Many of the things we need to know to be successful – to innovate, collaborate, solve problems, and identify new opportunities – aren’t learned simply through schooling, training, or personal experience. Especially for today’s knowledge-based work, much of what we need to know we learn from others’ experiences, through what’s called vicarious learning.
Organizations know this learning is important, which is why they invest significant resources in handbooks, protocols, formal mentoring programs, and knowledge management systems to share employees’ experiences. Yet analyst estimates suggest that the companies in the Fortune 500 still lose a combined $31.5 billion per year from employees failing to share knowledge effectively. By trying to recreate the wheel, repeating others’ mistakes, or wasting time searching for specialized information or expertise, employees incur productivity costs and opportunity costs for the organization. Because while formal systems might help communicate established best practices (the what), they often don’t explain how an individual should apply them to their own work. As a manager for Bain & Co. summarized in Nancy Dixon’s book Common Knowledge, this approach to knowledge management offers only “a picture of a cake without giving out the recipe.”
Many workers protect information for reasons of power, but others do so for the purpose of creating job security. Let’s leave matters of power aside, and think a bit about the latter justification. The job market may be firming up, but wages aren’t, and technology is ever the barbarian at the gates. As a knowledge worker, one has to consider these factors before sharing what they know. Could sharing certain knowledge open the door for less experienced (and lower paid) people to take over the work? Or could this lead to digitization of the work and the “redundancy” of your role?
My outlook on this is admittedly glum–I see our job market as one that’s gone mean–and that goes double when it’s a major consulting shop that’s driving the conversation. The fanatical worship of shareholder primacy has perverted the employee/employer relationship for many, so I am far less likely than I once was to find fault in those who protect information when it’s a natural survival tactic. So if you want to encourage employees to share what they know, think about what you can do for them (If you think it’s possible to unlock and capture all the value…), and what assurances you can give them. (Quid pro quo, Clarice.)
Otherwise, you should expect them to stick with the “Let them see cake” routine.