The 5 most ridiculous comments I always hear about organizational knowledge sharing

In Knowledge Sharing by JD Dillon

Yes, “ridiculous” is a bit harsh. No, I don’t expect everyone on the planet to understand and value the effective sharing organizational knowledge. That’s kinda my biz. So, when people make negative comments or mess up the works, you’d usually say that they “just don’t understand” or “haven’t been exposed to new ideas in meaningful ways that align to their objectives.” That’s all well and good. HOWEVER, when you start to figure out the motivations behind their comments and watch as their subsequent actions negatively impact the employee experience … the word starts to fit.

[I actually used the word “dumbest” in the first draft of this post … so this is the toned down version all around. :-)]

The comments in my rant below have been repeated over and over again in my presence for the past several years. I’ve heard them in small companies. They’ve been said within global organizations. Training people. Managers. Executives. Subject matter experts. No category, department, or role is immune. Ultimately, these comments are prime examples of a mentality about organizational knowledge that inhibits the work experience for an untold number of employees every day and, as a result, degrades the customer experience and resulting business outcomes.

So, as I to engage in discussions on the topic of organizational knowledge at both my work and during a variety of industry activities, here are the 5 MOST RIDICULOUS comments I always hear (and ultimately what we should do about them) …

“Come to me before posting a question …”

Counterpoint: You don’t know everything, Captain Manager …

I’ve spent a considerable portion of the past 15 years working as an operational manager, including time in the busiest corner of the busiest theme park in the world. I “get” managers … and most are absolutely horrible at their jobs. A few are great.  Some are decent. Most are pathetic … and it’s often because they don’t even understand/agree with the purpose for their role – hence this ridiculous comment.

Bad managers need a reason to feel like they are doing their jobs. Because they have no easily identifiable skills, they often base their personal importance on hoarding information and authority so that the Earth cannot rotate without their say-so. If people have to include them in everything, they must be important, right? Job justified? Of course (not) …

The problem is that this selfishness furthers a siloed culture that negatively impacts the larger organization. First of all, managers DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING!!! Odds are good that employees are acting on bad, inconsistent manager information because they are restricted from going to the larger community. Second, these managers should have more important things to do than acting as an ever-present knowledge repository. Maybe they could spend this time working with employees and customers who really need help and let the community take care of the simple knowledge sharing stuff? Finally, with the pace most operations move, waiting for a manager to be available/get the necessary information can be highly detrimental to the customer experience and overall business outcomes.

Good managers help people leverage all available resources and admit shortcomings openly without regard for how it reflects on them.

“I’ll let you know which things you’ll need …”

Counterpoint: You don’t know my life …

And back to bad managers … I call this the problem of “perceived importance.” Because managers (or other subject matter experts) want to control how information is shared so they can feel special, they feel it necessary to communicate only limited details that give people just enough to do the job the way THEY want it done.

The problem – no two knowledge workers necessarily do the job the same way. Therefore, no one can really predict what information is needed for everyone to achieve the desired results. Some people want just the summary while others like having all of the details for added context. While managers should definitely look for ways to help new/inexperienced employees sort through and curate useful resources, people deserve/require access to EVERYTHING that may help them improve their performance. If people can make effective use of the massive pile of content that is the Internet, they should be trusted to apply similar behaviors on the job.

“We need structure before we get started …”

Counterpoint: Did I miss the time when they applied a structure to the Internet …

How much time do we waste building and refining information architecture when we could be using that capacity to build and share a lot more information in the simplest way possible? The structured nature of SharePoint and network drives has created a mentality that information must be properly categorized and stored before it can be made available. Last I checked, the Internet doesn’t have a folder structure (credit Reuben Tozman for that observation a few years ago). People build and share information openly, allowing users to tag and organize what they like in the way that best supports their work. Personally, I send articles I like to my Pocket app where I have a personal labeling system that probably makes no sense to you. You likely do something else that works just fine for you too. Neither of us is “right.”

Besides, even in small organizations, there is so much information/tribal knowledge out there that it’s impossible to predict how to organize what you don’t even know exists. Why waste time planning when you can start sharing and provide and refine structure when needed along the way?

“But they’ll do bad things …”

Counterpoint: Who the *&%$ are you hiring and why …

This is a mildly valid comment for customer-facing content. There are a lot more decisions to be made and branding concerns on that side of the fence.

However, if you’re worried about how employees will use super important information internally, you should probably fire them right now … because you obviously don’t trust them anyway. At very least, re-evaluate your hiring practices. Conditional trust isn’t an option in a strong, forward-thinking, innovative organization. As long as the appropriate accountability is communicated and enforced, people just don’t do bad things. Whether it’s for self-preservation or altruistic motivations, they just don’t. Hire good people. Hold them accountable. Get out of their way!

I’ve been managing an enterprise social network with open commenting and thousands of users for more than three years with ZERO escalations. We’ve had plenty of “difficult” exchanges in which internal policies were challenged in very professional ways, but we’ve never had to go “HR crazy” on a user … and I never expect to.

“It has to be approved first …”

Counterpoint: Good luck keeping your business alive with that mindset … 

Unless you have KGB-like control over all forms of communication in your workplace, there is already plenty of “unapproved” content flying around. It’s in email. It’s in IM. It’s in break room conversation. It’s everywhere EXCEPT the shared repository that everyone can see. Guess which information set users tend to find most helpful … the “unapproved” stuff … because it’s targeted to their needs and built/shared quickly to keep up with the evolving needs of the business. No repetitive stakeholder reviews. No lawyers. No frustrating process chokepoints. Just the end user and their need to get the job done.

Would you rather …

  1. Force people to build their own knowledge backchannel because its too difficult to made information “official” … OR
  2. Foster open knowledge sharing and intervene only when review/approval is truly necessary?

If you chose #1, you’re already WAY behind your employees in terms of knowledge sharing … Good luck!

Rant over! Do you hear comments like these in your workplace? What’s inhibiting your employees from openly sharing and benefitting from one another’s knowledge and experience?

  • JD Dillon is the world’s foremost expert on frontline learning and enablement. He is also one of the most prolific authors and speakers in the workplace learning community. For 20 years, JD has worked in operations and talent development with some of the world’s most dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. He is the founder of LearnGeek, a workplace performance advising and insights group. He is also Chief Learning Architect with Axonify, where he builds technology, content and services that enable frontline employees around the world to do their best work every day.