The ROI of Knowledge Sharing (Part 1)

Define success. Success means growing, making things easier, doing more in less time, etc. There are entire industry movements dedicated to figuring out how to be the best at being successful. Heck, there are even acronyms (imagine that!) for it in all sorts of speech domains, such as in business, where ROI (Return on Investment) is huge, and in productivity, GTD (Getting Things Done) is a huge fad right now. What I think people often misunderstand or fail to realize is the very simple fact that success is much harder on a large scale than on a small one. Why is this the case?

Well, obviously, success on a large scale means accomplish “much more” than success on a small scale. Also, success on a large scale often means working with more than one person where collaboration is a must. So what are the tools people use to accomplish this success?

The most well-known tool is management. Implement a structure in an organization that is overseen by people whose job it is to make sure success happens on varying levels of scale. The larger an organization gets the more managers it needs, not because of personnel (technology advancements and process improvements in Human Resources have significantly the amount of employees a company can keep track of) but rather to ensure that this army of personnel is not going to lose sight of whatever is deemed the successful goal in their appropriate “big picture.” For CEOs, this means the company’s bottom line. For regional managers, this means their region’s bottom line. For individual supervisors, this means success completion of the task their division was handed, and so on and so forth.

Clearly, this is an important and necessary part of doing business. But I theorize that businesses and large organizations tend to see the act of adding more management to their organization as an act of ensuring a return on their investments which is probably overestimated. A manager is someone you have to pay (often a lot more than other forms of employees), and whose job actually adds to the complexity and opaqueness and beurocracy of an organization. At some point, this must be more harmful than helpful.

So what else can be done? I would suggest that an often very underestimated and underutilized area of increasing ROI is by improving knowledge transfer and knowledge sharing between employees. Why? Because it builds on the concepts and proven methodologies of small-scale success wherein many small successes brings larger success naturally, rather than forcefully. I see the largest contributor to small-scale success (most explicitly evident in personal successes, probably the smallest scale you can get) as the increase of knowledge. My own experience has taught me that I am more productive now than I was one year ago because I can do more than I could do one year ago, and I can do more now than I could then because I know more about the world and the objects within it.

Applying this to a larger scale is simple in theory but difficult in practice. In theory, the more smart people an organization has working for it, the more collective knowledge is stored within that organization. In practice, this is actually a huge problem that the solution called management is attempting to alleviate because smart people tend to be very insular and self-driven. This leads to a phenomenon I have begun calling knowledge fracturing which ultimately results in siloed and specialized skill sets with little ability to expand beyond that specialization. This is so significant a problem in large organizations that entire industries and bodies of knowledge have been created to help alleviate workflow problems and help facilitate communication.

Now, this is good, because a prerequisite to knowledge sharing is communication. You can’t share what you know if you can’t communicate with someone who can listen. But this is only the first step. Certainly, an organization can ensure better ROI with communication tools, but the next level–which I have yet to see anyone focus on too obviously–is knowledge sharing; communication with the intent of making available the information one has accumulated to the point that enables one to share the information about one’s job function or skill set.

This is a concept that is actually extremely scary to most people. There are two oft-cited rebuttals to this. The first involves a concern for job security. If everything that I know about how to do my job and why is written down for fellow employees to see, what need is there for me? I maintain that this actually makes you as an employee more valuable, rather than less, because suddenly you are a teacher, a reference guide, an invaluable “go-to guy.” The more you share, the more clearly people understand what you know and what you’re good at. Sharing, at its roots, is all just about showcasing what you’re good at. How can that be bad?

The second involves a concern for an organizations information security, wherein too much knowledge sharing can actually be security breaches and information leaks that are unacceptable to the organization’s policies. Obviously, while this is an important issue, it is not a direct argument against the validity of knowledge sharing but rather an objection to a side-effect of it if it is done carelessly. As with all things, I think most people will agree that care should always be taken in everything you do. This is just one more example.

So why does knowledge sharing actually increase the overall ROI of an organization? I theorize, based solely on my own experiences, that the majority of time and expense that is not directly spent on progressing an organization’s goals are spent trying to navigate a system or accomplish a task that is only difficult because it is not understood. If it were understood, the procedure would take less time, or the company would not need to hire a consultant, or whatever the situation may be. The point is that if you know what you’re doing, you’ll do it more effectively and more efficiently.

Successful knowledge sharing increases the productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency of your organization by enabling your staff to accomplish orders-of-magnitude more than they would otherwise have been able to.

With that as a foundation, let’s next explore how an organization might go about successfully sharing knowledge. And as you may have guessed, I have one word that: wiki.

(I have not yet written the next part.)

3 replies on “The ROI of Knowledge Sharing (Part 1)”

  1. 4 Things:
    a. It is very impressive that you are reaching ON YOUR OWN – PROVEN social psychology, and business Management concept concerning effective workflow.
    b. This is very BASIC stuff in any social psychology / management and organizational theories.
    c. “Working with Emotional Intelligence” – Daniel Goleman
    d. “Wiki” – Awesome idea.

  2. It probably is pretty basic; I’m not exactly a professor who’s studied this stuff “for real.” This is all just observations. But what makes me, as someone who is just reaching a thorough understanding of the basics, so much more aware of these issues and thus so much more effective when it comes to knowledge sharing than other people who have been working in such environments for years?

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