culture of sharing is welcoming questions and sending public signals that questions are encouraged.

“Two words make a big difference — ‘thank you.’ I wish that someone would recognize the time I spend teaching others.”

Repay the favor. Leaders playing at the top of their game should enjoy passing on their wisdom. The degree to which they pay it forward is the degree to which they legitimize the information.

“I remember when my manager stopped me from making a huge mistake. I now know how to give other people the same warning.”

Relate with stories. Pop quiz — how many people were on U.S. Airways flight 1549, which landed in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009? Who was the captain of the flight? The odds are great that you remember Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger was the pilot — less so that the plane held 155 passengers — because stories stick better in memory than facts and figures. Boost wisdom sharing with stories about personal experience.

“I learn best from someone who uses examples and stories and relates to me.”

“While social networking is quickly transforming our world in and out of organizations, it was not designed, nor will it ever replace, face-to-face [networking],” said Lauren Klein, social media expert and community officer at Executive Networks.

Today’s organizations have the power and all of the benefits of technology as well as traditional face-to-face knowledge-sharing methods. They are linked together, as John Seely Brown referred to in his classic The Social Life of Information: “At the root of the problem lie issues of meaning, judgement, sense making, context and interpretation — issues far beyond a simple search and embedded in social life.”

People crave meaning. Blend these tips and optimize those that work well. Simultaneously take the best of technology and face-to-face interactions to build a wisdom-nurturing environment. It won’t happen overnight, but it can be achieved, and the workforce will notice, participate and benefit over time.
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