No employee is a blank slate, so organizations should leverage workers’ prior experiences through knowledge-sharing sessions to enrich learning content.
When it comes to learning, most organizations go out of their way to treat everyone equally. Each employee has the opportunity to receive training on technical and other skills, as well as to access incentives for continued education. But sometimes in the pursuit of uniformity, it’s easy to overlook the fact that employees are people, too — people who invariably have real-world experiences that give them unique perspectives on learning.
“There’s a lot that occurs in a person’s life in terms of experiences and conditioning and attitudes, [and] they bring all that with them into the workplace,” said Allen Jones, president of the Edge Learning Institute. “Businesses [must] recognize that people come to them with all sorts of [prior knowledge], all of which ultimately determine their contribution to an organization way more than their technical competence.”
But many organizations don’t have processes in place that can effectively leverage employees’ real-world, on- and off-the-job experiences. The benefits of effective knowledge sharing, however, can include improved productivity, increased engagement and retention, strengthened loyalty and a workforce that feels more valued and validated.
“It’s absolutely imperative that knowledge sharing take place for a business to be competitive,” Jones said. “Equally important . . . is [for learning professionals] to help the employee understand the impact and influence of those experiences, the cause-and-effect relationship of those experiences and how that affects their ability to make contributions.”
While the exchange of information can occur in a variety of ways and in many different forums, there are several things learning professionals can do to lay the groundwork for successful discussion.
It all starts from the ground up: Having the right corporate culture in place is pivotal to fostering fruitful employee discussion.
“If you’re really going to have knowledge sharing that’s valuable, you’ve got to have a culture that perpetuates trust and vulnerability and authenticity,” Jones said. “It’s risky for me to sit down with a group of people and start talking about my experiences. Depending on the person, if they’ve got a lot of self-confidence and good healthy self-esteem, [they might think], ‘I can talk to anybody about anything’ — it’s no big deal. But the reality is, the majority of the people in the workplace really don’t have quite that level of confidence, so [they’re] constantly assessing, ‘Is this a safe place to say what I know, or am I going to be mocked or looked at differently?’”
Sylvia Ball, chief learning officer for the Treasury Acquisition Institute (TAI), the official learning organization for the Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service, said her organization promotes this kind of collaborative culture by having certain departments work side-by-side to avoid operating in silos.
“Everyone works together,” she said. “We have erased the lines, and there’s a clear partnership but there’s a respect for the roles and responsibilities. So in an environment like that, it’s rich, it’s fertile — it’s an excellent opportunity for learning.”
Maintaining an open, candid culture also allows for more fluid and continuous communication, which is critical for successful sharing.
“You obviously want some boundaries, but at the same time, you want to try to nurture something that’s more organic, [something] that becomes more a part of the culture and not just something we do from 9 to 10 a.m. the second Thursday of each month,” Jones said.
This kind of environment also encourages employees to spend time fully exploring a particular topic or idea, absorbing and pondering it and returning with follow-up questions, rather than trying to fit too much into too short a period of time.
“I think that a tendency sometimes when we do something like this is [to not] allow enough time to get full context,” Jones said. “We don’t allow enough time to digest it and come back. So how do you close the loop?”
Having a culture that encourages taking time out of the day to reflect and offers opportunities for follow-up discussion can improve the quality and depth of the knowledge shared.
Forum and Environment
While an open corporate culture is the first step toward successful knowledge sharing, learning professionals need to provide the appropriate forums and environments for effective discussion to take place.
One of the first places discussion occurs is in the classroom. That’s why Ball said she works to promote a classroom experience that allows for lots of feedback and multidimensional learning.
“We are [committed to] having interactive classes, classes that are designed for the students to work together in groups and not only dig into the regulations and case studies [to] find out what the realistic answer would be, but also [to glean information] from each other,” she said. “Every single class is an opportunity for students to come into an environment where they are learning from the teacher, the teacher is learning from them and then they are learning from each other.”
In addition, TAI sponsors brown-bag lunches and a series of discussion groups called “Lessons Learned” that bring together a group or team of employees to share their experiences about a particular acquisition experience. Both types of sessions are voluntary.
“It’s not just a matter of sitting next to each other for a period of time,” Jones said. “Allow people to have a little bit of social interaction to grease the cogs. Create some things around [the discussion groups] that might draw people to them, like a lunch type of thing, a brown-bag type of thing, or do it around coffee. And the less structured it is, the more free-flowing it is. As long as you have some reasonable boundaries, [the more] people feel like, ‘I can share my actual experience in this.’”
