Last week, we examined what a bad knowledge-sharing culture looks like. That’s a pretty easy list for all of us to make, unfortunately; even if we’re blessed not to work in one, we’ve all seen Dilbert or Office Space.
The more interesting questions are, “what makes for a good culture, especially as it pertains to embracing knowledge management practices?” And then, “so, how do we do that?” This post is focused on the first question; stay tuned for thoughts on the second.
We know we’re more likely to have a fun and successful engagement when we walk into the office and see this:
- Easy laughter. Have you ever paid attention to people laughing at work? It doesn’t mean someone just finished telling a joke—there’s something more subtle going on. I’m not quite sure I can put my finger on it, but when it sounds natural and unforced, it seems like a helpful relationship lubricant that can smooth out the inevitable rough spots of workplace interactions: impossible deadlines, difficult customers, or an untimely application of Murphy’s Law. Somehow, genuinely laughing colleagues remind me that we’re all human, and we’re all in it together.
- Difficult discussions. Real workplaces require difficult decisions about which smart people will disagree. Real leaders give feedback that people don’t always like to hear. If I see evidence of these hard conversations happening, or better still, if we have the opportunity to participate in them, I feel really good. The best work happens when people bring their whole selves, don’t stay quiet out of fear, and most importantly, give a damn.
- Reviews aren’t surprising. Annual or semi-annual reviews are a fact of life in most organizations. I think they’re fine…as long as they’re just the formalization of a continuous and ongoing stream of feedback the rest of the year. The acid test is this: is the employee surprised by anything she learns during an annual review? If so, the manager isn’t providing enough feedback.
- A sense of purpose. Now, I don’t think you have to set out to cure cancer, although it’s great if you do. And many grandiose mission statements mean nothing in relation to what employees do on a day-by-day basis. But I think each individual needs to have a reason, beyond a paycheck, for coming in to work, and that reason is all the more powerful if it’s shared by a group. Category leadership, delivering on the brand promise, and or just making customers’ lives a little easier and nicer are all fine purposes. Bonus: a shared purpose is a litmus test you can bring to difficult decisions. If an action doesn’t address the purpose, maybe it’s not a good one to take.
- Optimism in the company’s success. Everyone loves to be on a winning team. Groups that believe they’re doing well in the market will embrace new challenges and work to raise their game. Oddly enough, the team’s faith in the company’s success might be ill-founded, but in my experience it doesn’t seem to matter much.
- Engagement. When people are meeting, is everyone participating? Do they seem to really be there? Or is their smartphone or laptop the center of their attention? You can tell when employees are really there—there’s an unmistakable vitality and energy. “Be here now” isn’t just yogic advice—it’s also the right way to work.
- Genuine caring for customers. The very best organizations feel almost proprietary about their customers—solicitous of their well-being, empathetic when they have issues, and proud of them. This is something that just can’t be faked: saying you care about your customers is meaningless. You have to feel it, which leads to acting it. (By the way, the truth is that not all customers are worthy of this level of care. Select them carefully and fire them if needed.)
- Investing in employee success. It’s a mark of a good culture that employees get what they need to be successful, from technology to office space to travel and training. There’s a real Golden Rule aspect to this: executives should give employees the resources they’d want if they were doing the same job, with no more second-guessing than they would want. Giving an employee the autonomy to get the things they need without a lot of hassle is a sign of trust, and the first step in being trusted is showing trust.
- Team members holding each other accountable. Looking back on a successful knowledge management rollout, Robert Rose remarked to me, “David, you’re making it too complex with all this process. Just build a strong community, and they’ll make sure that everyone is making quality knowledge contributions.” He’s right. But it’s easier said than done.
- Learning is more important than being right. The sweetest words in the English language may be, “You know, I think you’re right and I’m not. Thanks—I learned something!” Yet in some organizations, admitting mistakes or gaps in our knowledge feels very dangerous. When people are happy to learn from each other, how can knowledge sharing not happen?
- Good coffee. I know, I know, but I still think it’s really important.
(Quick story: we had a CFO once who didn’t care for the strong Peets coffee we ordered, so he would put less than a full measure into the grinder. It turns out, he actually WAS a bean counter.)
Stay tuned for the next post, where we explore how we can be more like this, and less like last week’s post.
In the mean time, what makes you smile when you walk in an office?