How Is Your Team Sharing Knowledge?

In my last two articles I highlighted two aspects of effective teams, namely shared goals (playing the same team sport) and reducing the number of “solo artists” by encouraging teaming behaviors. A third area I wanted to discuss was knowledge sharing. Specifically, I’m talking about knowledge sharing between team members to facilitate learning and improvement.

I won’t write about the obvious need for the leader to share and be open with the team, though it’s surprising how many people who manage teams practice knowledge hoarding and try to isolate various team members from each other. But I assume you will find those people and either change their behaviors or move them out of your teams.

The vast majority of our teams are at least partially virtual, and many of them are also include participants from multiple countries and companies. Historically researchers have concluded that knowledge sharing relies on face-to-face encounters, cohesive social ties, careful listening, shared norms and trust (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). That same research acknowledged the challenges of achieving these in virtual teams, and many of us would say from experience that knowledge sharing in global virtual teams is less than a cohesive one location team. But does it have to be that way?

Recent practice and research have introduced the role of “knowledge activist”. This role is designed to encourage and promote knowledge sharing within the context of a global virtual team, by promoting organizational learning and mediating knowledge sharing (Kauppila, Rajala, & Jyrama, 2011). In these teams one or more people are actively charged with connecting other individuals in the company and reducing barriers to sharing. This is a much more proactive approach than the tried and mostly failed approach of trying to facilitate sharing exclusively through electronic mediation (e.g. sharepoint, blogs, Jira, etc.)

A current client I’m working with has designated several Business Analysts in their consulting group as being responsible for knowledge sharing, and they are expected to spend an amount of time actively harvesting, reaching out to other associates, pulling in information, and updating and refactoring shared databases. While this doesn’t replace informal information sharing, it compensates by creating more institutional knowledge. Another example is a recent client of mine who was relating how much success they’ve been having with Wrike, a Project Management/Groupware solution. It’s true that the tool is useful to them, but it is because they have one team member who is very proactive in using the tool, keeping it up-to-date, encouraging others to do so, and pushing all key discussions into it. The real success is due to that person, not some particular magic in the tool.

In both of these cases, the companies have recognized, formally or informally, the need to take special efforts to encourage knowledge sharing. Making teams work isn’t free, and doesn’t happen by just hiring the right team members.

References

Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Leidner, D. E. (1999). Communication and trust in global virtual teams. Organizational Science, 10(6), 791–815.

Kauppila, O. P., Rajala, R., & Jyrama, A. (2011). Knowledge sharing through virtual teams across borders and boundaries. Management Learning, 42(4), 395–418. doi:Doi 10.1177/1350507610389685