The quest for uncovering internal knowledge within an organization has been around for a very long time and was one of the early goals of knowledge management. Hind Benbya and Marshall Van Alstyne address this issue again through their MIT Sloan article, How to Find Answers Within Your Company. As they write, the challenge of locating internal knowledge on a specialized topic exists in any large organization. The larger and more segmented the company, the harder it gets to match people to problems. They go on to quite Lewis Platt, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.” I have heard this quote by others CEOs going back to the at least the early 90s. So what do Benbya and Van Alstyne bring that is new to the table?
Rather than use expertise locators and accessible content repositories, they offer knowledge markets. Early adopters like SAP have seen positive results with as SAP saved more than $6 million in technical support costs when they used a knowledge market to enable a peer-to-peer response system to support enterprise software developers both within and outside the company. This peer-to-peer response system turns traditional knowledge management on its side. Rather than have a central repository collecting, vetting, and dispersing the collective wisdom of the organizations, this approach enables people to directly connect and solve problems. This takes out the middleman and reduces the workflow to get knowledge to those who need it. Since useful knowledge has a short half life this is a useful step.
To validate their assumptions the authors conducted some research. They visited and conducted interviews with more than 30 US Bay Area high tech companies. Knowledge markets do not always work so they reviewed some internal knowledge market failures to propose design strategies for overcoming these challenges. They went on to build and test an internal knowledge market prototype. Out of this effort came a framework for internal knowledge markets.
There are three phases: Internal Knowledge Market Design and Launch, Market Development, and Evolution. In this first phase you need to establish some incentives to get things going. They recommend a combination of spendable currency, recognition for expertise and the opportunity to have a positive impact.” They also suggest using a free market approach where prices float. It can take a while to fine tune the incentives.
You need to seed any market to get it going. So they suggest starting with the most common questions and they let the participants fill in the less frequent ones (aka the long tail). There are some additional good suggestions, such as an option for anonymous contributions for shy participants and incentives to improve existing content, not just for new stuff. A key requirement is to have a culture of collaboration where colleagues are not seen as competitors. I have seen this poison in operation too many times. The general incentive program needs to be examined. Where you have a comparative performance evaluation system you have killed off any chance of real success.
Once things get going you need to ensure this growth continues. Be sure to recognize contributions in a way that is meaningful to the participants. I have seen even something as simple as donuts work, or lunch with a senior manager, in other cases you adjust rewards to stimulate underdeveloped or new knowledge areas. You can also encourage the creation of communities of practice to intensify the work on new knowledge. Be sure to actively monitor and manage the market to keep it in tune with current needs. Nothing gets obsolete faster than knowledge. This is one reason that peer to peer knowledge exchange is so useful because it usually involves connecting someone actually working on a problem that address the next step for someone else.
There is much more in the article. They tackle an issue that has been around for a while but conduct some substantial research to both validate and fine tune thinking in this area. It is a useful primer for anyone thinking about knowledge markets.
In summary, knowledge markets appear to require a lot of economic fine tuning but they are rewarding positive behavior. If they are done right I think these markets can have a positive impact on organizational culture, in general. However, there is risk and participants can manipulate markets to their own ends leading to a negative impact on culture. This is where the fine tuning comes in to avoid gaming the system. I think there is a lot of potential here but it will not be easy.