The White Rabbit, by Sir John Tenniel (1820 –1914), an illustration from the original edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
Ideas for Leaders #392

How to Ensure Knowledge Sharing under Pressure

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Key Concept

Knowledge sharing among employees is vital to an organization’s success. But increasing time pressure makes employees less willing to break away from their tasks and deadline work to help others. In a busy and competitive environment it is up to organizations to help relieve this pressure.

Idea Summary

In today’s information age, a key source of effectiveness in organizations is knowledge management, and more specifically knowledge sharing among employees. At the same time, one of the growing challenges faced by today’s employees is the time pressure caused by factors such as widespread corporate staff reductions and increase in job insecurity; struggling to do more with less, pressured employees have little time or incentive to make themselves available or to take time away from their tasks to help another employee with information. As a result, knowledge is not shared among employees to the extent that it can and should be.

Not all of the blame for time pressure can be put on the organization. There are individual attributes, including the lack of time management skills, which contribute to an employee’s sense of time-pressure.

Another factor that might be involved in the dynamic of sharing knowledge is perceived competition: the perception by employees that they are reducing their chances of reward by helping another employee succeed. While theoretically, everyone succeeds when the organization succeeds, in actuality an organization can set up an ‘every one for him- or herself’ mentality if it offers a win-lose reward structure, whatever the form (e.g. compensation, job security or access for resources) of that reward.

Once again, however, the organization cannot take full blame. Perception is not necessarily fact, and while an organization can contribute to competitiveness among employees, that competitiveness may also be self-driven. Many people are innately competitive regardless of the situation.

Recent research explored what impact the two situational factors of time pressure and competition — which in turn are influenced by the individual characteristics of self-efficacy and competitiveness — might have on knowledge sharing. The research confirmed that time pressure is a barrier to knowledge sharing, whether self-induced or caused by organizational factors. Competition by itself does not seem to reduce knowledge sharing, unless that competition results in time pressure — an employee who is under pressure to finish a project early to increases her chances of a promotion, for example, will be less inclined to take the time to share knowledge. Competitiveness, reflected for example in the strong desire to be first of one’s peers to be promoted, can thus indirectly influence knowledge sharing.

Business Application

The key ingredient in knowledge sharing, based on the research, is time. Both employees and managers have a role to play in encouraging knowledge sharing by reducing time sensitivity.

Employees seeking help from others should emphasize the speed with which the knowledge can be transmitted. It is not just a question of saying, “this won’t take long.” It is more a question of phrasing the request as specifically as possible so that the person being asked to share the knowledge is not staring into the abyss of an open-ended cry for help. For example, instead of “I don’t understand the new guidelines, can you help me?” the person asking for some knowledge sharing can say, “Is the change to subsection 6.3 the only one that applies to us?”

Managers have an even more important role in reducing perceptions of time pressure. For example, it is important to emphasize that knowledge sharing saves time for everybody in the long run: individuals are not trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when the information (or process or resource) is already available. In training, managers can emphasize that knowledge sharing is encouraged, and is not necessarily time-intensive. HR managers should push for resources, such as information technology, repositories and corporate librarians, which make the sharing of knowledge more time-efficient. They should also push for structural changes that will reduce the time pressure felt by employees. For example, simultaneous employee breaks, rather than individual breaks, offer opportunities for knowledge sharing that does not impede on an employee’s pressure to move forward when she returns to her desk.

Any practices or policies that can help reduce the employee’s perception of limited time will lead to more effective (and willing) knowledge sharing.

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