Groups & Scrum: Knowledge Sharing

This is the third post in the blog series on groups and Scrum. In previous posts we determined what a group is [link].  and what the benefits can be. We also looked into one of the biggest disadvantages and risks of working in groups and how to overcome these [link]. This post will cover one of the main purposes of having groups: Sharing Knowledge! Knowledge sharing has been around for centuries. For example, parents transferring knowledge to their children, or workers exchanging best practices. In traditional models of education, copying the knowledge and experience of a fellow classmate was generally considered a bad thing. However, nowadays in the ‘new economy’, the re-use of a colleague’s knowledge and experience is considered necessary in order to survive.

Knowledge

Defining knowledge as a“…fluid mixture of experience, values, contextual information and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information.” Davenport & Prusak (1998)

Polanyi divided, already in 1966, knowledge into two types; tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is knowledge in people their minds and is complex to transfer. It is deeply rooted in people their actions, commitment and involvement. Explicit knowledge on the other hand is structured, codified and more easily transferable.Both types you want to be able to transfer to other people in a group. However, transferring tacit knowledge requires a more rich communication method in order to be successful.[link]. But when do you want to share knowledge? When does the need for knowledge arise?

Need for knowledge

First, it is important to acknowledge that, a business does not function on its own; it is continuously influenced by the environment. This may sound like a truism but it is essential for a business to survive, it must constantly adapt to the changes in its environment. New government regulations or mergers are examples of changes in the business environment that may require an organization to take action. These changes may require new knowledge for the organization in order to be able to act.

The knowledge-needs that employees have occur when they are performing their daily work or ‘tasks’. These ‘task related knowledge-needs’ can vary from best practices to new developments in the market. To still be able to validate the variable ‘knowledge-needs’, without assigning numerous ‘task related knowledge-needs’ to it, you can divide tasks into two types; explorative and exploitative tasks.

Exploration tasks include “…things captured by terms such as search variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility, discovery, innovation.” These types of tasks focus on new and innovative approaches, where exploitative tasks include “…such things as fine-tuning, choice, production, efficiency, selection, implementation and execution.” Doing such tasks may require knowledge to be exchanged between group members in order to solve a problem or to improve. How does this work?

Knowledge Sharing

Interpersonal knowledge sharing focuses on the dialogue between individuals instead of using knowledge databases (people & interactions over processes and tools). Knowledge in Scrum teams usually is not codified because of the tacit character. It is primarily shared in brainstorm sessions, one-to-one conversations or during one of the Scrum events. Making tacit knowledge explicit is a difficult process. However, employees are believed to prefer interpersonal knowledge sharing to using knowledge management systems. This claim is supported by evidence from a research done by Davenport published in 1994, who stated that two thirds of the managers receive their information via interpersonal communication (probably at the coffee machine 😉 ). Interpersonal knowledge sharing establishes more reciprocity and trust between people. This reciprocity and trust are known enablers of knowledge sharing. Especially the sharing of tacit knowledge is preferred to be done via interpersonal communication.

Social Exchange theory

An interesting question to ask is; why do people share knowledge? What motivates people to share what they know? Do they share it because they feel they must, or perhaps do they share it because it makes them feel good about themselves? One of the theories explaining this knowledge sharing behavior is the social-exchange theory. In short, this theory states that we only help one another after weighing the costs and benefits. People try to maximize their benefits and minimize the costs. This theory seems to imply that helpful acts are non-altruistic. This does not mean that people do unselfish acts; satisfaction is a by-product of this act. However, social norms influence people in doing more unselfish acts. Motivating people to do so will result in more sharing of knowledge.

Motivation

Creating a culture that promotes sharing knowledge will influence the willingness to share knowledge. According to the social exchange theory, people are not willing to share their knowledge when they cannot get something out of it. People need to get motivated to share knowledge. This is confirmed by studies showing that, when people are motivated by moral obligation, they are less likely to act out of self-interest. Self-interest reduces the willingness to share knowledge when sharing knowledge face-to-face. People can be motivated intrinsically or extrinsically to share knowledge. In the study of McLure Wasko & Faraj published in 2000, people share their knowledge from a sense of moral duty. This intrinsic motivation of people, who want to ‘give something back to the community’, is perceived to be more successful than extrinsic motives to share knowledge. Extrinsic rewarding only gives temporary benefits, but on the long term is less successful.

The ‘crowding out effect’ is the effect that extrinsic motivators decrease the intrinsic motivation of a person, resulting in a devaluation of the intrinsic motivations to share knowledge. Besides this, the other aims; making knowledge visible and make the role it plays clear, have a huge influence on interpersonal knowledge sharing.

Common knowledge effect

Based on the previous paragraph, being part of a group as defined in my first post in this series [link] would make sense because this may increase the intrinsic motivation to share knowledge. However, this isn’t always the case! Other studies have shown that it isn’t obvious people will share their knowledge to others. In fact, when asked to share knowledge in a group, the basic tendency for people is to share on that knowledge that is already known to others in a group. This effect is called the ‘common knowledge effect’. People will not automatically share knowledge in a group. This effect is proven to decrease as time goes by and the group is together for a longer period of time. So, that is why also in the Scrum Framework it is stressed that having a stable team for a longer period of time is absolutely crucial.

There is a cure!

Not only time can help you with overcoming this knowledge effect. There is a relatively easy way to motivate a group to actively share knowledge. When facing a problem, if you indicate to the group there is a solution (regardless of the fact if you know what it is exactly), but that they have to figure this out themselves. At that very moment the group will start sharing knowledge. This makes sense because you are presenting them a challenge and you present them with a common goals/interest to find this solution. Basically what you are trying to achieve is that they get the feeling they have to beat you to come up with a better solution. So you are triggering the social exchange theory.

And this way fits perfectly within the Scrum Framework. Being part of a Development Team, which has all skills as a team necessary to create a product increment. The development team gets presented product backlog items (the problem/challenge) and it’s up to them to turn a product backlog item into an increment of potentially releasable functionality. Next to that every event in Scrum facilitates face-2-face transferring of knowledge.

Next post, an interesting case on how to stop a Scrum Team.

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