KM Bribery

There have been some recent high profile investigations of bribery in the business world. Has anyone checked the knowledge management world? I’ve heard reports of cash rewards, gift cards and coveted electronics offered by various KM departments to induce knowledge workers to participate in KM systems. In what way are these not bribes?

Here’s the sad part, while greasing the palm of a corrupt official may win a piece of business, bribing a knowledge worker to do anything except rote work rarely works.  I’ve linked below to a David Gurteen video on KM Incentives and a Daniel Pink video on Motivation, both of which explain some of the problems with offering incentives.  According to Dan Pink, knowledge workers find that extrinsic motivators (like cash rewards and gifts) tend to narrow their focus, limit their creativity and increase the pressure.  Rewards discourage risk taking.  In other words, extrinsic motivators create precisely the kind of conditions least conducive for creative, expansive, innovative work.  David Gurteen raises some additional issues relating to incentives for KM participation:

  • By offering an incentive for KM work, you imply that this work is a burden — an extra chore that no sane person would undertake without coercion or incentive.  Is this really the message you wish to convey?  Or, worse still, is this the reality of your KM program?
  • KM incentives change human behavior, training people to participate in a KM system only when bribed, rather than participating because it is the right thing to do.  He cites Alfie Kohn (author of Punished by Rewards) who believes that rewards can destroy the intrinsic motivation to do a job well or to do the right thing.  (See summary by Justin Podur.)
  • External motivators tend to encourage people to game the system.  Since they are being asked to do something they don’t really want to do, sensible people will try to do as little of it as possible for the maximum gain.  This leads to participation peaks near the deadline for tallying credit or forming alliances to rig the outcomes.

If KM incentives have little more than short-term value, then what should a wise knowledge manager focus on?  Focus on the elephant that has been standing quietly in the corner during this whole discussion:  you have to prove the value of your KM system.  If knowledge workers don’t believe that a system is valuable, then they will have little internal motivation to participate, and any external motivators offered will produce only grudging cooperation.  At the end of the day, effective people don’t really want to waste time.  If we can’t prove the value of our KM systems, then we are asking them to waste their time.  Under these conditions, offering an incentive is little more than providing a tranquilizer to ease the pain.

Daniel Pink’s Video

David Gurteen’s Video

[Photo Credit: jessicafm — using candy and toys to induce cooperation during a haircut]

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16 thoughts on “KM Bribery

  • January 11, 2010 at 10:12 am
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    Glad to see you cite Alfie Kohn. He is continuously excoriated by “educators” because he has been saying for years that grades are counter-productive. The following quote from the book you cite is why I try to get people to think about educating, not training, our colleagues: “Our basic strategy for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words: Do this and you'll get that. We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same way that we train the family pet.” Not exactly the behavior we really want, I don't think.

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  • January 11, 2010 at 10:54 am
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    Mary –

    I think you want to separate rewards as part of marketing a campaign and rewards for long term use of a tool.

    Long term use of tool should be because it works well, not because you are going to get a Starbucks gift card or other trinket. As you state, you have to prove the value of the tool.

    But rewards can be used as part of a marketing campaign to increase awareness of the tool. You want people to try out the tool so they can see its value.

    Since you used the picture of a kid, I thought of the labor of getting my kids to try new foods. I admit I am willing to resort to bribery to get them to taste something new. I just want one little bite to see if they like it. I want them to ask for more because they like it, not because they think they will get a reward the next time.

  • January 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm
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    Direct rewards may skew behaviour towards the rewards rather than the desired behavioural changes. However I have seen very successful initiatives whereby the senior management were incentivised according to the participation of their staff. Suddenly the senior management encouraged contribution to and use of the KM tools. The Knowledge Workers didn't need any more incentives.

  • January 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm
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    I felt better about myself when I shared something that worked for me … that helped someone in a similar situation.

    So I don't think KM needs to be incentivized … it needs to be personalized

  • January 11, 2010 at 1:43 pm
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    Thanks, Jon. This is a great example of acting on intrinsic
    motivation.You're right that good things happen when we trigger the impulse
    to altruism. A slightly more cynical person might say that you answered the
    WIIFM question (what's in it for me) and then were able to help someone else
    answer that question for themselves.

    – Mary

  • January 11, 2010 at 1:44 pm
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    That's an interesting case worth exploring further, Kevin. Were the KM
    contributions generally of high quality?

    – Mary

  • January 11, 2010 at 1:47 pm
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    That's a fair point, Doug. And, it illustrates the limits of rewards. You
    can use a reward to convince your child to take one bite. After that,
    you're likely going to have to sweeten the pot if you want them to eat
    something they don't like. Adults aren't much different.

    – Mary

  • January 11, 2010 at 1:52 pm
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    Rick –

    I have to thank David Gurteen for pointing me to Alfie Kohn. The challenge
    Kohn makes is considerable. If we can't rely on relatively cheap sticks and
    carrots, we're going to have to invest in helping people identify and
    respond to their own instrinsic motivators. And, we're going to have to
    provide environments that allow them to do the right thing. Both of these
    are much more demanding of the parent, teacher, supervisor, employer,
    knowledge manager, etc. than offering a bribe.

    – Mary

  • January 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm
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    Thanks. I have been playing with this idea on a new website called RespectExchange.com where people help each other.

    The idea is that everyone is an expert in their own situation … so everyone can help others … at least a little bit.

    I would welcome comments on the idea

    Cheers Jon

  • January 11, 2010 at 6:08 pm
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    I agree with Mary … I can see the idea of incentivised senior managers according to the participation of their staff … just might work

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  • January 22, 2010 at 2:26 am
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    Interesting perspective. I am in the process of trying to re-vitalise a KM programm in a large organisation with about 2000 agent who (hopefully) could benefit. Currently there are many tactical local initiatives, shared drives, web servers under people's desks, WIKI's, ad-hoc Sharepoint sites. What I think will benefit the organisation is moving to a more standardised way of collating knowledge, but we need to encourage people to change away from their existing tactical solutions onto a more strategic platform. Was considering using small incentives, bottle of wine here and there as a way to get some comms going and raise awareness of the new programme.

    Your post is making me think twice …

  • January 22, 2010 at 7:26 am
    Permalink

    Interesting perspective. I am in the process of trying to re-vitalise a KM programm in a large organisation with about 2000 agent who (hopefully) could benefit. Currently there are many tactical local initiatives, shared drives, web servers under people's desks, WIKI's, ad-hoc Sharepoint sites. What I think will benefit the organisation is moving to a more standardised way of collating knowledge, but we need to encourage people to change away from their existing tactical solutions onto a more strategic platform. Was considering using small incentives, bottle of wine here and there as a way to get some comms going and raise awareness of the new programme.

    Your post is making me think twice …

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