Knowledge sharing is far more than just showing your colleague how to use shortcuts in your invoicing software. For a professional services firm, a knowledge sharing environment is the very essence of strategic advantage! If human capital is the main resource for a professional services firm, then knowledge sharing – along with its identification and capture – is the key to leveraging that resource.
The problem is that most professional services firms don’t understand what knowledge is. They confuse knowledge with information. In particular, they focus heavily on technical information, often at the expense of commercial knowledge. They also tend to create an environment that rewards the hoarding of knowledge, not the sharing of knowledge.
What is knowledge? How does knowledge differ from information?
Many professional services firms will attempt to capture knowledge in the form of PDF documents or an internal information repository. In doing so, they will often feel that knowledge is being shared effectively. However, this isn’t knowledge sharing at all.
Let’s consider the definition of knowledge from the Oxford English Dictionary:
Knowledge: facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
As you can see, information by itself is not knowledge. Information is simply ‘provided facts’. Knowledge is the application of that information. Knowledge is the context, the experience, the know-how. Every professional services firm broadly has access to the same information. What differs is their knowledge – how they use that information.
Knowledge is the skill. Information is merely data
Knowledge sharing must go far beyond listing data and facts. It must capture what to do with that information and how to use it, both efficiently and effectively. This means knowledge sharing cannot occur unless it is tapping into experience and expertise. As such, knowledge sharing must come from within your staff, not just from a spreadsheet.
Many professional services firms struggle with this, as they are driven by technical information. They are used to dealing with facts, statistics, rules and regulations, with a heavy emphasis on compliance and safety. This daily bias towards technical information means that the broader issues of knowledge – including management, commercialisation, business development, personal skills, productivity, administration and leadership – are often overlooked.
So the first step for many professional services firms in knowledge sharing, is to recognise that knowledge is far broader than technical information. It must encompass the entire know-how of its staff – that’s where the strategic advantage lies. However, given that this know-how lies within the minds of its staff, we encounter a second problem of actual sharing.
Why don’t professionals just share their knowledge anyway?
Most professional services firms tend to promote and reward staff based on relative outperformance of their peers. Partners who close more deals tend to receive bigger bonuses and move to more senior positions. As a result, professionals who keep knowledge to themselves can have an internal advantage over their peers – an advantage they can use to obtain a bigger slice of a bonus pool, or to get ahead in the race for promotions. Many professional services firms end up creating a culture which favours the expert and encourages the hoarding of knowledge.
This is exactly the opposite environment required for knowledge sharing. Not surprisingly, when expert staff are asked to share their knowledge with their colleagues, they are often reluctant to do so. What’s in it for them? It is true their colleagues will benefit, and the business itself will be better off, but the individual expert will be worse off as they lose their relative advantage.
Professional services KPIs often prevent a knowledge sharing environment
If we examine the KPIs in many professional services firm, this issue is exposed. There are usually KPIs for revenue, perhaps KPIs for expense management, and then typically some KPIs around professional development (which is largely focused on learning new technical information).
There will also be a few KPIs around knowledge sharing. A two-hour passive webinar on a new tax rule will help an accountant meet their ‘training’ KPI, but a two-hour highly interactive coaching session on client interviewing techniques may not count towards that KPI.
Worse, KPIs tend to emphasise the consumption of knowledge. Accountants might have to undertake 20 hours of training each year. But where does the training come from? It’s unlikely to be from their colleagues in the form of knowledge sharing, as there is unlikely to be a KPI for the creation of training.
Without any KPI to encourage professionals to capture and share their expertise, firms are often left with no options other than technical information training, or generic external training content. To be clear, external training content is not knowledge sharing. It is knowledge ‘importing’, not knowledge sharing. Any external knowledge needs to be adapted to fit the particular context of your business. External knowledge will never fit as well as the knowledge generated from within your business.
This is completely different to knowledge sharing, which captures existing, proven expertise within your business and focuses on its standardisation throughout the business.
What is a knowledge sharing environment?
Changing the game around knowledge sharing requires a professional services firms to rethink the very nature of knowledge:
- Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is the know-how around that information.
- Knowledge sharing requires the direct involvement of those with the know-how.
- The creation of knowledge and training must be as important as it’s consumption.
- The recognition for collaboration must be as important as that of individual performance.
Any professional services firm which views its expertise and knowledge as a valuable resource – a resource which could be a strategic advantage – needs an environment that encourages knowledge sharing. It requires a culture of collaboration, not a culture of the ‘cult of the expert’.
Firms are advised to work backwards through the above four points, starting with individual recognition for sharing. People are motivated by ‘what’s in it for me’. If the only benefits for knowledge sharing lie with others, then individual people are unlikely to participate unless they are intrinsically motivated.
Recommendations to create a culture of collaboration can include:
- KPIs for the creation of content, knowledge and training.
- Promotion hurdles that include a demonstration of knowledge sharing.
- Internal value placed on time spent capturing and sharing knowledge (such as an internal ‘knowledge client’ which can be charged at external client rates).
- Hiring policies that emphasise collaboration, teamwork and sharing.
- Reward and recognition by peers and management of sharing and collaboration.
- Investment in a knowledge sharing solution to institutionalise collaboration.
- An environment that supports transparent communication and open-door policies.
Unlocking the habits in your tribe
The journey towards collaboration and knowledge sharing requires changes in culture, KPIs and behaviour. It also requires the right tools. Utilising ‘death by PowerPoint’ slides, passive PDFs, or instantly forgotten ‘lunch and learn’ sessions won’t solve the problem.
Knowledge sharing requires a solution that’s reusable by new staff, readily updated as expertise develops, accessible from any location, that allows new knowledge to be readily captured from across the firm, and can capture knowledge on a wide range of topics in a consistent way.
That’s where Tribal Habits steps in.
Tribal Habits provides your professional services firm with a branded, secure, cloud platform to drive cultural change and create a knowledge sharing environment. Your internal experts can tap directly into the platform to quickly capture their knowledge – on any topic – in a structured and guided process. Your staff can then acquire this knowledge in an interactive format. Staff can optionally be tasked with on-the-job activities to drive behavioural change, contribute new knowledge to refine the topic over time, demonstrate understanding through assessments and provide a wealth of quantitative and qualitative feedback for the business.
If your firm values knowledge and recognises its value and strategic advantage, then contact Tribal Habits now to discuss your objectives. You can also sign up for a free professional services development topic to immediately experience how knowledge is shared in the Tribal Habits environment.
Just imagine if everyone in your firm knew the best practices, proven processes and dedicated expertise of your top performers. How much of a difference could that make to every aspect of your firm’s performance?