Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Collaboration at the Edges

Last month there was a discussion going on in a KM group I participate in regarding rewards. The question being asked was "what incentives are in place for knowledge sharing within your organization?"

Now, those involved in KM will recognize this discussion. It is a recurring theme, sort of like abortion, with no clear answer but lots of heated debate on both sides.

To summarize quickly, there are those who feel that incentives (ranging from simple acknowledgments to actual physical or financial awards) applied strategically can encourage participation and knowledge sharing. While others feel any form of reward system distorts normal behavior, resulting in "false positives" as individuals game the system to collect the rewards, without any real engagement in KM practices per se.

There seem to be valid arguments on both sides, and I have no expectations that I can sort out the issue where so many others have failed. But I do have a different perspective that may have some value. You see, over the past year I went from working for a large corporation (over 50,000 employees) to working for a company barely in the double digits (10 employees, to be exact).

Now you might not think that the activities of ten people working together have much bearing on a large geographically distributed corporation. And, at first blush, you would be right.

We have no trouble with knowledge sharing. We work in close proximity. Conversations break out throughout the day and anyone can and does join in. Questions are asked, frustrations expressed, solutions proposed, and problems solved with almost no conscious effort whatsoever.

It seems almost ludicrous to ask "why don't we have issues with KM?" Isn't it obvious? We all know each other. We are working closely together on a common project.

But we aren't all the same. I'm a writer. Most of the team are engineers. There's a manager. And regardless of our roles, we all have quite distinct personalities, which might or might not be compatible in other situations. But none of that gets in the way.

So is it the distance, the lack of knowing each other, or the loss of a common goal that stand in the way of sharing in larger environments? The answer is probably "yes" to all three -- plus a few other characteristics of working in distributed corporations.

But I have another experience that influences my view of this problem. Years ago (many years ago) I worked for another large corporation. However, at that time, there didn't seem to be any of the difficulties with knowledge sharing I have seen since. The company was large, distributed, and working on many different, often unrelated, products at one time. In other words, no obvious common goal.

In many ways, the employees (particularly the engineers) of that earlier company operated as if they were a team of ten rather than an organization of 100,000. People I had never met responded to my questions openly, offered suggestions, even took time out to assist if necessary.

Most importantly, there were no explicit incentives to encourage this behavior. It just kind of "happened".

Of course, that's not true. It didn't just "happen". The ethos of the company, the culture of the organizations within it, and the personal dedication of the individuals the company chose to hire conspired to create that environment.* But, three things stand out about these examples in my mind:

  • If size and distance are detrimental to knowledge sharing -- as they clearly are -- what is it about incentives that would counteract that?
  • More importantly, what is it about size and distance that causes the problem?
  • And why is it the earlier company was able to overcome those obstacles without incentives?

As I said earlier, I have no expectation that I can actually solve this dilemma. But I have a suspicion. And my suspicion is this:

People share openly when they feel they are part of a community

Not a member of the community, a part of the community. They share because they are assisting the community, even if the sharing is one-to-one with another member.

Clearly in the case of small groups, it is easy for everyone to understand the common goal. The individuals cannot succeed unless the group (i.e. community) succeeds. As a consequence, they are eager to contribute where they can. Even, paradoxically, when those contributions are quite tangential to the shared goal (such as recommending good restaurants or which GPS system is best).

Note that lurking -- a behavior specific to members of a community rather than participants -- is difficult in small physical groups. Since the group is so small, people see when you hold back and may even challenge you to open up. Such interaction is much harder in large, distributed groups.

So getting back to the initial question: what can incentives do to counteract the negative impact of size and distance? Incentives can encourage lurkers to speak up (thereby improving whatever quantitative metrics are in place). However, incentives cannot alter the psychological affinity an individual feels towards to community. At best, the incentive may spur an initial (and temporary) jump from lurker to participant, which the individual then finds satisfying. This success may spur them to try again, and over time start to develop a sense of ownership in the group. (In other words, become part of the community.)

This, I believe, is what advocates of incentives are aiming for.

* For a more complete assessment of this earlier company, see Patti Anklam's excellent article The Camelot of Collaboration.