“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
— Margaret Fuller
In any team, there are people with differing degrees of knowledge and experience. Some employees love sharing their knowledge with their colleagues, while others never do it on principle. They jealously guard their “trade secrets” and will only reveal them at gunpoint. They believe this makes them more valuable and see themselves as irreplaceable. They worry that revealing their secrets will fail to meet others’ expectations. They want to be appreciated more. But most of all, they have no motive to share.
This isn’t a people problem. It’s a management problem. If there is no deliberate knowledge sharing within a company, the loss of any “true master of the craft” can indeed result in serious setbacks. And that’s not the worst of it. Without conscious effort to manage intellectual capital, no company will ever be 100% efficient and competitive.
Intellectual resources, information, and knowledge are the biggest value and the deciding factor in competition.
Bosses are always worried about the financial side of things. But the importance of intellectual capital is often overlooked. A lack of organized knowledge sharing makes the company less efficient and puts a limit on its capabilities. We would like to share our experience of managing our intellectual capital. We hope this information will inspire business owners to create knowledge sharing networks in their companies. Since we are a team of designers and developers, our experience can be useful for IT teams, but also for others. The principle of accumulating and sharing knowledge is universal. Dedicated management of intellectual capital will help any company to advance and achieve fantastic results in any field.
There are lots of articles, workshops, and seminars on how to establish knowledge sharing. It looks deceptively simple: you just need to pick a tried and true method, organize an experience-sharing platform, introduce it to your company — et voilà! Your efficiency goes sky-high!
Except it doesn’t, and you know why? Because you’re shown an elephant leg and told that it’s the entire elephant. You’re being taught to strengthen its muscles. How far do you think this leg will go?
No one tells you that knowledge sharing is part of a comprehensive effort. Let’s look at the whole elephant. Its name is Intellectual Capital. And it’s got four legs.
One person can have a wealth of knowledge and skills. But it’s nothing compared to the knowledge of a whole group of people and their collective experience. For a company, the intellectual knowledge base is as important as the material one. It can’t be seen or felt like an actual elephant, but it can be deliberately created, systematically grown and managed. The results will be totally material and inspiring! As long as you’re willing to deal with the entire elephant and not just its constituent parts.
Intellectual capital is more than just the employees’ experience and skills. It’s also their loyalty, motivation, and teamwork. It’s the company’s organizational capital, established business processes, and outside relationships (between the brand and its customers, between the brand and the market). All the ingredients of intellectual capital are interconnected. Communication and knowledge sharing are crucial for efficient utilization of intellectual capital. Here’s our “whole elephant”:
In practical terms, this is how an elephant part looks as opposed to the whole elephant. “John is a real champ at pounding nails. Now let him teach Jim.” Through gritted teeth, John shows Jim how to hold a hammer once a week. Do you know what this will result in? John will resign, taking his hammer with him, and Jim will follow.
What would be the ideal situation? John has a full understanding of why he needs to teach Jim, so he enjoys doing it. He looks for more efficient ways of working, as enthusiastic as a terrier excavating a fox burrow. He is happy for Jim’s and his own common accomplishments. Both are proud of their work and the company they’re so lucky to work for. Both know their skills are highly appreciated. They love working together and are full of new ideas.
This isn’t just a managerial pipedream. It is the inevitable outcome of using an organized approach to intellectual capital. It’s working with the whole elephant. Let’s take a closer look.
If we want our elephant to reach its goal, it needs a properly functioning head; the legs alone are not enough to guide it. “Boosting efficiency” is not a goal, it’s just empty words. You must know exactly what you want to accomplish by managing your intellectual resources.
Step 1. Do a comprehensive analysis of your intellectual resources and formulate your goals.
Before you can start implementing any knowledge-sharing solutions in your company, you should analyze the intellectual capital available and try to categorize it. Do an employee survey to decide which methods and strategies of intellectual capital management will be optimal for your company. Intangible assets are difficult to evaluate; furthermore, there are no universal assessment or planning methods — each company is unique and follows its own progress trajectory. So the first thing to do is ask yourself what exactly you want to achieve by introducing a knowledge sharing system. For example, “Boosting creativity” is a valid goal for businesses that thrive on out-of-the-box thinking, but it may not be relevant for others. “Consumer service skills” is a possible goal for B2C but not B2B. “Training employees and increasing their qualifications” is pretty versatile. In other words, everything comes down to your company’s current goals. By formulating them clearly you will be able to make an initial plan and later tweak it as necessary.
The fact that intellectual assets are intangible does not mean you can make do with a simple roundtable discussion. On the contrary, any research and plans must be recorded in the company’s documents. This will enable you to control the situation, see your progress, and plan ahead.
A recording of all knowledge should be freely available to any employees that might need it. This is the basis for sharing and expanding experience. The intangible begins to materialize, becoming something that can be seen and managed. It’s no accident that we labeled one elephant leg “Strategic Planning.” It starts in the mind and powers the first step.
Once your goals have been clearly defined and formulated, you should make sure all your employees are aware of them, make a common decision on how to organize the process, and appoint the persons responsible. Now comes the time to think about how you will motivate people to share their knowledge (we will talk about motivation a bit later).
Step 2. Choose a method that is appropriate for your company. Inform all the employees and appoint those responsible for the implementation and process.
