IN A FAST-CHANGING business environment, it’s essential for co-workers to share information and work together to create new knowledge. Such collaborations enable employees to develop new products and services, which in turn helps an organization gain competitive advantage.
However, at many companies, employees find it challenging to share knowledge. In recent months, such problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has forced many employees to work from home. But even before then, knowledge sharing was difficult, as evidenced by a July 2018 article in the HR Daily Advisor:
- Employees spend an average of five hours per week waiting to get in touch with people who have the unique knowledge they need. For one in ten workers, it’s not unusual to wait twice that long. During that time, work may be delayed or even canceled, fueling employee frustrations.
- A firm with 1,000 employees can expect to lose 2.4 million USD in productivity annually due to these day-to-day inefficiencies, while a firm with 30,000 employees might lose 72 million USD annually.
- The average U.S. enterprise might be wasting 4.5 million USD in productivity annually just by failing to preserve and share knowledge.
One way a company can tackle these challenges is to install a digital knowledge-sharing platform (KSP), such as Microsoft Teams, which allows employees to acquire, share, and apply knowledge digitally, effectively, and across distances. For instance, CEOs can use KSPs to deliver speeches about the mission and values of an organization. Employees can contribute to internal wikis, hold virtual brown-bag meetings, participate in channel discussions, or document and share their expertise through videos. Human resources departments can use KSPs to provide online training programs or facilitate virtual employee onboarding. Overall, KSPs encourage social, collaborative, and collective learning across dispersed units.
Because KSPs will only become more commonplace in the business world, it’s important for business schools to expose students to the benefits of these platforms. At the School of Business Administration at the American University in Dubai, we recently designed a real-world project so undergraduate and MBA students in the human resource management summer course could gain first-hand experience of KSPs.
We created this project with Aramex, a global provider of comprehensive logistics and transportation solutions. The company employs more than 15,500 people in more than 600 offices in 200 major cities worldwide. Leaders at Aramex believe it’s essential for knowledge developed in one place to be used in other locations around the globe.
INTERVIEWEES WERE PASSIONATE ABOUT HELPING COLLEAGUES UPSKILL AND PROUD WHEN THEIR HELP ENABLED OTHERS TO DO WELL.
AUD students worked with the global talent management team of Aramex to explore the functionality, capabilities, and suitability of three knowledge-sharing platforms: Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft SharePoint, and Microsoft Teams. The students created a chart for the client to compare the pros and cons of the three KSPs under consideration. They evaluated how well each platform worked as a communication and collaboration tool, how well it integrated with other software, and what its drawbacks were.
Ultimately, the students recommended that the organization use Microsoft SharePoint and Teams together to reap the most benefits. These included a user-friendly interface and strong collaborative properties.
WHY EMPLOYEES SHARE
Just as important, the company wanted students to investigate what motivates employees to share and co-create knowledge. To do this, students teamed with the course professor, the global talent director of Aramex, and the global learning and development manager of Aramex to interview 21 employees across different jobs, divisions, and geographies. The team drew seven main conclusions:
Employees have a variety of motivations for sharing knowledge. At Aramex, these included the desire to help others know more, to expand the skill set of the team, and to improve processes. Two powerful motivators were passion and pride: Interviewees were passionate about helping colleagues upskill and proud when their help enabled others to do well. A number of employees said that knowledge sharing during the pandemic helped them combat loneliness.
Employees are generally open to sharing knowledge. Several Aramex workers noted that their departments were encouraged to learn new things and take the initiative in sharing information that could benefit others. However, interviewees acknowledged that co-workers could be hesitant to share knowledge—some out of insecurity, and some because they liked possessing information that made them unique or valuable.
Employees are more likely to share knowledge when the organizational culture fosters loyalty and engagement. As one Aramex interviewee said, “When a place is enhancing your knowledge, you feel loyal toward your job.” Employees found it particularly useful to participate in sharing circles, where colleagues gather to pass on information they learn in training sessions.
Four main organizational barriers hinder knowledge sharing. The first is time constraints. If Aramex employees felt pressure to handle their own job responsibilities, they were likely to make knowledge sharing a lower priority unless it was part of their job descriptions.
The second barrier is physical absence or distance from the workplace. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when employees were working remotely, interviewees found it difficult to share knowledge.
KNOWLEDGE SHARING WAS ONLY BENEFICIAL WHEN DONE BY PERSONNEL WITH VALUABLE KNOWLEDGE AND EXCELLENT COMMUNICATION SKILLS.
The third is access to technology. Aramex employees who did not have the right technology found it more difficult to share knowledge, particularly during the pandemic. For instance, ground couriers without access to computers could not complete online training sessions.
The final barrier is language. Employees noted that if they didn’t share the same language or had trouble understanding co-workers’ accents, they were less able to absorb verbally shared information.
Knowledge sharing comes with reciprocal benefits. According to Aramex employees, knowledge sharing allowed them to understand what co-workers were doing, which helped build interpersonal relations and foster social learning. In addition, sharing knowledge encouraged others to offer information in return, which enabled employees to improve their own abilities. However, interviewees said that sharing was only beneficial when it was done by personnel who could provide valuable knowledge and who had excellent communication skills.
Knowledge sharing is valuable. Aramex employees believed that sharing knowledge helped them perform their jobs better while saving them time and effort. They also believed it benefited the company, because it increased employee engagement and retention.
Knowledge sharing offers intrinsic awards, but recognition is still appreciated. While Aramex employees did not expect monetary rewards for sharing knowledge, they said that they were motivated to try harder when they were recognized for their efforts.
HOW TO BENEFIT
At the conclusion of the Aramex project, students identified four recommendations for other organizations that want to reap the most benefits from KSPs. These recommendations are just as applicable to academic environments as to business environments:
Form a network of internal influencers. This network should consist of employees with different roles and interests, including senior leaders who can serve as role models and help create a culture of knowledge sharing. These influencers must not only create a plan for outreach, but also measure the impact of their knowledge sharing to determine if it has led to increased employee engagement, productivity, or customer satisfaction.
Organize knowledge-sharing events. Invite employees from across the globe to share knowledge. One way is to set up invitation-based events where each employee has 15 to 30 minutes to make a presentation.
Invest in knowledge management. Consider adding a chief knowledge officer who codifies tacit and implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge that is stored in searchable repositories.
Implement a badge reward system. Track which employees share knowledge and allow co-workers to rate the usefulness of that knowledge on a scale of 1 to 10. Then create a system of color-coded badges that employees earn, depending on the ratings their suggestions receive.
As our student project shows, employees tend to have favorable attitudes toward KSPs because these platforms give them opportunities to acquire and share knowledge. KSPs use social learning to help employees transform their organizations into true “learning organizations,” which can better adapt and innovate in a rapidly changing digital era.
Reimara Valk is an assistant professor of management in the School of Business Administration at the American University in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. Gabriella Planojevic is the global talent and development director at Aramex International, based in Dubai.