Knowledge Management Series - Creating a culture of knowledge

Culture - something many people are accused of lacking and something organisations strive to have. It's a hard thing to actually define though. When it comes to knowledge management though, it's a little simpler as what I am talking about is does your organisation encourage the sharing of information? Are people rewarded for working collaboratively and retaining the knowledge for the good of the organisation? Or are people encouraged to focus on themselves, hoarding information and not understanding the culture of sharing?

This is part four of the Knowledge Management series. For other parts, see links below:

The value of a sharing culture means that your knowledge management can become more valuable, leading to it being more used and building the benefits of productivity, innovation and togetherness. Staff can get information more easily and at the right time, allowing them to focus on getting done what they need to get done and inspiring them to build on the shoulders of others rather than recreating every single time. They can feel that they are working together with others to make the organisation the best that it can be, keeping employees engaged and excited about their job.

It seems a no brainer when put like this so why isn't everyone doing it? Well, some don't see the value in being so open, often because it can take time to be able to see the benefit to the bottom line and in some cases never seeing any improvement at all. Spending time to share things properly can feel like it is eating away at time that could be sent focused purely on the job. Thankfully, companies like AirBnB and Microsoft are showing the value in being open in what they are doing and demonstrating that organisations can be successful in doing it.

So the other reason why people don't? Because it is hard to know how to do it and it can take a lot of time and investment to change the culture of an organisation. I am going to try and approach a way that organisations can start to change that.

Build Trust

The most important thing when trying to change a culture and, in this case, build the culture of sharing is that you need to have trust. If people take the time to share then they need to know that they are not going to lose out by it. Creating good content that is then taken by others as their own with no acknowledgement is a great way to lose the trust and lead to people not sharing. Chastising staff for spending time in capturing their knowledge instead of getting on with things is another great way to lose that trust.

Connected with this is the building of a no-fail culture. Allowing people to share and capture the lessons learnt when things have not worked means that people learn together. Understanding why when you skip the testing or allow that technical debt to build, things fail and don't work well further down the line helps to build the support to do things properly. It helps to justify people sticking to their guns and insist that things are done properly. Without the trust in place to allow people to learn from failure without fear of reprisals, then people will play safe and let the problems hit later.

If you want to read more about learning from failure, this post has some great books to read on the subject (with the Scott Adams one already on my "to read" list).

Highlight influencers who are sharing well

As you build trust by not attacking failure and supporting the sharing of knowledge well, you can also take the positive aspect of highlighting the successes, especially specific people with influence within the organisation. In the modern culture where there is often a flatter structure to organisations and internal social networks allow people to influence through what they do as well as their role, this means that not everyone who can influence is a manager. By celebrating those that "work out loud", you encourage those behaviours and help others to learn how to do similarly themselves. Creating culture is about celebrating the things done well and promoting them widely.

Top down sharing

Your influencers are key but organisations are still heavily influenced by their hierarchies and messages from senior management. To encourage others to share, having senior managers share their own knowledge, information and even thoughts will massively increase the likelihood that others do as well. Being open with what is happening and keeping the channels of communication going will show that it is not just what people are being told to do but what is the way that things will be done as well. "Do as I say, not as I do" isn't a phrase that helps in this situation.

There is a challenge that it must feel natural as forced sharing will often come across like that so allowing each manager to find their own path to this will help with the longevity of it and the acceptance from others. If sets of blogs and communications from the management team feels the same then the suspicion will arise that they are all coming from comms and aren't real. Allowing different personalities to come through will encourage diversity across the staff as well.

Learning programmes

Now much as I love informal learning and learning by example from others, there is still absolutely a place for more formal programmes to help others learn and to encourage the sharing of knowledge. While there is a backlash for the use of brownbag lunch sessions (the feeling being that people should still be allowed a proper lunch break too), the benefit of having sessions where you share knowledge and understanding and have the opportunity to see what others are doing really help to build that understanding across different areas and to allow for new ideas to pr`opogate out.

My first fulltime job was in a graduate role and the sessions where we were introduced to what others across the organisation did really opened up my eyes. It allowed me later to see the true benefit in SharePoint across everyone because I could have discussions with different areas about their needs with a good initial understanding of what they did. This isn't just about technology or the specific knowledge associated with different areas of a business but understanding how things are done in different areas. Do they have projects or just get things done? How does each department interact with others internally as well as with other departments. All this knowledge can help when shared.

Break the organisation hierarchy

I am not talking about starting civil unrest in the canteen at breakfast but encouraging communities of interest and purpose to be able to work together regardless of which department they sit in. Agile techniques can work across operations, HR, engineering, finance and IT so people with interest in that should work together to share what works for them, new ideas for being more productive and efficient and ways of doing things.

The sharing of knowledge through communities is a great indication of the ability of an organisation to be agile as it encourages the more matrix approach and ability to flex to challenges and opportunities that are faced. Team of Teams by General McChrystal highlights the benefits of smaller cross-functional teams and for those to function well, using the knowledge shared between different teams in the required skills. By being able to move people into different areas, you can help the understanding of different areas and build that culture of sharing.

Make it easy

The last advice is to make it easy for people to share, help people fall into the right buckets. If they have hoops of approvals to go through to get knowledge out to others and it takes time that people rarely have then people won't do it. The natural inclination is to make sure that people capture all the information and metadata needed but this should be kept as easy as possible to do.

How do you make it easy? Using simple forms with as much filled in automatically as possible. Use context to provide the information rather than requiring people to do it themselves. Look at how modern AI tools can help automatically pull knowledge from existing areas (yup, I'll mention Project Cortex at this point too, it's been a while). Create easy to use tools that work within tools that people are using already like Microsoft Teams. Allow people to do what they were doing before but with that knowledge being stored too.


It is not an easy task to change the direction of an organisation and to build a new culture, however big the organisation is. It takes not only time but the enthusiasm and desire to make that change from all involved. However, for knowledge management initiatives to succeed, it is key that people are central to it and that they are encouraged and supported along the way to help it happen.

Photo courtesy of Chris Lawton via Unsplash