The key is to make sure you are clear about your expectations and honestly convey to participants that while every aspect of the discussion is helpful, not every idea can be implemented, Jones said. After all, if attendees felt their thoughts were valued and the discussion was worth it, “They’re going to be a cheerleader and a great advertisement,” he said.
Bringing Discussion Into the 21st Century
One of the newest areas that organizations are delving into to help facilitate successful discussion groups is the Web.
At Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, learning executives partnered with public relations representatives to create a special internal networking site for employees and prospective job applicants. Alan Baer, Kimpton’s senior vice president of people and information, said Kimpton challenged employees to come up with personal video clips about their passion for their jobs, and the company featured the winning submissions on its new site.
“We do a lot of these types of things,” Baer said, explaining that the company has held similar contests around its EarthCare and diversity campaigns. “[The] response was terrific. It’s our folks talking to people who will potentially become our employees, and employees talk[ing] to each other. I think what makes this unique is knowing that this stuff came from our employees: It’s open, it’s honest and it’s candid.”
While TAI makes little use of Web 2.0 tools, Ball said, the organization is willing to explore its options.
“That’s something that just came out in some of our discussions,” she said. “It’s something that I really want to think through. I am on a mission to move us forward as an organization, help us step into this age of technology. We’re not really there. We do have a Web page, but this is one place I need to investigate and one place I want us to go.”
That said, Web 2.0 tools might not suit every organization, and it’s important to assess the goals for your discussion groups and knowledge sharing before implementing online forums, Jones said.
Further, going online never should be a substitute for face-to-face discussion.
“It doesn’t mean it can’t be effective,” Jones said. “It doesn’t mean if you’ve got a core group of people that work together and know each other and have got good relationships, that that can’t be a good mechanism. [But] body language has a lot to do with how we receive information and interpret it, so I think that when we go to more efficient forms of communication and using online [tools], we lose a component of communication that I think is important.”
As with any learning initiative, senior management must actively support knowledge sharing for it to be fully embraced by the rest of the organization.
“A leader’s going to create that kind of culture,” Jones said.
For example, Kimpton’s internal networking site includes an instructional video with interviewing tips from its chief operating officer and senior director of people and culture.
“We really want to show everybody the genuineness of the people from the top of the organization through every level,” Baer said.
Ball said TAI is working with senior-level management to create a short instructional video that will be shown to every student at the beginning of training.
It’s also important periodically to include senior management in discussion groups to show employees the organization is serious about knowledge sharing. Just keep in mind that top-level executives bring with them a certain intimidation factor, so you want to make sure employees have plenty of their peers in the room, as well.
Rotational Assignments and Coaches
Allowing employees to participate in rotational assignments can help them learn from each other, while assigning coaches and mentors can foster informal communication.
TAI has implemented a rotational program called the Career Ladder Employee Program, in which full development plans are laid out with the competencies needed for each assignment. Personal coaches help employees along the way.
Ball said it’s this hands-on experience in working together that best leverages employees’ real-world knowledge and perspectives.
“That’s really what helps a person have what I call the ‘aha!’ experience,” she said. “I can read a book, but give me a real-world experience, [and] I can have this ‘aha!’ and say, ‘OK, now that makes sense to me.’”
In addition, having a trusted mentor also might encourage otherwise timid or hesitant workers to speak up, since they would first be able to run their ideas past a secure, safe source.
The Bottom Line
The last component of creating a successful discussion-group program in your organization is to be able to demonstrate the business case. You’d expect effective knowledge sharing to increase employee loyalty, which in turn would boost engagement and ultimately retention — but how do you prove it?
“That’s always a tough one,” Jones said.
Ball said she couldn’t point to any specific metrics related to the bottom-line impact of successful knowledge-sharing programs, but added that she has anecdotally witnessed increased productivity and retention with employees who have gone through TAI’s rotational Career Ladder program. She also explained the link between retention and succession planning and highlighted the importance of knowledge sharing in the face of demographic shifts.
“Succession planning is critical. The number of people who are going to be retiring over the next couple of years — what are we going to do about that?” she said. “We have got to find ways to share knowledge.”
While proving the beneficial bottom-line impact of effective knowledge sharing might be difficult, there’s no doubt about the connection, Jones said.
“When you hire someone, you get the whole person,” he said. “It’s kind of like marriage: When you get married, you get the in-laws. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes maybe not so good, but now you’ve got them, so what are you going to do? Ignore they are there? It’s in the employer’s best interest, and I mean financially, to recognize that people don’t know what they don’t know. And a little help in this area will make a significant difference in their business.”
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