Here are ways to avoid the biggest barriers to knowledge sharing.
By Lauren Trees
Efficient collaboration can improve performance along the supply chain by ensuring critical details flow downstream and enriching the knowledge on which each successive group bases its decisions. But despite the variety of collaboration tools available inside organizations, most supply chains are plagued by information siloes that can cause unnecessary delays and impede perfect order performance.
Recent research from member-based nonprofit APQC identifies the most common barriers to enterprise knowledge sharing. The top three — culture, time and awareness — show how hard it is to get employees to change their perceptions and habits. Even if an organization is doing a lot to promote the benefits of proactive communication and teamwork, competing priorities and mixed messages from management can counteract those efforts.
A lack of awareness of what’s expected, a non-conducive organizational culture and insufficient time for employees to share can prevent knowledge from getting to those who need it most. However, a few simple steps can help your organization alleviate these barriers and ensure that the right knowledge moves quickly and fluidly across supply chain functions.
When a company cites awareness as an obstacle, it means that employees don’t know about knowledge sharing, why they should get involved, or how to access content and expertise. Making sure employees know what’s available and expected is the first step in getting them to seek out knowledge in the context of their work.
It’s important to teach employees exactly what you want them to do and then reinforce that message over time. Many organizations send a few emails when they launch a new cross-functional community or collaboration tool and think they’re done. But cutting through the noise requires a consistent, multi-channel strategy that combines digital messaging, in-person presentations and messages from leaders and managers. Opportunities to be face-to-face are particularly important, with 42 percent of organizations listing this as the most effective form of communication.
It also helps to get creative with your branding and tie sharing to issues that employees already care about. This approach has worked well at MSA The Safety Company, a global manufacturer of safety products. When MSA started hosting global challenges to engage engineers in collaborative innovation, it created movie-style posters to promote the events. The posters are both eye-catching and connect knowledge sharing to the organization’s core mission, which is saving customers’ lives.
“We try to pull the customer into our promotions so that associates can connect knowledge management (KM) to MSA’s vision and mission,” said Rebecca Whitworth, project manager, continuous improvement. “When they can clearly see how their KM efforts can produce new ideas and products for our customers, that’s a huge motivator for them.”
The next big challenge is culture, which includes all the unwritten rules about how a company operates along with the processes that shape situational context. Culture becomes an obstacle when an organization’s norms promote the tight control of information or when cultural differences between groups or locations impede knowledge exchanges.
If you want to shift the prevailing culture, it helps for leaders and managers to be on board. APQC’s research shows that, when people at the higher rungs of the ladder endorse and actively participate in knowledge sharing, others quickly fall in line. Even one or two prominent influencers can do a lot to shift unspoken perceptions about what the organization values. And if employees see active knowledge sharers getting recognized and promoted, that provides additional motivation to emulate their behavior.
In addition to serving as role models, leaders can help fix problems that inadvertently contribute to a knowledge-hoarding culture. For example, some performance measures pit locations against one another by ranking them from best to worst or encourage people to solve their own problems instead of tapping into a network of colleagues. These situations may necessitate a new corporate measurement strategy that favors group achievement over individual excellence.
Cultural problems also occur when groups or locations with different sub-cultures try to share knowledge. Terminology can vary widely from design to manufacturing to logistics, and employees who spend most of their time at a desk vs. a factory floor often have different expectations for interaction. All of this can lead to bottlenecks and misunderstandings.
Acknowledging cultural differences is usually the first step in overcoming them. It also helps to establish working norms, such as asking subject matter experts to weigh in on questions posted to online discussion forums within 24 hours. Repeating or varying the times of webinars and meetings, as well as actively soliciting knowledge contributions from underrepresented parts of the business, can help make all collaborators feel included and valued.
Today’s supply chain workers operate at breakneck speed, with fewer people handling a higher volume of work faster than ever before. In this environment, it’s easy for employees to see knowledge sharing as one more thing they’re expected to do on top of a full load.
Sometimes time barriers are really about time. For example, if people are asked to lead a cross-functional community without reducing their other duties, that can put them in a perpetual time crunch. But more often, when employees say they don’t have time to share knowledge, what they mean is that the process is too difficult and cumbersome, it’s boring and repetitive, or they just don’t see the value.
If employees complain that they’re too busy to share knowledge, the first step is to evaluate the processes they’re using. Are there ways to make collaboration easier and more intuitive? For example, if people have to add metadata tags to questions and lessons learned before submitting them, that can be a barrier. In addition, make sure that employees know how content and collaboration systems work so that they can leverage them efficiently.
But you also need to convince employees why they should contribute knowledge and how it will help them in the long run. Success stories are often the best route to convey this message. For example, Melanie Byrne, a knowledge management specialist at a major Pfizer manufacturing location, looks for examples that show how colleagues have saved time by having knowledge at their fingertips. This, in turn, inspires people to start building knowledge sharing and reuse into their routines.
“If I can say, ‘Joe rolled out this tool in his area and that led to a seamless audit,’ or ‘Jane is able to go home on time and experience less stress because she’s saving time through KM,’ that resonates with people,” she said.
Lauren Trees is principal research lead of Knowledge Management at APQC.