Change is difficult. And nowhere is that more evident than in making the transformation from a knowledge-hoarding to a knowledge-sharing enterprise. We’ve seen many organizations that have all the tools in place: portals, knowledge maps, expertise locators, shared files, collaborative workspaces, communities of practice, you name it. Yet, getting people to use them, let alone maintain them, can be worse than pulling teeth.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Some are making the change, as illustrated in the following interview with a nameless CEO, who is actually a composite of business and government leaders with whom we’ve discussed this problem …
AM: Mr./Ms. CEO, why do you have that frustrated look on your face?
CEO: I’m frustrated because no matter how hard I try, I can’t get my people to share what they know.
AM: Why is that a problem?
CEO: Because we can’t keep secrets from each other if we’re going to compete in today’s world. Things are too complex and changing too quickly. If we’re going to survive, we need to start working together.
AM: I certainly agree with your assessment. So what’s stopping them?
CEO: Beats me. They’d be the first ones to scream if sales dropped and we had to cut back on bonuses. Or lay people off.
AM: So why do they insist on acting this way?
CEO: Holding on to what they know gives them a sense of power. If they give that up, they think it’ll make them expendable.
AM: Let me get this straight. If they don’t collaborate and share what they know, they’ll be out of a job. Yet, they resist sharing because they believe knowledge is power, and they don’t want to give it up, out of fear they won’t be valuable anymore.
CEO: That’s right.
AM: Don’t they realize that knowledge has no power unless it’s used?
CEO: Now you see why I’m so frustrated!
AM: How do we get around this?
CEO: We need to show them some real examples of how collaboration saved the day. Like at the WHO.
AM: The World Health Organization? Sounds like a classic example of a huge, bureaucratic, slow-moving institution. Just the opposite of what you would want.
CEO: Well, the WHO is organized in a traditional hierarchy: by geography and by area of specialty. In one corner, you can find a world expert on dengue fever. In another, a leading researcher on foot-and-mouth disease. Over the years, all of these experts were pretty much able to function on their own. If you had an outbreak of malaria, you’d call that expert. If you had a rise in infant mortality in a developing country, you’d call another.
AM: And I’ll bet nobody dared encroach on someone else’s turf.
CEO: That was probably true, back in the old days. But things have changed.
AM: In what way?
CEO: Well, for example, influenza is one of many complex, fast-moving threats that can pop up at any time. It can mutate, jump from animals to humans who move freely around the world, then mutate again. Responding to it takes highly trained specialists in animal public health, communicable diseases, immunology, pharmacology, communications, transportation and many other disciplines, all working in close collaboration.
AM: So doing business the old way doesn’t work.
CEO: Correct. For example, in the past, when dead birds suspected of having the H5N1 virus were found, it took too long to collect, package, ship and test specimens to determine if that particular virus was present. So they had to dramatically reduce the response time.
AM: Don’t tell me, they did it by sharing knowledge.
CEO: Precisely. Different parts of the organization got together. First they analyzed why it was taking so long. Then they looked at how each step in the process could be done faster, while working to eliminate mistakes. As you might expect, within that large institution, someone knew how to perform each step in the most efficient and effective way. And they knew what pitfalls to avoid. Once those individuals were identified, and their knowledge was captured and shared, they were able to significantly reduce the amount of time required to make an accurate diagnosis and respond accordingly.
AM: So the lesson is, in order to get people to share what they know, they need a shared vision that is greater than any one individual. Something that will have dire consequences if the mission fails.
CEO: Right. And in today’s world, we have no shortage of problems with potentially disastrous consequences.
AM: And equally exciting opportunities, I might add.
CEO: Nicely stated.
AM: I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to start putting this into practice. And by the way, thank you for sharing.
Parts of this post were adapted from an article appearing in KMWorld Magazine, May 2007. The full WHO knowledge transformation story can be found in the book: Knowledge Management in Public Health by Jay Liebowitz, Richard A. Schieber, and Joanne D. Andreadis, CRC Press, ©2010.