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When it comes to workplace knowledge sharing, start small but think BIG

In Knowledge Sharing by JD Dillon

Wouldn’t it be great if all of our employees started sharing their knowledge in our enterprise social network tomorrow?

No … That would probably NOT be good, especially if you work in a large operation with tens of thousands of employees. I’d liken this to a bizarro world in which EVERY internet user (notice the lowercase “i”) started their own blog at the same time and published useful new articles every day. No one wants that. There are only so many stories to be told and so much Google can do to help us sift through the noise.

Fire hydrant of internet information

Right now, most organizations suffer from the opposite – a complete lack of employee knowledge sharing combined with over-reliance on a select number of SMEs. All of the great HOWs of the workplace are locked in people’s minds and get lost when they leave the company. The inclination, therefore, is often to run out, purchase social enterprise technology and let it loose upon the employee population. As I discussed in 5 reasons your employees aren’t sharing their knowledge, this approach results in barren Yammer instances and useless SharePoint sites.

So how do you land somewhere in the middle? When it comes to workplace knowledge sharing, its vital that you approach your strategy with a “start small, think BIG” mentality.

Here’s how …

Start with business value. Why do you want people to share – besides the fact that it feels like the right thing to do? What business problems will this solve? How will this improve your employee experience? Your customer experience? Identify AND document your specific knowledge sharing objectives – then get started with strategy.

Build a 6-month strategyYou could have the BEST knowledge sharing strategy EVER. Your employees are still going to change it as THEY figure out the real value for THEM. Start small by building your strategy with the first 6 months in mind. Then, iterate along the way as employees take you where they need to go for the betterment of the entire organization. Stay true to your objectives, but flex your approach. If you stay locked into your initial strategy, you’ll likely end up back in barren ESNland before too long.

Pick flexible tech. Your tech must be able to flex with your evolving strategy – in two specific ways. First, your tech should have enough functionality, especially when it comes to user contribution, to let your employees find the right ways to share their knowledge to best meet their needs. Secondly, your tech should make it easy (or at least easy-ish) to change platforms as your needs change over time. Its unlikely that any organization will use the same enterprise knowledge tools for the next 10+ years. We didn’t even know what an iPhone was 10 years ago! If you are using the same tool 10 years from now, its either from an AMAZING vendor or you still have SharePoint.

Find your pilgrims. You can’t just turn on the tech and expect employees to start sharing. Sure, a few may jump onboard, but will they share in a way that really provides value? Start by addressing the cultural implications of knowledge sharing. Find your “pilgrims” – aka those employees who are already primed for sharing. Look for the people who are known for building and circulating those ugly yet beloved job aids and PowerPoint presentations. You know, that awesome shared knowledge your legal team considers “contraband.” Bring them into your strategy and leverage their sharing habits to support your implementation. Not only can they provide base content, but they can also help you tweak your strategy while acting as role models for the rest of the organization.

Make every decision for 10,000 users. While you’re starting small with a limited contributor team, you should be making every decision with BIG intentions. What? EVERYTHING you do has to be scalable to the ENTIRE organization. After all, if it works, people are going to want in. If you build your strategy to support only a select number of employees, you’ll be in trouble when you find success (ironically). This is a huge factor to keep in mind when making technology and process decisions. If you do have to make decisions that cannot be scaled later, communicate those clearly and close the gaps whenever possible so people don’t come asking for things they can’t have.

Scale appropriately. I’m a BIG fan of organic growth when it comes to knowledge sharing. Don’t just set a timeline and let people in based on a predetermined schedule. Leverage your early adopters to find the right approach to enterprise expansion. Is it not taking off? Slow down and try a few new ideas. Take your strategy to teams who are ready to support the change and have measurable problems they can solve through knowledge sharing. Sell your approach based on the value it has delivered within the business so far and how that value can be translated to new audiences.

Keep it accessible. As you scale, you may find it best to NOT provide contributor permissions to every employee. This could be for legal and compliance reasons. It could be due to institutional fear. It could be a limitation of your technology. Regardless, this shouldn’t stop you from leveraging shared employee knowledge. Its OK to limit contribution – as long as the knowledge sharing experience feels accessible to EVERY employee.

Let’s use a retail example. You may have 6,000 employees, including a huge part-time contingent, in stores spread across the US. Allowing everyone to share may create an unwieldy pile of content and damage the overall user experience. It also may be unrealistic based on established social principles like 90/9/1. While everyone is still permitted to access shared knowledge on their own, you may restrict contribution to a set group as defined by specific qualification. When doing so, select employees who are readily available, such as trainers or managers, so they may act as surrogates for those who do not have contributor permissions. Establish processes and launch campaigns that motivate employees to push information to these designated contacts so they still have a voice within the larger organization.

Have you scaled knowledge sharing across your organization? Were you successful with a “start small, think BIG” approach? What other factors are key when developing a knowledge sharing strategy?

  • 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.