What is Knowledge Sharing?

We had a good evening yesterday discussing KM implementations in Australia and Singapore at iKMS. One of our participants was Awie Foong who’s studying knowledge sharing motivation for his PhD (by the way, he’s looking for companies to participate in his knowledge sharing culture study next month - you’ll get a customised report if you participate as a company).

Now he’s got me all fired up to continue with my earlier rant on how the current KM literature treats knowledge sharing as a flat, one dimensional, equi-valent thing. KNOWLEDGE SHARING IS GOOD.... KNOWLEDGE HOARDING IS BAD… WE MUST SHARE KNOWLEDGE. There are so many assumptions bound up in this, and such a lack of richness in how we describe or think about it, that I really don’t see how we can do anything remotely useful in the real world around knowledge sharing unless we can start describing some of the richness and complexity of it.

For example: what’s the opposite of knowledge sharing? Many assume it’s knowledge hoarding - ie, there’s an assumption that both sharing and hoarding are always intentional acts. But what about simply failing to share knowledge? Isn’t that also the opposite of sharing? For example, you don’t notice or know that somebody could benefit from the knowledge you have? Or you intend to share and forget? Or the assumption that all knowledge is created equal, that knowledge sharing of the type where I give my phone number to a new acquaintance is the same as knowledge sharing where I teach someone how to blow glass, or let a colleague know that they have fallen foul of the big boss.

Now nobody’s going to unpick the mysteries of knowledge sharing in a single blog post, but blogs are good for thinking out loud and trying ideas out with people passing by. So here’s a random selection of sharing (and non-sharing) incidents that I want to use to keep us on real, human ground:

49 Ways to Share Knowledge

1. Neighbours exchange juicy tidbits of gossip about their friend’s divorce
2. Teacher decides not to cover a particular topic because she judges the students are just not ready for it
3. A terrorist suspect confesses to his interrogators and implicates other people
4. A trainer gives his trainees a task that he knows they cannot do, because through failing they will learn
5. A receptionist tells a visitor that the manager he wants to see is out
6. A pop fan sets up a website about her favourite Taiwanese boy band
7. A bereaved mother sets up a support group and resource centre for parents of leukemia sufferers
8. A witness gives evidence in a public enquiry on a disaster
9. An engineer warns his managers that there’s a serious problem in a building structure
10. A newly promoted manager drops mysterious hints about impending “big decisions” in board meetings but refuses to say more
11. The owner of a small company doesn’t tell his employees he only has cash to pay the next month’s wage bill
12. A press officer embargos a sensitive press release on company earnings until the following week
13. A researcher chats with his golfing buddy in another department about a technical problem he’s having
14. A student is being advised by his parents about the risks in taking up a fine art course, and tells his parents “let me make my own mistakes”
15. An analyst condenses a 200 page competitive intelligence report into a two page summary for the senior executives
16. A technician shows the office secretary how to fix simple problems with the photocopier
17. An experienced call centre operator lets the new recruit struggle with difficult callers thinking “they never listen if you try to tell them, let her learn for herself”
18. A sales manager sells his company’s marketing database to a friend
19. A general manager of a foreign joint venture in China sets up a parallel business using the technical knowledge and suppliers network of the joint venture to replicate their products
20. A businessman purchases a franchise license for his local market and receives training
21. A young woman shows her boyfriend how to put together a classy resume for a job application
22. A project manager writes up the close-out report and lodges it in the project documentation folder
23. A paranoid secretary warns her boss that his colleague is scheming against him
24. A successful knowledge manager in a large multinational is thinking about setting up her own consulting business, and starts participating very actively in online forums
25. A colleague notices a piece of tissue paper stuck on the heel of another colleague and points it out to him
26. A colleague notices a piece of tissue paper stuck on the heel of another colleague and points it out to everybody else
27. A husband confesses to his wife that he’s having an affair
28. An engineer tells his boss he’s been offered a job elsewhere
29. Two sales managers get drunk at a convention and bitch about their respective companies
30. Jack gets all the company gossip on the company fire escape when he goes for his smoking break
31. An employee gets fed up of answering the same questions over and over again and compiles a list of FAQs
32. Candy starts a blog about the human resource diploma programme she’s studying in
33. A company chemist thinks he’s hit on a radically cheaper way of producing a polymer and publishes a report into the company KM system (where it’s never seen again)
34. A company chemist thinks he’s hit on a radically cheaper way of producing a polymer and tells his manager
35. A company chemist thinks he’s hit on a radically cheaper way of producing a polymer and tells the CEO in a hallway conversation
36. A company chemist thinks he’s hit on a radically cheaper way of producing a polymer and resigns
37. The soon-to-retire vice president is continually boring the pants off anyone he meets about the early days of the company and how it survived in the early days
38. James hates to be upstaged in a meeting, if anyone offers an idea, he will interrupt and offer a different idea, elaborating it at length
39. Roger is a specialist in picking up ideas from other people, and then contributing them as his own
40. Woon is a pure innovator, he hates filling in forms and writing reports, but put him into a brainstorming meeting, and the group comes up with wonderful projects
41. Paola never contributes ideas, but she organises all the files; she knows where every file is kept and what’s inside it, if you want to find anything you go to her
42. Franco is unhappy in his job; he’s discovered his company is deeply unethical; he doesn’t tell them that the police have interviewed him about their affairs
43. A company hires a consultant to tell them how to implement KM
44. An angel healer leads a workshop on how to connect to angels
45. A member of a community of practice thinks his colleague has got something wrong and explains why
46. A member of a community of practice suspects the motives of another member and challenges everything they say
47. A specialist feels he has had wonderful mentors in his life, so wants to “give something back” and takes a couple of juniors under his wing
48. An expert in a particular field is trying to finish her book, so she stops answering questions and requests for help from her colleagues
49. Edgar suggests a nice restaurant to take an overseas visitor to

So let’s stop and think the next time we talk about knowledge sharing. What knowledge are we interested in sharing, and why?

