Why Do We Share Knowledge?

In my previous post What is Knowledge Sharing? I wanted to challenge the assumption that all knowledge sharing is created equal. From a KM point of view we need to be more specific about what kinds of knowledge we are interested in, how it needs to be shared, and by what means.

There’s another common assumption in the knowledge sharing literature that I think needs to be challenged, and that is that knowledge sharing is essentially an engineering problem somehow associated with motivation. It’s an input/output problem. If you can understand the levers of motivation, you can design a system that will create the right input, and hey presto, out will come the desired knowledge sharing.

Now I’m sure it’s perfectly true that motivation matters in many cases, but I can think of lots of instances where knowledge sharing is not obviously instrumental and cannot be said to have motives driving it. Here are a few examples I can think of:

Inadvertent knowledge sharing – I let something slip by accident (I’m not a Freudian, things CAN happen by accident!)
Habit - it’s just something I’m used to doing, maybe I had a motive for starting, twenty years ago, now I don’t think about it
Copying – I see other people doing it, so I do the same (primates and monkeys have observation and emulation practices built into their genes)
Experimentation – I try it out because I’m curious about the consequences, I don’t have to have any kind of theory
Reflex – I see an obvious knowledge gap so I fill it instinctively, just like termites will instinctively start working on the opposite side of a nest chamber from its companion
Whim – I just feel like it, maybe I’m in a good mood today

I think we can probably get a richer account of what drives knowledge sharing if we look at a spectrum something like this:

The model assumes that knowledge sharing can be examined from different levels of generality. At the most abstract level, it’s useful to look at the conditions in which knowledge sharing can occur (eg knowledge asymmetry, collocation of parties). Next up, we look at non-intentional causes for knowledge sharing (eg accidental, reflexive, habitual). The model also assumes there’s a possibility where you can explain a knowledge sharing act which is intentional but where analysis of motives and instrumentality are just not interesting or useful (eg I just felt like it, random acts of kindness, whim, it’s just part of who I am). Finally we get to areas where motives count.

4 Comments so far

Awie Foong

While I agree with the first point that “we need to be specific about what kinds of knowledge and sharing we’re talking about when we say knowledge sharing”, I disagree that associating motivation to knowledge sharing implies an engineering approach.

In my limited understanding, I believe that Intentional Knowledge Sharing is one of the most essential type of knowledge sharing at workplace. It doesn’t cover all knowledge sharing, as Patrick’s clearly pointed out; but it is nonetheless one which managers need to pay attention on.

Knowledge transfer involves two parties, at least: the source and the recipient. I’d like to limit the following discussion to the Intentional Knowledge Contribution from the Source.

Knowledge contribution can be Intentional and Non-intentional, as Patrick pointed out (though I do not agree completely to the examples he gave, and I’ll come back to that later).

Intentional action can be Instrumental or Non-instrumental. I call the instrumental action the extrinsically motivated action. In that I mean that an action is carried out because the actor believes that it will lead to certain outcomes that would eventually lead to the fulfillment of essential fundamental psychological motives. In brief, the link between action and the fulfillment of fundamental motive(s) is indirect.

Non-intentional action is called intrinsically motivated behavior. Action is carried out for its own sake, i.e. the action itself fulfills the fundamental motive(s). The link between action and the fulfillment of fundamental motive(s) is direct.

What do I mean by fundamental motives then? They’re developed by Steven Reiss (see his book “Who Am I?"), a psychologist at the Ohio State University. Fundamental motives refer to the basic desires or end goals that are psychologically significant to the individuals. Reiss and colleagues identified 16 fundamental motives through a five-year study (and on-going validation). It explains the motives that underlie people’s actions or behaviors. Our own unique profile of the 16 FMs is what makes us different from other people. The issues of individual differences are not just about what we desire, but how much we desire on each of the motives.

I would conclude by reexamining Patrick’s earlier examples: I would pick out several of those which I disagree with:
1.  Habit: I doubt that there is such a habit of wanting to share (knowledge) with people. If you think you have that habit, it is very likely that you have a strong citizenship desire. It is one of the 16 FMs that was identified by Reiss.
2.  Copying: Why do you copy others? Is it because you want others to accept you as one of them? Or are you afraid of being sanctioned? Or would that lead you to certain outcomes that you believe are important? If we limit our discussion to the knowledge workers, then it might become clear that there’re certain underlying motives on why we copy the behaviors of others.
3.  Experimentation: Curiosity is also identified as a FMs. I should not elaborate too much here. It’s more appropriate to refer to the original works by Reiss et al.
4.  Reflex: I see this as part of a learning process, not sharing. At least to my narrow definition, it is not part of “knowledge contribution”.
5.  Whim: Can managers rely on this type of knowledge sharing?


