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