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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Just Tell Me What Works!

Sometimes we just want to be told what to do. To be honest, we all have days when that seems far preferable to thinking for ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s exactly this temptation that has led us to make a fetish of “best practices” in knowledge management.  However, we would do ourselves a great favor if we were more candid about the real value of best practices.

In his October Newsletter, David Gurteen includes a great piece entitled On Best Practice and Thinking for Yourself! In it he explains why slavishly following so-called “best practice” may not always be the right approach.  In fact, best practice may sometimes be illusory.  Best practices are, in theory, a wonderful thing.  After all, who wouldn’t want to know how the best and the brightest do something?  The problem is that the solution those exceptional folks have found works precisely because it is their solution.  It succeeds because it was created for their context and was carried out by them.  Unless you are operating under exactly the same circumstances (and with the same type of people), there is no guarantee that it will work equally as well when you try to make it your solution.

The sources David Gurteen cites point to the true value of “best practices.”  That value doesn’t lie in having a foolproof recipe.  Rather, those “best practices” are most useful as examples of what can be done (rather than what must be done) to address a specific situation.  You could then take those examples and adapt them to the particularities of your situation.  Better yet, you should take those examples and use them as a launching point to spur some truly creative thinking on your part and devise a solution that is uniquely suited to your circumstances.  That creative thinking should lead you to Next Practices rather than Best Practices.  And, in so doing, help you to discover practices that will work more powerfully in your context.  Now, be honest — isn’t that the best practice for you?

[Photo Credit:  Joan Thewlis]

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