On incomplete information at work

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Oftentimes, to do your job successfully at wherever you get a paycheck from, you need a series of information that you don’t necessarily have in your brain or your shared Google Drive. Sometimes it’s some paper with some data, or sometimes it resides in the brain of Tom, Dick, or Harry. Sometimes your manager might even know it.

But for you to be successful on a task or project, you need it.

Now, unfortunately, the reality is that knowledge usually does not get shared very efficiently at work, and this leaves people exposed on different projects. It leads to projects coming in and being underwhelming or off-mark because the people working on them didn’t have full knowledge of what was happening around the project. In sum, a failure to knowledge-share is pretty common, but it dooms productivity, and then we either call a bunch of meetings about what happened or ignore it because, hey, the company is still growing, right?

But this is worthwhile to look at for a second.

Why is it so hard to share knowledge at work?

Couple of basic reasons:

  • “Knowledge is power,” as they say, and sharing it might reduce your power or relevance, which everyone in an office is always seeking to protect.
  • People feel insanely busy and a request to “download me on this task” feels like another thing they have to do, so they avoid it.
  • They honestly don’t know the knowledge you are seeking.
  • There is usually no effective process for information transfer within a business, even though there are processes for lots of other different things.
  • Anything “knowledge” or “learning” is usually tied to HR in a place that can afford a dedicated knowledge function, and HR is usually ignored by most people.
  • A lot of this is supposedly achieved with an Intranet, which, again, people ignore.

Let’s bring some research into this

Here’s some new-ish research on sharing knowledge at work, and this part feels important:

Much to our surprise, we found the opposite. When people perceived that others depended on them, they felt pressured into sharing knowledge (the controlled type of motivation), and this in turn promoted knowledge hiding. This could be because frequent requests from colleagues created more demands on their time — quite a rare commodity these days. People often chose to prioritize their own tasks over sharing knowledge and even pretended not to have the information being requested.

OK, so — “when people perceived that others depended on them” — i.e. managers — “they felt pressured” — i.e., again, managers — “and this in turn promoted knowledge hiding.”

Right there you have one of the biggest problems of most organizations. Managers are supposed to make the trains run and provide the link between strategy (from above) and execution (from below). For that link to be provided, they need to share knowledge with the execution-level workers. What do they typically do instead? Hide knowledge, largely because it makes them more relevant to the strategy-level people (their bosses).

So basically, this massive attempt to “manage up” all the time creates a world where incomplete information is normative at low-to-mid-levels, and then we wonder why it feels like a lot of projects flop or it feels like middle managers think they need to micromanage everything. It’s because the information was never complete in the first place, so how could the worker bee do a really good job? Ya know?

Can we make this better?

There are ways to do knowledge-sharing at work better, yes. Also I’d associate “learning” functions with business development functions, because (a) when you learn, the business is developing and (b) more people will care about something tied to biz dev than something tied to HR. I’d also just train managers that “Hey, you got promoted because you were good at managing your business and your widgets over here. But this is a new job and you need to talk to people and tell them what is up with what you know. We promise we are not going to fire or demote you and these little knowledge-seekers will not rise up and take your perch. You are still relevant. But unless they have the right info, your team will end up looking bad.”

I think that would be the mix of things I’d recommend. You? How do we deal with a lack of complete intel on work projects?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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