There are always points of effort, i.e. the structures that require improvement, where you will implement the knowledge sharing system. The larger your company, the more points you will have. Effort is usually applied in three directions:
- within a structural unit (regular, often daily knowledge sharing sessions within the unit);
- within a company (regular knowledge sharing between departments);
- within a community (sharing knowledge with outside sources: workshops, conferences, courses, public events).
Subject to your company’s features and goals, you choose your “points of effort,” following a top-down approach.
The general goals of company growth determine the particular goals for each unit and the individual goals for each employee.
Each unit has its own goals. Choose your method of knowledge sharing based on what is most relevant for a specific group of employees and which format will be the most effective and the most convenient for them. Answering these questions may be useful:
- What tasks need to be solved to improve the intellectual capital? (general tasks)
- What current tasks need to be solved by every department? (distribution of tasks)
- What format of knowledge sharing is optimal for each department?
- What format of knowledge sharing is the most productive for every department/employee?
These are important questions that need to be discussed and approved by everyone. Otherwise, you’ll have John and Jim getting bored at the meeting. Furtively checking their watches, they will be fondly remembering the times when they would simply swing their hammers without needing to give an online report for every nail. “It would be better to find a company where they don’t waste time with this kind of nonsense.” This is the result of the cookie-cutter method of implementing “useful knowledge sharing” which is all too common. Still, it’s better to use a cookie-cutter template and then adjust it to fit your needs than not use any at all.
Every company finds its way through trial and error. Studying the mistakes made by others helps you avoid repeating them. Indeed, it took us some time to find the optimum way of sharing knowledge within our team. We are still monitoring the situation and improving these processes. And it is a process, a work in progress that requires a flexible approach. Like many others, we started out with standard training and knowledge sharing methods, but not all of them proved useful. For example, we practiced mentoring. Professional team members would share their knowledge and experience with newcomers. Soon it became apparent that this wasn’t benefiting anyone but the newcomers. A lead’s or a senior’s time and work cost a lot more than training a junior. The senior would sacrifice his or her productivity, which had a negative effect on the common result. We realized that it made more sense to hire people with certain skills than to train them from scratch. However, there are many companies where mentoring is effective and beneficial to all the parties involved. This example shows that a single method can have different results for different companies.
Any experience is valuable. We have transformed mentoring into a different format. Now our team members can approach the leads for help or advice, ask their opinion about a job, tell them about any problems that may have come up. Every week they give presentations in their department, describing the projects they have been involved in, share the decisions they have made and explain why they’ve made them. The leads share their experiences and the team members can learn something useful.
At present, our company has six departments, and each one has its own progress plan and knowledge sharing program. Their work is interrelated, so the departments are in a mode of constant cooperation. Here’s a schematic of our knowledge sharing system:
Knowledge sharing within departments. Leads supervise knowledge sharing within every department; they are responsible for formulating and distributing tasks, holding meetings and discussions, monitoring the work on projects, and helping team members. The project department has daily standup meetings, where everyone reports on the day’s tasks. Once a week a presentation is held, where team members share their experience and learn to showcase and analyze their projects. People share their solutions and learn how to present their projects properly (UI, UX). We also have weekly one-to-one meetings, where every team member describes their week and the challenges they’ve had. Brainstorming sessions are held as needed.
Interdepartmental knowledge sharing. This includes weekly meetings and presentations on various topics (marketing, design, personal growth). Once every two months, we make a summary of the studio’s work, analyze the results, and develop plans for further progress.
Knowledge sharing with outside sources. The pandemic has led to most training courses and workshops being held online. The new information learned by individual team members is demonstrated at the presentation and discussed by the whole studio or the interested groups. We try to do this regularly.
We have briefly described our principles of knowledge and information sharing to give you a general idea. Every company uses its own methods, and these can only be tested in practice.
Step 3. Find a format of productive knowledge sharing that is appropriate for your company.
The choice of the knowledge sharing platform (or channel) depends on the specifics of your work. The platform can be both virtual and real. Many people use in-company messengers or set up their own platforms. For others, a meeting room is sufficient. What matters is that your communication is efficient, swift, and convenient.
For example, we use Slack, Dropbox, and Google Drive to exchange information. For face-to-face communication we use meeting rooms and the common room.
Step 4. Set up the most convenient and efficient platform for your team.
Motivating knowledge sharing is one of the biggest problems for many companies. And it’s also one of the most crucial. Getting back to the elephant analogy, motivation is the elephant’s heart. The pachyderm cannot survive without it. Motivation is in itself a part of corporate culture, and it should be deliberately grown and nurtured.
There are reliable ways of motivating employees:
1. Pay your employees for the time they spend sharing knowledge just like you pay them for other important tasks.
2. Make sure your employees are aware of the purpose and importance of knowledge sharing.
3. Hire people who are highly motivated to share knowledge.
4. Make knowledge sharing an integral part of the work process.
5. Deliberately work toward creating a culture of knowledge sharing in your company and encourage motivated employees.
Step 5. Think about ways of motivating your employees to share knowledge.
Knowledge sharing is a system within a system of managing intellectual capital. It will only be beneficial if it is seamlessly integrated into the company’s day-to-day activities. A system requires consistency, focus, motivation. It goes hand in hand with the employees’ loyalty and commitment to the company’s interests. A knowledge sharing system often helps reveal problems within the company that you weren’t even aware of.
The provisional five steps are only the beginning of the road. Then it’s all about practice and adjustments to your chosen method. However, all the efforts put toward organizing knowledge sharing will work to bring about your company’s success. When amazed business owners see the results, expect them to exclaim, “Why didn’t I do it before?”