Why is it so hard to get smart people to share?

May 8th, 2008 by Gia Lyons Leave a reply »

There is a brigade charge underway to capture the wisdom (knowledge + experience) of the retiring corporate crowd. The urgency is perhaps driven by the fact that these “wisdom holders” will retire, then turn around and charge their former employers a hefty consulting fee for continuing their services. Not a bad gig if you can get it. But, those who have tried the knowledge management (KM) thing in the past will tell you that this harnessing, leveraging, capturing, harvesting – pick your favorite over-used word – is a hard row to hoe. And for the record, please do not try to harness or harvest my knowledge. I am not a horse, nor a corn crop.


Why is it so hard to get your smart people to share? Because human beings typically share their precious knowledge only with people they trust. Not a software application.

If you’re one of these retiring wisdom holders, or perhaps a Gen X/Y subject expert, you smell what I’m steppin’ in. You’re the ONE individual who really knows why the chemical process behind your best-selling adhesives is what it is, or how to deal most effectively with your top three multi-million-dollar clients, or the Colonel’s secret spices. Maybe you’re the only one who knows why your corporate authentication directory evolved into the weird Galapagos-Island-like thing it is today: “Hey, what’s a red-footed Booby doing in there?”… “Ask Lincoln, he’ll know.”

Because you are the one individual who knows this stuff, you are reluctant to advertise that fact, for fear of the avalanche of requests to collaborate. You need more emails, IMs, and phone calls like you need another orifice in your cranium. Plus, these people who would swarm you like flies on poo will not perhaps care too much if you are over-extended. But, you are more than happy to share what you know with one or two others, after you’ve discerned that they won’t abuse you, won’t stab you in the back, won’t take credit for your intellectual capital, and will perhaps return the favor. The people who invest in creating a relationship with you are rewarded with your experienced point of view.

It is impossible for anyone to imbue the full power of their experience into a profile, a blog, a forum, a wiki, a presentation, a tag, a podcast, a video, or anything else. A wisdom holder’s value lies in their ability to bring their experience to bear on a situation within context, in real time. This is most often done extemporaneously, and in my world, over the phone. And if done well, true breakthrough thinking can happen. But, that’s another topic.

The spoken word trumps the written.

The whole point of social software, from the perspective of retaining corporate wisdom, is to make a wisdom holder’s surface knowledge available to a general population, so that other people can do the following:

  1. Be aware that this knowledge exists in the organization, and who has it. This is a huge pre-cursor to effective collaboration – knowing people exist, and knowing what they know. In social network science terms, the goal is to increase your organizational network’s density, which means more awareness / connections between more people, and to reduce distance, which means fewer network “nodes” between two people, based on trusted relationships – you can’t call Kevin Bacon directly, for example, until you ask a guy you know who knows his agent to get you an appointment.
  2. Determine with whom they should collaborate, if they even need to. The irony of social software is that many may never need to collaborate with you if you share your surface knowledge. And an added benefit is that if you ever do need to collaborate with that person, you’ve accelerated that effort beyond the “dumb question” stage. You can get to the really good stuff faster.
  3. Begin a trusted relationship with someone. This is done by “talking” to them in a forum, a blog, commenting on their document, etc., in hopes that in the future, you can boldly call them and ask for their tacit wisdom.


  1. David S. says:

    A new Dark Ages?

    I consider myself firmly in the middle of this situation — I’m the old guy for some issues, and realize I need to learn from the OLDER guys about other things.

    The solution that seems to work for me is trying as much as possible to answer any and all questions with a URL. Usually if the answer doesn’t exist on the web it is easier for me to document the answer in a wiki, then when the same question comes along all I need to do is resend the URL. Once the information is out there some people will find it (and hopefully expand it), and even better, they won’t even need to ask me in the first place.

  2. Richard Fahey says:

    Trying to codify the tacit knowledge stored in the heads of employees is probably one of the most difficult tasks when implementing any kind of knowledge platform.

    Firstly, (like the Rumsfield quote) people don’t know what they know. Therefore, it’s often difficult for them to codify things unless they are asked specific questions e.g. within debates in communities. Therefore communities and active debates within these are critical in order to extract the knowledge from the experts.

    Secondly, people often think that by sharing information and knowledge somehow the value of this knowledge is dimished. Stewart Mader talks about this a lot when discussing how to grow wikis. The opposite is in fact true. As people share their knowledge to a wider community their recognition as an expert increases, and they’re more likely to be appreciated and respected for this.

    It is important to recognise that the most valuable people in many organisation are those who freely share their knowledge and expertise with others. The experts who hoard all their knowledge to themselves and don’t contributing this to the public domain will never achieve the recognition or potential available to them. If I have a little knowledge and share it, it’s likely that others will do the same (i.e. the wikipedia concept), and thus society and the public domain is better off. If I have a lot of knowledge and don’t share it, nobody benefits.

  3. Gia Lyons says:

    I do what you do, David. I NEVER answer a question one-to-one. I always point them to a URL, even if it means me blogging/wiki(ing?)/foruming it first.

    Now, how do you get those who fall into the camp Richard describes to do the same? In many cases, you simply can’t. But, you can get them to talk to others who perhaps might proxy what they learn to the general population via blogs / wikis / forums / documents / whatever.

    So, what are you two doing in your organizations to encourage the laggards to start doing what you describe here?

  4. wonderwebby says:

    it almost takes baby steps, doesn’t it?

    I have found, through blogging, that the things I deem to be important are perhaps not so. And the simplest things are far more profound and interesting to others.

    Knowledge alone is not gold.
    I think if we placed more importance on imagination, wisdom, application…what happens AFTER you share your pearls with the crowd, then we might feel more generous about sharing our knowledge.

  5. Gia Lyons says:

    Ooo, Jasmin, I like that idea. Goes back to what I was saying about individual rewards being a barrier to social software adoption.

    Here’s a realistic scenario, IMO:

    Subject expert is comfy answering questions in a forum. If I want ot know more about this person, I click to view a profile. Or, if I search on topic X, this person shows up in the results because of their forum answers.

    That’s it. That’s all it takes. Boom, I’m now aware this person exists, and have a good idea of what they know.

    Awareness achieved, density incremented by 1.

  6. Gia, great stuff. I have a presentation to do on this very subject before a mix of senior public sector administrators. Thanks to Jasmin pointing me here, I’ve yet another useful, well-considered resource.


  7. Gia Lyons says:

    Stephen, you are most welcome! Following you in Twitter, now.

  8. I’ve concluded that focusing more on relationship development than on knowledge management might make more sense for knowledge transfer across generations. Here’s one example:


    Here are related discussions of the issue:


    Dennis McDonald
    Alexandria, Virginia USA

  9. First off, love the RSS icon in the title bar.

    Second, you have a very healthy perspective on knowledge management (or whatever we want to call it nowadays). We’ve got to stay focused on enabling people to connect rather than trying to pin them down and drain their brains before they can escape.

    Recent articles I find relevant:
    Creating Mozart: Enterprise Wikis at Chevron Richmond

    7 seconds to knowledge share

    Hope these help someone out, and I’ll be adding this blog to my feed reader. See you around!

  10. Brad says:

    With respect to the retiring corporate crowd, and akin to your view on personal connections, a far better response is to establish an alumni based on social interaction and include current employees in the action as well. Retired or ex-employees are more likely to participate in a social event to catch up with friends and former colleagues from where the kinds of knowledge sharing conversations can take place – not codified, just conversational.


  11. Gia Lyons says:

    Brad, I really like that approach. Lots of interest in alumni solutions these days, oddly enough. 😉