Posted on July 08, 2006 at 11:53 AM | Comment permalink


Thanks for giving this so much attention Awie smile

Maybe I should clarify my point on the 5 examples where examining motive seems non-useful.

In habits, I mean actions which happen to include sharing but are generally not reflected upon - “that’s just the way we do it”. For example, somebody picks up a call for a colleague and scribbles a message on a post-it note. It’s unreflective, the sort of thing you don’t think twice about.

As for copying, you don’t have to have a conscious reason for copying. Emulating others is built into our genes, and we don’t need to have highly rationalised reasons for doing it; for example, in conversational mirroring we reflect the stance of our interlocutor often completely unconsciously.

I’m sure it’s possible to say that curiosity has motivation, but I’m also sure that the definition of motivation can be stretched. Here, I’m simply pointing out that in cases of curiosity (or experimentation for that matter), the reason for action may be intentional but not instrumental… ie it can be very open-ended.

As for reflex, let’s take an example: you see a person walk out into the road, not seeing that a car is coming, and without thinking about it, you shout out a warning. Be careful about defining counter-examples out of your theory of knowledge contribution smile

Whim: whether they can rely on it or not is irrelevant. My point is that the conditions that produce knowledge sharing can extend beyond narrow definitions of motivation, some of which may actually affect motivation. Frequently indulged whims can affect other people’s motivation by creating a general climate.

I guess my main argument is that knowledge sharing is not simply inputs and outputs on an individual level, always involving intentionality and instrumentality. If it’s too narrowly defined as such, then what the theory produces will not accurately reflect what happens in the real world. ie it will not be practically useful, except in the most controlled conditions.

I’d better go read Reiss smile

Posted on July 10, 2006 at 10:32 AM | Comment permalink

Awie Foong

Thanks for the response Patrick. I think I started using Reiss’s terminology without defining them properly, esp. the term “fundamental motive”.

To begin with, it’s also called “basic desire”, and it is multifaceted. There’re 16 basic desires identified by Reiss et al., each of them with a genetic origin. This set the theory from, for instance, Deci & Ryan’s Self-determination theory, which argues that there are 3 needs that motivate people’s behavior: the need for autonomy, the need for competence, and the need for relatedness. Even though Deci & Ryan’s view of “psychological needs” is similar to Reiss et al, ["The overarching hypothesis that has guided this work is that intrinsic motivation will be facilitated by conditions that conduce toward psychological need satisfaction, whereas undermining of intrinsic motivation will result when conditions tend to thwart need satisfaction” (Deci & Ryan, Psychological Inquiry. 2000, 11(4) p.233] it is evident that Reiss’s list is more comprehensive, collectively maybe more exhaustive, and the 16 desires are mutually exclusive.

To quote Reiss in his book “Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities”, Reiss wrote that: “Our basic desires have an evolutionary origin, but they are significantly modified by culture, beliefs, and individual experiences in ways that are still not well understood. What we desire is largely determined by our genes, but how we fulfill our desires is largely determined by culture and experience” (p.25).

Hence, in Reiss’s term, curiosity is one of the fundamental motive.

As to whether knowledge contribution can be intentional or non-intentional, I fully agree that both situations would occur. It’s just that my scope of work confine my analysis to the “intentional” bits (both instrumental or non), as I also believes that it is crucial to understand these bits. The focus may be a bit narrow from an overall sense, but sufficiently interesting in its own… smile

Posted on July 10, 2006 at 11:41 AM | Comment permalink

Awie Foong

In the May 2006 issue of World Business, Jonas Ridderstrale wrote this about ‘articulate knowledge’: “Such knowledge is unfortunately as vital to the competitiveness of a corporation as having a toilet back at the office—necessary but no longer sufficient for the creation of sustainable advantages”.

Well, things could be worse… Imagine if someone is holding the toilet’s key and wouldn’t want to share it with you!

Posted on July 18, 2006 at 12:45 AM | Comment permalink

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