Managing knowledge and delivering learning in the hybrid workplace is critical, but can also be challenging. In a series of blogs we look at some of the main issues that often arise, and how that has driven us to design Slick Plus. Last time we looked at knowledge silos and the problems that can arise. In this fourth post, we examine the knowledge bottlenecks that stop individuals sharing their knowledge and what can be done to move towards a system of collective learning.  

We all learn at work and we all have knowledge to share. But how often do we actually share the knowledge we acquire? 

Learning can be rewarding, valuable, engaging and even exciting. The moment the “penny drops”. An “aha” moment where our learning crystallises or results in a new idea. Those milestones when we suddenly achieve something that we didn’t think we could do. All of these are ingredients for a great day of work and will usually involve a nugget of knowledge, measure of insight, or spark of inspiration that will be useful to share with our colleagues. But thanks to knowledge bottlenecks we keep what we know to ourselves.

Why do knowledge bottlenecks exist?  

Knowledge bottlenecks occur when an individual does not share what they have learned.  Here are just some of the things that a person might think that causes a knowledge bottleneck:

“I don’t have time to share this, I’m too busy.”

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share this. Suppose I reveal something confidential?”

“My manager wouldn’t approve. I have to focus on the day job.”

“It’s not what people do here”

“No one would be interested, it’s not worth doing”

“Where and how do I share this? I’m not sure of the right place to do it.”

“Nobody looks at the place to share it. It’s the black hole where knowledge disappears.”

“I don’t get any recognition for sharing what I know. Why bother?”

From keep-it-to-yourself culture to collective learning

This list of ultimately negative thoughts and doubts hints at the variety of reasons why many of us don’t share knowledge and learning.

In our last post we covered some of the overarching structural, practical, cultural and political reasons why knowledge silos and gaps exist ranging from a risk averse culture to silos caused by organisational structure to simply having no convenient place to submit knowledge.

Many of these same reasons can exacerbate personal factors such as a lack of confidence or engagement that then create the conditions for endemic knowledge bottlenecks, leading to the development of an enterprise-wide keep-it-to-yourself culture.

Keep-it-to-yourself culture is damaging in many ways. At worst it can lead to fears where people are not reporting bad practices, as well as a lack of transparency. It contributes to more knowledge leakage, the inability to develop internal skills and more. 

It also limits our potential as individuals. Learning helps feed the growth mindset that allows us to develop personally and professionally. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said “The learn-it-all does better than the know-it-all.”

But imagine what we could achieve if instead there is a culture of collective learning.  Where people share their learning, knowledge and ideas, helping to improve skills, drive innovation, support personal growth and career development, produce more experts, create connections, drive engagement and more. It’s exciting, engaging, energising and even infectious.

Collective learning and the skills-based organisation

The idea of uncorking those knowledge bottlenecks isn’t a ‘nice to have’. Increasingly it can’t be ignored due to the critical role that collective learning can play in navigating a world where skills need to be constantly refreshed.

Currently many organisations are trying to move from being role-based to being more skills-based. There’s many reasons for this including our collective reliance on digital technologies and the related pace of change involving game-changing emerging tech such as generative AI. Wider demographic changes caused by a lower fertility rate will lead to a shrinking talent market. Organisations are also increasingly having to reinvent themselves to remain productive and competitive.

If organisations don’t act, skills gaps will impact their ability to operate competitively. Research from HR consultancy Korn Ferry says we could be heading to a situation where by 2030, 85 million jobs could be unfilled because there aren’t enough people with the right skills.

Moving to a more skills-based organisation is also important for employee experience and engagement, in turn impacting talent retention and attraction.

Research from Deloitte suggests that 73% of employees believe skills-based approaches would improve their experience of work and that skills-based organisations are 79% more likely to have a positive workforce experience and 98% more likely to retain high performers.

How to uncork the bottlenecks and move towards collective learning

The ‘why’ surrounding reducing knowledge bottlenecks and moving towards collective learning is clear to many. But what about the ‘how’?

Over the past eighteen months or so we’ve spoken to multiple organisations about how they’ve either successfully introduced some collective learning or could see it happening.

Interestingly, two enablers repeatedly feature in our conversations. The first of these is communities of practice that provide some structure to peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and learning. The second is social technologies that facilitate knowledge sharing and collective learning despite the existence of potential multiple knowledge silos. Of course, there are other factors such as having active support from leadership, but the combination of the right community and technology approach is a potent mix.

The role of communities of practice

Communities of practice have been a core feature of many knowledge management programmes and approaches to learning for over 25 years. A community of practice is effectively a group of individuals who have a shared knowledge domain or area and where learning is an explicit aim of that community.

 We like the definition that comes from Etienne Wenger, writing with Beverley Wenger-Trayner:

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

For example, within an organisation you might have a community of practice based around an industry sector, profession or particular topic such as AI.

Communities of practice prevent knowledge bottlenecks because they already have collective learning at the heart of their reason for existing. They have the necessary focus around a particular topic so people can be confident that a particular piece of learning on that topic will be valued by others. They have the necessary structure, processes, norms, values and roles that encourage people to share knowledge.

Wenger, who has written the definitive work on communities of practice, also writes about how they support learning as an integral part of social participation and even provide a sense of identity.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, communities of practice can also exist quite successfully within an organisation that doesn’t really value collective learning in the broader sense, so they provide a valuable model of how social learning at work can prevent knowledge bottlenecks.

The role of social technologies

The role of social technologies that facilitate collective learning cannot also be underestimated. When we carried out our research into learning and development in hybrid organisations, a theme we encountered again and again was the low enthusiasm for existing traditional Learning Management Systems (LMS).

An LMS provides more flexibility for learners, but all too often they are used for dull but necessary compliance training, and course content lacks relevance and is not engaging. This  quotation sums up the feeling well:

“We have an LMS in our organisation but most people just don’t like it … the courses are generally quite long, are not always relevant to our organisational context …. you have to find time to do them -usually after work – and often I feel it contributes to a sense of overwhelm in an already high-pressure work environment especially when I get assigned a course by HR”.

Moreover, a traditional LMS does not support employee-generated or collective learning. People with knowledge to share can’t really use an LMS. That’s why you never find them in use in communities of practice. Indeed, an LMS tends to reinforce existing models of learning based on experts, specialists and gatekeepers. Creating a course for an LMS is also a long, convoluted and ultimately an expensive business, so courses tend to be sourced from third-parties.

Of course, the traditional LMS has a role to play in organisations and is here to stay. But it needs to be complemented by technology that supports a more organic, employee-centric and collective approach to learning that at the same time builds community and fosters social connection between employees. 

Social technologies provide a very different model of learning to the LMS. Anyone can contribute, knowledge can be created quickly and cheaply. With a solution like Slick.Plus, the emphasis is on short format, more meaningful learning that can be more easily shared and accessed at exactly the right time. It’s supporting collective learning ‘in the flow of work’ that has greater value, is way more engaging and authentic and can help an organisation make the move to being more skills-based.

And perhaps most significantly social technologies actually work, preventing knowledge bottlenecks and in turn helping to reduce the keep-it-to-yourself culture and supporting social learning at work, a topic we’ll look at in more detail in our next article. 

Interested to learn more? Please get in touch to talk – we love uncorking knowledge bottlenecks in our mission to convert individual expertise to collective learning! 🙂

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