Humans are KM’s Secret Sauce

Years ago, TV ads taught us that one of the things that set a Big Mac apart from the competition was its “secret sauce.” (Remember: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame-seed bun.) Thanks to Google, we now have easy access to recipes for that special sauce. It turns out that the sauce is basically a doctored version of thousand islands dressing. How mundane.

In knowledge management, we search high and low for the secret sauce that will unleash engagement and prompt people to “share their knowledge.” If you have ever created an intranet or other repository, you know how hard it can be to coax your colleagues to contribute fresh content. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had the secret sauce to make this possible?

Nancy Dixon, one of the pioneers of KM, writes in Common Knowledge that we have been misled by the myths that knowledge sharing happens with technology alone or requires an established learning culture. She has found that robust knowledge sharing happens when the technology evolves to include face-to-face interactions. Further, she believes that if people are encouraged to share knowledge, their exchanges will create a learning culture.

In fact, she says that the perception that “it’s really difficult to get people to share what they know” is a misconception. In her experience, people generally share freely — when asked directly by another human being who has a legitimate need. Why? Because most of us like to be helpful. Further, we appreciate the opportunity to showcase our expertise and receive praise for our generosity. Therefore, if you stop by someone’s office and ask a question or post a request for information, most people are willing to give you the best answer they have. This, by any definition, is knowledge sharing.

By contrast, people balk at taking the time to “write something up” and submit it for inclusion in some collection. Then the five-minute chat at the office door transforms into a PROJECT that needs focus and must meet submission standards. In the face of such a project, most busy people prefer to walk away.

So how to solve the knowledge sharing problem? Encourage more face-to-face interaction, more direct conversation. Keep it simple and keep it between two humans. If you are worried about scaling up knowledge sharing, don’t force people to write lessons learned documents that languish untouched in databases. Instead, organize peer assists in which a team that has worked on a specific type of project sits down to discuss their experience with another team that is starting a similar project. In the course of their conversation, they will share knowledge and both teams will benefit from the experience.

In these cases, humans are the secret sauce. When you focus on helping them connect, you enable them to exchange information freely in the context of relationship and you accelerate the knowledge flow throughout the organization.

You may think this approach is mundane, but don’t knock it. It works. Remember, the “secret sauce” in a Big Mac may be mundane salad dressing, but it still makes a critical contribution to the success of the burger.

[Photo Credit: Ailinder]