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‘Knowledge is power’ opined Sir Francis Bacon, way back in 1597. When a piece of wisdom goes back that far, it becomes embedded in our thinking. Knowledge needs to grow organically, within and across an organisation, as well as within individuals themselves. Businesses cannot afford to lose the knowledge advantage when employees ‘walk out the door’. So how do we build a culture where knowledge-sharing is the norm.
Article by Katie Taylor, Director – Agile Business Consortium
There are many reasons why professionals of all disciplines are tempted to confine knowledge to themselves, their team or their department. This kind of siloed working operates against productivity, innovation and agility – all of which are, of course, critical for organisations to remain competitive within a fast-changing economic and volatile political environment. Knowledge is Power’ said Sir Francis Bacon back in 1597. When a piece of ‘wisdom’ goes back that far, it becomes embedded in our thinking. Knowledge needs to grow organically, within and across an organisation, as well as within individuals themselves. Businesses cannot afford to lose the knowledge advantage when employees ‘walk out the door’. So how do we build a culture where knowledge-sharing is the norm, and teams pool knowledge and resources to explore new solutions to challenges in a culture of transparency and support? When we achieve this, knowledge starts to be viewed less as a source of power, and more as a catalyst for empowerment. Until quite recently, education was all about acquiring knowledge. Those that were able to learn facts and retrieve these readily under exam conditions were richly rewarded. Whilst this is changing and employers are increasingly recruiting people who reinforce their organisation’s ethos and agility through their behaviour – collaborating, innovating, and inspiring – we still live in a knowledge economy, where knowledge is associated with reward. Humans are driven by the promise of reward.
“As long as knowledge is viewed as a finite ‘currency’, there will tend to be a feeling of unfairness around sharing it freely with no balance of reciprocation. But if all knowledge is looked on as a seed that becomes fed and watered through the process of sharing, that changes”
Neuroscientists stress that we classify everything in life on the basis of whether it will hurt us, or help us to stay alive. Dr Evian Gordon explains that ‘minimise danger, maximise reward’ is the fundamental organising principle of the brain. From our earliest days in primary school, when we were given gold stars for performance in spelling tests, we’ve associated knowledge with reward. To break down this early training requires a massive change in our thinking and the culture within which we live and work. Neuro-leadership expert Dr David Rock, highlights that the first step to transforming any culture is to create a sense of safety sufficiently strong to overcome our instinct to see change as a threat. His SCARF model provides the key to creating this safe environment, as it identifies the areas of social experience that motivate us towards, or away from, new things. Significantly, neuroscientists now acknowledge that our brains respond to social threat in the same way as they do to physical pain. SCARF is an acronym for the things we hold most dear. It’s straightforward to see how these primary drivers can either push people away from collaborating through knowledge sharing, or could motivate people towards more open working practices. Status – traditionally an individual’s knowledge is awarded through the status of a qualification designation. By contrast modern thought-leaders freely share what they know as the seed of further commentary and development through channels such as social media; Certainty – human beings yearn for certainty within an increasingly unpredictable world. In an environment of fast moving change, knowledge itself becomes a variable. What was known yesterday may be challenged or untrue tomorrow. Today, certainty can only be achieved by sharing knowledge and drawing on all the resources available to test its validity. Autonomy – sharing knowledge can appear to threaten our autonomy by giving people the means to participate more fully in what we may wish to be our exclusive domain. On the other hand, a culture of openness and knowledge sharing creates an environment that is likely to increase everyone’s choices and adds to their sense of control. Relatedness – as social animals, a sense of belonging and having a role within a group is important to us. Sharing and receiving knowledge provides an opportunity to forge connections and relationships. Organisations with ‘academies’, ‘universities’ and ‘learning communities’ are creating wider social groupings to encourage people to relate and share beyond their immediate colleagues and departments. Fairness – our sense of fairness is deeply rooted.
As long as knowledge is viewed as a finite ‘currency’, there will tend to be a feeling of unfairness around sharing it freely with no balance of reciprocation. However, if all knowledge is looked on as a seed that becomes fed and watered through the process of sharing, then that changes. Knowledge can never be exact or complete. By sharing it, we ensure it grows organically. It becomes timeless, adapting to changing situations and responding to new perspectives – it starts to feed organisational agility simply because it has been shared. Organisations that are able to embed a culture of knowledge-sharing create an environment where knowledge becomes a trigger for organisational growth, development and innovation. Such organisations are less damaged by employees leaving to develop their careers elsewhere, and are less likely to be regularly losing talent as they are providing a fertile ground where their people can develop. Culture is a bit like a biological organism. It is defined by its DNA, which is deeply embedded and ultimately ‘defines the way things are done around here’. Changing the DNA of an organisation needs attention to be given to seven key aspects of culture. These encourage organisational agility and create an environment where knowledge can become the currency of empowerment, growth and employee engagement. Simply appreciating that transforming organisational culture is akin to the complexity of molecular DNA is the first step towards success. This is ‘deep work’ which needs to be taken step by step. It is not enough to make one or two changes and expect long lasting transformation to follow.
These seven elements of cultural DNA challenge the traditional structure of a command-and-control hierarchical organisation. The focus here is on genuine alignment of this DNA with beliefs and values, with a willingness to combine effort and knowledge towards the collective purpose. Personal mastery, well-being and fulfilment are balanced by distributed authority and collaborative communities. Trust, transparency, and placing a value on innovation and learning sustain the best conditions for knowledge to be opened up to the group; so that new knowledge can be created and continually renewed and developed. This provides the means for people already within the organisation to learn and grow, reducing external recruitment costs. Working in a highly collaborative way, and sharing insights as they emerge, relies on the presence of trust. We tend to distrust people we do not know, which obstructs collaboration and knowledge-sharing. This can feed a silo mentality, where valuable information is only shared within the team. If the team itself is hierarchical, then vital knowledge may not leave the team leader – creating a risk to the organisation should that person leave. Yet human beings are hard wired to collaborate. We are social animals and achieve a good sense of well-being and happiness when we have strong connections with others. When we decide that someone is a friend rather than a foe, and when we share our thinking with them, our brains release the neurochemical oxytocin. This makes us feel good and have a positive attitude, and so encourages us to share further and collaborate more with others. Organisations need to create a sense of community and connection, to encourage people to share knowledge, to innovate, and to build new ideas and develop new knowledge in a safe environment.
Consciously building collaborative communities is an important step to breaking down the silos that can obstruct knowledge flow through an enterprise. People collaborate most easily with those they know well and with whom they have had the opportunity to develop rapport. These people are not seen as a threat, but are trusted. Trust is essential for people to work in a transparent, openly-sharing way and supports deeper employee engagement. Organisations with an Agile culture encourage an atmosphere of trust by distributing authority, empowering all team members and supporting individuals to grow and follow their passions. In these organisations, knowledge is shared naturally as a part of development and growth.
We are used to hearing about Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, and this tends to encourage the notion of a hierarchical organisation where the most valued knowledge lies with only a few powerful people. The world is now changing, and biologists like Elisabet Sahtouris have highlighted that Darwin was wrong and that all of nature is built around principles of collaboration, balance and reciprocity. Success for modern businesses will be centred on what Sahtouris refers to as ‘the survival of the most cooperative and collaborative’. The old adage ‘Knowledge is Power’ has seen its day. Organisations that innovate and adapt to survive through changing conditions, will do so because they nurture the development of an Agile Culture DNA. Organisations centred on fulfilment, personal mastery, well-being, collective purpose and trust, will naturally and organically create supportive communities that share and develop knowledge – between individuals, across teams, and throughout the entire organisations.
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