A few weeks ago a fellow knowledge sharing practitioner asked me to summarize my 2015 thesis: It’s Not About Me: Psychological Safety, Institutional Trust and Knowledge-Sharing Behavior. While I was delighted to revisit what felt like a distant memory it also gave me pause to reflect on the continued relevancy (or lack thereof) of my findings.
Before starting my research I was a practitioner with experience implementing various collaboration technologies. At the time, it struck me that the same trials and tribulations with knowledge sharing initiatives occurred in organizations ranging from start-ups to global enterprises. In my “real world” experience the focus was often on the technology or platform with little to no attention paid to the intangibles like culture or human behavior. Meanwhile, in academia, much was said about the importance of the right culture and trust but few specifics were available on what that actually meant or looked like in practice. I sought to uncover what practitioners could use as levers to mitigate adoption challenges.
During my research I focused on understanding what makes individuals more likely to share their knowledge and collaborate. Demographic variables including organizational size, platform leveraged, an individual’s age, tenure, function, etc. had no significant bearing on their adoption of a knowledge-sharing platform. Instead I found that an individual’s willingness to collaborate was more strongly influenced by the values, cues and perceptions derived from external influences, not personal preferences or self-consciousness. The most cited reason for sharing knowledge in a community was to help others with the most cited barrier being a lack of organizational use.
That all sounded simple on the surface but deeper analysis revealed that knowledge sharing success required an organizational climate and leadership that demonstrated the desired behaviors. While both culture and trust were previously known to influence an individual’s knowledge sharing behavior I found that psychological safety, or sense of being able to show one’s self without fear, impacted that trust and therefore willingness to collaborate. All of these nuances affirmed that well-implemented knowledge sharing initiatives focused on the right context, not on “digital natives” or feature/functions.
Since completing my research I have continued consulting to organizations seeking to implement and grow collaborative communities. While the technologies have evolved the keys to success remain the same. I’ve continually found the most successful communities start with a well-defined and communicated collaboration strategy coupled with strong leadership support and behavior modeling.
“Build it and they will come” is a misconception. Regardless of platform or demographics collaboration success requires:
- An environment rooted in support with evangelizers, particularly at leadership levels, consistently demonstrating the desired behaviors.
- Clearly defined community strategies designed with your business objectives and user’s experience in mind.
- Coaching and resourcing available to individuals as they move up the participation ladder.
Participation in a community or collaboration channel often requires individuals to change their behavior. A recently published study from McKinsey on the future of collaboration noted that while “most companies have begun adopting digital tools, including social technologies…a mistake that many make is choosing the tool first and then expecting change will follow. Any improvement via social tools must begin with people changing the way they work first, then using the tool that fits best.”
Successfully changing the way people work, or their collaborative behavior, requires an understanding of how individuals perceive their environment. Whether you are making your first foray into social collaboration or you have a community with lackluster participation remember that context is key.
It’s not about your users, it’s about the way they perceive your environment.
This post published with permission of the author.
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