How Knowledge Sharing Creates a Sustainable Competitive Advantage for Organizations

Andy Cook | November 3, 2017

Everyday, we are able to communicate our knowledge to friends or family, and if we need to learn something on a certain topic ourselves we can do that in literally seconds with a quick Google search.

Knowledge is also a valuable asset for organizations, and they know it. As research has shown, knowledge is essentially a company’s “intangible” resource. Captured and used properly, knowledge can even be the decisive factor of business’s success and a long-term competitive advantage.

As many organizations have realized, sharing knowledge isn’t such a straightforward process in a professional environment. Departmental silos create walls that stops knowledge from transferring between teams. The default way to solve knowledge transfer issues is to schedule more meetings. But many teams don’t know how to run truly productive and they end up wasting more time than doing good. Some managers will just assume knowledge is transferred through casual conversations in their spare time. As you probably know from working, there never is any spare time and these conversations don’t actually happen as teams go about their daily tasks.

Besides issues with organizations communicating with each other, employee turnover is also a factor that contributes heavily to knowledge sharing issues in large organizations and organizational brain drain. In 2016, the national turnover rate in the US was 18.1%, and when an experienced employee leaves, their knowledge and assets go with them. When you backfill the vacant position with a new teammate, they won’t have access to all the historical context about how problems were solved from their predecessor that didn’t bother to document their knowledge.

Research suggests that achieving an organizational structure where sharing knowledge is not only encouraged, but also expected and rewarded, is crucial to ensuring that the wider organization has access to information that could ultimately improve the quality of work produced.

The idea of an open and transparent culture is what removes roadblocks from employees effectively sharing their knowledge and in turn, empowering teams to do their best work.

Understanding why some types of knowledge is harder to access than others

Under the wider theory of Knowledge Management there are different types of knowledge that essentially help explain why knowledge sharing is so difficult within organizations. If we consider the two commonly recognized types of tacit and explicit knowledge, we can assess why knowledge sharing is such a sought after process.

Explicit Knowledge

Explicit Knowledge is knowledge that is readily articulated, verbalized or codified. It is typically found in notes, documents, recordings, databases, etc. This is knowledge that can be found and accessed throughout organization and is used regularly on a daily basis.

Explicit knowledge is much easier to document because the process tends to be repeatable. If you’ve ever read a step-by-step guide in an employee handbook, you’re reading explicit knowledge.

Tacit Knowledge

Tacit Knowledge is knowledge that is hard to define and is largely based on experience. It is knowledge that cannot be simply passed-on from one person to another, and it is difficult to express verbally, or to write down on paper.

This is the type of knowledge that organizations crucially strive for in a professional environment, and it’s also the knowledge that is incredibly difficult to access unless a company has in place the adequate policies to reassure employees that they can, and should, actively share their insights.

Think of when a football player makes as spectacular catch or a basketball player sinks a game winning three-point shot at the buzzer. What goes through your mind? Probably something like, “they extremely talented” or “I could never do that.” What you don’t see are the hours of countless practice, honing the craft. You can’t see the journey that player took to achieve mastery.

That’s tacit knowledge, and the work of knowledge worker is no different than that of a professional sports stars. An executive giving a presentation might make it look flawless or an idea from a team member might seem like innate intuition because you don’t see the way they’ve honed their “gut instincts” over the years through hard work. You can’t see the process.  

Tacit knowledge can’t be truly documented easily, but the process and artifacts of how a team acquired that tacit knowledge can. Once the process has been laid out, a new person can follow a similar process and get to the same point. That’s the importance of sharing knowledge and documenting the problem-solving process at an organization. It helps ramp up new teammates faster.

What are the competitive advantages of knowledge sharing?

Knowledge sharing can be seen as a mechanism to inspire learning through an organization. It has been suggested that the sharing of knowledge and experiences in a professional setting is arguably the most compelling form of learning you can receive.

A consequence of this type of learning is that organizations don’t lose out on “know-how” when their older, more experienced employees leave or move onto more senior roles.

In their work on ‘Knowledge Sharing Success for Sustaining Organizational Competitive Advantage’, Abdul-Jalal, Toulson, and Tweed discuss the impact of having employees that are:

a) willing to share their knowledge, and
b) given the opportunity to do so

They state that the consequence of this ultimately determines how successful an organization’s knowledge sharing attempts will be. Why? Well, the success of knowledge sharing and capacity to actually share knowledge are tightly interlinked.

Additional benefits of knowledge sharing that can increase competitive advantage over organizations include:

  • An increased capacity for faster decision making
  • Stimulation of innovation and growth across an organization
  • Reusable problem-solving experiences

How to implement knowledge sharing at your organization

The World Bank Group put together a comprehensive handbook on how to guide your organization on it’s way to becoming a knowledge sharing company. Whilst there are numerous strategies and alternative techniques to how best to implement knowledge sharing in your organization it’s paramount that:

  • Your organization outlines its objectives for knowledge sharing e.g. why are we doing this?
  • Prepare your organization culturally e.g. let people know of the updated culture policy to promote a more transparent and sharing environment.
  • Outline the process for implementation e.g. Who will take the lead, what tools or platforms will you use to help implement knowledge sharing?
  • Measure the progress of the newly implemented knowledge sharing culture e.g. Track using tools or feedback how employees are finding the new strategy

There’s no doubt that an open and transparent culture can be incredibly powerful, and with the help of a knowledge management platform such as Tettra you’ll enable teams around the around the world to share their knowledge.

Find out more about how the Tettra platform works hand-in-hand with Slack to combine transparent communication and knowledge sharing.