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The Knowledge Sharing Paradox: Is Ownership or Thought Leadership the Highest Hurdle?

Posted on May 10, 2013 at 07:27 AM

Our goal as enterprise learning experts is to find the most effective way to change audience behavior to align with a certain business objective. Extremely relevant to this practice are the ever-changing ways in which people communicate and learn from each other.

Because the large majority of learning occurs through on-the-job and social experiences, not through formal training channels, we must enable and foster more informal experiences to occur within the workplace.

With this thought in mind, I stumbled upon a blog post from Harold Jarche, entitled “The knowledge sharing paradox.” In the post, Harold argues that people will only freely share their knowledge if they remain in control of that knowledge. He says that “an effective suite of enterprise social tools can help organizations share knowledge, collaborate, and cooperate,” but that “enterprise knowledge sharing will never be as good as what networked individuals can do.” 

dilbert knowledge sharing.strip

I completely agree with Harold’s conclusion. But I would argue that it’s more than the “ownership” of knowledge networks and the artifacts inside of them that influences how likely someone is to contribute. I would argue that it has more to do with building one’s personal brand or thought leadership. I think people will more freely share their knowledge if they know it will benefit them personally.

Take, for example, a client I grabbed coffee with the other day.

She’s an IT Developer and SharePoint expert at a Fortune 500 firm in town. She’s had great difficulty getting other employees to adopt all of the features of SharePoint at her organization. Her team created a SharePoint blog internally for knowledge sharing, but employees are not spending time contributing to it. She admits that she spends more time on her personal blog, even though she’s writing about the same topic – SharePoint. And when I ask her why, she says it’s simple. She cares more about building her personal brand and thought leadership, globally, than she does getting more employees to adopt the software. I think ownership of the knowledge definitely has a part in her preference to contribute to her personal blog, but I think the limit on the number of people that can see her blog posts at Medtronic is much more important.


Some organizations do an excellent job of getting their employees to contribute to internal knowledge bases. Management consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte instantly come to mind. Because of the great breadth and depth of knowledge their clients demand, these consulting firms cannot afford to let tribal knowledge fall by the wayside. Therefore, they have built very sophisticated expert locator networks and knowledge repositories, filled with case studies and findings from past client engagements. I would argue that these organizations have success in getting their employees to contribute because they facilitate their exposure through publishing their work, not because their employees “own” the knowledge. The firms retain ownership of the knowledge these consultants share, but by publishing the knowledge to the greater public, they increase the consultants’ thought leadership and help them build their personal brand, as well as the firm’s.

However, few organizations want to share their employees’ knowledge externally. Consulting firms get paid to have thought leaders that help other companies, using proven experience, methodologies, and tools. It’s in their best interest to show off what their employees have learned. So the question remains, how can the large majority of organizations encourage their employees to share knowledge internally?

Knowledge is sharing

I believe one thing organizations can do to foster more communication from their employees is to integrate personal social tools into the workplace. I’m guessing most people don’t want their Facebook and Twitter profiles brought into the workplace for all to see, mostly for privacy reasons, but companies could encourage some kind of filtered feed or profile that is sent only to coworkers, or to certain subgroups within the company.

Using tools that employees have already incorporated into their everyday lives should work for a number of reasons:

  • People are more apt to using tools they like and are comfortable with – tools like Facebook and Twitter over Yammer or Mix.
  • If people can use their own public profiles they still retain “ownership” of their knowledge, so when they leave, they don’t feel like their knowledge is left behind.
  • They can share all of their knowledge both in and out of work using one tool, but they have control over which cohorts can see what information.

Our goal as enterprise learning experts is to find a way to bridge this gap between forced corporate learning and free-flowing personal or social learning – we need to mold corporate learning into the enjoyable personal learning we do every day without hesitation. Some people will never “want” to learn in a corporate setting because they care more about beer, music, sports, whatever. But these people are in the wrong role or wrong company anyway. The right people will rise to the top.

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