When I first thought about knowledge sharing, my mind jumped to traditional onboarding and training programs. The classroom-style powerpoint presentation where the teacher sends the message to the student. As I dug a little deeper, I started to uncover some of the less obvious ways knowledge is shared; observation of non-verbal cues, scrolling through old conversations in an organization’s intranet, listening to stories of more tenured teammates. As our organizations and interactions become increasingly (or even primarily) supported by technology, it’s important to consider how our digital workplace technology (DWT) can facilitate knowledge sharing and learning. For the purpose of this article, you can think of DWT as organization's digital social collaboration tools such as Webex Teams, Slack, Sharepoint, etc.
Below I will reflect on my top 6 key considerations for leading the design and use of DWT solutions for organizational knowledge creation, sharing, and learning.
From a full-scale organizational perspective
1. Knowledge sharing is everyone’s responsibility
Is knowledge sharing the responsibility of the sender or the receiver? The individual or the organization? Without a clear conclusion, leaders must consider how every level of the organization contributes to the collective knowledge. Leaders may start with a more formal approach, setting the strategy and identifying the team(s) and tools to execute. The more informal aspects of the organization must also be considered, such as how the culture may facilitate or inhibit the type of communication and collaboration that fosters knowledge transfer. Managers will need to encourage and celebrate learning and sharing, while also embodying the behaviors they want to see in their team. At the individual level, employees should be coached to reflect on what they’ve learned and encouraged to share with others. In the absence of an explicit step-by-step guide, it’s crucial to embed mutual responsibility for knowledge sharing in every level of the organization.
2. Develop your business case using affordances, not features
On the surface level, it can be simple to evaluate the effectiveness of a DWT by its features, like the ability to search or send a message. To truly understand DWT as a business driver, I encourage practitioners to see beyond the features and focus on what the technology affords the user to do that is unique. The affordance perspective is the approach to evaluating the relationship between a digital tool and the person using it (Treem & Leonardi, 2012). For example, DWT affords users the ability to search, review, and interact with content, in its original form, beyond the time of the initial post, which is known as persistence (Treem & Leonardi, 2012). In practice, this means a new employee can learn by simply reviewing a conversation had between teammates in Webex Teams or a project manager can review previous project iterations archived in Sharepoint. Assessing how an individual interacts with the technology is a much more strategic approach than focusing on features.
3. Make the most out of social tools
In a society that is increasingly moving towards web-based interactions and remote work, DWT will become even more important across organizations. Whether you’re working with an already existing platform or rolling out a new one, there are a few simple ways to capitalize on social tools. It’s important to remember that not everyone knows how to use the DWT and how they’ll benefit from interacting with the tool. Defining the purpose, strengthening the social awareness, communicating the rules of conduct, and leading by example are practical ways to ensure the organization is getting the most out of digital social tools (Leonardi & Neeley, 2017).
From a small team/community perspective
4. Start by building empathy for the user
Regardless of the design you’re trying to create, start by intimately understanding the experience of the user. Consider what they’ll be doing, thinking, and feeling throughout the process. In a fast-paced and results driven environment, it’s enticing to jump straight to a solution. When you start with a solution, you run the risk of designing a program that doesn’t actually solve the problem. Building empathy for the user will enable you to solve for the highs and lows a person may experience. Keep in mind, the value of your design will be determined by the people who are affected by it.
5. No two communities or networks are the same
When managing an online community, it’s crucial to remember that no two communities or networks are the same. Start by understanding the goals of the group to identify the most productive ways to interact. If the goal of the group is to engage regularly to learn and advance a shared practice, consider formalizing a community of practice (Wenger, 2010). If the group prefers to interact in a more informal and less structured way, think about best practices for engaging networks. With the goal in mind, in addition to the empathy for the user you’ve already built, explore various design models, such as “working out loud”, liberating structures, or crowdsourcing and idea management (Desai et al., 2020). Each community or network is special in their own unique way; the fun part is designing ways for participants to engage and learn together.
6. Create the conditions that motivate people to share
Have you ever considered why you scroll through some digital communities as an observer and what motivates you to post and share in others? When designing digital communities, there are four key motivational considerations; the nature of the online community, the characteristics and desires of the individuals, the level of commitment of the group, and the quality requirements of the platform (Sun et al., 2014). With these in mind, think about how you might create an environment that motivates “lurkers” to share. A great place to start is by modeling the behavior you want to see from others.