I just finished another round of our biannual performance reviews (checkpoints in Futucabulary), and I was struck by a pattern in the feedback I collected from the people I supervise. Whenever someone neglects to hold a knowledge sharing session for a period of time, a deluge of “John Doe should share more knowledge” ensues. It has happened again and again. What is going on here?
A knowledge sharing session can refer to a variety of things. It can be a recurring event, such as WWWeeklies or our weekly Beer&Tech in Berlin. It can also be a one-off session. However, it always consists of someone preparing some material beforehand, presenting that information to other people and hopefully triggering interesting and hopefully spontaneous discussions.
We encourage and justify the act of sharing knowledge to colleagues through its direct, concrete and, to some extent measurable benefits. We want to learn, become better professionals, expose others to information they may otherwise neglect to look up, reduce a project’s bus factor, etc. It all boils down to gathering, processing, diffusing and applying knowledge. All these reasons are excellent and fully justify spending time to teach and learn, but they can’t be the only reasons why people want everyone to do them on a regular basis. There are probably beneficial social effects at play that shouldn’t be overlooked.
This is too good an opportunity to take a closer look at how some of our company’s core values work in real life to pass up, so let’s look at them to try and understand what is happening.
The four Futurice values are transparency, trust, caring, and continuous improvement. When we look at knowledge sharing in the context of these values, it’s clearly in line with continuous improvement, as explained above. The transparency aspect is relatively obvious, too: in sharing knowledge, we are being transparent about what we know and what we are capable of in order to help others improve. We don’t then use information as a currency, weapon or shield in a zero-sum game of office politics.
What about caring and trust? I believe knowledge sharing improves organizational culture by strengthening bonds between peers. It does so by helping us better understand people’s history, abilities and interests. It fosters respect for others. This in turn creates trust and allows us to care about each other on a human level.
At Futurice, we trust each other by default, but there are levels to it.
The first one is on a professional level and an example of it is trusting others to deliver what is expected of them. This type of professional trust can be undermined if a team member is seen as underperforming at their task. I’ve experienced this in the past, working with a developer who was having trouble creating what the team and I considered to be “good” code. I started asking myself questions about the person’s capability to learn and deal with their assigned tasks, especially since I had no idea how they had performed in the past.
In such cases, knowledge sharing can repair or strengthen trust. When one shares information and teaches others, it lays bare several things. First, that person knows something potentially interesting and useful that someone else doesn’t. Second, that person must have a good enough grasp of the concepts to teach it to others. Perhaps even a good enough grasp to spar with other experts on the topic. The ability to teach is indicative of an ability to learn, too. Perhaps one reason a person underperforms at a task is that they have previously focused their learning efforts on unrelated topics, which can be even more demanding than what they have been asked to currently do.
All of this has the effect of increasing one’s respect for another. It becomes more difficult to feel superior to another person when being exposed to their strengths and a sense of superiority very efficiently undermines any feeling of camaraderie. A newfound professional trust is thus discovered.
Trust can also go deeper - to a personal level. It is trusting someone enough to drop your defenses, present yourself as you are and open yourself to potentially brutal criticism or ridicule about your character. Being authentic like this is a very difficult thing to do and the only way to get there is by creating a caring environment where it is safe to open up. In order to care, we have to understand others well enough to connect with them on a human level, and we can facilitate this understanding by sharing information about ourselves. In his book “Reinventing Organizations”, Frederic Laloux calls it storytelling and links it to trust:
“Trust is the secret sauce of productive and joyful collaboration… If we want workplaces of trust, if we hope for deep, rich and meaningful relationships, we have to reveal more of who we are.”
How does knowledge sharing reveal anything about who we are? Usually one has to care about a topic deeply in order to voluntarily present and teach it to others. I’ve gotten glimpses of people’s passions when listening to them share, describing topics in intricate detail while all of their body language shouts “this is what makes me tick!” I’ve learned about people’s histories as the conversations often touch on how a person stumbled on what they know. In the best case, I’ve discovered shared passions. Every crumb of personal information we are exposed to condenses our foggy impression of others into more concrete representation that we can relate to and care about.
I believe the act of sharing knowledge has become an important way for us to connect to each other and this is why we expect everyone to do so constantly. I urge you to try it out. Let people, teams, and departments share what they do and what they know with each other to foster trust and caring.