Knowledge sharing at work: A legit differentiator

Knowledge sharing

Feels like managers are always chasing some kind of differentiator, usually around product or process. Here’s an idea: what if it was around the idea of knowledge sharing?

Before we dive too deep on buzzwords like “10x growth” or whatever, let’s stop and reflect for a second. When you move from 1 employee to 2 employees, you just created a small need for knowledge sharing. That first employee has context and background that the second one might not. What about when you go from 2 to 10, or 10 to 100? Knowledge sharing becomes crucial as any company scales.

The problem, of course, is that to many executives, “knowledge sharing” is a fluffy concept. They want to focus on products, processes, and revenues. (Logical.) Typically, they will let Human Resources “own” knowledge sharing, because HR usually “owns” things related to learning. Problem is, HR isn’t subsequently empowered by the executives. They want a piece of software, or a digital platform — and most importantly, they want it cheap. This is why a lot of knowledge sharing in companies is ultimately half-assed webinars that took 120 hours for someone to build. It’s a legitimate shame. I worked at a huge health care company for about 12 weeks once. They had the resources to do e-learning and knowledge sharing better than almost anyone in North America, and guess what? It was still predominantly half-assed webinars and sparsely-attended in-person meetings.

We like to talk about “disruption” a lot these days, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about that idea. A lot of guys think you get disrupted around product or price. That does happen, but usually a company gets disrupted because it’s too slow on decision-making — and because everything is clustered into silos. Those are the real issues. Silos probably aren’t going anywhere — we still hire for functional expertise, right? — but The Silo Effect needs to be killed with fire. One way to do that is with knowledge sharing.

But how?

Knowledge sharing: The Trello example

Good post on Trello’s blog about their “Coffee Talks” as relates to company culture. Basically, on Friday afternoons — a joke time of the week at most jobs anyway — people come together and learn from each other. You can see what’s happening in other parts of the company. It’s knowledge sharing. Here’s the money quote about why they do this:

“I try never to miss a Coffee Talk. While I attend mostly for the fun of learning, I’m often surprised by how much the topic will end up overlapping with what I do in my role. Even if there’s not a direct connection to my job, I often learn things that help me work with other teams and understand the context surrounding what they do,” said Caity Cogdell, a member of Trello’s support team.

So, instead of saying “That topic doesn’t relate to what I do,” you can actually use knowledge sharing to get better at what you do. That’s cool, right? Second money quote:

“Coffee Talks have been an incredible way to see what other people at Trello care about and how they work. As we’ve gotten larger, it’s been harder and harder to have any grasp on what’s happening with everyone. Coffee Talks give a way to reset that and make the world seem smaller,” said Ryan Sorensen, a Trello developer based in Los Angeles.

Make the world seem smaller. That’s a noble goal as you get over 100 employees, as Trello just did.

Knowledge sharing: What are some of the other benefits?

Here are a few off the top of my head:

Overall context: When you know what different people at your job actually do, it can make your own job more productive.

Reduces tension: A lot of work flare-ups ultimately come from Person A thinking they work super hard and Person B is a slacker. If you see Person B present on what they really do all week, you might realize they are not a slacker.

Good for new hires: Now there are tons of resources you can use in on-boarding for different departments — or the company as a whole. Most on-boarding processes are not very good, and this would help out a lot.

Remote vs. on-site: This is actually a relatively easy idea to execute for both remote and on-site workers (more in the next section).


Social bonds: Rushing around from task-to-task under poor managers can fray social bonds between co-workers, so getting them together for knowledge sharing can rebuild some of that.

Connected ideas: If product is working on one thing and marketing sees the knowledge sharing, maybe marketing goes “Oh, that ties to this thing we’re doing.” It makes everyone more effective.

What are best practices for implementing knowledge sharing then?

That Trello post has some good ideas, but here are a few as well.

Promote internally: Slack channels, Intranet, emails, etc. If you do knowledge sharing once a week, maybe promote it twice a week. (Or 3 times.) Not overbearing but make sure employees actually know about it.

Remote vs. on-site: From Trello —

For remotely distributed coworkers, we fire up a Zoom meeting on a laptop set up facing the presenter (if in HQ) or the kitchen audience (if the presenter is remote). This allows them to have a clear view. The presenters, whether in HQ or remote, use a headset microphone in order to talk and ensure the best sound quality for online attendees and the recording. Zoom handles the recording.

Get good topics/speakers for the first 3-4 weeks: This will help with word of mouth and more people will come.

Put it on Friday afternoons: As noted, Friday afternoons are a wasteland at a lot of jobs. Calling meetings during that time is a farce. Why not some knowledge sharing and bonding?

Have the execs attend a few: This is the all-too-familiar “buy-in” that you always need to get something like this off the ground.

The bottom line on knowledge sharing

Fact is, job role/definition at many places — especially as the place gets bigger — is usually not very clear. This, in turn, is why it’s so hard for so many companies to establish clear priority as they scale. Without clear priority, you have (a) more individual-level stress and (b) less organizational trust. So you need priority, and priority often comes from “understanding who does what and how the parts fit together.” That, in turn, comes from knowledge sharing. It might seem like a fluffy HR thing, but this is why you need it. It helps you avoid market competitors chasing your tail because your priorities and people are now more aligned. 

We love to beat our chests about “strategy” and “innovation,” but typically that just takes us to the off-ramp for Buzzword City. Knowledge sharing, though, might actually improve our business products and processes.

What else would you add on knowledge sharing?

Ted Bauer

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