Breaking the Barriers to Knowledge Sharing
The beautiful thing about working in a law firm is that you have access to the collected wisdom of the lawyers and support staff of the firm. Their experience and advice are easily available to you, no matter who you are or where you sit within the organization.
In theory, this is an accurate picture. In reality…well, let’s just say that for many law firms, it is far from reality.
So how do you get a little closer to this knowledge-sharing nirvana? You start by identifying the barriers in your firm that prevent the free flow of mission-critical information, the intellectual capital of your firm. Then you use the solutions described below to systematically chip away at those barriers until you have achieved an appropriately robust flow of information throughout your organization.
Identifying the Barriers
Morten Hansen’s book, Collaboration (Harvard Business Press, 2009), should be required reading for anyone who manages a team. In Hansen’s view, “[b]ad collaboration is worse than no collaboration.” So he sets out in this book to explain the differences between good and bad collaboration, as well as how to implement the best kind of collaboration: disciplined collaboration. Along the way, he examines the key barriers to collaboration. As I discovered in reading his book, those barriers to collaboration can be found wherever you find knowledge-sharing challenges within an organization. Hansen identifies four barriers. How many of these are present in your firm?
- The not-invented-here barrier. Decentralized organizations (such as law firms) can resemble a “loose collection of units” rather than a unified whole. Left to their own devices, these largely independent units can become “fiefdoms or silos.” Further, within these units people tend to build group identity by developing an insular culture that makes them reluctant to look outside their unit for information or assistance. Another complicating factor arises if status gaps are perceived within an organization. This can cause some people to be unwilling to offer assistance to (or seek assistance from) other people that they believe hold a different status. (Consider the self-censorship that can impede information flow to partners from nearly every other part of the firm.) With respect to culture, a shared belief that people in the organization should solve their own problems and should not disclose their shortcomings can make employees reluctant to ask for help or information.
- The hoarding barrier. Hoarding is a universal problem with many roots. In some cases, competition within the organization can lead employees to hoard information in an attempt to retain a competitive advantage. A similar situation arises when people are afraid of losing power so they hoard knowledge in the belief that it will protect their power and help them remain valuable to the organization. If an organization’s compensation model emphasizes individual achievement, then employees tend to focus on their own targets rather than sharing information to help other people achieve their own goals. Finally, as staff cuts continue, employees may genuinely be too busy to help others. In this situation, even people with the best of intentions may end up inadvertently hoarding information because they do not believe they have the time to share that information.
- The search barrier. This barrier “concerns the inability to find information and people in a company.” Hansen’s study shows that the physical challenges to finding critical information increase with company size and distribution across geographies. Information overload — the bane of the digital age — also creates a search barrier since the sheer volume of information makes it hard to find the key information needed. Even aids such as knowledge management systems can increase the noise rather than signal within an organization unless those KM systems are carefully deployed. Finally, people who do not have good personal and professional networks find it more difficult to locate the information they need in the face of information overload.
- The transfer barrier. Some knowledge is by its very nature difficult to transfer. For example, while it is easy to share a recipe, it is much harder to transfer the knowledge of how to use that recipe to produce a dish of gourmet quality. In this example, the recipe is explicit knowledge, while the skill, experience and intuition of the master chef able to produce gourmet food is tacit knowledge, which is harder to convey. The quality of relationships can also have an impact on knowledge sharing. It is difficult to share information between people who do not already share a common frame (i.e., an understanding of each other’s personality and work). As an extension of this, consider that we have in our individual networks people we know well (i.e., strong ties) and those we do not know as well (i.e., weak ties). While weak ties are important and can be hugely helpful in certain circumstances, Hansen found that it is much harder to transfer tacit knowledge to weak ties than to strong ties.
Overcoming the Barriers
Hansen suggests that the barriers described above can be further categorized as problems of either motivation or ability. A motivation problem is manifested by an unwillingness to share that is typical of the not-invented here and hoarding barriers. By contrast, the search and transfer barriers indicate a lack of ability rather than will.
Motivational barriers require management solutions that help shift culture and individual motivations. This means articulating a clear vision that unifies people in the organization with respect to a shared goal and the need for teamwork. It also means aligning your compensation model so that it supports rather than undermines collaboration and knowledge sharing. Finally, Hansen recommends cultivating “T-shaped management” that builds depth within a specific discipline, while encouraging breadth across the organization by establishing an expansive individual network. That network helps diminish the insular tendencies that underlie the not-invented-here and hoarding barriers. To ensure this happens, your compensation model must reward employees for their assistance to people outside their group, as well as for their achievement against their own goals.
With respect to ability issues, you can address these barriers in part with better technology. However, I must note for the record that even if you have good technology that is properly deployed, you will still have some people and process issues to address. Further, be prepared to implement a range of technologies rather than one silver-bullet solution. For example, while an enterprise search engine might help employees retrieve explicit knowledge, you may need to use older techniques to transfer tacit knowledge. What older techniques? How about old-fashioned conversation or an apprentice relationship between a master and a novice?
Building Nimble Networks
If there is one solution that Hansen favors for overcoming the barriers to knowledge sharing, it is building what he calls “nimble networks.” In Hansen’s view, while an org chart shows formal reporting lines, the personal networks across an organization show how people actually work together. To ensure these networks are productive, he recommends that they be results-based. In other words, they should be networks that have been built for specific purposes: identifying opportunities (locating resources) and capturing value (realizing benefits from those resources). This means that the individuals concerned need to be aware of how their networks support and serve their work goals.
While networks are built by individuals, these networks are too important to be left to those individuals alone. A savvy law firm will map the existing informal networks within the firm and then take targeted action to fill any network gaps that cause performance gaps. For example, if different parts of the firm behave like isolated units, consider implementing a job rotation program. If a lack of diverse contacts within a network is the problem, then create opportunities for people from various parts of the firm to meet and mingle. If the problem is sharing information across offices, encourage communities of practice that span geographies.
Without the smooth flow of mission-critical information throughout your law firm, you run the risk of operating in the dark. If you want to turn the lights on, you’ll need to think carefully about all the obstructions that currently impede the flow of information and then work steadily to overcome them. Thanks to Morten Hansen’s research, you have some helpful guidance regarding how to break the typical barriers to knowledge sharing. Now all you have to do is follow his advice.