Stop knowledge hoarding: open source your internal expertise

By Katrina Novakovic
Katrina Novakovic, Business Architect, Red Hat discusses the concept of knowledge hoarding...

It should come as no surprise that companies with a culture of sharing knowledge and expertise have a substantial advantage when it comes to upskilling, coordinating teams and undertaking organisation-wide projects. 

However, getting different parts of a business to talk to each other can be challenging, especially in larger organisations. This can become particularly tough when an organisation wants to share knowledge and expertise between teams and across the entire enterprise, as leaders will often find themselves butting up against the phenomenon known as ‘knowledge hoarding’.

Knowledge hoarding refers to individuals and teams that purposefully keep critical business, technical, or industry knowledge to themselves. This can prove to be a major structural challenge for businesses and the implications go beyond familiar issues such as siloing between teams. It can be driven by an individual’s desire to protect knowledge they feel they’ve worked hard to gain, but it’s of no benefit to the business. The inability to share information can limit opportunities to nurture talent, stunt interdepartmental projects, and lower the quality of output for partners or clients. 

Given how entrenched the issue can become, taking the first steps to share information more widely and openly across the business can feel like a seismic shift. However, there are many encouraging lessons and examples that can be learned from the open source software community to help you get started. 

Open source is all about collaboration

Open source software i.e. software whose source code is open to be used, copied, edited, and distributed - draws upon a large community of programmers who develop, maintain, and debug the code on an ongoing basis. Anyone can contribute to an open source project, see all previous versions of the code, and be privy to conversations between developers working on the project’s latest versions. Essentially, this means that all knowledge of the project is democratised, and there are no gatekeepers to prevent interested parties from attempting to make contributions; even a casual observer has access to the information needed to understand the project's direction. 

In this way, open source software begets an open and meritocratic culture. With no incentive or benefit to hoard knowledge in the open source community, developers are instead encouraged to share and review their ideas among the community. New concepts and ideas at the cutting-edge of a project are shared and collaborated on, ultimately creating something even greater. The accessibility offered by open source processes allows for innovative new ideas to surface, which helps bring products to market even faster, while also providing a means to promptly call out errors or shortcomings that might hinder a project.

However, the culture of the open source community need not be restricted to software. It’s possible for organisations to adopt open source structures and working practices to tackle the issue of knowledge hoarding head-on. 

Introducing Communities of Practice

So how exactly can organisations improve knowledge sharing? To mirror the example of open source communities, organisations should focus on creating a space for valuable knowledge sharing that will benefit the wider team, rather than just sharing information for the sake of it. For example, anyone can submit code to an open source project, but the code is unlikely to be accepted if it doesn’t benefit the community at large.

This is where “Communities of Practice” (CoPs) come in. They are spaces within an organisation, wholly dedicated to exchanging and refining knowledge, information and practices in specific subject areas. They operate using the open source way, by connecting people with a shared passion, purpose and set of objectives. Groups are convened to pool knowledge with the goal of developing materials that anyone across the organisation can draw upon and contribute to. 

What Communities of Practice bring to the table

CoPs allow organisations to better refine and standardise their hub of internal knowledge, and to create content that is widely accessible across the business. They can be of use in all areas, from producing training resources, tmaterials for customer lead generation or even through to architecture diagrams and technical scripts to support installation. 

CoPs encourage decisions to be made collaboratively by cross-functional teams, resulting in much greater efficiency and faster progress. Reusing and building upon existing materials saves employees a huge amount of time and effort, and by creating a common place to share best practices and lessons learned, there are more opportunities for enablement and professional skills development. It’s also valuable to know that those materials have been used by others previously to produce successful outcomes, and that there is someone you can contact with any questions. 

Where should you begin?

When it comes to introducing CoPs into your organisation, there are two approaches you can take. A top-down approach is one that starts with executive sponsorship. This requires you to focus first on the strategy, determining the mission and objectives, and creating the right conditions and criteria for success. For example, a frequently overlooked but important consideration is how time will be allocated for people to contribute. From there, you can start the implementation process - building core teams, setting up systems and tools, and engaging in regular communication.

Alternatively, and if you want to get the ball rolling more quickly, you can take a bottom-up approach where the focus is to start with a single CoP. Begin by gathering a group of people interested in sharing knowledge and promoting learning in a particular area that is aligned with the organisational strategy. Appoint 2-3 people to be CoP managers and define a set of goals alongside a communication plan . From there, you have the foundation to get started.

Taking notes from open source communities can have a hugely positive impact on your business, particularly when it comes to reducing the rigid hierarchies and silo behaviours (and counterproductive competitiveness) that can emerge between teams. As well as helping your organisation pivot towards an open source culture, implementing CoPs will allow it to benefit from the creativity and energy of your teams, while providing them with democratic support. It’s this uniquely open, democratic, and meritocratic culture that makes the open source way so effective.

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