Making Knowledge Sharing Work

    December 15, 2003

The intranet is beginning to restructure the organization in more ways than one. Content is now an asset, and the people who manage it need to treat it as such. Managing editors, and their team, understand how technology can facilitate effective publishing, collaboration and self-service focused application development.

Whoever is put in charge must be given real authority. The inside of organizations can be a political minefield. (The bigger the organization, the bigger the minefield.) Without solid policies and processes, intranets can quickly become chaotic, non-productive spaces.

Everybody wants their links and content on the homepage because everybody thinks that their content is so important. Without someone in charge who can say NO, the intranet can become a messy political battleground. Staff don’t like that.

Many intranet-based online communities have failed miserably. To begin with, some managers treated such communities and discussion groups in a cynical manner. They looked at them and saw a cheap way to spread knowledge throughout the organization. All you had to do was install some discussion software. The knowledge sharing would just flow and flow.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way. There was an early burst of enthusiasm and then people got on with their real jobs. For every answer given there were 20 questions asked. Topics went off the point. Then there was the volume poster; the person who had an opinion on absolutely everything and was not afraid to express it.

Sometimes, when things weren’t going well, the discussion areas became centers of agitation. A typical statement might read: “As usual, I bet nobody from management will reply to this complaint.” (And, of course, they were right.)

On some intranets, this whole online community idea got seriously out-of-hand. The intranet might as well have had a sign on its homepage stating: ‘Wasting time at work’. Is it the job of your organization to help staff sell their second-hand cars? Should you have access to weather and horoscopes? Should you help staff book holidays or order groceries?

A recent survey by Websense found that staff are spending an average of 3.4 hours of their working week using the Web for non-work reasons. If the intranet is full of non-work-related features, it is essentially legitimizing such behavior.

Sometimes, online communities do work. I was talking to a manager from Shell recently who formerly had responsibility for e-learning. Knowledge management, he told me, had quietly become central within Shell. There had been no big statements issued, no master plans announced. Just a quiet commitment to sharing knowledge.

The intranet is key to this. Shell now has a range of expert discussion groups. These groups are properly moderated. There is enthusiastic debate; a desire to solve problems and share knowledge. What is more, Shell communicates a clear message to staff that they are expected to participate.

Every four years, everybody in Shell must reapply for their jobs, this manager told me. If they have not been an active and constructive participant in the Shell knowledge network, their future prospects are diminished. Accidentally or otherwise, Shell has adopted the motto of academia-the original knowledge organization if there ever was one. This motto is: publish or perish.

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