6 Comments so far

Awie Foong

A very BIG thank you to iKMS for the great event, and especially Patrick for his kindness… My only regret is that none of my colleagues show up, despite some keen sales talk from me prior to the event.

Patrick offers some very good and equally critical comments on both my framework and approach. Anothe BIG thanks! smile

To be honest I need some time to respond to the comments. First to comprehend them, then hopefully I can incorparate some of them, and perhaps counteract on some others.

So Patrick, there goes my weekend again!

Cheers all :D


Posted on July 07, 2006 at 09:20 PM | Comment permalink

Hi, this is really what I’m thinking about and looking for things to read. As ‘knowledge sharing’ officer I get tired of people talking in blanket about knowledge sharing, while actually covering a wide range of situations.

Argyris single and double loop learning is helpful in discerning the depth of learning, but it’s not so practical for use in daily discussions.

Posted on July 08, 2006 at 02:28 AM | Comment permalink

Awie Foong

I agree with some of Patrick’s examples in his “49 ways to share knowledge”, but not all… But that’s not the point. The point to make here is the multi-dimensions of knowledge sharing that these examples point us to. I try to identify some here:

There’re at least several dimensions of knowledge that we can think of from Patrick’s examples. Just to name a few, knowledge can be identified on the continuum of its perceived usefulness, both by the source and the recipients. Knowledge can also be identified on an implicit vs. explicit continuum; a work vs. non-work dimension; a consequential vs. non-consequential dimension et al.

The act of sharing can also be identified along several dimensions, e.g. along the intentional vs. non-intentional dimension; the frequency continuum; the voluntary vs. non-voluntary dimension; the depth of knowledge being shared; the dimension of the quality of effort; the personalization approach vs. codification approach et al.

The only conclusion possible is that “knowledge sharing” is indeed a big word, a blanket term like its two root words. To define it is nearly impossible; but it is possible, and necessary to give a “working definition” whenever we’re bringing the issue of knowledge sharing.

One suggestion I can think of is that, if we could prepare the taxonomy (not definition) for both “knowledge” and “sharing”, it would probably help the managers to be clear of what they are talking about when they use the term knowledge sharing.

Coming back to my research work, if you’re interested to read on… 

What am I studying? Many thanks to the helps from Patrick, it becomes clearer now: It is evident that I’m trying to understand the “Motives that Underlie the Intentional Contribution of Working Knowledge at Workplace”. The knowledge that I refer to is the working knowledge, i.e. knowledge that is learnt, gained from work, useful at work and useful to the workers. I prefer the word “contributing” over “sharing”. I hope that by using the word “contribution” it implies “intentional” actions, and it should confine the discussion to the intention of the knowledge source.


Posted on July 08, 2006 at 12:19 PM | Comment permalink

Shawn Callahan

I noticed a bias in your list of 49 ways to share knowledge towards declarative knowledge or what is sometimes called ‘know what’ or that knowledge which can be shared through conversation. You present fewer examples of sharing ‘know how’. I wonder whether when people talk about knowledge sharing they immediately gravitate towards thinking about sharing declarative knowledge?

Posted on July 08, 2006 at 02:23 PM | Comment permalink

Awie Foong


I believe that the validity of this statement varies from one work unit to another. It is not always true, but to some work units it is probably very important.

For instance in my last job in a project-based company, if people don’t share what they learnt from their own project, we’d be very inefficient. And expectation does grow from one project to the next. Our clients actually take into account the learning curve in deciding how much they’d would pay us for future project; typically a 5% reduction on future project.

Posted on July 09, 2006 at 02:33 PM | Comment permalink


Thanks for all the feedback and comments. To take them one by one:

Awie and Joitske, I wonder whether one aspect of knowledge sharing is actually really about contributing to / participating in a process of group learning (eg your project management example, Awie)?

Awie, I like your narrower, more bounded definition of focus area. It makes sense and becomes defensible where the broader term was not. (But even “contribution” worries me a bit, because it suggests a broadcast, one-way mode, whereas I’m sure that in many contexts the stuff you’re interested in is an interactive event, where knowledge transfer happens because two or more parties engaged, asked questions and discussed).

Shawn: yes, I think there is a bias towards declarative stuff when we talk about knowledge sharing… probably because we find that easier, and probably because it’s harder to be intentional about “know how” transfer (it’s just not that obvious always how to do it).

My examples were intended to range across productive KM-type situations and less productive ones, just to start raising questions about what knowledge sharing actually is, and I’m delighted that it’s produced such feedback. I particularly like Awie’s comments on the different continua (plural of continuums?) along which any particular knowledge sharing incident sits. I’m cooking up a list of such factors, so Awie, you’ve hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned.

Posted on July 10, 2006 at 10:44 AM | Comment permalink

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