Sharing knowledge with others can sometimes seem counter-intuitive, but done right, it can prove hugely beneficial to businesses, employees and other stakeholders.
It may not always seem obvious in today’s world, but the story of human development is built on our ability to share knowledge. From prehistoric times to the current day, from the invention of the wheel to the coming of the internet and the smartphone, progress has depended on people sharing what they know with others.
Dr Graeme Malcolm understands this better than most. As founder and CEO of Glasgow-based M Squared, he specialises in lasers that produce the purest light known. Called photonics, this burgeoning technology has extensive uses, including the fight against climate change.
“Our photonics produce an extraordinarily narrow colour band of light that was used to calibrate the European Space Agency’s Earth Sentinel 5P earth observation satellite. About 50 of the 100 key indicators of climate change can only be seen from space, and the satellite is able to measure pollution on a global scale in a way that we have never been able to do before,” Malcolm explains.
The satellite cost nearly €50 million and simply could not have been completed without contributions from hundreds of participants – commercial, governmental and academic alike. “You simply have to be able to collaborate very broadly if you are going to take on these kinds of projects and deliver them in a dependable manner,” he says.
People don’t share if they feel their position is precarious and want to increase their perceived value to an organisation by holding on to knowledge; or if they have highly individualised targets
Climate change is far from being the only application in which knowledge-sharing pays dividends. But views can vary from sector to sector. The oil and gas industry, for example, is used to open collaboration and companies are often happy to play a part in efficiency improvements that all can share.
But, Malcolm says: “In financial services, one trading house wants to build a competitive advantage over the others. There are different dynamics around collaboration in these markets and you have to learn their style.”
And even if knowledge-sharing is widely acknowledged as beneficial, the theory does not always translate into practice. Some managers believe knowledge is power; others promote a culture where rival teams keep secrets from each other to gain a greater share of internal revenues, bonuses and personal glory.
What's in it for me?
There are clear reasons for this tendency, according to chartered psychologist Dr Alan Redman, head of science and technology at psychometric testing specialist Criterion.
“Sharing is a calculation, a choice. If I share, will I get something back in return? It comes down to culture. People don’t share if they feel their position is precarious and want to increase their perceived value to an organisation by holding on to knowledge; or if they have highly individualised targets, so it is not in their interest to help their colleagues,” Redman suggests.
Against that, however, we are predisposed to share knowledge, as demonstrated by the “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments conducted at the think tank RAND Corporation in the 1950s. These used a series of games to show that the mind has a built-in tendency to cooperate with others, even when the strictly rational choice would guide them in the opposite direction.
On that basis, companies may benefit from eliminating policies that impede employees’ tendency to share. “The classic performance appraisal is very individual, and there is not much evidence to suggest that it works. Moving to team-based bonuses and assessments encourages cooperation and collaboration,” says Redman.
Cross-team working can have a similar effect and is increasingly popular among disruptive customer-centric businesses, including peer-to-peer lending firm, Zopa. Rather than dividing its people up by function – marketing, sales, product development and so on – Zopa uses multidisciplinary teams, formed with the express purpose of tackling customer problems all the way from one end of the process to the other.
The idea is based on the social psychology of the “in-group” and the “out-group”.
“If we perceive another team as the out-group, they are seen as a threat and we don’t share. Putting everyone required for a particular task in the same team – the in-group – removes the threat and fosters sharing and cooperation,” says Redman.
But, however much knowledge-sharing is planned, the most rewarding kind sometimes seems to happen almost by accident, according to Sumir Karayi, founder and CEO of security software business 1E.
“If I look back to the times when we have been really creative and innovative, it has usually been when we have been in quite small teams, working together in the same place,” he says.
Karayi believes that these apparently serendipitous – and highly productive – periods are a consequence of a particular way of working: small teams sitting next to one another and spending time as a group both in and out of the office.
Today, there is a growing trend for joint ventures between large companies looking for new ideas and small ones hoping to scale up
“We’d have formal conversations about something we were working on, and then in the evening we’d go to the pub and have more informal ones, like ‘Why doesn’t this work?’ or ‘How can we do a better job?’ The mix of formal and informal communication was key,” he says.
The modern, distributed workplace means that such close and prolonged interactions are increasingly the exception rather than the rule. Like so many workplace trends, it is most apparent in the US, says Karayi.
“We have a number of large corporate clients in the States and two or three years ago, I started to notice that all our meetings there had changed. Visiting clients was becoming more and more unproductive, because I’d arrive and half the team I had come to see would be working remotely and dialling in.”
Using statistics generated by 1E’s own security software, Karayi estimates that between 40 and 50 per cent of desks at a typical US corporation are unoccupied on any given day. “There are many benefits to the business and to employees’ work/life balance. But something is lost when it comes to innovation,” he says. “When I’m talking to someone in person, it’s incredibly nuanced communication. I am looking at body language and 100 other cues I can’t even describe, that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and are fixed in our DNA.”
Leaders have to act as role models and make sure that knowledge-sharing is a two-way thing. Listening is crucial
Management teams also play a vital role in the knowledge-sharing ethos, as more junior employees look to the top of the organisation to set an example.
“Leaders have to act as role models and make sure that knowledge-sharing is a two-way thing. Listening is crucial, as you will rapidly stem the flow of shared knowledge if you don’t listen,” says Jane Clarke, director at performance consultancy Nicholson McBride.
As a business becomes larger and more complex, sharing knowledge can become harder work too. “It’s much easier to share in small companies. As you grow, you literally build in divisions to sharing,” she adds.
The right tools
Jonathan Hampson, UK general manager of car-sharing business Zipcar, agrees.
“When we started out, sharing was straightforward – we were all in one room and it was easy for everyone to know everything. Now we are larger and a highly more matrixed organisation, it is not so simple,” he says.
Owned by car-hire giant Enterprise, Zipcar has to coordinate with offices across the UK and with developers and back-office support functions in the US. But Hampson uses tools, such as cloud-based collaboration service Slack and conferencing technology from Zoom, to facilitate communication with colleagues.
“Slack is our main tool for working with the engineering team in North America. For regular communications, we use Zoom – it’s reliable and high quality, so you don’t need an expensive videoconferencing room any more – just a laptop. And we use Skype messaging for instant messaging too,” Hampson explains.
The technology is clearly helpful, but users need to ensure they are disciplined and focused, so they can genuinely share ideas with distant colleagues. It is also important to prioritise face-to-face interaction wherever possible.
Knowledge-sharing does not just drive results within businesses or across international projects, however. Today, there is a growing trend for joint ventures between large companies looking for new ideas and small ones hoping to scale up. Such partnerships are rapidly replacing the old “if you can’t beat them, buy them” corporate approach, in everything from the pharmaceuticals and automotive industries to banking and technology.
In such cases, a slow-burn approach to partnership has the best chance of success, according to M Squared’s Malcolm.
“In our experience, incremental growth works best. You start small with something that delivers results for both parties and allows them to build trust and respect. Then you move to the next stage and the next. If you try to do all that in one go, it probably won’t work. Taking it slowly, however, can really yield results,” he says n