Monday, 22 June 2015

How reputation and ownership affect knowledge sharing

Here's the thing: I regularly share information on LinkedIn with a network of contacts, most of whom I've never met. And unless one of these people offers me a job, none of them are in a position to give me any financial reward for sharing. So why do I share?

And here's the other thing: I don't share this information internally in my organisation, with people whom I have met, some of which are at least in a position to reward me financially for sharing. 

So if money isn't an incentive for sharing, what is?

Dan Pink has demonstrated that money only can only motivate to a certain point, and that beyond this point financial reward actually de-motivates people. Even if a company would offer such an incentive for sharing, the promise of a promotion or a pay rise can only be delivered infrequently. So what else might be going on?


Why do we share information on LinkedIn? Or Facebook? For example, why am I sharing this post on LinkedIn rather than on my company's intranet? If we don't share for financial gain, one incentive may be to do with enhancing our reputation - and our influence - in our personal/professional network. If someone shares a cat video on Facebook it is usually to make people laugh, but the flip side of this is that it increases their reputation in their network as someone who has a sense of humour.

But why doesn't this compulsion to share extend to sharing work-related knowledge on a company intranet? Perhaps we don't consider this kind of knowledge to be sufficiently interesting and therefore not worth sharing. Extending this logic suggests that we don't think that this knowledge will enhance our reputation or influence in our network, or - worse still - that my internal reputation may even be damaged by sharing what others might perceive to be 'boring' information.

So 'what people think of me' is potentially more valuable that financial reward. In other words, I share on LinkedIn so that other people in my network think that I am informed, insightful and useful. It is their perception of me that is valuable, as it increases my reputation, influence and social capital. And that's not to say that reputation is without financial value; reputation is increasingly becoming as important as profitability as a key strategic driver, hence the growth of the reputation economy.

But why are people more inclined to try and increase their social capital and reputation externally and not internally? Why are we inclined to share information outside of our organisation than within it? Is it because there are no official 'structures' in our personal network? Harold Jarche notes that structure drives behaviour in large organisations, but perhaps in our personal networks it is a lack of structure that drives behaviour. What is different about sharing our knowledge and expertise on social media, but not within our own organisation? One important reason is because our personal network 'self-organises' - I.e. the lack of hierarchy means that knowledge is free to travel between any individual in the network and does so based on factors including how interesting/topical/humorous/insightful it is.


Alongside reputation, 'ownership' also plays an important role in driving sharing behaviour. When I am sharing on my own social media channels I 'own' my communication, and I alone reap all benefits gained from my increased visibility. But within the walls or an organisation it is primarily the organisation that benefits from employees sharing their work, not the employees themselves.

An example of this could be the resentment generated from organisations not sharing revenue and profits fairly amongst employees. Although this would appear to run contrary to the above argument against financial incentives driving behaviour, it is actually 'resentment of inequality' that brings disengagement. And few things reinforce the sense of inequality than an overly hierarchical structure.

A good example of this can be heard in the HBR podcast 'Are robots really coming for our jobs?' which tells the story of weavers in 19th Century America. As technology developed, the weavers were able to use their skill to bring about a significant increase in profitability for their organisations, but the weavers' wages remained stagnant for some 30 years. This highlights the problem of the 'them and us' mentality, a problem which can drive employees to feel disengaged and disconnected from both their work and their organisation.

If employees feel a greater sense of ownership over their work, it is likely that they will be more engaged and feel more invested in the success of the company. And this greater sense of ownership may make them feel more inclined to share their work in order to help colleagues.

If the goal is to increase knowledge-sharing, the challenge is to move away from an 'us and them' mentality. A greater sense of ownership and clearer reputational benefits to an individual's social capital are two key factors that are likely to drive greater participation and engagement in internal networks.

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