Life is one ongoing, dynamic learning process; an evolutionary marathon superseding any one person or generation. So how is it that we often forget to share our knowledge and pass our learned experiences, successes and failures down to the next person in line? One of the great threats to our current economy is the brain drain of talented people leaving the workforce. Each year another generation of employees retire, taking their valuable knowledge and insight with them. By sharing our knowledge, we are actively contributing to the evolution of humankind as well as improving our odds of stimulating new business opportunities. No more leaving great ideas, propositions or prototypes on the shelf. Get out there and start sharing what you’ve worked so hard to learn!
All too often people run from activity to activity without allowing themselves time to reflect. After finishing one project, they are already off running to the next. No time to think ‘are we still in-line with our strategy?’ or ‘what is the future I want to achieve?’ and ‘what have I learned from my projects and their respective outcomes?’ Sometimes lessons learned are written down somewhere, less often they are presented in strategic meetings, but almost always they inevitably end up buried in someone’s inbox or scribbled in a day planner. The same thing happens when innovative ideas don’t make the jump over the ‘Valley of Death’. It might just be that it wasn’t the right time, the right conditions weren’t in place, or that the supporting infrastructure was lacking. But if knowledge isn’t shared, reinventing the wheel is the grim outcome.
On the other hand, when knowledge is shared, it stimulates learning by injecting updated information into existing thoughts and can spark new breakthroughs from current ideas. As Hong et al. 2011 put it: ‘the main goal of knowledge sharing between individuals is to generate new knowledge, resulting in new combinations of existing individual, shared or organizational knowledge.’ Hence, it is important for an organization to focus on knowledge transfer, since it is a requirement to innovate, to stay competitive and to avoid duplication. But how are innovation and knowledge sharing related?
For innovation, knowledge is a prerequisite and an essential asset; innovation is related to the reconfiguration and combination of ideas. Both are key components for an effective organizational strategy. The more successful the transfer, the more organizational knowledge is built, the better the ability the organization has to understand and create new insights and thus, innovate. Therefore, knowledge precedes innovation and can be seen as a catalyst, a critical component and the architectural backbone resulting in a company’s competitive advantage.
Let’s make it practical. Knowledge is transferred in four stages (adopted from Szulanski 1996):
- Initiation; recognizing the opportunity to share knowledge when a knowledge gap is discovered.
- Implementation; focuses on the exchange of information and resources between source and recipient and results in the decision to proceed.
- Ramp-up; the recipient will start to use the new knowledge when an unexpected problem opens a window of opportunity to put the transferred knowledge into practice.
- Integration; when the use of the new knowledge becomes routine and problems encountered are dealt with to achieve and preserve the new status quo.
Each phase can encounter different types of barriers, and there are two separate factors restricting the knowledge sharing process. On the individual level, a lack of trust, incentive to share, time and meeting places, or absorptive capacity all inhibit the transfer of knowledge. On the cultural level, problems occur due to internal resistance, a lack of feedback or common language, conflict avoidance, or bureaucracy. Another obstacle may be a person’s inability to find an easy, concise and direct way to share within the company. Overly complicated procedures inhibit your motivation to contribute to the knowledge sharing process. The danger of these barriers is that they may lead to a vicious circle, making people even more inclined to forget about knowledge sharing and continue to focus on business as usual.
The first step is to recognize that you have hit a hurdle. Once you know which one it is, you can choose the right way to overcome it. Start by thinking about informal ‘idea creation’ spaces, offsite employee interaction, establish some best practices and reward employees for trying something new. Because collective knowledge strengthens the value of the entire organization, the individual’s knowledge must be made available to the wider group. Whether it is a group in a corporate organization, a project with consortium partners, different companies within an incubator, or two partners in a startup, sharing knowledge must be taken into account during the execution, not at completion.
The best way is to have an action plan in place for each project you run. Over the course of my career in corporate innovation I developed the following knowledge sharing action plan. Hopefully it can serve as a framework for you.
Do you want to know more about this topic? Download the complete report about enabling innovation in project-based organizations through knowledge sharing.